The Thames Path is a national walking route that was first proposed in 1946 but was not completed until 1996. It is about 186 miles long, beginning at the Thames Barrier in the London Borough of Greenwich and ending at the source of the Thames at Kemble in Gloucestershire.
Transport for London promote The Thames Path Walk on their website along with other London walks, The Capital Ring Walk and the longer, London Loop. Transport for London promote these walks as a way to get fit and healthy. Their website says that 42% of Londoners are failing to meet the minimum levels of physical activity.
The website provides guides for each of the eight sections of the Thames Path. You can download the guides and print them off. They provide clear maps of the routes and show public transport and highlight the features of each section providing historical and geographical information about key places.
John Lodge first proposed the Thames Path walk to myself and Tony Brown earlier this year and we began, the three of us, by walking from Woolwich Ferry, just east of The Thames Barrier, to Greenwich. We had a great time, taking in views of the modern high rise developments at Canary Wharf and London Docklands. We circuited the perimeter of the iconic tent like structure of the O2 Building on the Greenwich Peninsula. We experienced a new London that is in stark contrast to The City, Lambeth and Westminster. Docklands is like Fritz Lang’s, Metropolis, compared to the historic sites and buildings that make up the center of the capital. The first stretch of The Thames Path ended at The Trafalgar Pub in Greenwich. It has a life size statue of Admiral Lord Nelson standing imperiously at the door.
The domed entrance to the foot tunnel under the Thames at Greenwich.
John was not able to join Tony and myself on this second section of The Thames Path. From the DSLR light railway at Greenwich Station a short walk took us past the Gipsy Moth Pub and the Cutty Sark sailing ship that was built in 1869. It was the last of the great tea clippers that sped their way from India with its precious cargo of tea. It retired when steam ships became viable. We passed the web like glass dome of the Thames Foot Tunnel designed and built by civil engineer, Sir Alexander Binnie for the London County Council and opened in 1902. By the side of the Thames the first sign post for the Thames Path with its black background emblazoned with bold white lettering pointed our direction.
A Thames Clipper with new blocks of flats on the opposite side of the river.
It was a bright, hot day with a blue skys above. The skyscrapers of Canary Wharf with their glittering glass sides massed before us on the opposite side of the river. We walked west beside the Thames, on past the serried ranks of new blocks of flats with balconies overlooking the river and its passing traffic. Barges, speed boat rides, police launches and occasionally a Thames Clipper, the river,”bus,” service passed us.
Walking along the south bank of The Thames we first came to Deptford. One of the main things about doing a walk like this are the new things you see and learn, often surprising. Sometimes what you come across illustrates, in physical reality, what you know from some history book and had never really given a thought to. Deptford was the location of the Tudor docks and shipyards. Henry VIII started them and they continued in some form from then to the 1970s. Francis Drake docked at Deptford after his voyage in The Golden Hinde around the world and Deptford was where Elizabeth Ist , in 1581, came to visit him and knight him onboard his ship. Here, in 1593, Christopher Marlowe , the great Tudor playwright came to a grizzly end, stabbed in the face by Ingram Frizzer, an associate of the spy master Walsingham. in a drunken brawl. Shakespeare become known as a playwright from 1592, so he was a contemporary.
Tony and I, at this part of the river, had to take a short detour from the river bank to walk inland around a vast derelict area fenced off from the public. High Victorian brick walls bordered part of the space. We walked up to the padlocked gates to the site and Tony called to one of the security guard on duty. We asked him what this site was and what was happening here. The gentleman was very chatty. He told us that this was the actual site of Henry VIII’s Shipyard. All the more recent structures had been demolished. The archaeologists from The Museum of London were excavating the site. Because of the expanse of the site they planned to excavate the site for another eighteen months . Eventually, when all the research and excavations have been completed it is going to become an area of new housing and flats. The guard told us that they were going to be expensive. What housing is not expensive in London? Deptford historically has always been working class and for centuries was home to people who worked in the docks. Now, like in many areas of London, the local people are going to be priced out. The properties will no doubt become investment purchases for rich people.
Peter the Great.
Beside the river in Deptford we came across an unusual grouping of statues. They are almost cartoonish in their conception. The central character is very tall and thin dressed in 17th century frills and ruffs. A throne is next to him. A short rotund individual stands to his left wearing an oversize tricorn hat. We walked up to it and discovered that this tall thin statue was Peter The Great, Tsar Peter Ist of Russia. In 1697 he stayed with John Evelyn in his house in Deptford. The site of the house with a plaque commemorating it is in a park nearby. Peter the Great spent four months in Britain studying new technologies and shipbuilding techniques in the nearby Tudor docks.
Tony and I walked along talking about a myriad of things. I don’t know whether we actually ever stopped talking. That is a great experience on its own. Our shared past, our present lives and our plans for future adventures and our families were all discussed.
We walked on through Pepys Park. Samuel Pepys was an administrator for the Navy during The English Restoration period. He reformed the Royal Navy. According to his famous diary he had a few female acquaintances that he visited who lived along the river between the city and Greenwich.
Greenland Dock came next. It is the largest docks on the Surrey side of the river. It was built between 1695 and 1699 and was only closed in 1970 and left to become derelict. Now it has been converted into a boating marina. This was where whaling ships docked in the 18th century and where the timber trade with the Baltic was located. Ships bringing wool from Australia docked here. Container shipping made it redundant.
