One of England’s National Trails, the Thames Path is a fantastic river walk, following the iconic Thames all the way from its Cotswolds source through to the Thames Barrier in central London. At 296km, it’s a lengthy challenge, but its flat profile and easy-to-follow route make for a very doable walk if you have enough time (and enough inclination!).
For the vast majority of the walk, the trail follows the route of the River Thames. Over the course of the hike, the Thames transforms from a field in which you may well see no water at all, to a huge flowing river, which rips England’s iconic capital in half.
There’s plenty of diversity along the walk – some stretches are rural and remote, with nothing in view but sheep, crops, and meadows. While other sections take in iconic sights such as Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and the majestic city of Oxford. There’s a prevailing opinion that London doesn’t do nature. But this walk puts that assumption to bed.
This walk ends (or begins, depending on which way you want to walk) right in the heart of the capital, and takes you through some outstanding areas of natural beauty. For anyone seeking a unique (and healthy) way to experience London and the river that leads there, this is an incredible walk. Rivers don’t get much more iconic than the Thames, and river walks don’t get much more incredible than this.
Table of Contents
- 1 Which Way Should I Walk – West to East or East to West?
- 2 Where does the Thames Path Take Me?
- 3 Why Should I Walk or Cycle The Thames Path?
- 4 Sights Along the Route
- 5 How Long Will The Walk Take? Am I Fit Enough? How Difficult is the Thames Path?
- 6 When Is The Best Time To Do The Thames Path?
- 7 Is The Route Well-Marked?
- 8 Packing for The Thames Path
- 9 Where Should I Sleep On The Thames Path? What Are My Accommodation Options?
- 10 Are There Places To Eat And Drink Along The Thames Path?
Which Way Should I Walk – West to East or East to West?
There is no right way or wrong way to tackle this walk, and because the elevation profile is low, the prevailing wind direction isn’t too much of an issue. That said, if you want to keep the wind at your back (and in turn avoid the brunt of any bad weather), you’re best to walk from west to east. Walking from west to east also allows you to experience the growth of the Thames, which is quite a beautiful experience. It also allows you to view the effect of river water upon communities – as the river grows larger, so too do the settlements upon its banks. This direction ends in London, which can be a fantastically cosmopolitan finale – and offers all the big-city luxuries and treats you could desire after many days of walking. That said, if you prefer to end your walk with rurality and peace rather than in the heart of bustling London, the walk from east to west can be just as rewarding.
Where does the Thames Path Take Me?
Assuming you walk west to east, here’s what you’ll experience. From its humble beginnings near Kemble to a human-built barrier defense against flooding, you’ll see the rise, growth, and swell of the iconic Thames. The riverside views are beautiful, full of flowing water, floating boats, and picnicking families. And for many, that’s the highlight.
But take the river away, and the route would still be beautiful. The path passes through and along flora, fauna and farmland, and brings walkers into close contact with iconic parts of England’s rich history, with buildings, towns and cities of huge heritage. You’ll also trundle past majestic family homes of palatial proportions. Ranging from silent meadows all the way through to one of the busiest cities on the planet, you won’t find much more variety than this.
Why Should I Walk or Cycle The Thames Path?
There are many reasons!
- Views. Although it’s largely a flat walk, there are still plenty of beautiful views. The Thames Path won’t give you the dramatic panoramas that other National Trails can offer, but the meadows, banks and townscapes are more than enough to make you fall in love with the aesthetics of the Thames Path.
- For the challenge. Any long-distance walk is a big task. And make no mistake – though this walk is largely flat, this trek is a huge accomplishment for anyone brave enough to take on the whole thing. 296km is never going to be easy, regardless of the terrain.
- It’s a great way to get healthy and active. Hiking is great for your body and mind!
- To join a community of other hikers, ramblers and trekkers. Along the way, you’ll meet many other people tackling the trek, which can be a welcome sight if you’re from London. Many people complain that London doesn’t have a community of walkers. If you undertake the Thames Path, you’ll see why those complaints are misplaced.
