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Well the first 28 miles of the Thames have been smashed out and I have to say it was much tougher than expected. Walking with a loaded pack and my heavy winter hiking boots (the most appropriate footwear I had for this) took it’s toll over a couple of days but it was great to be pushing myself on something other than a bike. Back at home (we’re splitting this walk into chunks to be a bit more practical with our jobs) my legs are still recovering a few days later.

After darting home from work on a Friday and grabbing my gear I was back on a train into London to meet my an old uni friend, Andrew, at Paddington station before catching a direct train to Kemble, the closest station to the source of the Thames and not too far from Bristol.

I’d had a stroke of luck in terms of finding somewhere to stay on that first night. We’d planned to camp in some woods nearby but I found a host on the cyclist hospitality website Warmshowers.org . Our super hospitable host Bob picked us up from the station, filled the evening with some great conversation about cycling and his travels to Tibet, and hooked us up with some beds.

A 6am rise the next morning and Bob showed us the way down to source of the river as we trespassed over his neighbours fields. During the right time of year the stone that marks the source of the Thames sits next to a bubbling spring. This wasn’t the right time of year and I won’t bore you with a photo of Andrew and I standing by a stone with a distinct lack of the river in the vicinity. After a 15 minutes of following the faint track through the fields we got our first glimpses of the infant river…

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This brought back memories of riding along the Danube river knowing that you’ll be seeing this little stream gradually grow into one of the largest rivers in Europe winding it’s way through great cities. Much as I followed the Danube through Vienna, Budapest and Belgrade this walk down the Thames will pass on through the architecture of Oxford, Windsor Castle and on into the heart of London.

At this early stage the river is so small that is is yet to be used as a divider between fields, instead running right through the middle of various bits of property, meaning that our route would sometimes take us off course before we re-emerged back onto the water.

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With my fitness from recently completing my London-Shanghai bike ride I figured this walk wouldn’t pose too much of a problem. I was quickly proven wrong. Our late Autumn departure meant muddy paths that made each step tougher than the last. Both my shoulders and feet were unconditioned to this type of strain and soon were aching.

I’d initially become interested in doing a long walk after reading Walking Home From Mongolia which details Rob Lilwall and Leon McCarron’s 6 month epic walk from Mongolia to Hong Kong. Both these guys had completed cycling epics before but found the walk an entirely new challenge. They had had a miserable experience at times, and both suggested that getting back onto bikes was a far more sensible way to travel, but I was still intrigued as to what a long walk might be like.

The slower pace compared to cycling immediately had one huge benefit. You really take the time to look around at your surroundings. It can be easy to zone out whilst riding a bike on a good road but while walking down rough paths your attention is held onto much more…

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The first day was surprisingly quiet as the water course, currently too small to be navigable by boat, had not had towns spring up along its banks. We plodded along tight paths through little woods and right up along the water itself creating some lovely photo opportunities…

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Rounding a corner off of a gravel bridleway a sign appeared that seemed rather out of place in the serene Cotswolds…

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Finally we approached out first proper town on the river, Cricklade, and dove into the Red Lion pub after taking note of the rather cool tile outside that we’d also seen on another pub earlier in the day…

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Taking a look through our guidebook to the Thames Path we spotted a campsite in Castle Eaton, the next town 5 miles away. The short Autumn day, and our indulgent hour in the pub drinking local ales, left us with a mere twenty minutes of sunlight. We powered on on stiff legs, through gradually worsening mud, to make the most of each remaining bit of light…

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Night finally encroached and soon we were walking by the glow of the single head torch we had. Deers scattered silently away from us across the misty fields as we approached making the experience feel rather surreal. We tantalisingly came within 20 feet of the campsite, just on the other side of the river, but had to walk around a mile to the next bridge and back. If it had been summer I would’ve suggested wading across but wet clothes in this weather would be a severely bad idea.

Our fees paid and our tent setup we handed into Castle Eaton and made ourselves comfortable in the pub, yet again called the Red Lion, which boasted the claim of being the first pub along the banks of the Thames.

