The Thames Path sign at the end of the walk, by the Thames Barrier
|Length||184 mi (296 km)|
|Location||Southern England, United Kingdom|
|Designation||UK National Trail|
|Trailheads||Kemble, Gloucestershire and Thames Barrier, Charlton, London|
|Sights||London, Hampton Court, Windsor, Oxford, Lechlade, Cricklade|
The Thames Path is a National Trail following the River Thames from its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Charlton, south east London. It is about 184 miles (296 km) long. A path was first proposed in 1948 but it only opened in 1996.
The Thames Path's entire length can be walked, and a few parts can be cycled. Some parts of the Thames Path, particularly west of Oxford, are subject to flooding during the winter. The river is also tidal downstream from Teddington Lock and parts of the path may be under water if there is a particularly high tide, although the Thames Barrier protects London from catastrophic flooding.
The Thames Path uses the river towpath between Inglesham and Putney and available path elsewhere. Historically, towpath traffic crossed the river using many ferries, but crossings in these places do not all exist now and some diversion from the towpath is necessary.
Description and access to the river
The general aim of the path and the object of occasional path changes is to provide walkers with a pleasant route and access to the river, as much as possible. The Thames Path provision naturally falls into three distinct areas.
Source to Lechlade
The Thames Path starts beside the monument for the source of the river and follows the stream down the hill towards Kemble. On the stretch between Ewen and Somerford Keynes you pass through fields and there are a number of watermills. The path then follows the river through Cotswold Water Park to Ashton Keynes where the river divides into a number of streams; the path partly follows one of these and rejoins the main river by Waterhay Bridge. The path wanders to and from the river amongst more gravel pits until Hailstone Hill, where a branch of the Wilts & Berks Canal from Latton formerly crossed the river on an aqueduct. There is a riverside path into and out of (but not within) Cricklade and all the way to Castle Eaton. The path next follows country lanes, a short stretch along a backwater to Hannington Bridge then goes across fields to Inglesham. In 2018 the path incorporated a section of permissive path alongside the river at Upper Inglesham.
Above Inglesham the river is not dredged and is mostly its natural self without the benefit of locks with weirs to control water levels so it is shallow, weedy and swift and the river level fluctuates, hence flooding of riverside paths is common. Today the Environment Agency (the current successor to the Thames Conservancy) is responsible for the Thames between Cricklade and Teddington. The towpath now stops just upstream of Lechlade, as does the ability to navigate the river for all but very small boats; although there were once flash locks to enable passage as far as Cricklade, and there is still a right of navigation up to Cricklade Town Bridge. The navigation above Lechlade was neglected after the Thames and Severn Canal provided an alternative route for barge traffic; sections of footpath that run alongside the river around Cricklade are probably remnants of historical towpath.
The Thames has been used for navigation for a long time, although owners of weirs, locks and towpath often charged tolls. The towpath owes its existence in its current form to the Industrial Revolution and the Canal Mania of the 1790s to 1810s, and so is related to the History of the British canal system. It was not until a little after the Thames Navigation Commission were enabled by a 1795 Act of Parliament  to purchase land for a continuous horse path that the non-tidal navigation (and hence the towpath) was consolidated as a complete route under a single (toll charging) authority, upstream to Inglesham. This improved the ability of horse drawn barge traffic to travel upstream to the Thames and Severn Canal, which had opened in 1789. The commissioners had to create horse ferries to join up sections of towpath (for example at Purley Hall), as the Act did not allow them to compulsorily purchase land near an existing house, garden or orchard. The City of London Corporation, who had rights and responsibilities for the Thames below Staines, from a point marked by the London Stone, had similarly bought out the towpath tolls of riparian land owners as enabled by an earlier Thames Navigation Act in 1776. Although both development of the railways and steam power supplanted horse drawn boats on the non-tidal Thames from the 1840s, the towpath still exists little changed, except for the discontinuance of the ferries, some of which were still running until the 1960s.
