Thames Down Link

Published 2 April 2014

Kingston Bridge, at the start of the Thames Down Link

The Thames rippled and glistened in the sun as a swan quietly glided towards the side of the river. A walker stood on the path, hiding in the shade of a pub awning. Looking at his map, he made a decision, determinedly walking firmly past a street cleaner who was quietly sweeping away the debris of the previous night.

A few metres down the path, the walker double backed and headed off down a narrow alleyway instead, muttering in the direction of a piece of paper grasped tightly in his hand. Ten minutes later after following a series of signposts down a succession of passages and pavements, he emerged. And found himself 50m away from where the cleaner was still sweeping.

“Is this the Downs Link?” asked Catherine, peering at a map some months earlier.

“No. The walk I’m doing this weekend doesn’t go near Box Hill.” I replied.

“It says ‘TD Link’. What’s that?”

“No idea. Never heard of it.”

I took the map, following the dotted line along. Further up the Ordnance Survey had decided to elaborate further.

“Ah, it’s the Thames Down Link.”

“What’s that?”

“No idea. Never heard of it.”

Faded Thames Down Link waymark

One quick search on the internet later and we’d learned that the Thames Down Link was a fifteen mile walking trail. It set off from Kingston Upon Thames in London, on the Thames Path. Hence where the “Thames” bit of the name came from. And it went all the way to the village of Westhumble in Surrey, where the North Downs Way goes. Hence where the “Down” bit came in. I’ll leave you to guess where “Link” fitted into things.

I duly filed the knowledge in my brain, for future reference. And that was that. At least until, some months later, I fancied getting out for a stroll on a February afternoon. But where to walk? I only had a day, but I still wanted to do something with an element of “purpose”. The Thames Down Link seemed to fit the bill perfectly, and I found myself making plans.

Well, printing out a map and checking the weather forecast, anyway.

It is at this point that we should address the elephant in the room. This is a website about long distance walking. Is a fifteen mile walk classifiable as a long distance walk? We’ve never really set the rules here, have we?

So what is a long distance walk? Well according to the Long Distance Walkers Association, it’s a walk that’s 20 miles or longer. The Thames Down Link therefore doesn’t count. Ah, but there’s an opt out. For the LDWA (as we’ll call them) have a website that lists paths. And they include shorter paths that have “strategic significance, such as linking two other main routes”. And oh look, the Thames Down Link does just that and it’s in their list of walks! Bingo! We have a definition. To have its own proper entry in this website, it must be in the LDWA’s trail directory at the time of completion.

Sorted. Now can someone get rid of that elephant please? It’s beginning to make a mess.

Clattern Bridge, Kingston Upon Thames

I’m not a massive fan of walks which take you round towns. They’re never signposted well enough, and I always end up getting lost somewhere down the line. The Thames Down Link provided to be no exception. The signposts that weren’t completely missing, were usually pointing in totally the wrong direction. I had no detailed map of the route through Kingston, and the route instructions I had contained references to Woolworths, which didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

All I know was that I needed to follow the London Loop, but that didn’t help much either, given the signs for the London Loop were shared with the Thames Down Link and something called the Hogsmill River Walk.

Wrong turn followed wrong turn, double back after double back. Several times I missed some vital signpost completely. I knew I had to vaguely follow the Hogsmill River, but as there was no constant path alongside it, the trail regularly diverted down housing and industrial estates. I wasn’t the only one struggling. I found myself following another walker – his trousers tucked into his socks – who was similarly staring at his map at regular intervals.

When I finally did find myself on the right path, heading towards Berrylands railway station, it was with muted rejoicing. Finally I knew for sure that I was heading in the right direction, and that soon it would get simpler.

Muddy path in Hogsmill River Park

Simpler to navigate anyway. At Hogsmill River Park, I found a new challenge as I left the urban streets and set forth on a path that was part flood, part mud. The river here used to regularly flood until the Hogsmill was straightened out in the 1960s. However a multitude of recent storms and heavy rain had clearly taken their toll on the path that I now squelched and slid along, doing my best not to go head first.

The A3 cut across the park, and on the other side things got a little bit better as the path went through parkland, then back to more housing estates. After the trauma of navigating around Kingston, there had been a bit of me that had considered giving up and catching the train home from Berrylands. Go home, put my feet up and relax. Maybe put a film on the TV and drink some beer. Of course, I hadn’t, but it had been tempting. Now after another tour of endless semi-detached houses, I was wondering if I’d made the right call. The Thames Down Link couldn’t be like this all day, could it?

