Thames Down Link

The Thames Down Link is a path I have walked many times, for some reason most often in the autumn. It links two long-distance National Trails, the 296km Thames Path at Kingston and the 246km North Downs Way at Westhumble.


The path is 24km, so is easily walkable even when the days are getting shorter. Walking south to north gives you the sense of arriving in London, but from north to south the walk (mostly) improves the further you get. The northern stages include a lot of road walking through suburban streets, and two longish detours to cross the busy A3 and A24 roads.

The qualification is because of two significant downgrades recently. Just after crossing the M25, we pass a golf course, which is expanding to the other side of the path: they have cut down trees, removed the topsoil, and trashed one of the loveliest views on the walk. This is what it used to look like:


Further on, a few years ago the trees on either side of the path were cut down and barbed wire fences built, making the path significantly narrower. Now buddleia has colonised the stony bare ground, and grown to such an extent that the path may soon become impassible.

At the weekend I saw more people on the path (walkers, joggers, runners, cyclists, equestrians) than I ever have before. So if you are thinking of walking the path, do it soon!

The path follows the Hogsmill and Bonesgate rivers, crosses Epsom and Ashtead commons, and then follows a section of the Roman road, Stane Street, before descending to Westhumble. Near Horton Park, it passes remnants of the ring of madhouses that surrounded London in Victorian times, on roughly the present course of the M25. These are graphically described by Iain Sinclair in his books London Orbital and (with Rachel Lichtenstein) Rodinsky’s Room: a disturbing episode of social history. These are now being converted into up-market housing estates, but some strange towers remain.

Asylum towers

Just before the end, it passes the celebrated Ryka’s Café, where bikers congregate regularly, and venture out to ride up Box Hill. (I once met former Queen Mary Masters student Derek Coope at the Ryka. Box Hill is also mentioned in Richard Thompson’s song about a motorcycle outlaw, “Vincent Black Lightning 1952”.)

The path runs, more or less, between two pubs, the Bishop out of Residence in Kingston and the Stepping Stones in Westhumble. I’m not sure where the first name comes from, but the pub in Westhumble is near where the path crosses the river Mole on stepping stones, to begin the climb of Box Hill. It only passes two pubs on the way, rather few for this densely settled part of the country: the Hogsmill (now, sadly, a Toby Carvery), and the William Bourne, formerly the Bonesgate, now a decent place to eat, with a garden where you can sit in the sunshine. (There was a William Bourne who was a sixteenth century mathematician, innkeeper, naval gunner, and inventor; I don’t know if he is the person commemorated by the pub name.)

It is a good year for nuts. We crunched over huge numbers of acorns, and there are many still on the trees; also lots of conkers and beech mast.

Acorns and balsam

Just out of Kingston, masses of Himalayan balsam flowered on the banks of the river and surrounding damp ditches. This is a fairly recent common flower in Britain. When ripe, the pods burst explosively, and can be set off by gentle stroking – but these were mostly not yet ripe enough. The first time I saw the flower was on the banks of the Wear in Durham in 1977, when I was at Terry Wall’s Durham Symposium on “Homological Methods in Group Theory”.

Homological Group Theory, Durham

(This was an excellent meeting, as Durham symposia often are: I learned about many things there, including Bass–Serre theory, ends of groups, arithmetic groups, cohomological dimension, and what VFP means.)

About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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