That’s another thing I love about this kind of trip. I would probably have no reason in my life to stay the night in Castle Eaton unless I was doing something like this. It’s a lovely little village too with an 800 year old church and fairly cozy pub. In our tired state the pub dinner and a couple of pints soon had us on the edge of sleep and we trudged back to the tent for the night.

The morning gave me an opportunity to test out my new and old alcohol stoves side by side. My London-Shanghai Trangia spirit burner with lightweight stand on the left and a brand new White Box Alcohol Stove on the right…

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The Trangia is a solid piece of kit but I’d picked up the new one as I am a big fan of lightweight and compact gear. The Whitebox stove serves as an all in one stove and stand and ends up weighing 30g compared to the Trangia and stands 200g or so. It’s less stable though and cannot be extinguished meaning you may end up wasting fuel as you let it burn out. I think I’ll stick with the Trangia for most purposes, due to it being a more stable pot stand, and go for the White Box Stove when I really need to reduce weight.

Once we set off again the path deviated from the river for nearly the entirety of our second day. In one section the guide booked advised taking a taxi as we’d be trudging down the verge of a busy A-road. Being a stubborn “every-incher” as always we dragged our aching legs along the mile of busy road before reaching the outskirts of Lechlade-on-Thames, our destination for the day.

We’d only done 9 miles but we needed time to get back home for work and Lechlade was the last sensible place to get transport from. It also seemed a nice spot as Lechlade is the start of the navigable part of the Thames and the water was quickly lined with canal boats and pleasure boats as we reached the towns old toll bridge…

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After ceremoniously slapping the keystone of one of the arches under the bridge, so that we could carry on form exactly the same spot when we return, we treated ourselves to the creature comfort of a roast dinner before heading off home…

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. The Thames may not seem as captivating as cycling to China but I hope I’ve illustrated that both these trips have exactly the same type of adventure to offer. One required quitting a job, a year of my life and a reasonable bit of gear and cash and the other can be done on the odd spare weekends around work, with a few quid, a tent and some decent shoes. Don’t let the cold and wet stop you either. As they say “There is no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothing”.

As a final point I thought I’d tag on some little updates on my two other projects in the works, Being able to cycle for 24 hours straight and Claiming my Irish Citizenship.

Short update first for the Irish Citizenship. I’ve either got, or have in the post, all the birth and marriage certificates that prove my Grandfather was born in Ireland and that document my decendency. Once these arrive I’ll be onto the next major step of submitting all this documentation and going to an interview at the Irish embassy in London, more on that when it happens.

For the cycling I’ve been on the bike nearly everyday getting up at 5:45am to put 20-30km on the bike before work and then the same again in the evenings. It’s getting seriously cold and dark but that’s nothing that can’t be fixed with clothes and lights. I’ve decided that the best way to reach my goal is to get involved in Audax’ing. You can be forgiven for not knowing what “Audax” is, plenty of cyclists don’t even know either.

Audax is basically very long distance, non-competitive cycling. The most famous event is the Paris-Brest-Paris, a 1200km (750 mile) event where riders have 90 hours, from start to finish, to complete the course. The clock never stops so riders have to factor in how much, or how dangerously little, they are going to sleep. It’s one of the oldest cycling events held on Earth (running every four years since 1891) and has even had a pastry dedicated to it.

Now obviously a 1,200km event is a hell of a thing but that is not what Audax is all about. The most popular events are 200km, 300km, 400km and 600km and I’ve signed up for a local 200km ride on December 6th. This should be manageable as I’ve ridden a few 160-180km days on my heavy touring bike, as well as one brutal 230km day. If the ride goes well I plan to keep ramping up the distances with the 400km event being very close to my goal (the 600km event is the first distance to be split up with a short sleep). I’ll do some blogs about how each event goes and maybe some posts about equipment as these very long rides require some decent investment in headlights for your bike.

Cheers again for following! You can get more updates by liking my facebook or following my twitter page.

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