Date walked: 11th September 2016
Distance: 5 miles approx
Time taken: 2 hours 20 mins approx
How we got there: Train from Oxford Parkway to London Marylebone. Bakerloo Line to Embankment, Circle/District Line to Cannon Street station. Overground train to Woolwich Dockyard (Plumstead-bound train (every 15 mins approx). Approx a one mile walk to the start from the station.
How we get home: DLR from Cutty Sark to Maritime Greenwich to Heron Quays. Short walk to Canary Wharf. Jubilee line to Waterloo. Bakerloo line to London Marylebone. Train to Oxford Parkway.
Travel costs: Train ticket = £19.80 (including Zones 1-6 Travelcard & using Two Together Railcard). Car parking at Oxford Parkway = £2.00
Watch out for: The diversion on the western side of the O2 arena. This needs to be followed!
Highlight: The Thames Barrier – a fascinating feat of engineering
Difficulty rating: 1/5
Walking route map:
Having lived in a couple of Thames-side towns/villages over the past few years, I’ve walked small stretches of England’s longest river before. In fact, as my About Me page states, it was living so close to the Thames Path in Lower Radley that turned my mind to the concept of walking long-distance trails in the first place.
But now it was time to tackle a real dream of mine and make a start on the route’s entirety, from one end to the other.
We decided that we’d walk from east to west, starting at the iconic Thames Barrier in London, and winding our way towards it’s source near Cirencester, some 180 miles away.
Getting to this part of the city involved a mammoth trek, including a mad dash from Didcot to Oxford Parkway after finding out all trains from our original station had been delayed indefinitely.
After spending an hour on the Oxford to Marylebone train, we then made our way over to Cannon Street station on the tube, before boarding another train to Woolwich Dockyward. From here it was around a mile walk to get to the barrier, and the official starting point.
Although exhausting in itself, when we finally got there, and climbed over the hill that initially impedes the view of the river, it made the effort well worth it – especially on a day like we had.
Spanning over half a kilometre across the vast width of the river, The Thames Barrier opened in 1982 and is one of the largest movable flood barriers in the world. With the Thames at this point still affected by the tides, it protects large portions of central London from any tidal surges.
Along with routine closures (which occur every month), the barrier has been closed 176 times since it opened due to high water levels. You can read more about the role it plays in protecting the capital and how it works on the official website.
After spending a bit of time admiring the view, it was time to make a small dent into the 180 miles that lay ahead. A National Trail sign clearly marked the start of the route, which lead us into a tunnel running alongside past the huge barrier gates.
Although a bit dingy, the inside of the tunnel was a dream for trail geeks like me. On the wall, the names of all of the towns and villages that the river runs through were listed.
It was particularly comforting to see some of the places nearer home such as Goring and Streatley, Wallingford and Abingdon, even if it was going to be a while before we reached those places from this direction!
The red line represents the height above sea level that the river flows at through each location, with the drops showing the various locks and weirs along the route. It was fascinating to see this from the source end, and look back along the tunnel to see the overall decline as it makes it’s way back to the point that we were currently stood at.
From halfway down the tunnel we stood directly alongside the Thames Barrier gates, allowing us to gauge really just how huge they were. From here it was also clear to see how high the river regularly gets, with the thick green moss reaching a number of metres up the concrete blocks above from the river’s current level.
Finally emerging from the tunnel, we could see the skyline of Canary Wharf, as well as the O2 arena (previously the Millenium Dome) looming large in the distance.
When you think of The Thames winding it’s way through London, most people would imagine the big touristy landmarks around Westminster and the London Eye, or perhaps even the area around Putney – scene of the annual Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race.
What you don’t tend to imagine is a heavy industrial area, with huge machines dredging from the shores of the water. Yet just a few hundred metres in from the start of the trail – this is exactly what we were walking past.
Whilst not the most scenic of areas that we’d walk past on our journey to the Cotswolds, it was fascinating to see how The Thames is very much still being used as a working river, even so close to the middle of London.
I particularly liked the contrast between the modern apartment blocks nearby, Canary Wharf in the distance, and this traditional machinery – almost acting as a representation for the huge diversity in a city like London.
To keep this stretch of contrasting architecture going, we were soon approaching the trendy Greenwich Peninsula; an area which has been transformed due to an influx of modern apartment blocks, the O2 arena and various bars and restaurants which have sprung up here in recent years.
With an ever-increasing need for space and accommodation in London, Greenwich Peninsula seems to be one of the areas identified for such regeneration, as was evident by the huge number of cranes and apartment blocks which were very much in a “work in progress” state.
