21 November 2017
Author: Tom Chesshyre
ISBN number: 978-1849539210
Tom Chesshyre's account of his epic walk from Thames Head in Gloucestershire to the mouth of the Thames strongly reflects a particular time and national mood, as it takes place shortly after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
The author brings the trail to life through many historical and literary references, which he deftly weaves into his daily accounts and matter-of-fact reports as he goes from place to place. These include the charming Berkshire meadows beside 'Wild Wood', as depicted by Kenneth Grahame in The Wind in the Willows and the faceless, non-place of Shepperton in Surrey, as captured by the writer J. G. Ballard. Chesshyre also stops by William Morris’s West Oxfordshire manor, apparently purchased to remove his wife’s affair with the artist Rossetti from the high-society glare of 19th-century London.
We’re given a glimpse of the spot near Shifford Lock where King Alfred held the first English parliament; Tilbury, where Elizabeth I rallied her troops against the Spanish Armada; and Mortlake, where her advisor John Dee, who apparently communicated with celestial beings, lived and died. Visiting a London museum, the author learns about the river police that preceded the London Metropolitan Police. He also makes his way to Execution Dock in Wapping, where he recounts how the condemned were allowed on the foreshore to see their three last laps of the Thames tide.
As the title suggests, the book reads partly as a journal. We are treated to notes on Chesshyre’s day-to-day gripes such as the wildly varying cost of lime and soda at his many pub stops, his hit-and-miss accommodation and various sensationalist quotes from local newspapers that tickle him on the way. However, the book would also be a useful reference for walkers planning to follow in his footsteps. The regions covered over the 215-mile journey are clustered into chapters preceded with illustrative maps. An appendix lists distances covered per day, calories burnt, overnight stays, pubs visited, notes on wild flowers and books used by the author to inform and illustrate his journey.
He easily falls in with other walkers completing the same route in other ways and over different timescales. At some point Chesshyre himself seems to melt into the story of England’s great river through a mix of chance encounters and colourful, heart-warming and sometimes alarming moments. He comes across make-shift communities living on the Thames, chats to those permanently wandering and randomly suffers the wrath of a cyclist near Hampton Court. The author also enjoys the hospitality of a home owner in Kempsford who spontaneously invites him to afternoon tea on her back garden terrace overlooking the water.
We get to know the author a bit more when he meets up with family members and a few friends at various stages. With good humour he relays obviously familiar tensions as they progress along the trail – or don't, in other cases. The freedom of walking and the personal rewards of his challenge are soon apparent, even before the author symbolically completes his walk by touching the London Stone off the Isle of Grain. Chesshyre refers to some ‘trouble’ he had a few months back that simply no longer matters - an indication of the unique sense of liberation that accompanies a long walk. Vicky McGuinness