The Cheltenham Literature Festival – 5th to 14th October 2018
#OnLiteraryLocation – The Thames Path From Source to Sea with Tom Chesshyre
14th November 2017
Well, that was fun. I walked 20 miles of the Thames Path last week, from Kew Bridge to Bermondsey, in the footsteps of Tom Chesshyre and clutching a copy of his book From Source to Sea.
In this engaging travelogue, Tom walks the entire length of the mighty Thames, from its trickling source in Trewsbury Mead, Gloucestershire as far as the Isle of Grain in Kent, where the river flows into the North Sea.
He meets a cast of interesting characters along the way, visits more pubs than might seem healthy for a Thames-side athlete, and shares his vast research into historical events that have taken place on and by the river over the centuries.
I set off from Kew Bridge at 8 o’clock on a cloudy November morning, and reached Bermondsey station 8 hours later, as a milky sun set over east London. Here are just a few experiences and nuggets of information gleaned from Tom’s book along the way:
- on Kew Bridge – or a previous version of it – ‘in 1760 the then Prince of Wales is said to have been informed by a messenger that his grandfather had died and he would ascend to the throne as George III’
- between Mortlake and Barnes, the path hugs the high brick walls of the old Stag Brewery, on a large riverside site ‘which began brewing commercially in 1700. The Stag Brewery shut down last year and the land was sold to a Singaporean property group that intends to replace the brewery with a high-density residential-led development that will create a new riverside quarter’. Just like huge swathes of the riverside for the next 20 miles, then…
- although for a short stretch of the path near here, you could almost imagine you’re still in the countryside, back near the source of the Thames in the Cotswolds, almost 100 miles to the west. Close your eyes, and you will hear birdsong, the stroke of an oar on the water and perhaps a panting dog, sprinting ahead of its owner. But you’ll need to block out the urban soundscape in the background – a motorbike accelerating away from traffic lights; high above, a plane in the Heathrow flight path; builders transforming yet more Thames-side history not too far away
- did you know that ‘Irish Republicans have three times attempted to blow up Hammersmith Bridge, most recently in 2000, and most dramatically in 1939, when a passing hairdresser noticed that smoke and sparks were coming from a suitcase on the walkway’?
- near the small green oasis of Wandsworth Park, ‘four old barges here have been adapted into nesting and roosting sites for herons, cormorants and gulls’
- crossing to the north bank of the Thames on Wandsworth Bridge, the obscenely expensive properties of Chelsea Harbour are forgotten when you enter the walled sanctuary of the Chelsea Physic Garden, established in 1673 when ‘Sir Hans Sloane, the 17th and 18th century physicist and naturalist bought the manor of Chelsea and leased four acres to the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries of London for £5 a year in perpetuity, There are 5,003 plant species in the garden now, thriving in this “heat” island” of London, thanks to thermals from the river and heat seeping out from nearby millionaires’ homes’. And like Tom, I ate lunch ‘amid well-heeled folk at the Tangerine Dream Cafe’ inside the walls of this remarkable space
- from this point, central London is ‘sensory overload.’ Walk close by Battersea Power Station, Tate Britain, Westminster Palace, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle and so much more that defines our capital city
- underneath Waterloo Bridge, Tom hears some intriguing stories and statistics from Keith Cima, chief helmsman at the RNLI Tower Lifeboat Station. Their presence on the Thames stems from the Marchioness disaster of 1989, when 51 people died in that tragic accident, after a dredger ran into the pleasure boat
- beyond Blackfriars Bridge, I followed Tom’s footsteps back south over the river across the “wobbly bridge”, built to commemorate the new Millennium. More ‘sensory overload’ follows in Southwark – the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre; the Tate Modern, ‘built within the shell of the great yellow-brick hulk of Bankside Power Station’, a reminder that the ‘riverside here was once very much an industrial place, home to vinegar factories, breweries, tanneries, mills and hat factories’; the site of the ‘Clink Prison (1144-1780) and the Marshalsea debtors’ prison 1373-1842), described by Dickens in Little Dorrit’; ‘the Tabard alehouse, where Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales’; Borough Market, where ‘during great winter frosts, the more entrepreneurial would set up stalls on the frozen river.’ As Tom observes ‘if you want to understand the river in London, head to Bankside and Southwark…and dig around a bit.’
- onwards along the south bank, ‘beyond the high-brick atrium of Hay’s Wharf and the bulbous bowling ball of the capital’s City Hall’
Here, our paths finally diverged. Tom crossed to the north bank on Tower Bridge, for a fascinating chat with the curator of the River Police Museum and a pub crawl through history in Limehouse and Wapping, staying overnight on a friend’s 29-metre Dutch barge at the Downings Roads Ancient Moorings.
I went off-piste, exploring the narrow cobbled streets of Shad Thames in the dusk, between converted warehouses and wharves, stumbling across young film students shooting a scene in atmospheric ‘Maggie Blake’s Cause’ alleyway, before resting my weary feet on a tube train and heading home to the shires.
Respect to Tom for conquering the full 215 miles of the Thames From Source to Sea in one fell swoop – averaging 17 miles a day – but also for compiling this compelling book to take with you on any walk along the Thames Path.
I hope to follow in Tom’s Thames-side footsteps again soon, nearer the source than the sea this time, and certainly with From Source to Sea close to hand.
Andrew for the TripFiction team
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