© 2011 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.
When I turned 50, I decided to take on a challenge that was neither too easy nor too difficult, yet would give me some significant sense of accomplishment. Based on a documentary I saw on public TV, the first candidate was to hike the Hadrian's Wall Path, along the border of Scotland and England. And while that path isn't so long (84 miles/134 km), the weather that far north is unpredictable, the terrain is quite hilly, and there appears to be little support for getting into towns to stay overnight. [I didn't want to carry sleeping and cooking gear.] While visiting that path's website (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/hadrianswall/), I followed a link to the website for the Thames Path (http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/ThamesPath/), a path I had discovered in 1999 when my son and I walked the five miles from Runnymede to Windsor. That path had also been turned into a National Trail, and as it ran alongside a river—and rivers tend to run downhill—I thought, "How hard can that be?"
In May and June of 2005, I hiked the Thames Path (184 miles/294 km) along the Thames River in England, end-to-end in 21 days (15 days walking and 6 days resting). I started at the "official" source in a farmer's field, and ended at the Thames Barrier, downstream of Greenwich. I followed the official guidebook, which broke up the walk into 15 segments with each one covering about 12 miles. Here's my day-by-day itinerary:
- Walking Day 1: The Source to Cricklade (12.25 miles/19.7 km)
- Walking Day 2: Cricklade to Lechlade (10.75 miles/17 km)
- Walking Day 3: Lechlade to Newbridge (16.25 miles/26 km)
Walking Day 4: Newbridge to Oxford (14 miles/22.5 km)
- Rest Day 1: Tour Oxford and stay with host family 1
- Rest Day 2: Tour Oxford and stay with host family 1 and 2
Rest Day 3: Tour Blenheim Palace in Woodstock and stay with host family 2
- Walking Day 5: Oxford to Culham (12 miles/ 19.3 km)
- Walking Day 6: Culham to Wallingford (13 miles/22.3 km)
Walking Day 7: Wallingford to Tilehurst (13.25 miles/21.6 km)
Rest Day 4: Rest day and stay with host family 3
- Walking Day 8: Tilehurst to Henley (11.5 miles/18.8 km)
Walking Day 9: Henley to Marlow (9.5 miles/15 km)
Rest Day 5: Rest day and stay with host family 4
- Walking Day 10: Marlow to Windsor (14.25 miles/23 km)
- Walking Day 11: Windsor to Chertsey (12.25 miles/19.4 km)
Walking Day 12: Chertsey to Kingston (11 miles/17.7 km)
Rest Day 6: Rest day at a hotel in London
- Walking Day 13: Kingston to Putney Bridge (13 miles/21.2 km)
- Walking Day 14: Putney Bridge to Tower Bridge (10 miles/16.9 km)
- Walking Day 15: Tower Bridge to Thames Barrier (10 miles/16.1 km)
At the end of Walking Day 12, I was on the outskirts of London, at which time, I took a train into the city and checked into a budget hotel for four nights. For each of the final three days of walking, I rode the Underground to where I'd finished the day before and walked from there carrying only a small daypack instead of that and my backpack (which I refer to below as my full pack), which I carries on all other days.
Getting Prepared Physically
I had never hiked with a full pack before and I am not a fan of exercise, so I thought, perhaps, I should have a trial run before I committed to the whole walk. Some years ago, the Washington and Old Dominion train line ran 45 miles from the northern Virginia countryside towards Washington DC. Although that line had been removed, a sealed path had been put in its place for hiking, biking, rollerblading, and horse riding. My plan was to hike it in three consecutive days, each of 15 miles, carrying a daypack.
After a restless night and a rain shower the next morning that delayed our start, my son and I set out on the first leg. Although we completed the planned section, we were too fatigued to enjoy it. It was pretty much "one foot in front of the other!" Although the rain stayed away all day, the Heavens opened when we were a few hundred yards from our pickup point, and we got seriously wet. The next day, we hardly got out of bed. The third day, I hiked 10 more miles on my own. Several weeks later, we hiked five more miles, and months later, we covered another seven and a half. To this day, I still have seven and a half miles to go. But, you know what; you can have too much practice. Sometimes you just have to do it for real!
