Slow motion along the Thames path

The Poet Laureate had his latest inspiration during a walk along the Thames Path. But it is a tortured trek, as Mark Rowe discovered

"I WAS walking the Thames Path from Richmond to Westminster, just because I was free to do so," writes Andrew Motion, the Poet Laureate, in his latest poem, written especially for the TUC conference which opens in Brighton today.

What the poet didn't say was that stretches of the walk have to be conducted along what is not so much a path, more an obstacle course.

The Thames Path is one of Britain's classic long-distance trails, taking in the Chilterns, Oxford, Windsor and some of London's great riverside sights, including the Houses of Parliament and the Globe Theatre. At its best it is magnificent, at its worst, as it passes through central and east London, it becomes a nightmare. Or, as Mr Motion dubbed it last night, a monument to "Mrs Thatcher's Britain" - a reference to the luxury flats and padlocked gates that block the walker's access to the river.

The 180-mile path, which was officially opened in 1996, starts from the source of the Thames in Gloucestershire and ends at the Thames Barrier in Woolwich. The route, based on the Thames towpath and the only national trail that follows a river, was suggested as long ago as the 1930s. Proposals pushed forward by the River Thames Society and the Ramblers' Association declared the route a national trail in 1989. The Poet Laureate has found that farmers, London property developers and Railtrack have combined to make the path as challenging as the boggiest stretches of the Pennine Way - without the benefit of any fresh air.

Mr Motion has walked most of the Thames Path. Much of it is delightful, he says, but he has singled out the final leg, east of Tower Bridge, as not in the least bit pleasurable. "There's been so much building going on that you spend an amazing amount of time tracking around building sites," said Mr Motion. "I took my son along there and he got cheesed off because he thought he was going to get a riverside experience but ended up getting a tour of Mrs Thatcher's Britain. Perhaps when it's all completed there will be more walkways. It's our river after all."

Just 15 minutes' walk from HMS Belfast, close by Tower Bridge, the walker is confronted with barbed wire and concrete walls. In Bermondsey and Rotherhithe, where new developments often push strollers 100 metres inland, street names written in paint fight for space with graffiti on bare, cracked walls.

But the public is fighting back. In Greenwich, the local council will serve papers in the High Court later this month against the developers Quintains to force them to recognise the existence of a public footpath along the peninsula around the Millennium Dome in south-east London."The river is important to us and to have parts of it blocked off seems very strange," said a spokeswoman for the London Borough of Greenwich.

A little further upstream, parts of the Canary Wharf development have closed the Thames Path to walkers for the past 18 months around Westferry, while across the Isle of Dogs, the walker will come up against plush new developments with residents-only access.

Such obstructions are not new to the country's greatest river. Obstacles have been placed in front of would-be walkers on the riverside path since the 17th century, when riverside gentry blocked the efforts of Thames Commissioners trying to develop trade along the river. Today, waymarking is erratic and occasionally misleading: for a path that is supposed to follow a waterway it is surprisingly easy to get lost.

The situation is little better upstream. In Wiltshire, the local authority in Swindon has taken out path creation orders to force five landowners to allow access to the riverside near Castle Eaton. Elsewhere, Railtrack has objected to access through the viaduct at Moulsford in Oxfordshire, near Goring, and the way is also blocked around Shiplake, near Reading.

For security reasons the path does not go through the grounds of Windsor castle, but follows the north bank through Datchet vilage with a stretch along a busy public road. The Ramblers' Association had campaigned strongly for the path to through the royal estate, but the Crown Commissioners have refused access.

Residential riverside development created opportunities to reinstate the Thames towpath but often developers and residents of luxury flats do not want walkers passing through their grounds. As a result, security gates are locked and the route remains tortuous with the difficulties persisting from Wandsworth to Fulham.

The private Hurlingham Club in Fulham means another detour by road away from the riverbank. Factories play their part in making following the river difficult. In Wandsworth, for example, a large refuse processing plant has an overhead walkway, designed to be part of the route, but which is locked.

"The Thames Path has been one of the most troublesome trails in Britain," said David Else, who researched the path for Lonely Planet's Walking in Britain. "My impressions were mixed. Some sections were very good and others weren't signposted. When signs dribble out, it's quite easy to find yourself in a farmer's yard or in a sweet shop. The advice is to keep your eye on the map."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Senior Private Client Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: SURREY - An outstanding high level opportunity...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Austen Lloyd: Construction Solicitor - London

Very Competitive Salary : Austen Lloyd: NICHE CITY FIRM - We are making a disc...

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick