The Thames Path National Trail
The Thames Path has had National Trail status since 1989. It is a pedestrian route from the river’s source near Kemble in Gloucestershire (Cotswolds) to the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, south-east London. It covers about 184 miles (296 km). It is one of 15 National Trails of England and Wales and the only National Trail to follow a river from its source to sea.
This river was once vital to trade and helped England’s capital expand. But from the 1840s, the development of the railways and steam power made redundant the need for horse-drawn boats on the non-tidal Thames. And by 1908, the section below Teddington was passed on to the Port of London Authority. Discussions started back in the 1930s about how they could put the old Thames towpath to use, but it took the help of the Ramblers Association and the River Thames Society for 16 miles of new towpath to be built, so the Thames Path became fully opened National Trail in 1996.
Today, downstream of Putney, there are jetties and wharves on both banks of the river, and sections of the Thames Path(s) often have to divert away from the river around riverside buildings.
Sixty miles of the Thames Path runs through London, on both the north and south bank of the river, taking in some of Britain’s most iconic sites along the way. Transport for London classifies this stretch as one of the most important pedestrian thoroughfares in the capital, and in 2013 Lonely Planet declared it to be among the finest city hikes on Earth.
Lonely Planet described the section of Thames Path from Kingston eastwards to Greenwich as “a London highlights reel passing Kew Gardens, Battersea Park and power station, Westminster and Big Ben, the London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe and so on”.
Walking The Thames Path
The Thames Path is a relatively flat and gentle Trail, and the route is well waymarked.
Here is a look at the source of The Thames in the Cotswolds, but we are going to focus on the stretch in London.The source of The Thames in Gloucestershire. Credit: Matt Brown, CC BY-SA 2.0
The Thames Path in London
As you reach west London, across the river, you can see Garrick’s Temple built by the actor David Garrick to house a statue of Shakespeare in 1756. And then you reach the magnificent Hampton Court Palace.
Built by Cardinal Wolsey and given to Henry VIII in 1528, Hampton Court Palace has two distinct architectural styles. From this side (main entrance), it is clearly Tudor with the red brick Great Gate and courtyard. When William III and Mary II took the throne in 1689, they commissioned Sir Christopher Wren to build an elegant new baroque palace, and that’s the view from the garden.
The Trail continues to Kingston-upon-Thames, which is one of only three Royal Boroughs because it was a favoured crowning place for Anglo-Saxon kings (seven kings were crowned here in the 10th century).
You could take a quick 10-minute detour here to see David Mach’s Out of Order telephone box sculpture.
Continue back on The Thames Path. Because of the locks built by the City of London, the river is now tidal only downstream from Teddington Locks.
You can walk along the north bank or south bank from here. You will pass parks and fields as well as a succession of stately homes.
Strawberry Hill House is an extraordinary Gothic Revival masterpiece. It was created by Horace Walpole in the 18th century as a riverside retreat. I’ve written a more in-depth look at this property, so do take a look.
After the bend in the river and divide around Eel Pie Island, next is the National Trust’s Ham House, originally built in 1610, offering rare examples of 17th-century life, treasures and architecture. And then across the water is Marble Hill House – a beautiful Palladian villa, managed by English Heritage, set in 66 acres of outstanding riverside parkland near Richmond.
The river twists more to reach the Duke of Northumberland’s Syon House and Park on the north. The Thames Path actually diverts away from the rivers and cuts through Syon Park. The park was the site of Syon Abbey from 1415, dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539.
Even with the Thames Barrier protecting London from catastrophic flooding, you do need to be aware that this stretch of the Thames Path is liable to flooding at high tide and during extreme weather.
After the river bends again, you will pass Chiswick House and Gardens – a glorious example of 18th-century British architecture created by two Georgian trendsetters: the architect and designer William Kent and his friend and patron Lord Burlington. And you will then reach the back gardens of Hammersmith Terrace, where you can see Emery Walker’s House.
Emery Walker was a good friend of William Morris, and nearby is the riverside William Morris Society in a late Georgian house that was once home to Morris. This is also close to The Dove pub that is famed for having the smallest bar room n the world.