Getting Prepared Mentally
I can honestly say that I did nothing special in this regard. While I had no doubt the task would be challenging, I had no reason to believe that I couldn't meet it. After all, the whole point was to push myself within reasonable limits.
What to Take?
I bought a new backpack with internal frame and was happy that the salesperson fussed a long while over getting me strapped into it "just right". Here's the gear I carried or wore on any given day:
- 2 pairs of hiking trousers with zip-off legs and lots of pockets
- 3 light-weight hiking shirts
- 3 sets of underwear
- Lots of hiking socks and wicking socks to wear under them
- A pair of hiking boots
- A pair of superlight-weight slippers for indoors
- A zip-up inner jacket with long sleeves and lots of pockets
- A GORE-TEX® weather-proof outer jacket with hood and lots of pockets
- A woolen cap and a baseball cap, each of which I could wear under my jacket hood
- A pair of thick gloves
- A basic first-aid kit
- A light-weight digital video camera, charger, power adaptor, spare battery, and spare tapes
- A compact digital still camera, charger, spare battery, and spare memory card
- A microcassette tape recorder and spare tapes
- A PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) pocket computer and charger
- Emergency rations of dried fruit, nuts, chocolate, and candy
- 2 half-liters of energy drink (I never was a plain water drinker)
I'd bought a pair of aluminum walking poles, but after several test runs, I decided not to take them.
The video and camera gear I used throughout the day was contained in a small shoulder bag. The charging equipment and used and spare media were in the backpack. A large fanny pack (bum bag for those of you Down-Under) around my waist held my passport, wallet, pocket computer, and change.
The Official Record
For most of my trips, I keep written diaries, but for this one, I decided on audio and video records instead. I bought a microcassette recorder that fit into an easily accessible outside jacket pocket. Any time I felt euphoric, depressed, crazy, or frustrated, I whipped out the recorder and spoke my mind, unedited. I finished up with five and a half hours of tape. The video was more staged; I rested a bit until my heart stopped thumping, then I thought about what I was going to say, and then I shot the film with narrative. [Have you ever noticed how few people speak while they are shooting video? Hmm, silent home movies; now there's an idea!] After editing, I had five 1-hour DVDs.
The Thames Source
There is considerable disagreement as to where the Thames River really starts. As I was using the official path guidebook, I decided to follow its interpretation. I arrived at the Kemble train station and walked to the river, which at that stage was a few inches deep and about 6 feet wide. I walked a mile upstream to an old Roman well that appeared to be the current source of the water. I then walked another mile along a dry bed to the spot where a small marker declared the site of the "original" spring. For some years, a statue of Old Father Thames used to stand there, but due to the isolation of the place and the danger of vandalism it was moved to a manned lock downriver.
Although the first four days were clear, there was often not a lot of cover and a strong wind blew. I had one very wet and miserable day and another mildly so. The weather was mostly cool, but one day it got up to 86 degrees F (30 C), so I unzipped the legs from my pants, took off both jackets, and even put on sunburn cream. [That day, Big Ben's clock in London slowed and then stopped for only the 4th time in its history, apparently due to the "extreme" heat!]
More rain fell during the nights than the days, which was just fine with me. However, that meant that some sections of path were quite muddy.
Incidents and Accidents
After the first (and very) wet day, I developed some serious foot sores and blisters. This was directly due to my ignorance of not taping my toes and feet in advance of starting out. The resulting limping caused some hip problems. A case of painful shin "splints" in my left shin was still with me after 12 days. On the very last day, as I approached the Millennium Dome, I had a nasty fall when I failed to see a lot of small, near-spherical pebbles on a section of concrete path. I went from vertical to horizontal very quickly. As I lay there looking at the sky, I was sure I'd broken my neck or back. As it happened, the only injury was to both hands, which I had instinctively put down behind me as I fell, and which had been driven into the gravel. Fortunately, they were only bruised; the skin was not broken. Some teenagers nearby came to my "rescue" with a hand up and a bottle of water. Fortunately, this was before the days of YouTube; otherwise, they'd have had the whole thing on the internet in minutes.
Having had two major knee surgeries over the years, I was constantly trying to watch where and how I stepped to avoid twisting a knee.
