This is an unexpected, good book. I picked it up on a whim, not knowing much about it, other than that it is an account of a walk along the River Thames. I like books about walking, so I expected to like this book. I’m a bit surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Tom Chesshyre is a journalist and a travel writer. He clearly has a nose for a good story because he seems to find something of interest to write about at every point in the 215-mile walk from Trewsbury Mead in Gloucestershire (the source of the Thames) to the North Sea.
Chesshyre is accompanied on certain stretches of his walk by friends and family members, but for the most part, he walks alone, musing on the river and the countryside. The book has a leisurely pace, and it draws you into it, into sleepy, green places, friendly people who live along the river, pubs that are hundreds of years old, churches, manors, castles, and other landmarks that have a variety of historical and literary associations.
The narrative is enlivened by a gentle sense of humour and the writer’s ability to laugh at himself and his companions. I listened to the audiobook read by David Thorpe. He does a delightful job. Chesshyre was not an experienced long-distance walker when he set off on this particular journey, and he clearly has no idea what to expect of himself or of the walk. The reader falls in step beside him as he discovers the peculiar joy of a long distance walk, and learns about the river that he’s lived close to all his life.
Like a true nerd, he carries with him, a backpack full of books. Along the way there are places of interest related to a variety of writers, Kenneth Grahame, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, George Orwell, William Morris and of course, Jerome K Jerome. It is impossible to talk about any journey along the Thames without thinking about Three Men in a Boat. Chesshyre quotes from this book and others as he comes across places mentioned in them and he informs the reader, much to my disappointment, that Montmorency, the dog, in Jerome’s account of his trip on the river, is fictitious.
There’s plenty of history along the way, from invasions by the Romans and the Vikings, to the signing of the Magna Carta, births and deaths of kings and queens, the building of bridges and under-river tunnels…And then there are trips to museums and churches and other places of note like Hampton Court, Eton college, Windsor Castle and the Tower Bridge.
Chesshyre went on this walk in August 2016, a month after the Brexit referendum. That inevitably colours the narrative. It’s impossible for him not to think and talk about it and wonder what it means for the future. So all those centuries of history, that have happened along the banks of the Thames, are juxtaposed against the suddenly uncertain future.
But as a fellow walker says to him, when they meet in a pub, “Hang on, I’m by the river. What is there to worry about?” What indeed? After all, that is the purpose of a long-distance walk. To get away from real life for a bit. This book does what a good travel book should do. It makes you want to get a backpack and set off on a long walk.