The canal entrance is the present day limit of navigation for powered craft and is one and a half miles upstream of the highest boat lock near Lechlade. Today, between the canal entrance and Putney Bridge, the towpath still allows access by foot to at least one side of the river for almost the whole length of the main navigation of the river, but not mill streams, backwaters or a few meanders cut off by lock cuttings, since towpaths were originally only intended to enable towing of barges on the navigation. The main exception to towpath access to the navigation between Inglesham and Putney is a stretch of river without any dedicated path by Home Park, Windsor. The Windsor Castle private grounds were extended to include the riverbank and its towpath by the Windsor Castle Act 1848, involving the building of Victoria and Albert bridges and the removal of Datchet Bridge. This accounts for the Thames Path's diversion from the river at Datchet. There are also two other short lengths of navigation missing access: between Marlow bridge and lock, and either side of The Swan public house in Pangbourne. Otherwise, between Inglesham and Putney, the Thames Path only needs to make a diversion from the remaining towpath due to the lack of a lock, bridge or ferry to cross the river in the original locations, although it does this in several places.
Historically, there have been replacements for towpath ferry crossings with bridges at Goring and Clifton Hampden and the path across the weir at Benson Lock (towpath ferry was upstream). In recent times, crossings have been created for the Thames Path; the Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry was restarted in 1986, Temple Footbridge near Hurley was built in 1989, a footpath attached to Bourne End Railway Bridge in 1992 (ferry was upstream), and Bloomers Hole Footbridge was built in 2000. No other replacement river crossings have been created for lapsed ferries, so the Thames Path needs to divert away from the towpath to cross the river elsewhere, leaving some sections of towpath not on the path. Walkers can visit the lengths of river navigation not on the Thames Path using the current towpath except for two isolated sections of towpath not connected by any public path (or ferry) at either end. The first is a short section of path still shown on Ordnance Survey maps which is inaccessible except by boat, caused by the lack of two ferries formerly diverting around Purley Hall and which accounts for the Thames Path's diversion from the river at Purley-on-Thames. The second and most downstream is a section of particularly picturesque towpath accessible within the National Trust grounds of Cliveden; here the lack of three ferries accounts for the Path's diversion from the river at Cookham. Note that when Cookham Lock was built in 1830, Hedsor Water became a backwater and lost its towpath.
Many walkers will want to see the Locks on the River Thames as they are pleasant places to rest and in summer some have facilities open for visitors. The two locks at Cookham and Whitchurch are not on the Thames Path and require some effort to visit. Whitchurch Lock cutting was built through an island in the river and public access to the lock over the weir from Pangbourne or across the millstream at Whitchurch-on-Thames was closed in 1888 to avoid the loss of tolls on Whitchurch Bridge; as a consequence Whitchurch Lock is the only Thames lock that is inaccessible by foot – it is only accessible by boat. Cookham Lock is still accessible although is not on the Thames Path. The Thames divides into several streams here and the towpath does not connect up without ferries; access to this lock requires a 10-minute walk across Odney Common on Formosa Island and the Lock Island (former Mill Eyot) to Sashes Island. Marlow Lock access requires a short walk through town back streets. All the other locks have obvious access from the Thames Path. Lock building by the Thames Commissioners had improved the whole river navigation from Inglesham to the upper limit of the tidal reach at Staines by 1789. On the tidal Thames below Staines, six new locks were built by the City of London Corporation to improve the navigation between 1811 and 1815. The Thames Conservancy was established in 1857 to take over duties from the City of London because of falling revenue from boat traffic; it also took on the duties of the Thames Commissioners in 1866. The emphasis now became provision for pleasure boating, although the Thames Conservancy still rebuilt some of the locks and made navigation and towpath improvements.
There are also a few lengths of river bypassed by navigation cuttings just off the Thames Path which walkers may wish to see at Desborough Island (formed by Desborough Cut), Penton Hook Island (a meander cutoff formed by Penton Hook Lock) and accessible for part of the length at Duxford (towpath follows Shifford Lock cut) and Sutton Pools (towpath follows Culham Lock cut). The lock islands at Boulters Lock, Caversham Lock and Shepperton Lock can be visited in addition to Penton Hook; any footpaths across other lock islands only allow access to the path alone.