- The weather. In England, you never get a guarantee of good weather. But this walk offers good terrain for the most part, so you’ll get by unmuddied and unstained (unless there’s flooding, but more on that later). And southern weather is usually more pleasant than the climate up north!
- For the many famous sites and scenes across the way. There are plenty!
Sights Along the Route
If you walk the whole stretch, there are a huge amount of highlights. You can of course just tackle separate chunks at a time, but assuming you walk the whole way, from west to east, you’ll hit these highlights:
- Source to Oxford: by far the most remote stretch of the walk, this is the section that serenity lovers will enjoy the most. Apart from a few towns and villages dotted here and there, this section has wildflowers, farm animals, and the sort of peace and quiet which will make the endpoint of London seem unthinkable. In summer, the beginning of this section may show little signs of the river’s source, but the Thames will soon emerge. Old churches, stone bridges, and other ancient architecture make this a beautifully placid journey into England’s history. Just over a quarter of the entire walk, this stretch is beautifully serene.
- Oxford: an iconic and beautiful city, this marks the first time you really emerge from peace and quiet. You’d be remiss not to spend some time here. One of the oldest and most celebrated university towns in Europe, it’s replete with beautiful architecture. Pubs, cathedrals, castles, colleges, and museums, Oxford has the lot.
- The Goring Gap: sandwiched right between two official Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (The Chilterns and The North Wessex Downs), this is the narrowest part of the entire Thames Valley. Set in a beautiful location, it’s leafy, impressive, and historic, allegedly the inspiration for Wind in the Willows! If you’re on a long break and want to take some detours, this is the place to do it – both The Chilterns and The North Wessex Downs are beautiful areas.
- Windsor Castle: the iconic royal residence rises majestically above the water, the grandest of all the grand homes along the banks of the Thames. Whether you step inside or not, clapping eyes upon the castle is a real highlight for anyone who takes on this walk. Just beyond Windsor Castle is Runnymede, another site of huge historical importance – it was here that the Magna Carta was signed.
- Shepperton to Teddington: varied and full of historical significance, this section includes Hampton Court Palace, endless reservoirs, an old racecourse and the important town of Kingston.
- London and the approach towards it: the London chunk of the walk takes in a huge amount of the city’s best sites. Richmond Deer Park, Kew’s Botanic Gardens, Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, and much, much more. In this section, you can walk on either the south bank or the north bank of the river – the two routes vary slightly in length, and of course, vary in views and vistas.
How Long Will The Walk Take? Am I Fit Enough? How Difficult is the Thames Path?
If you choose to take on the entire challenge, you should plan to do so in around 14 days. Some go for closer to 10, while others extend it to around 18. Go for whatever feels comfortable to you. If you like a leisurely pace, and you’re more interested in taking in the sights, give yourself more time. Likewise, if you’re motivated by the prospect of a physical challenge, you can go at a quicker pace. The record for running the trail sits at 40 hours and 47 minutes, set in 2015.
You should make sure you’re fit enough to take on the walk before you set off. Yes, your cardio might be good enough (and since this walk is flat, it probably will be). But your joints might not quite be up to the challenge. Often, a long walk can throw up previously unnoticed problems, especially in the knees, ankles, and hips. Practice a couple of weekend walks to ensure that this won’t be the case. And when you do take on the walk, make sure you carry hiking poles – they take a massive amount of pressure off your joints. For the paved sections of this walk, you’re best off wearing lightweight shoes. On hard ground, shoes with overly sturdy soles can hit your joints with unnecessary impact.
When Is The Best Time To Do The Thames Path?