After you pass Hammersmith Bridge (which is a lovely suspension bridge to see but quite useless right now as it is considered too unsafe to use), the river loops back down and passes the London Wetland Centre in Barnes. This is an incredible 40 hectares of wetlands, amazingly close to the centre of a major city. (This is opposite where I worked at my first job in London back in 1990, but I guess that’s not such a landmark for everyone.)
As you enter Putney, you reach the rowing capital of London. The annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race starts here, as does the prestigious Head of the River Race, which follows the same course and which pits Britain’s best rowing clubs against each other.
On the south bank, the walk from Wandsworth often diverts from the waterfront as there have been a lot of changes to the riverfront in the last decade or so.
I always enjoy seeing the Grade I-listed 18th-century church of St Mary’s Battersea as it was built at a time when Battersea was a country retreat away from London. There are always boats tied up outside, and they are usually on dry land. The church is linked to poet and artist William Blake, who was married here, botanist William Curtis and artist JMW Turner who painted many river scenes from the vestry window. These three men have stained glass windows dedicated to them, along with Benedict Arnold, one of the most notorious men in the American War of Independence. Arnold was a General fighting for the Americans when he defected to the British Army in 1780, and his name became a byword in America for treachery and betrayal. He spent his last years living in Battersea and is buried at St Mary’s.
At Albert Bridge, do see the unusual notice aimed at the troops of nearby Chelsea Barracks. There were concerns that resonance effects caused by soldiers marching in step could damage the bridge.
On Chelsea Embankment on the north side, there is The Chelsea Physic Garden. It was founded by the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries in 1673 to promote the study of botany in relation to medicine, known at the time as the “physic” or healing arts. As the second-oldest botanic garden in England, it still fulfils its traditional function of scientific research and plant conservation and undertakes ‘to educate and inform’.
On the other side of the river is Battersea Park which includes the London Peace Pagoda, built by the Buddhist Nipponzan Myohoji Order. Battersea Park was officially opened in 1858 by Queen Victoria. 750,000 tons of material excavated from Surrey Docks was used to raise the level of the site and create the ground shaping. (At low tide, it is possible to see how much the river embankment has been raised to create the park). In 1854 the carriage drives, lake and mounding were designed and built. Battersea Park includes a sub-tropical garden, inspired by the designer John Gibson’s plant-hunting mission to India.
Continuing on the south side, you will reach an iconic London landmark. Battersea Power Station opened in 1939 and has been closed since 1983. It is the largest brick-built structure in Europe and is Grade II* listed. It is currently being developed, along with the surrounding area, to provide luxury apartments (I know, no surprise there!) along with restaurants, shops and parks.
The Thames Path diverts inland, so you get to see the striking Vauxhall Bus station that incorporates two silver cantilevered arms that contain 167 solar panels, which provide a third of the bus station’s electricity. As always with London land, there is talk of demolishing the station to be replaced with housing.
At Vauxhall Bridge, it is worth looking over the balustrades as the bridge is decorated with monumental bronze statues (twice life-size!) that are easily missed. On the upstream piers are Frederick Pomeroy’s Agriculture, Architecture, Engineering and Pottery (see photo below), whilst on the downstream piers are Alfred Drury’s Science, Fine Arts, Local Government and Education. My favourite tip is to look closely at ‘Architecture’ as it has a wonderful miniature scale model of St Paul’s Cathedral.
On the south side, you can see the MI6 building – the home of the Secret Intelligence Service, and on the north, you can see Tate Britain. This is the Tate’s original premises on Millbank, once the site of Millbank Prison. Amongst its incomparable art collections are many memorable river views by Turner, Whistler and other masters that were inspired by scenes along this very route.
By Lambeth Bridge, there is Lambeth Palace, the London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’ve visited and have written about it for Londontopia.
Right next door in the former church of St Mary-at-Lambert is the Garden Museum – the only museum in the country dedicated to the history and design of gardens.