There is a Thames Path on both sides of the river downstream of Teddington Lock, the southern path including the original towpath as far as Putney Bridge.
Due to the locks built by the City of London, the river is now tidal downstream from Teddington Lock. A further lock with a low-tide barrage (rather than a weir), was built in 1894 downstream at Richmond Lock to improve the navigation by maintaining water level upstream to at least half-tide level. Today, the Port of London Authority manages the tidal river, including Richmond Lock and barrage. Wharfs and jetties are generally confined to the northern (Middlesex) bank between Richmond and Putney. This stretch of tideway (known as the Upper Rowing Code Area) has special navigation rules to accommodate the activities of a number of rowing clubs, and includes the course used for The Boat Race. Chiswick Eyot is on this section and is notable as being the only tidal island on the river.
Historical records state that the towpath started at Putney. Downstream of here sailing, rowing, and following the rising and falling tide were the means of movement until the 19th century, Thames sailing barges being typical. Crossing the river was more of a priority, as evidenced by the many Watermen's stairs giving watermen and passengers access to the tidal river. Thames steamers became more common for transport on the tidal Thames from 1815 until the railways dominated public transport. Falling income from river traffic and disputes over the construction of Victoria Embankment due to The Crown's ownership of the tidal riverbed, led to the City of London seceding management of their part of the river to the Thames Conservancy in 1857; and the section below Teddington was further passed on to the Port of London Authority in 1908. The lack of need for a towpath compared to the need for river crossings, the issues of river bed ownership and ability to access the foreshore and the historical progression of construction of riverside buildings and structures are among the many reasons why there is not a continuous riverside path within the Port of London. Today, downstream of Putney, there are jettys and wharfs on both banks of the river, and sections of the Thames Path(s) often have to divert away from the river around riverside buildings.
In central London, there is much to see and do. The Thames Path is one of the Mayor of London's Strategic walking routes. The Thames Path Cycle Route is a black-signposted route that follows the river between Putney Bridge in the west and Greenwich in the east. It mostly follows the Thames Path, but diverges in various sections, especially where the path follows a footpath-only route. It also links National Cycle Route 1 (east of London) with National Cycle Route 4 (west of London).
The route of the Thames Path can be divided into these sections:
- Thames Head (source of the river west of Cricklade) to Oxford (54 mi or 87 km): a generally rural, agricultural area. The path makes significant diversions away from the river (in order going downstream) at Ewen, Ashton Keynes, Cricklade, Castle Eaton and Upper Inglesham due to the lack of a public path alongside the river until reaching the towpath at Lechlade (23 mi or 37 km); after Lechlade there is only one significant diversion from the river at Stanton Harcourt as there is now no ferry at Bablock Hythe.
- Oxford to Henley-on-Thames (51 mi or 82 km): passing through Abingdon, Dorchester, Wallingford, Streatley and Reading. The path makes significant diversions away from the river (in order going downstream) at Shillingford, Moulsford, Whitchurch-on-Thames, Purley-on-Thames, Shiplake  and Aston  - all due to the lack of ferries allowing the towpath to cross the river. In addition a short section in Wallingford goes behind houses, as the towpath used to cross at Chalmore Lock, removed in 1883.
- Henley to Windsor: (23 mi or 37 km): through Marlow and Maidenhead. The path makes a significant diversion away from the river past Cookham Lock due to the lack of three ferries  and public access to the towpath at Cliveden. In addition there is a short stretch with no public path in Marlow town centre, and a short section in Bourne End goes behind boathouses as the river crossing is not aligned with the original towpath.
- Windsor to Richmond (28 mi or 45 km): along the edge of Home Park, Windsor; past Runnymede; through Hampton Court Park. The path does not leave the river apart from the short stretch where no public path exists at Datchet. It is also necessary to take a diversion through Shepperton and across Walton Bridge if not using the Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry. The river level is tidal and maintained at or above half tide between Teddington and Richmond locks.
- Richmond to the Thames Barrier (28 mi or 45 km): passing Kew Gardens and the Wetlands Centre at Barnes then through London, using parkland (e.g., Battersea Park) to continue beside the river. Through most of the section, the Thames Path is actually two paths downstream of Teddington lock, one on either side of the Tideway. The path often diverts away from the river around riverside buildings.