Generally speaking, May to October is the best time to do the walk. That’s because of potential flooding. In the stretch leading to Oxford (if you’re walking in an easterly direction), the ground has the potential to be unpassable if there’s been any flooding. Even if the flooding was a while ago, the ground can be muddy, boggy, and unpleasant. If there’s not been much rain, you can walk this trail at any time of year, but winter and spring months offer little in the way of no-rain guarantees. The stretches beyond Oxford are typically passable at any time. Much of the section beyond Oxford is paved, making your walk very easy. Consider the weather a little before you embark. Do you prefer to walk in hot weather or cold? Do you like the glaring sun or shorter days? Crowds are another important consideration. On the more popular stretches, summer, spring, and autumn weekends can be very busy. And even more so on school holidays. If you’re keen to avoid crowds, plan accordingly.
Is The Route Well-Marked?
Yes. It’s very well-marked, so it’s almost impossible to get lost. If you’ve ever followed a trail, you’ll have absolutely no problems here. And even if you haven’t, you should be okay. Because the trail follows the course of a river for its vast majority, it’s not hard to see where you should be going. The route is also very well maintained, making the paths easy to see without markings. When hiking, you should look for the standard acorn symbol, used to denote National Trail routes. The path is also marked by different coloured arrows as follows:
- Yellow: suitable for walkers
- Blue: suitable for walkers, horse riders, and cyclists
- Plum: suitable for walkers, horse riders, cyclists, and carriage drivers
- Red: suitable for walkers, horse riders, cyclists, carriage drivers, and motorists
For this walk, there’s no need for a compass. You might want to carry a map or a guidebook to spot the sights along the way, but there’s no real need for any tools when it comes to navigation.
Packing for The Thames Path
If you’re tackling the whole walk, you’re going to need a lot of equipment:
- Clothes. Of course! You want to pack light, but you also want to ensure that you have enough clothing. For the sake of packing light, use as many Merino Wool clothes (which require way less washing) as you can, including underwear and socks. And wear waterproofs. Minimise how much you need to carry and how much you need to wash. And don’t forget a hat!
- Good shoes. These are essential. Make sure you have experience using the exact shoes that you take with you. Unused shoes (or shoes you don’t have much experience with) can easily lead to blisters and injuries. This is a very important consideration. For this trek, you should consider taking two types of shoes – one with sturdy soles for soft ground, one with softer soles for paved stretches.
- Water bottles and purification tablets. You absolutely need a couple of good-quality refillable water bottles to keep you hydrated along the way. And though you might not necessarily need them, water purification tablets are great if you can’t find fresh, running water. This is fairly unlikely but it’s always good to avert disaster before it strikes.
- First aid kit. You’re likely to need some sort of medical care en-route, even if it’s a simple bandage, bandaid, or painkiller. This kit should be good-quality and should include rehydration sachets along with sunscreen.
- Hiking poles. Give your joints some respite.
- Food. Depending on whether or not you’re camping, the amount of food you need will vary greatly. But whatever type of accommodation you’re using, you’ll absolutely need snacks. Take lightweight, calorie-dense treats and nibbles to lighten the load on your back.
- Camping equipment (optional). Some people camp along this trek, while other people stay in accommodation. Camping brings with it more freedom and more isolation, but it also means more to carry, especially if you’re cooking your own meals. But if you are camping, you should ensure all of your gear is lightweight, high-quality, and reliable. If you want to cook en-route, you’ll need cooking gear. An important note here on camping: because much of this walk is in populated, paved areas, it’s not as camper-friendly as some other National Trails. You can camp in some places, but you’ll struggle if that’s your plan for the entirety of the walk.
Where Should I Sleep On The Thames Path? What Are My Accommodation Options?
On this trail, the vast majority of hikers sleep in indoor accommodation en route. Accommodation options include hotels, guesthouses, hostels, bed and breakfasts. Because this walk is a long one, we can’t cover all the options en-route, but here are a few choice highlights:
- The Trout Inn at Tadpole Bridge, Buckland Marsh (https://www.trout-inn.co.uk/). Log fires, warm welcomes, and rustic interiors, this is a fantastic pub for an overnighter. They specialise in boat hire and local sausages!
