This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter
After nine months’ working from home in London, it was time to take a holiday — at home. We decided to explore the Thames and its architecture, from Hampton Court Palace in the west to Greenwich in the east, a riverside walking distance of 34 miles with an incredible assortment of building types and styles, from palaces to pumping stations, boathouses to bungalows.
To follow this most sinuous of rivers is to witness the scale, texture and history of London. You discover things you would never see from a car — roads rarely run alongside the Thames — and realise how London grew (and continues to grow) around its river, once its main thoroughfare. You see things of extraordinary beauty and also of almost magnificent ugliness; places of deprivation and prosperity: a true cross section of the city.
The walk is flat and easy and essentially modular — although we have broken it into six one-way stretches for this article, it works as well in 30-minute strolls as it does in three-hour stretches, and you can do them in any order and generally on either bank (or on both banks, if you choose to do a circular walk and there is a suitable crossing).
Living in Westminster, we started with two-hour loops up and down the river and, as we got further from home, embarked on longer one-way walks using a taxi-hailing app (FreeNow) or our car to get us to or back from more distant places (river buses are an option too, but check the timetables for the reduced service). The path is well signposted and easy to follow. A useful resource: Thames Path — Transport for London.
The walk works at any time of day, although our preference is to start at around 7.30 or 8am, when the paths are still empty and the surface of the river smooth and reflective. (Leaving at night for a dawn start also gives one the illusion of being on safari.) The footpath is paved, other than to the west of Putney Bridge, but it is good to have sturdy shoes throughout so that you can visit beaches at low tide for a spot of mudlarking.
Stretch 1: Westminster Bridge to Tower Bridge (north side: 2.8 miles one way)
This is an elegant promenade along the sweeping Embankment with wonderful views across and down the river to St Paul’s. At Blackfriars, the footpath detaches from the road and becomes a curiously peaceful set of walkways on the edge of the City, with beaches to explore at low tide and vistas across to Southwark and Tower Bridge. When you arrive at Tower Bridge, it is a short walk over to Borough Market, where you can stock up on turbot, Comté and speck before heading home.
Highlight: A 68ft block of Aswan granite that evokes happy winters spent by the Nile, “Cleopatra’s Needle” (which has nothing to do with Cleopatra) was erected by Thutmose III in 1468BC in front of the Temple of the Sun in Heliopolis, together with the equally misnamed obelisk that now stands in Central Park, New York. Moved to Alexandria, it then adorned a temple to Julius Caesar, was toppled by an earthquake and lay buried before being presented to Britain by Muhammad Ali Pasha in 1819. In 1877, the obelisk was finally towed by boat to London in a specially constructed cylinder, the Cleopatra, which was briefly lost in a stormy Bay of Biscay (which also claimed the lives of six accompanying seamen). The Egyptomanic benches along the Embankment, with their dromedaries and sphinxes, provide a perfect spot for a little pharaonic reverie.
Stretch 2: Tower Bridge to Greenwich and East India Docks (north side: 5.1 miles to Greenwich and a further 2.5 miles to East India Docks, one way).
Beyond Tower Bridge eastward, you see the full might of the Thames as it widens and the last vestiges of the old docklands. Not all the path is on the river, but the streets behind are fascinating and there are frequent steps down to the water, with names such as Pelican Stairs. A Fritz Lang-ian moment next as you reach Canary Wharf. Then, as you continue at Millwall, you will suddenly catch your first glimpse of Wren’s glorious buildings at Greenwich, the Old Royal Naval College and the Royal Observatory. A foot tunnel takes you under the river to Greenwich itself or you can continue through the post-industrial landscape to East India Docks.
Highlight: John Outram’s 1986 “Temple of Storms” pumping station lights up an otherwise rather severe stretch of the river. This is postmodernism at its wittiest and most playful, one of a trifecta of water-treatment stations commissioned by the London Docklands Development Corporation from leading British architects (the others are by Nicholas Grimshaw and Richard Rogers). The perimeter walls are particularly pleasing.