Tony and I walked on. We were amazed at how much regeneration and new buildings there are along the Thames. The bascule bridge that crosses the entrance to Surrey Water and Surrey Quays, crosses a canal leading to two these large basins for docking small ships. All of it is now surrounded by modern expensive flats and housing.
Surrey Docks Farm, is a city farm popular with school groups. It has a blacksmiths, a dairy and a herb garden. The farm has goats, pigs, horses, cows and sheep. In recent years it was moved from another site nearby. The animals were herded along the side of the river to this new site. Bronze statues of animals line the river here in commemoration of the exodus. There is a poignant information board, next to the farm, explaining how the area was badly bombed during the blitz. It recounts stories of heroism by local people.
Wartime heroics during the Blitz.
Just as we reached Rotherhithe we came across the tall chimney and brick building of a Victorian pump house. The pump house was used to pump water out of the foot tunnel built across the river at this point by the engineer Marc Brunel, the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It was the first tunnel built under the Thames. The pump house is now a museum to Brunel.
As we walked on it was time for a break and some liquid refreshment. We came across The Mayflower Pub. This is on the site of Cumberland Wharf where The Mayflower embarked from in 1620.
The Mayflower called in at Southampton to load up with provisions then sailed on to Plymouth before setting off across the Atlantic. Captain Christopher Jones and many of the crew came from Rotherhithe and are buried in the cemetery of St Mary The Virgin opposite The Mayflower Pub. The last will and testament of the crew, written and signed before embarkation, is displayed inside the pub. There is also displayed the original list of the people who sailed on the Mayflower. Tony and I sat outside at the back of the pub drinking Mayflower Bitter and eating fish and chips. We had a great view over the river.
Tony enjoying a beer in The Mayflower Pub, Rotherhithe.
The Mayflower Pub next to Cumberland Wharf where the Mayflower left from.
From Rotherhithe we walked on to Bermondsey. We walked over the footbridge which crosses the entrance to St Saviour’s Dock. This is a narrow inlet which stretches back beyond view along a curving waterway surrounded by tall Victorian warehouses, still with their block and tackle cranes for lifting goods in place. These Victorian warehouses are now desirable London Dockland apartments. It was here that bodies of pirates were hung in the 18th and 19th centuries and where, in Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, Bill Sykes fell from the roof top of one of these warehouses to his death in the mud below. This area was known as Jacob’s Island, a notorious slum area in Victorian times.
St Saviours Dock. Bill Sykes fell to his death here in Charles Dicken's ,"Oliver Twist."
Still in Bermondsey we reached an elegant Victorian public house called The Angel Pub, which stands next to the river. It is surrounded by council housing. A large green area in front of the houses revealed the stone remains of walls and foundations. This was a 14th century fortified manor house belonging to King Edward III. From the information board and diagrams next to it we could see that this area was originally marshland and the river encroached all around the manor house which was built on deposits of gravel to provide firm foundations.
In front of the remains of the manor were three bronze statues. They represent Dr Salter, his wife Ada and their daughter Joyce. Dr Alfred Salter, during the late 1800s and early 1900s, dedicated his life to the people of Bermondsey helping to develop new treatments and pioneering work to help TB sufferers. His wife Ada was a socialist and became the mayor of Bermondsey and the first woman mayor in London. Because the Slater family lived amongst the poor their daughter Joyce caught scarlet fever and died at the age of 8. This drove the Salters on even more to help the people of Bermondsey. It was a very moving tableau and Tony and I both felt inspired by the Salters story.
The remains of Edward III's fortified manor house.
Dr Alfred Salter sitting near The Angel Pub, Bermondsey.
Onwards we strode to the Shad Thames which is a road of Victorian warehouses still with the iron bridges and walkways positioned at different levels connecting warehouses on one side of the street to the other.. We were now at Tower Bridge and got a clear view of The City and its Gherkin Building, The Nat West Tower, the Sky Garden building and the Cheese Grater.A Dutch three mast square rigger was anchored by Tower Bridge and looked magnificent with its flags flying. We stood and looked at the houseboats located here. One barge has a cycle stand for bicycles on its deck. Two other barges are planted out with trees and shrubs making the community of house boats look like a small ,"water village.”
House boats, gardens on barges, bicycles,a square rigger and Tower Bridge.
We walked on along Bankside and through Southwark taking in the reconstructed Globe Theatre and also The Tate Modern. The sun shining off City Hall and the Mayors Office was blinding. Queues were lining up to go aboard the second world war battleship, HMS Belfast. When we reached The OXO building we looked over at the gravelly beech below at the side of the Thames. The tide was out at this point. We could see lots of London Brick, some chalk, pieces of bone, butchery must have been prevalent in this part of London, pieces of pottery sticking out of the mud and black stones that could only have been coal. The Thames is a,” Mudlarks,” paradise. Here and all along the side of the Thames you can see the remains of piers, blackened wooden posts sticking up like broken teeth and parts of old slipways and piers.
We reached Waterloo Station and said our goodbyes. I was for the Raynes Park train and Tony was going to Hampton. I am looking forward to the next time. We will start at Waterloo Bridge and walk towards Lambeth, Vauxhall and Battersea.