Between Westminster and Vauxhall bridges, the Thames Path follows the Albert Embankment, built by engineer Sir Joseph Bazalgette in the 1860s. Bazalgette was one of the greatest engineers of his day, designing a number of iconic buildings and bridges in the city, as well as helping to create London’s sewer system. His great-great-grandson, incidentally, is Peter Bazalgette, one of the people who brought the Big Brother TV show to the UK.
At Westminster Bridge, you reach the Houses of Parliament, and from then on, it’s ‘big-hitter’ iconic London landmarks.
The stretch from here to Blackfriars Bridge is the South Bank and a really popular area with Londoners and visitors.
County Hall, home to the Greater London Council until 1986, is now hotels, restaurants, the London Aquarium and more. It also has the Ticket Office for the capital’s observation wheel, the London Eye.
Next comes The Queen’s Walk, part of the 14-mile Jubilee Walkway, also part of the Walk London Network, which buzzes with everything from bookstalls to mime artists, with restaurants spilling out onto the waterfront. Look out for paving flags with quotations about the Thames.
This area was developed for the Festival of Britain in 1951. This was when the Royal Festival Hall was built, and it still remains as part of the Southbank Centre. The Royal National Theatre arrived later in 1976/77.
Across the water, you can see Cleopatra’s Needle – the Egyptian obelisk brought from Alexandria to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon. (There’s much more to the story, and I’ve written an in-depth article on the history and journey to London.)
Continuing along the South Bank, you get to another lovely riverside landmark. The OXO Tower has an interesting story about those famous geometrically-arranged windows. The building was originally constructed as a power station for the Post Office towards the end of the 19th century. It was later bought by the manufacturers of OXO beef stock cubes for conversion into a cold store. Much of the original power station was demolished and rebuilt to an art-deco design in 1928/9, but the river facade was retained and extended.
The company wanted to include a tower featuring illuminated signs advertising the name of their product, but permission was refused. Instead, the tower was built with four sets of three vertically-aligned windows, each of which coincidentally happened to be in the shape of a circle, a cross and a circle, cleverly spelling out OXO.
Across the water is the Portland stone-clad neoclassical Somerset House where Nelson’s brother once worked. For many years its elegant courtyard was a car park for the Inland Revenue staff who worked in the building before being converted to a public space in the late 1990s.
Beyond Blackfriars Bridge, you reach the well-loved Bankside Power Station building, which closed in 1981 and now houses the Tate Modern gallery.
The Anchor pub is a popular place to stop for a pint by the water. The pub was first built in 1615 and was where Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of London as it tore through The City. It later became home to vagabonds, river pirates and smugglers, although today it will be best known to tourists for serving fish and chips.
The Thames Path comes in here to go under Cannon Street bridge. This area on the south bank was known as the Liberty of the Clink. Outside the City of London, it was administered by the Bishops of Winchester, who (unlike the more restrictive City) allowed the theatres such as the Globe, brothels, bull- and bear-baiting rings, many taverns and several prisons.
The Clink was probably the oldest prison for both men and women dating from the 12th century and famously interned Catholic and Protestant dissenters. Burned down during the Gordon Riots of 1780, it was never rebuilt. It gave rise to the slang for being in prison, ‘in the clink’. Shakespeare knew the area well and once visited a friend in the Clink. You can now visit the Clink Prison Museum.
You will pass the Medieval ruins of the Bishop’s Winchester Palace next, which has a lovely rose window before reaching the dock of St Mary Overie, where there is a full-size replica of a famous ship that is now a museum. The Golden Hinde was the 16th-century ship in which Sir Francis Drake circled the world. This replica has also circumnavigated.
Next, you will see Southwark Cathedral. Although only a cathedral since 1905, most of the building dates from between 1220 and 1420.
After London Bridge (do read more about the bridge and its predecessors), you can get back to the waterside at Hays Galleria and soon see HMS Belfast. Launched in 1938, this Town-class light cruiser of the Royal Navy served in World War II and the Korean War. She was retired from active service in 1965, saved for the nation in 1971 and towed to this berth at Symon’s Wharf in the Pool of London and opened to the public on Trafalgar Day that same year. Part of the Imperial War Museum group, it’s fun to climb aboard and navigate up and down ladders over nine decks, sit in the Captain’s chair and explore the engine rooms.
