In praise of the Thames Path

The last Sunday of January 2013 is bright and sunny, a strong contrast to all the snow flurries across England of the last few weeks. The feel of the sun soaking through my coat is a joy I'd almost forgotten, as I make my way to Hampton Court to meet the London Strollers. This afternoon they are walking to Richmond, via Kingston, following part of the 184-miles of Thames Path.

Thames PathApproximately 30 people in a variety of red, green and blue waterproofs gather around Walk Leader Des Garrahan, aka Walking Class Hero, who outlines the group walk ahead. He is a big fan of the Thames Path, which runs from its rural source in the Cotswolds all the way through to the urban sprawl of London.

13 million people work in the city between Monday and Friday, resulting in people walking the Thames Path for pleasure and simply to get from A to B. Today we are walking 6 miles of it, from Hampton Court, through Kingston and through the green spaces in Ham and Richmond.

We set off from the station and cross the bridge, turning right onto the Thames Path. Shortly we come to some impressive, if slightly gawdy, gold replica gates through which the back of Hampton Court Palace can be peeked. The building dates back to the 1200s but it wasn't until the Tudor period that it become the palace many know today, following Cardinal Wolsey's intention to use Hampton Court as a place to host diplomats and other important guests of state. He did this perhaps too well, with many peers seeing the palace as a symbol of the Cardinal's bloated power. Much later William of Orange adapted the palace into a more baroque style, but this was never completed, leaving Hampton Court to assume the two styles into part of its character.

We continue down the Thames path, the river to our right.  All the recent snow has been reduced to deep puddles and many cyclists and runners splash by us on the muddy track. Des points out a rather sleek looking glass building on the opposite bank. Unusually the property extends right to the bank of the river, a rare sight along the Thames Path as both the north and south banks are open to the public. This is largely due to the campaigning efforts of David Sharp, Ramblers member and creator of the Thames Path National Trail, who believed that development should not impact on the walker's enjoyment of the long-distance trail. Local authorities adopted his recommendation that planning permission should not be granted without riverside access.

Thames Path, approaching Kingston BridgeThe Thames Path is one of the 13 National Trails network, long-distance trails offering over 2000 miles of  walking (and in some cases cycling, horse-riding and carriage driving) across our most stunning landscapes.

The network is distinguished by its consistent signage and maintenance; there is a guarantee that the route will be clear, safe and enjoyable. This high standard attracts many visitors from the UK and overseas who bring significant economic benefits to local economies. The Ramblers played a crucial role in the formation of National Trails; Tom Stephenson, the first Ramblers Secretary, envisioned the very first trail, the Pennine Way, which opened in 1965.

Unfortunately this may not last. The Government  set out plans to hand over management of National Trails in England from Natural England to new Local Trail Partnerships. These would be made up of local groups and agencies. As Des outlines, the Ramblers is worried because the proposal leaves National Trails without a national champion to advocate and plan for their future which may lead to a dramatic fall in the quality of National Trails. The Ramblers published its own vision for National Trails and over 18,500 people have signed their petition which calls for government to rethink their plans.

All this is food for thought as we make our way along the Thames Path. It really is quite the picture of tranquillity. The sky is very blue with huge fluffy clouds; birds flock overhead, their calls floating down to us earth-bound creatures. The river is dotted with brightly painted houseboats and even the residential properties on the opposite bank have a colourful carnival appearance. Every so often a blustery shower passes over, disappearing as soon as we secure hoods or open umbrellas. A faint, watery rainbow appears to our left.

A short way further we come to Raven's Ait; ait being an Anglo-Saxon word for an island. Des tells us the mixed history of the tiny island - from a sailing training base, to being occupied by squatters in 2009, and currently a venue for weddings and special occasions. We arrive near Kingston bridge. Following development of the John Lewis store in 1990, a mediaeval undercroft and the foundations for the original 12th century bridge were discovered. The chalk and flint vaulted cellar was lifted from its original position and placed in the basement of John Lewis, where it can be viewed by the public. Crossing the bridge we pass a colourful tiled mosaic depicting river boats and Hampton Court, sparking gold and blue in the sunshine.

Sunset in Richmond ParkAfter a short tea break we leave the Thames Path and head towards Richmond Park along a tree-lined avenue. We pass the grand house of Zac Goldsmith MP and Ham Common. (I wonder if Zac ever forages on the Common, which is apparently very good for wild blackberries.)

Richmond Park is the largest of the London's Royal Parks, having been a royal interest since the 15th century and developed as a deer park by Charles I. It is a National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation, which indicates just how unique this parkland is in terms of green space and wildlife. It has 144 bird species, 630 red and fallow deer, 250 species funghi, 1350 beetle species - and that's just the start.

The sun sets as we cross the park to Petersham, creating a very moody skyline to our left and a dusky light to our right. We pass two tiny mounds of snow, the last reserves of the winter army. The modest churchyard of St Peter's is the resting place for the explorer and navigator Captain George Vancouver, who lent his name to the island, city and mount. Crossing a field framed with a fiery pink sky, we reach the Thames Path again and follow it to Richmond. Des notes that Richmond Palace used to stand on Friar's Lane, apparently one of the first buildings in history to be equipped with a flushing lavatory.

It's fully dark by the time our walk finishes at Richmond Common, notable for Harold Wilson's retirement home and the theatre, which is well-used as a film-set, including Evita's balcony scene. And it's also the site where our esteemed Walk Leader once played cricket with some fellow called Mick Jagger.

London Strollers lead short walks - under 8 miles - at a leisurely pace for those who are new to walking, don't wish to walk long distances or spend all day walking. Find details of their walks on their website: http://www.londonstrollers.org.uk and follow @LondonStrollers on twitter.