Part of this area’s regeneration has been down to improved transport links, and one of these is the Emirates Air line – a huge cable car spanning the full width of the rive, reaching a maximum height of 90 metres above the water.
Opened in 2012, it has the ability to carry 2,500 passengers the 1km from the south to north bank (or visa versa). However, whilst it was originally conceived to ferry commuters across the river, it is believed to be more widely used as a tourist attraction, mainly due to its location away from any of the major business hubs, as well as the price of £4.50 for a single fare (although it’s £3.40 with an Oyster Card).
The other reason for the Emirates Air Line is to carry gig-goers to the O2 Arena, which has quickly become London’s premier venue for big-name concerts.
The Thames Path winds it’s way around the outer perimeter of the arena, providing a perspective that most who visit here wouldn’t usually see.
As we approached the tip of the river bend behind the O2 we came across this derelict boat, which I thought made (yet again) an interesting contrast to the modern skyscrapers of Canary Wharf in the backdrop.
I’ve since seen (on the excellent Rambling Man blog) that this was exactly the creator’s intention, when the boat was purposefully placed here as a piece of artwork, named “Slice of Reality”, back when the O2 arena was the Millenium Dome.
Although the O2 have tried since to have it removed, the artist insisted it stay due to it not actually being on their land, and was therefore able to extend the mooring licence.
The fascinating landmarks continued – soon we approached the Greenwich Meridian Milepost, found exactly on the two-mile mark of the walk. The Greenwich Meridian line marks the point on the earth where the western hemisphere meets the eastern hemisphere, in the same way the equator separates the north and south.
I actually found the next sign even more mind-boggling. The simple sign, purely pointing to “Here” and the number 24,859 refers to the distance you would need to travel to go all the way around the earth at this point before coming back to where you started. Perhaps I should try it one day!
The glamour of Canary Wharf on the northern bank, and the O2 arena and adjacent Intercontinental hotel on our side of the river quickly disappeared as we headed down the western side of the dome, with another stretch of bare, derelict land, clearly earmarked for redevelopment.
It soon became clear why as we reached a diversion from the original Thames Path route. At first, with the route only blocked by a plastic bin and a cone, we decided to chance our luck and see if it was possible to get through anyway. Inevitably, we were turning right back around again after a few hundred metres.
There was however a big advantage of being diverted away from the main path. The alternative route went right past the Meantime Brewing Company – one of London’s most well-known craft brewers. It’s safe to say that we stopped off for a quick pint, and (after sampling the surprisingly tasty Chocolate Porter) also took a couple of bottles away from the adjacent shop.
After following the signs through some local backstreets (whose residents I’m sure are delighted by the influx of walkers going past their doors every day) we finally approached Greenwich village. This quaint pathed street, away from the riverside itself, helped to create more of a rural feel to the area than somewhere just a few miles away from the centre of one of the largest cities in the world.
At the end of this alleyway you reach the waterfront once more. On the corner sits the famous Trafalgar Tavern, which was heaving with guests and tourists basking in the mid-afternoon sunshine. Here you can see a statue of Nelson, standing rather proudly as he looks out to the river.
The path then thins as it passes the University of Greenwich – a rather grand, and very symmetrical building which, at the time, was being used for filming of some kind.
I’d never seen the Cutty Sark with my own eyes, but had seen it plenty of times from the London Marathon coverage – sitting just over six miles, or 10 kilometres, into the famous race. It’s one of the most popular vantage points for onlookers for a couple of reasons: not only does it provide a spectacular backdrop, but the adjacent Greenwich Foot tunnel also provides an easy way for spectators to reach the northern bank on the Isle of Dogs, where the route reaches the 17 mile point.
The Cutty Sark was built in 1869 to carry tea back from China, and although it was badly damaged by fire in 2007, it was carefully restored to its former glory, and is now one of the capitals most popular attractions.
Greenwich itself also looked like a nice area which would be well worth exploring further. But with a train to Oxford to catch we headed back towards the town to catch the DLR from the Cutty Sark for Maritime Greenwich stop. Here it was a few stops north to meet the tube on the Jubilee line at Canary Wharf.
Although this was a relatively short walk distance-wise (discounting the extra mile to actually reach the barrier), this first stage provided a good introduction to The Thames, and reaffirmed my idea of tackling the whole thing. With five miles down, I was excited to make a further dent into the next 175!
It would be a while before we would be back in Greenwich to tackle stage two, and when we were the weather would be very different. Check back soon to see how we got on as we walked from the Cutty Sark to South Bank.