City Hall currently has the Mayor of London’s offices. It was designed by Norman Foster and opened in July 2002.
This section of The Thames Path culminates in front of the dramatic Tower of London and Tower Bridge. Unlike most of London’s river crossings, Tower Bridge was designed to raise so that tall-masted ships could get through. Its Gothic design was to harmonise with the Tower of London, yet Tower Bridge is actually Victorian and opened in 1894. The high walkways quickly gained a reputation for pickpockets and prostitutes so closed in 1910 before becoming part of the Tower Bridge Experience tourist attraction.
Keeping on the south side of the Thames, from Tower Bridge, you get to walk along the atmospheric Shad Thames with shops and riverside restaurants set into warehouses linked overhead by iron bridges. Turn left before the first bridge into the passageway of Maggie Blake’s Cause, an alleyway connecting Shad Thames with the riverfront. This was named after a local community activist, and the alleyway represents a significant victory – public access to the riverside in a predominantly privately-owned environment.
Look across the river, and you can see St Katharine Docks. These were the smallest of London’s docks and the furthest upstream. They dealt in luxury goods but closed in 1968. The regeneration started in 1970 after Taylor Woodrow was granted a 125-year lease by the Greater London Council on the proviso that it would be a mixed-use development. Today the development includes a hotel, offices, apartments, shops and restaurants, in addition to a marina. The Dickens Inn was created from one of the original warehouses thought to have been owned by a brewery.
Soon, however, busy central London is left behind and, keeping mostly to walkways next to the river, you pass primarily residential areas on the way to historic Greenwich where east and west meet either side of the Meridian Line.
Just past Butler’s Wharf, you can go across the St Saviour’s Dock Footbridge. The bridge was originally conceived as a manually-operated swing bridge, but a hydraulic system was subsequently installed. Since opening in 1995, the bridge has been subject to various mechanical, structural and operational issues. The bridge has been fixed in the closed position in recent years, preventing the passage of large boats into St Saviour’s Dock. This is where the vestiges of the lost River Neckinger meet the River Thames.
From the pedestrian bridge over the inlet, you can see Dickensian views of warehouses and tidal mud. Jacob’s Island is immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novel Oliver Twist, although the buildings here today replace the early 19th-century slum and rookery of the time that Dickens described as “the filthiest, strangest and most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London”. St. Saviours Dock displayed the bodies of pirates who were captured and hanged here. It is here that Bill Sykes, in Oliver Twist, falls from a roof and dies in the mud.
After a few minutes walk, you will see the remains of Edward III’s moated manor house built in 1353, which was unearthed from the foundations of a warehouse. The ruins can be seen in a grass area in front of housing.
And across the road from the ruins, you will see a lovely tribute statue by Diane Gorvin called Dr Salter’s Daydream. Dr Salter was a local benefactor, councillor and MP for the area. The sculpture has him sitting down, his wife Ada standing nearby, and their daughter Joyce leaning against the river wall, plus her cat on the wall. Joyce tragically died of Scarlet Fever when only 8 years old. Dr Salter was an advocate of total abstinence, so I’m not sure what he would have thought of the positioning of this sculpture next to the Angel pub.
On the opposite bank of the Thames, you can see the Execution Dock. Here the notorious Captain Kidd, who had been convicted of piracy and murder, was executed on the second attempt in 1701.
Continue along the cobbled Rotherhithe Street, and you will see St Mary’s church. It was rebuilt in 1747, and the interior includes a lot of ships’ timber. This area has long had a connection to seafaring as this was where the Pilgrim Fathers departed to America in 1620. The actual location they left from was The Mayflower pub that claims to stand on the site of The Shippe. The Last Will and Testament of the Mayflower crew is displayed in the bar, and the passenger list is on show in the restaurant upstairs. Don’t tell everyone about the pub though as it is one of my favourite London pubs. We can’t let everyone know how great it is.