Stretch 3: Westminster Bridge to Putney Bridge (south side: 7.3 miles one way)
Starting at the bridge, admire the Palace of Westminster opposite and continue past Vauxhall, ideally (in less locked-down times) with a pastel de nata at Madeira Café and, perhaps, a Bond-esque photo opp outside the MI6 headquarters. There is intense urban development around the US Embassy and Battersea Power Station, but things calm again at Battersea Park with wonderful views of Wren’s Royal Hospital. Beyond begins a textured stretch: Norman Foster’s beautiful offices, the monumental World’s End Estate and the classical former Lots Road Power Station (both on the north side) and the London Heliport. Cross the River Wandle (a tributary of the Thames and once one of the most industrialised rivers in Britain) and on to Wandsworth Park and Putney.
Highlight: Joseph Dixon’s St Mary’s Battersea (1775-6), Richard Rogers’ Montevetro building (1999) and Colin Lucas’ twin Selworthy and Sparkford Houses (1963) provide a model for what much of the river might have been like but for the combination of unscrupulous developers and ignorant and malleable public servants. Here is a group of beautifully designed buildings that really work together: the parish church is framed and enhanced by Montevetro (which continues the line of the pediment and pitch of the church), and this collective harmony continues with the strong verticals of the church spire, social-housing blocks and Montevetro against the big open south-London sky. And, in the foreground, a couple of bohemian houseboats lend texture to this impeccable composition.
Stretch 4: Putney Bridge to Chiswick Bridge (south side: 4.3 miles one way)
Mud, bushes and wetlands: at last we seem to be leaving London, but with the reassurance that if all else fails one can cross the river and lunch at The River Cafe, although sadly, not at the time of writing. Next are some wonderful Georgian neighbourhoods: Chiswick Mall opposite and the beautiful facades of The Terrace, in Barnes.
Highlight: The Harrods Depository, (WG Hunt, 1911-14), was once a warehouse. Its very modern, Kahn-system, concrete-cantilevered structure was also widely used in the car factories of Detroit, but here is modestly concealed behind a Baroque-style mass of pink terracotta. Although the depository has been converted into homes, the old quay remains in a picturesquely decaying state, evoking times when London made better use of its river.
Stretch 5: Chiswick Bridge to Richmond Bridge (south side: 4.3 miles one way)
You are now in almost pure countryside as you pass opposite Strand-on-the-Green and continue along the edge of Kew Gardens and into view of Syon Park and quaint Isleworth with Michael Blees’ beautiful All Saints Church, 1967-70. After Twickenham Bridge comes the charming bustle of Richmond and its lovely 18th-century bridge.
Highlight: The enchanting Art Deco Twickenham Bridge by Maxwell Ayrton and Alfred Dryland (1933) was the first major three-hinged, concrete-arched bridge in the UK. It has beautiful lanterns and ironwork, including wonderful hinge covers, as well as handsome signage. It was one of three Thames bridges to be opened on 3 July 1933 by the Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII).
Stretch 6: Richmond Bridge to Hampton Court Palace (south side to Kingston Bridge, then north side: 7.5 miles one way)
Crossing the bucolic Petersham Meadows, you will see Marble Hill opposite and Ham House just inland. Then comes a long stretch of river past Eel Pie Island to Teddington Lock, where the Thames ceases to be tidal. At Kingston, you must cross the bridge to continue to Bushy Park and Hampton Court Palace.
End-of-walk highlight: The astonishing Tijou Screen in the Privy Garden at Hampton Court Palace was commissioned c1690 by King William III and Queen Mary II from the recently arrived Huguenot craftsman, Jean Tijou. Its 12 panels contain symbols of Great Britain (including a gloriously buxom Welsh harp), surrounded by a whirlwind of exotic flowers, birds, garlands and grotesques.
The screen provides a beautiful frame for Wren’s facade behind it — an exhilarating conclusion to our walk.
Andrew Jones is the author of The Buildings of Green Park, a book about his wanderings around Mayfair and St. James’s, published by ACC Art Books
Maps by Liz Faunce
What’s your favourite riverside walk in London? Tell us in the comments below
For more stories like this, visit ft.com/globetrotter, or follow FT Globetrotter on Instagram at