From Source to Sea, walking the Thames Path with Tom Chesshyre

Monday, 22 January 2024

Last year I spent three days walking the first 90-odd km of the Thames Path, the 215 mile (346km) walking route along the Thames River from its source in Gloucestershire to Oxford and on down through London to the Thames Barrage and the sea. I stayed at the very ordinary Vale Hotel in Swindon and then at the very nice Trout at Tadpole Bridge in Faringdon, before I finished my walk in Oxford and took the train back to London.

I’m intending to walk some more of the Thames Path during 2024 and I’ve already had a couple of offers from friends who suggested they’d accompany me. Over the years when I’ve spent some time in London each year I’ve walked assorted other ‘bits’ of the Thames Path and mused about putting the whole thing together one day. As I walked my 2023 installment I read Tom Chesshyre’s From Source to Sea: Notes from Walking 215 Miles along the River Thames and I’ve just finished reading the entire entertaining book..

Bill Newlin, an American travel guide publisher and enthusiast for historic travel guides introduced me to Tobias Smollett’s 1766 Travels in France & Italy where Mr Smollet spends considerable energy complaining about those misguided Catholics he encounters in France and Italy.

And even more energy complaining about all manner of travel problems, food, accommodation, transport. The latter amusingly reminds me of From Source to Sea because Tom also devotes some energy to whinging about assorted examples of bad food, bad service, bad accommodation, rude people – it’s one of the more interesting aspects of the book! I’ve got to agree I also encountered assorted examples of those travellers’s complaints along my walk.

Bill Newlin also introduced me to Mariana Starke – ‘Her books served as templates for later guides and earned her celebrity status in her lifetime. The French author Stendhal, in his 1839 novel The Charterhouse of Parma, refers to a travelling British historian who ‘never paid for the smallest trifle without first looking up its price in the Travels of a certain Mrs Starke, a book which … indicates to the prudent Englishman the cost of a turkey, an apple, a glass of milk and so forth.’ Tom also spends some time worrying about the prices he’s forced to pay, particularly for a pint of lime and soda.

◄  Despite Tom’s careful reporting on so many of the interesting places he encountered I’ve had a couple of Thames Path discoveries he doesn’t mention. Back in 2009 I walked from Richmond to Hampton Court, making a diversion en route to Petersham to check the grave of George Vancouver in St Peter’s Church and nearby Navigator House where Vancouver used to live. The Canadian city is named after him, but Jonathan Raban’s book A Passage to Juneau, which takes the author up the Inside Passage in Vancouver’s wake, is not at all nice to the explorer. Vancouver sailed with Cook on his second and third expedition and, according to Raban, had a bad temper and bad judgement to go with it.

William Bligh is the officer who gets all the bad publicity from Cook’s voyages and his subsequent mishaps – all those mutinies! – but according to Raban it’s Vancouver who was the real villain. That 12km section of the Thames Path I walked is clearly no longer city London, but not yet country England. I visited Vancouver in 2023. 

In 2017 I trekked out to the very end of the Thames Path, starting at …

▲ the Thames Barrier, the barrages ‘built to protect the floodplain of most of Greater London from exceptionally high tides and storm surges.’ They’ve been called into action more than 200 times since they were finished in 1982. From there I walked upstream …

▲ past the O2 – I saw Adele perform there in 2016, great concert although I’m not an Adele fan …

▲and on to the Cutty Sark at Greenwich … that final stretch of the Thames Path is not, however, the walk at its best. Tom Chesshyre seems to agree with me, I made lots of time wasting and confusing diversions trying to find where the damned path was going and very often the walk was dull, decrepit and industrial.

▲ David Hemmings photographs Vanessa Redgrave in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup.

Close to the end of the walk you can make a short diversion to Maryon Park where the key scene in Antonioni’s classic 1966 film Blowup was filmed. It’s absolutely my favourite ‘60s movie’ and this is where Hemming’s photographer character takes the photograph which he subsequently blows up to try and work out – unsuccessfully – what the hell was happening. The movie actually jumps back and forth all over London, Maryon Park was a long way from where most of the central London activity takes place, including Hemmings writhing around with model Veruschka. unclothing a teenage Jane Birkin and watching Jeff Beck and the Yardbirds smash their musical instruments.