Just around the corner is the Brunel Museum that tells the local story of an engineering family that changed the world. As well as building the world’s first tunnel through soft ground under a navigable river (The Thames), the Brunels hosted the first underground concert party here in 1827. The museum celebrates both engineering and performance in its Grade II* listed Tunnel Shaft.
The river has a good bend here, so enjoy walking by the riverside housing, and you will soon reach the Doubletree by Hilton Docklands Hotel, where there is a river taxi (ferry) service across the Thames to Canary Wharf.
The Canary Wharf development covers 97 acres of land and has 16 million square feet of office and retail space, centred around the three West India Docks that closed in 1981. The first buildings were completed in 1991, including 1 Canada Square, which became the UK’s tallest building at the time and a symbol of the regeneration of Docklands.
Surprisingly, the next notable place to see is Surrey Docks City Farm, where you can see the goats and ducks without even going inside.
A little further on is the Greenland Dock (and smaller South Dock). The dock was excavated in 1696 and was originally named Howland Great Wet Dock after the family that owned the land. By the mid-18th century, it had become a base for Arctic whalers and was renamed, Greenland Dock. Greenland whalers also used the dock, and substantial blubber boiling houses were built here to produce oil.
You get back to the riverside by Deptford Creek, where there is an extraordinary statue of Peter The Great, otherwise known as Tsar Peter I of Russia. He travelled to Europe as a young man in 1697-98 to study new developments in technology, especially shipbuilding. He lived near the Royal Dockyard in Deptford for much of his four-month stay in England, working at the Deptford Dockyards by day and holding drunken parties by night.
Designed by two Russian sculptors, Viacheslav Bukhaev and Mikhail Chemiakin, the statue was unveiled in 2001 to celebrate 300 years since Peter’s visit to London.
There is a bridge over the Creek, so you can continue on to Greenwich as The Thames Path squeezes along a narrow footway between the Thames and the Royal Naval College. From the Water Gate, the two wings of the College are displayed to best effect. They were built from 1696 as a hospital for disabled seamen, but allowed a view through the gap between them from The Queen’s House, built for James I by Inigo Jones, with behind it the Royal Observatory.
The Cutty Sark is in a dramatic position beside the Thames Path in Greenwich. Its masts tower over the pedestrians and surrounding buildings. This famous clipper ship was built in 1869 and sits in dry dock as a visitor attraction that you can also walk underneath.
From Greenwich to The O2, there are still working wharves lining the riverside giving an industrial flavour to the area and decaying piers or warehouses as a reminder that London once was the busiest port in the world.
The Anchor & Hope pub in Charlton marks the final half-mile stretch to the world’s second-largest movable flood barrier: The Thames Barrier. There is a Visitor Centre on this side of the water, or you can catch the free Woolwich Ferry, or walk the Woolwich Foot Tunnel under The Thames, to go to Thames Barrier Park on the other side. The Woolwich Foot Tunnel is also the starting point for the Capital Ring walk, part of the Walk London Network.
This is the end of The Thames Path, but there is a waymarked Thames Path Extension for ten miles. It follows the south bank downstream from the Thames Barrier to Crayford Ness along east London’s working river to link the Thames Path National Trail to the London LOOP at Erith, after which these two routes run together, joining with the Cray Riverway, to the Ness.
Beyond the Thames Barrier, the route is waymarked with the Thames Barge symbol rather than the National Trail acorn. This is because the Thames Path National Trail officially ends at the Thames Barrier, but it is possible to continue the walk as far as the boundary with Kent.
London is an underrated walking destination. You won’t find solitude here, but you can’t beat it for history and the wow-factor of its cityscape. Here’s a chance to see the full Thames Path walk in a matter of minutes (it took the walker 12 days to complete).
TfL would like us to explore more of the route, and there are 12 walks you can do outside of London along The Thames Path. If you complete the full Thames Path walk, you can download a well-earned certificate.