- Thames Barrier to Crayford Ness, just beyond Erith (10 mi or 16 km), connecting with the London Outer Orbital Path. This is considered an extension of the Thames Path (as recognised by the Ramblers Association) and was opened in 2001, but is not part of the National Trail. It has its own Thames Barge symbol, and is sometimes referred to as the Thames Path Southeast Extension. The path often diverts away from the river around riverside buildings.
The list below gives the points where the Thames Path crosses the river between Cricklade and Teddington. Above Cricklade, the Thames is a stream and in some places there may be no water except after rain. Below Teddington there are paths on both sides of the river until the Greenwich foot tunnel, after which the path is only on the south.
The list is in downstream order. The letter in brackets indicates whether the path downstream of that point takes the northern or southern bank (using north or south in reference to the river as a whole, rather than at that specific point).
- Cricklade (S)
- Eysey Footbridge (N)
- Water Eaton House Bridge (S)
- Bloomers Hole Footbridge (N)
- Radcot Bridge (S)
- Rushey Lock (N)
- Shifford Lockcut footbridge (S)
- Newbridge, Oxfordshire (N)
- Pinkhill Lock (S)
- Fiddler's Island (N)
- Osney Bridge (S)
- Abingdon Lock (N) (river flows West here)
- Clifton Hampden Bridge (S)
- Day's Lock (N)
- Benson Lock (S)
- Goring and Streatley Bridge (N)
- Whitchurch Bridge (S)
- Sonning Bridge (N)
- Henley Bridge (S)
- Temple Footbridge (N)
- Bourne End Railway Bridge (S)
- Maidenhead Bridge (N)
- Windsor Bridge (S)
- Victoria Bridge, Datchet (N)
- Albert Bridge, Datchet (S)
- Staines Bridge (N)
- Shepperton to Weybridge Ferry (S)
- Hampton Court Bridge (N)
- Kingston Bridge, London (S)
- Teddington Lock Footbridges
Bridges and ferries are listed in full under Crossings of the River Thames.
The river can be crossed at about a third of the locks, although some of these crossings are not part of the Thames Path. Locks are listed under Locks on the River Thames.
- "Thames Path". nationaltrail.co.uk. Retrieved 18 May 2016.
- "Thames Path". ramblers.org.uk. Retrieved 31 July 2018.
- Fred. S. Thacker The Thames Highway: Volume II Locks and Weirs 1920 – republished 1968 David & Charles http://thames.me.uk/thacker1920.htm
- Fred. S. Thacker The Thames Highway: Volume I General History 1914 http://thames.me.uk/thacker1914.htm
- http://www.the-river-thames.co.uk/manage.htm The River Thames — Its management past and present
- towpath ferry from Rivermead to upstream of Benson lock http://thames.me.uk/s01341.htm
- Spade Oak ferry http://thames.me.uk/s00790.htm
- Bablock Hythe ferry http://thames.me.uk/s01970.htm
- towpath ferry upstream of Shillingford http://thames.me.uk/s01352.htm
- Littlestoke ferry http://thames.me.uk/s01310.htm
- Moulsford ferry http://thames.me.uk/s01290.htm
- Gatehampton ferry (Basildon ferry) http://thames.me.uk/s01235.htm
- Purley Hall ferries http://thames.me.uk/s01180.htm
- Lashbrook ferry http://thames.me.uk/s01052.htm
- Bolney ferry http://thames.me.uk/s01050.htm
- Medmenham ferry http://thames.me.uk/s00862.htm
- Aston ferry http://thames.me.uk/s00860.htm
- Chalmore Lock http://thames.me.uk/s01320.htm
- Cookham ferry ; http://thames.me.uk/s00770.htm
- Cookham Middle ferry (Lock ferry) (Hedsor ferry); Joan Tucker Ferries of the Upper Thames 2013 ISBN 978-1-84868-967-1
- My Lady ferry (Cliveden ferry) ; http://thames.me.uk/s00748.htm