The River Thames is the longest river that flows entirely within England, and the second longest in the UK (after the River Severn). The source is in Gloucestershire, which is in south-west England. It flows in an easterly direction through Wiltshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Surrey and into London. The Thames is tidal a few miles upstream from London. Past London it becomes an estuary, and from there into the North Sea. Quite where the river ends and the estuary begins is a matter of debate. The Thames Path chooses to terminate at the Thames Barrier which is as good a place as any. Terminating on the meridian at Greenwich would perhaps have been more fitting but, for the sake of an extra 3 miles, you might as well carry on to the end. It is also possible to go further along the Thames Path extension as far as Erith near Dartford. But that is even more arbitrary than the Thames Barrier.
About the Thames Path
The Thames Path is a national trail and is therefore fully signposted. The Path is a public right of way at all times. It will either be a footpath, a bridleway or a road. You can walk or run on a footpath. You cannot cycle or ride a horse on a footpath: you need to be on a bridleway to do that. Also remember that the land you are crossing is private. So you need to keep to the footpath.
You cannot simply walk the Thames blindly. The Thames Path makes use of public rights of way that, for the most part, are next to the river. But not always. Sometimes the Thames Path leaves the river and works its way through a residential area rejoining the river. But these instances are rare and should not put you off what is an enjoyable walk.
The source of the Thames is only 110m above sea level. That’s 360 feet. As the route mostly follows the river it is not difficult to deduce that there will not be any hills. There is really only one occasion, between Goring and Pangbourne, when the path rises steeply above the river providing glorious views across the Goring Gap, where the river cuts through between the Chilterns and the South Downs.
Thames Path: When to Go
Temperatures along the River Thames are mild all year round and should not deter walkers. The weather in the south-east of England is very different to the north. Keswick, in the Lake District, receives almost twice as much rainfall as along the Thames. It’s also warmer, with temperatures similar to northern France. The main problem is flooding.
From February onwards, rain falls are generally below 30mm, the driest months being June and July. From October to January, rainfall increases to around 40mm per month. The land around the Thames is generally low lying and there is therefore frequent risk of flooding after heavy rains. The Thames does not burst its banks. Instead the surrounding land slowly soaks up water until, once saturated, pockets of water appear randomly on the ground. As the ground gets wetter, the pockets become larger and gradually join up until vast areas can be under water. We post weather and flood alerts on a regular basis.
The most likely time for flooding is actually in two of the driest months: February and March. This is because the persistent heavy rain from October to January has left the ground saturated. The ground then dries out over spring and summer.
The best times to walk are May, June and September as these are not too hot and lie outside the school holidays. April is also quiet but there can still be some flooding. If not flooding, it can get very muddy. The areas most protected are those that are most densely populated. Therefore the likeliest places to see flooding is between the source and Oxford.
The Thames has a series of flood defences. The weirs are controlled to manage the water levels. But there’s only so much they can do. The Thames Barrier, the end (or the beginning!) does the opposite. The Thames is tidal from Teddington (between Kingston and Richmond). The barrier is there to prevent tidal surges flooding London.
Don’t be put off by the rain: 30mm of moderate rain in a month is only 12 hours. It never rains for long!
Thames Path: Which Way? Which Side?
It really doesn’t matter. Most people start at the source and make their way downstream which has the dramatic finale of London. There is a minor advantage of walking eastwards with the prevailing winds behind you. And, technically, its downhill, although the average gradient is negligible. But there is something equally satisfying about walking upstream and see the river gradually getting smaller until it becomes a trickle. Whichever way you decide, we can support you.
For much of the section in London you have the choice of which river bank to walk on. Generally speaking, the north bank contains more of the familiar landmarks: the Houses of Parliament, St Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London to name a few. Unless you are planning on visiting any of these attractions, we would therefore recommend walking on the south bank which gives the best view.
Note that we used the words north and south bank. The river generally runs east to west but, as everyone knows, makes some big loops so, at times, also runs north and south. Therefore north bank and south bank can be quite confusing. On our route planner we use right bank and left bank: the right bank being the side of the bank that is on the right when facing downstream.
Whichever way you decide to walk, we are here to help you with accommodation, baggage transfer, transportation and anything else you might need. See our How it Works page for more information.
History of the Thames
The history of the River Thames largely mirrors the development of Britain. The Romans successfully invaded England in 43AD during the reign of Claudius. Londinium, the largest Roman city in Britain, grew up around what is now the financial district, the City of London. Other major Roman towns along the Thames were (going upstream from London) Staines, Maidenhead and Dorchester. Just off the Thames were the towns of Silchester (9 miles south east of Reading) and Cirencester, close to the source of the Thames.
In early days, the river was not so much a help as a hindrance, creating boundaries between peoples. This helped shape the early kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia. Settlements grew up in places where the river could be crossed. Aside from London Bridge, which was built by the Romans, other crossings included Kingston, Staines, Wallingford, Abingdon, Oxford and Newbridge.
During the Middle Ages, weirs were built to divert water into mills, primarily to grind flour. This made the river difficult to navigate. Flash locks, boards that held the water back and could be temporarily removed and propel a boat downstream, began to be installed. This allowed for the transportation of stone, timber, wool, produce and livestock downstream from the countryside to feed a growing London. Flash locks were hazardous, losing water that the mill owners needed, and only worked in one direction. Boats had to be winched upstream.
They were replaced by the 45 locks we know today, the first being at Iffley and Sandford near Oxford in 1683. The construction of canals (the Kennet and Avon from Bath to Reading, the Oxford, and the Grand Union) in the 18th centuries reduced the significance of the Thames, particularly upstream of Reading. The arrival of the railways, particularly the Great Western Railway in 1838 from London Paddington to Bristol, effectively marked the end of the Thames as a commercial river way.
Londinium was also home to a port, built just downstream from London Bridge, goods being traded with the rest of the Roman Empire. In the late Middle Ages, woollen cloth was exported to the Low Countries (now Belgium and Netherlands), and in the Tudor and Stewart periods, trade further expanded including to Asia, Africa and the new worlds.
London became the busiest port in the world with docks spreading from London Bridge downstream to the Isle of Dogs, where a labyrinth of docks was built in the early 1800’s. The trade brought in immigrants from both within and outside Britain to work at the docks who populated the East End and became the “Eastenders”.
It was the development of the container ship which sounded the death knell to London’s docklands with the port moving out to the Thames Estuary at Tilbury. The Isle of Dogs was later regenerated into a new financial hub known as Canary Wharf
Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey which was finished around 1065. A palace was built alongside the Abbey on what is now the Houses of Parliament. William the Conqueror, who invaded from Normandy in 1066, established a number of castles along the river including Wallingford, Windsor and The Tower of London. 150 years later, King John was forced to sign Magna Carta at Runnymede, a few miles downstream of Windsor. Since the Stuarts and Georgian eras, more palaces were built or acquired including Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, St James’ Palace and Clarence House, although none of these are by the river. These are all occupied by various members of the Royal Family.
Whilst walking the Thames Path you will pass the ruins of Wallingford Castle, as well as Windsor Castle, Hampton Court and the Tower of London. All are open to visitors.