Kneeling down on the damp grass I pulled a short blade of grass from the ground. Using the mileage chart from the map I pinched the grass down to the equivalent length of 1 mile. I traced the winding river route with my fingers from Windsor to The Thames Barrier; I estimated it close to 62 miles. I had 2 and half days, no more.
Walking away from Windsor and towards Walton on Thames I knew tonight would be my last chance to find a suitable wild spot to sleep. Up until this point, the green expanses between the smaller cities provided a perfect place to tuck my tent away but I knew the nearer I got to London the less frequent these spots would become. The next few days would be tricky to say the least.
After a solid 20 mile first day and with quickly fading light I had set my eye on a location called Sunbury Lock. From previous experience I knew locks were always a good sleeping option because of their lack of human habitation, so as darkness fell I walked the last mile in and dropped off the route down onto a small open field. Using a tree line to give me cover from the operators of the lock house I quietly put my rucksack down. As always my plan was to arrive late, leave early and to leave no trace of my being there. Within the hour I was fed, watered and pulling the nylon chord of my sleeping bag tightly around my head.
A pigeon perched on my tent woke me with his territorial coo roo-c'too-coo. Squinting at my watch it was 5am. As I peeked my head out of my sleeping bag I could smell the wild rosemary I’d picked the day before hanging in the tent, I could also hear the 100’s birds outside in morning song, intent on getting me up. Light had flooded the tent illuminating my tired eyes; through the tussles and turns I had slept only a few hours. Today was a big day so after a few more minutes in my warm bag I was up and looking around, taking in my daylight environment and smelling the incredible lavender aroma’s of the riverbank. After 20 minutes of yawning, scratching and making noises similar to Chewbacca from Star Wars I was off and away. En-route I had a decision to make – would I walk the 40 miles to the finish in one hit or try and find somewhere green to sleep in the heart of London, finishing the following day. I wanted the latter but the decision would be made for me later that day.
Keeping pace at 5km an hour I passed the beautiful Hampton Court Palace on my way to Kingston and Richmond. As I crossed the bridge I passed the morning queues of people waiting to enter the gates of this regal building, entering themselves into a real life Tudor world. Passing Teddington Lock and Eal Pie Island I could smell Kew Gardens before I finally reached it. The delicate perfume of flowers trickled through the trees to hit me on the river, the smell was beautiful and enticing. As I walked on, I had the urge to climb the wall and hop over the fence to have a look but I would’ve surely dropped my Cornetto and that would’ve been disastrous to morale.
Past the endless riverboats of Richmond, into Chiswick and under Hammersmith Bridge I had hit the 30 mile marker. The green meadows and fields had now given birth to the city skyline as I’ve always known it. With my feet and shins sore I took a break at Putney Bridge. Feeling hungry I got the stove burning quickly and boiled some noodles under a tree in a small park, my feet resting up on my rucksack. I cursed as the water boiled over. The last bites of the liquorice allsorts were now all but gone, but I found one at the bottom of the bag which sent morale skyward. It was now getting dark and I had a decision to make. The map showed no green space by the river, nor anywhere, no cover and nowhere to covertly put up my tent. This meant I would have no choice but to walk a further 10 miles and finish at around 10pm. My feet resisted the idea.
Passing the iconic landmarks of London it was now dusk. I had a frustrating time navigating the route as it weaved away from the river, through council estates and shops to only be re-routed back to the river gaining me a meagre 50 yards. I found it incredible to watch as slowly as I walked the lights of London came to illuminate the skyline. Looking over my left shoulder I will never forget, in one frame could see the turn of the river below The Shard, The Houses of Parliament, Tower Bridge, The London Eye and St Pauls, I wondered if this was a unknown vantage point somewhere near the Bermondsey that nobody knew about. As I hobbled the last few miles in pitch black I willed the Thames Barrier to appear around every corner only to be disappointed and another lengthy turn of the river would have to be negotiated. As the green aluminous glow of my watch struck 10pm I finally took my last steps to the foot of the barrier and to the mouth of the Thames River. Onwards from here was estuary then open sea. As I sat, mumbling and groaning about my sore feet, I thought back 184 miles to the start of my journey and what I’d seen of this beautiful and mighty river.
The lure of an adventure to fill a few weekends enticed me to that meadow in February. The rivers winding path through the countryside remains, until London, off the beaten track waiting to be discovered by each new generation, this generation no less than my own. I think to some degree the Thames is taken a little for granted and is seen as far from chic, yet along it’s remote banks and past its quiet rolling turns adventure is most definitely still possible.