- YHA Oxford (https://www.yha.org.uk/hostel/yha-oxford). An affordable option in a city of expensive accommodation, YHA Oxford is located close to the trail and close to most of Oxford’s big attractions. Many walkers stay here, making it a great place to meet other ramblers roaming on the same trail as you.
- Longridge Activity Centre, Marlow (https://www.adventurelearning.org.uk/longridge/longridge-facilities/). Something a little bit different, this activity centre reaches out to kids and adults who like to adventure, offering activities such as kayaking, abseiling, and climbing. If you have kids in tow on your walk, this is an excellent option. It’s also a great choice for those walking on a budget.
- Riverbank House, Cookham (http://www.riverbankcookham.co.uk/). An alternative to the above if you’re not too keen on more physical exertion, this is a proper bed and breakfast inside a Grade II listed building. Great panoramas, friendly faces, and excellent food. A fantastic choice.
- Dee and Steve’s B&B, Windsor (http://www.deeandsteve.com/). A relatively affordable option in the heart of pricey Windsor, and very close to the trail, this is a great bed and breakfast. A great location, fantastic hospitality, and very affordable. This is a great middle ground option, suitable both for budget backpackers and those who usually crave a little more luxury.
- London: London runs the gamut when it comes to accommodation options. Hostels, bed and breakfasts, hotels, Airbnbs, and plenty more. If you’re keen on a cheap stay in London, the YHA has plenty of properties. But those seeking luxury can find plenty of decadence.
And in Scotland:
- West Highland Way
- Southern Upland Way
- Rob Roy Way
- Great Glen Way
- Ayrshire Coastal Path
- Arran Coastal Way
- Annandale Way
- Fife Coastal Path
- St Cuthbert’s Way
- Speyside Way
Are There Places To Eat And Drink Along The Thames Path?
Yes. You’ll rarely struggle to find anywhere to eat and drink. You’ll never walk more than 15km without finding a spot with a tasty meal – or at least an opportunity to stock up on snacks. As you move eastwards, these eating opportunities become more ever-present. This is one of the great draws of this walk. Because it’s not too remote, you won’t have to worry too much about when and where to eat.
Other National Trails can be a little more complex in this regard. That said, you should stock up on some snacks before you leave, because endless walking is bound to leave you hungry. Before you set off, you should make sure you take lots of calorie-dense snacks such as nuts and seeds, along with sugary carb-heavy fuel foods like dried fruit and flapjacks.
There are loads of good pubs and restaurants along the way, which are a fantastic way to get close to the cuisine of this part of the world. Country pubs are always a fantastic staple of British hiking, and this walk brings you into close contact with many of them. Make sure you pop in to some good pubs for some good beer! As for restaurants, you have plenty of options.
Because you meander through countless areas of cosmopolitan diversity, the range of food on offer is fantastic – the eastern side of the walk is a great way to sample the diverse cuisine of southern England. The Thames Path is an excellent challenge for walkers of any description. Its hefty distance offers a challenge to even the hardiest of walkers, while the elevation profile and friendly ground will appeal to casual hikers. For this reason, it’s a great choice if you want to walk with friends, family, kids, elderly relatives, or anyone else who doesn’t want a trail too intense. It’s also a very diverse walk, offering huge contrasts between bustling cities and quiet meadows.
The route itself might also appeal to some. Because you’re following a complete river, from source to climax, you feel as if you’re taking a journey of natural significance. An archetypal British walk, full of so many things which make Britain great, this is an excellent National Trail. Lace up your shoes and get on your way!
I’ve had the privilege of hiking the Camino de Santiago twice, walking up Ben Nevis, and spending three weeks hiking in the Candian Rockies. I love the peace that comes from getting out of the cities I have lived in to enjoy hikes of all lengths in various countries.