A short history of the Thames path

The Thames Path is a National Trail, first proposed in 1948 and opened in 1996. It follows the length of the River Thames from its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Charlton. It is about 184 miles (296 km) long.

The entire length of the path can be walked, often using stretches of original towpath. As a National Trail running through London, taking in estuary, marshland, urban and rural landscapes it is truly unique.

Like many of Britain’s National Trails, its existence is due in large part to the efforts of the Ramblers, and one figure in particular – David Sharp, who led the successful campaign to establish the Thames Path.

Thames River 

For many decades David, who died in April 2015 aged 89, was an active group and area member in south west London, but in 1973 he represented the association at a pivotal meeting of the River Thames Society. A recreational walking route along the Thames was not a new idea, but with the withdrawal of numerous linking ferries the towpath had become truncated and a continuous walking trail seemed impossible. Amid uncertainty about a way forward, David drew a quick sketch map of what a route might look like and passed it round the table. His clarity of vision effectively sparked the Thames Path campaign. "I realised that we had to survey the route properly and really identify the problems," he said in a matter of fact way. "That's how it started."

For the next  18 months David co-ordinated survey work by Ramblers groups the length of the river to produce a 44-page report that provided clear evidence that a continuous path was possible, using existing bridges and creating new sections of path. Local authorities were vigorously lobbied, then in 1981 the Ramblers published the first ever guide to a waterside walking route that truly galvanised public support - researched and written by David, of course.

David Sharp 

In 1984 and with The Thames Walk selling in ever increasing numbers, the Countryside Commission was sufficiently convinced to set up its own feasibility study and in 1989 the route was approved as an official long distance footpath. Of course, there was still much hard work to do and David's efforts continued. A 2-mile detour at Day's Lock at Little Wittenham needed to be overcome by securing access over a weir bridge; a mile of new path at Abingdon had to be created where the withdrawal of a ferry left walkers stranded; and a number of brand new footbridges were built.

The 184-mile (294km) Thames Path National Trail was officially opened in 1996, with David writing the official guidebook. The "impossible dream" had been realised thanks to the vision and endeavour of one modest, softly-spoken but determined man. Writing in walk magazine in 1996, David said: "I got hooked and the Thames Walk became part of my life. I wanted it to happen. I wanted to see something put in place that other people could enjoy."

Why not find a walk along the Thames?