From my lockdown study, I allow my mind to wander and think of Pandit Nehru who as a boy mastered the art of ‘astral flying’, letting his mind roam where his body could not. It served him in good stead. Nehru was imprisoned many times in pursuit of India’s independence and from his cell wrote often to his daughter Indira of the landscape where “for two thousand years or more, innumerable pilgrim souls have marched” In one such missive he declares his love of India’s rivers how he longed to explore them, not only literally but also metaphorically, “to trace them from the dawn of history, to watch the processions of men and women, of cultures and civilisations, going down the broad streams of these rivers.”
I too dream of my native land, the wide moors of Lancashire, the orchards of Kent, the mossy glades of Devon, and in the hours before dawn, my sleeping mind swims through the clear waters of the Thames. This is the artery that gives life to towns and villages as it flows from the head in Gloucestershire to the gaping North Sea maw. Along its length amongst the weeping willows and the moor hens, the barges and river taxis, can be found some of the jewels of English heritage. At Oxford, the gleaming spires and the glorious Christchurch and further downstream Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace, and Windsor Castle (home to 39 monarchs and the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world). Further still, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. But beyond bricks and mortarboards, there are many ephemeral signposts to our culture. At Reading, Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol. At Cookham, the religious paintings of Stanley Spenser, and close by, Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. And let’s not forget Whistler’s Nocturne Blue and Gold, that atmospheric painting of Old Battersea Bridge which sent Ruskin into a tailspin and bankrupted the artist who sued him. And then there is the master of light on water – JMW Turner – who was born within a hop of the Thames at Covent Garden, and died within a stone’s throw of it in Chelsea. (You can trot from either to Tate Britain which holds the national collection of his work.)
I have lived close to the Thames for most of my adult life and have intended to walk from the source to the mouth for almost as long. Once I travelled for work almost weekly and that dark strip of water winding through the glimmering firmament below signalled ‘home’ as Heathrow approached. Such frequent flying seems preposterous now. What were we all thinking? This summer, rules permitting, I will at last set out on the Thames Path from the source and preparations are already underway. Every journey starts in the mind and I begin by reading Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River (2018) and the much earlier Sweet Thames Run Softly by Robert Gibbings (1940). Both are delicious watery tales which whet the appetite for the river’s natural bounty, but there are practical considerations too.
Under normal conditions, the simplest thing would be to use a bespoke trail company such as Walk the Thames or Macs Adventures. (Comfy beds and daily luggage transfers are available to those with a purse to match.) But under current conditions, camping seems like the most attractive option. The National Trail website is extremely useful and their interactive planning tool, which shows campsites and other amenities along the route, allows you to build your own schedule to suit.
The upside of a solo walk is that you have time to think. The downside is that you are limited to what one person can carry, and, as many will testify, from tip to toe each gram counts. My Alt-berg boots (made in Yorkshire), issued to me as reservist in 77 Brigade are watertight, light and supportive and my Rab sleeping bag (also made in the UK) is a cosy feather-weight nest. Looking for a suitable tent I consulted my son’s friend Ed who loves the great outdoors. He has been using Decathlon’s Quick Hiker but now has his heart set on DD Hammocks’ SuperLight (0.94Kg ) which allows your walking poles to serve as tent poles.
A long walk is purposeful by nature. Hope, inspiration, solace, liberation; each will have their own reasons for travelling along this way where many have passed before. Whether a spiritual pilgrimage or a secular ramble, travelling on foot allows you to step outside the everyday and make space to think. You are nowhere, just moving. As I await for the final bolts of the lockdown cell to slide open, my mind’s eye floats out over this green and pleasant land to a small patch of watery meadow near Cricklade. The heady smell of elderflower blossom rises on the wind and I hear the blackbird calling…
We are Pilgrims – Journeys in Search of Ourselves by Victoria Preston is now available in print and digital format.