For a terrific place to hike, check out the Thames Path
December 31, 2014
Take a world-famous river, preferably one with oodles of history. Mix in a long-abandoned towpath, a patchwork of meadows, farmers' fields, bridle paths, muddy tracks, woodland trails, and occasional trafficked tarmacadam. Stir in a medley of lonely farms, pubs, B&Bs, guest houses, and country hotels.
Add a veritable obstacle course of stiles, gates, ancient bridges, locks, weirs, and a couple of ferries. Sprinkle in some sleepy villages, stately homes, medieval churches, market towns, and big city redevelopment.
And presto! You have all the makings of a National Hiking Trail, one of 13 so designated in the United Kingdom.
The trail in question, known as the Thames Path, runs from the river's source - a modest stone marker in a Gloucestershire meadow - to its official finishing line at the Thames Barrier in London, 184 miles downstream.
I know all this and a whole lot more because for 19 days I walked this path alone with a 20-pound backpack, a walking stick, an old pair of boots, and an obstinate determination not to give up.
How could I? After all, I had my reputation and pride to think of!
For weeks I had walked the Michigan forests and the Maumee River paths in preparation and advised friends and relatives, both foreign and domestic, of the planned attempt. I had even organized and paid for some early overnights along the way. There was then no backing out.
The idea for such a long-distance walk had been born a year or so earlier after reading about this particular trail in Conde Nast Traveler magazine. Then, with interest sufficiently piqued, I had picked up the official Thames Path Guide at Stanfords Bookstore on Longacre - by far the best and most comprehensive repository of travel books, maps, and associated literature anywhere in London.
There were some secondary reasons behind this somewhat challenging proposition:
First, a personal milestone, as I was about to turn the Big Six-O. I wanted to see if all the body parts were still in some kind of working order.
Next, I considered the Thames to be my river. Raised in London, albeit in the north of the city, I was already familiar with certain parts of it, especially those close to home.
The family had also had small boats docked on the river across from Windsor Castle for the better part of 20 years and many happy teenage summers had been spent cruising between this “Royal Pile” and Oxford's intellectual towers.
The more I read and researched the river, however, the more I realized how little I actually knew about it or understood its commercial and historical value. Like the fact that for hundreds of years it had been a vital trading route for transporting goods across country to the villages, towns, and cities along its route. Wool from the lush Cotswold meadows, cheeses and agri-products from the farms and monasteries, and quarried stone for the great palaces and cathedrals of London were sent via the Thames.
During the latter half of the 19th century, when rail eventually replaced water as the preferred method of transportation, leisure boats rather than barges became the prime users of the river. However, the great river's rich and often turbulent history remains - and it was a history I felt sure could best be appreciated and uncovered on foot.
From my hiking standpoint, then, the Thames Path seemed eminently doable, even for a novice like myself.
The Official Guide, for example, called it an easy walk with no rugged hills or vast moorland expanses. Translated, this meant no real heavy ascents or descents, no camping in the wild, and no real danger. And there was little chance of getting totally lost as long as long as I followed the river bank.
In addition, there would be places to stay along the way. A companion guide listed most of the options, and public transportation in the form of buses or trains was never too far away in case of disease, disaster, or abject depression.
In other words, as the Conde Nast travel scribe said, it's a trail for softies - especially the way he did it. He had his backpack taxied ahead to each overnight stop, stayed at the most luxurious lodgings, and indulged in sumptuous repasts, all in the name of journalism.
That was not my plan. No, Siree. I was going to do it my way, with a backpack I had never carried before, staying at whatever digs I could find along each 10-15 mile stage. I'd forage for food wherever I could find it and sweat the small stuff as I went along.
A rented cell phone, inappropriate and unacceptable as it may be to the true-blue country rambler, was the only real concession to the 20th century that I would take along. But aside from that, there would be just me, a rapidly aging rambler, and Old Father Thames.