Accommodation and Meals
The first five rest days were spent with four different Servas hosts each of whom I stayed with for two nights. The final rest day and nights were spent at a hotel in London. All other nights were spent in hotels or B&Bs en-route, the existence, and location of most, of which were adequately documented in the guidebook.
At the end of two different days, there were no places to stay near the path. In the first case, I walked some distance off the path to a quite small village. The first and second pubs I found didn't open until the evening. The third was open and the barman was happy to serve me a drink and snack, but that pub did not provide accommodation. However, I met a young woman waiting at a bus stop, and she lived right next door to that pub and her family ran a B&B. No one was home, but the barman kept calling there until someone answered, and I stayed there that night. In the second case, there were some hotels nearby, but they were outrageously expensive, and I finished up walking two miles off the path before finding a cheaper place.
Breakfast was included with each place I stayed, and when it was a typical "English" breakfast (as in two eggs, two sausages, two strips of bacon, four slices of toast, baked beans, etc.), I wrapped half in foil [the best thing to carry with you anywhere!] and ate it for lunch or supper. A few times, I stopped in pubs for a hot lunch, and pub fare usually sufficed for the evening meal as well.
You would think that walking next to a river that runs downhill would be quite easy. However, in places, steep hills run right down to the water's edge and there is no place for a path near the river. As such, the path goes up, around, and about. In other places, sections of the path were undergoing maintenance, so there were detours. And in some places, private landowners refused to give right-of-way across their riverfront property. As a result, I walked more than a few miles uphill.
There are many, and such a wide variety of, gates to pass through and stiles to climb over. In a few places, some so-called kissing gates were too narrow for me to get though with a backpack on. In those cases, I had to take it off, drop it over the fence, go through the gate, and then put the pack back on. [I swear that the pack got heavier each time I lifted it!] In one instance, I wasn't able to put the pack over a high fence, and I had to backtrack and find a way around that section of the path.
Is there a Follow-Up Act?
Before I'd even started the Thames Path hike, I was already thinking about future walks. However, I quickly forgot all about those on my first really wet and sore-feet day. Then, not too long after completing the walk, I started to think about other possibilities. Hadrian's Wall has come back into consideration, as have some of the cliff top walks in Devon/Cornwall, England. And when in Normandy, France, a few years ago, I discovered the customs inspector paths along the coast. Every now and then, I think about the Appalachian Trial here in the US, but after a few milliseconds, I come to my senses about walking that (although I have walked short sections of it). The Heysen Trail in my native South Australia has also gotten onto my radar. Although it's 750 miles/1,200 kms long, my interest is in the southern-most 156 miles/250 kms that end at the sea.
Goals and Lessons
There are a lot of interesting and/or historic places along the Thames, and my initial plan was to stop off and visit and video them all. It was a noble goal indeed and it worked fine up to Oxford and its surrounds. However, once I get wet feet and I started limping, I became totally focused on completing the walk. So much so, for example, that I distinctly remember coming to the town of Windsor and its dominating castle and saying to myself, "Yep, that's Windsor Castle!", but walking right on through the town without stopping to go look at it any closer.
Of course, the main goal was the personal endurance as well as doing it solo. [My friend Astrid did accompany me for the first two days.] I had built-in flexibility in that I didn't have a fixed schedule. And not once during the walk did I think about quitting.
Regarding lessons, I guess the main one was to have better foot preparation.
I must say that the completion of the walk was quite anticlimactic, really! When I got to the Thames Barrier, the town band was not there to meet me, the mayor was not there to give me a key to the city, no-one gave me a certificate of completion, and the local shop didn't even have a T-shirt saying, "I Survived the Thames Path". I even found it hard to figure out how to get back to London.
In hindsight, would I do anything differently, such as perhaps preparing more? Nothing comes to mind. It really was one of those cases of having a basic defensible plan and then, "Just go do it".
Numerous people have asked me, "Whatever possessed you to do this walk?" In fact, I've asked myself that same question. Of course, the answer is, "Because it's there!" or perhaps, "Why not?" In any event, as Nietzsche said, "Was mich nich umbringt, macht mich stärker." That is, "What doesn't kill me makes me stronger."