Crossing the A240 answered that. One side of the road was London, the other Surrey, and whilst a change of county doesn’t necessarily mean that everything changes, in this case it did. Yes there were houses nearby, but now I was walking through the fields of Tolworth Court Farm. And that was infinitely more preferable than housing estates and alleyways, even if I did make a poor choice of where to put my foot resulting in me suddenly being up to my ankle in large and deep puddle.

Horton Country Park

With a name like “Tolworth Court Farm”, you may be expecting sheep, cows or maybe even fields of wheat (or more realistically given the time of year, churned up fields waiting for wheat to be sowed) but these days it’s a large open space, managed for leisure purposes by Kingston council. It’s an area steeped in history; there was a farm there back in the 13th century, although there probably weren’t electricity pylons crossing it back then.

The fields continued in neighbouring Horton Country Park, some with horses in and others with the waterlogged pitches of Epsom Polo Club. And then there was a car park. And what a car park. It has barbecue pitches and everything. And it goes round in a big circle. Something which I quickly found out after missing a vital waymark, resulting me finding that I’d gone round in a loop, with no idea where I’d gone wrong.

Having had an exceptionally detailed tour of the parking facilities, I made my way out of the park by a path which someone had placed a large temporary fence over it. There was no obvious reason why. The path just led out of the park and onto the main road. It was just that someone had decided to block the path off. Nice, I thought, and retaliated by moving the fence and leaving it in a distinctly “wide open” position.

Fence blocking path at edge of Horton Country Park

Off to the side stood the remains of West Park Hospital – a large mental health facility that opened in 1921, and which was finally seen off like many of its fellows, with the advent of “care in the community”. The hospital finally closed its doors in 2003.

Home to 2,000 patients, the hospital was so big that it had its own opticians, dental facilities and, at one point, its own link to the railway network. A prime site on the edge of London with good transport links was never going to remain empty for long, and a brand new housing estate was being constructed. No more padded cells; just long drives and fitted kitchens.

The houses didn’t look cheap, something which was no doubt reflected in the fact that the new occupants would be a few minutes walk from both Horton Country Park and Epsom Common which I now entered.

Summer Horseride closed sign

“Summer Horseride closed” informed a sign near the entrance; a fact that surprised and stunned me. Especially given it was February. On a nearby bench, I sat down for a reviving lunch made up of a totally new and stunning flavour of sandwich designed by a celebrity chef for a well known supermarket chain (“Prawn Cocktail? What madness is this? Go home Heston, you’re drunk”) before meandering on through the mud towards neighbouring Ashtead Common.

A path led to a level crossing, a road and then through Ashtead Park where the heavens opened, leaving me scurrying around for my waterproofs. After skilfully avoiding the houses for quite some time, the Thames Down Link was quietly trotting through suburbia once more. Many of the streets I walked down were labelled as private roads; those maintained by the residents rather than the local council. Earlier in the day I’d walked down another, and watched as a small working party of local householders shovelled wheelbarrows of gravel into the road’s many potholes. Why were there so many, I wondered? What made Ashtead such a paradise for private roads? I’d never know.

I didn’t muse on it for long; the heavens opened leaving me to scurry inside my rucksack for my waterproofs as I hotfooted it on the path out of the town which would take me to Stane Street.

Stane Street in Surrey

Stane Street is an old Roman Road which once linked London with Chichester, and cunningly passes a short way from my house. Much of it now lies under the tarmac of roads like the A3 and A24, but in this part of Surrey it survived as a humble tree lined track at the top of a hill. Recent storms had paid their toll on many of them, with several uprooted trees blocking the path, resulting in me having to stumble through neighbouring fields to get on my way. Then the Thames Down Link went over the M25, giving that feeling that the Capital had truly been left behind.

By the time I’d arrived at Stane Street, I was pretty much covered in mud, and the state of the track had made things even worse. My boots alone were regularly covered in several inches of the stuff. Given the conditions, I’d not been particularly surprised not to see many other people out for a walk, but now I passed a thirty-something couple whose attire almost made my eyes pop out on stalks.

Somehow they were absolutely immaculate; no mud on their them or their boots. Indeed the man looked like he’d just taken the everything straight out of the washing machine, and had spent several hours crisply ironing his jeans. Here I was, covered in brown splats from mud and puddles, regularly trying to stop myself falling on my backside and making things even worse. How on earth had they managed it? It wasn’t as if there was a house anywhere nearby that they could have just stepped out of. As puzzles go, it certainly beat wondering about the proliferation of private roads.

River Mole in flood

The path skirted the edge of Mickleham Common, and then it headed down hill. Suddenly I found myself on the road that would lead me towards Westhumble, and the trail end. A London bus stop – an interloper here in Surrey – proclaimed my location to be “Zig Zag Road”. Further down was the curiously deserted looking Burford Bridge Hotel, with a large pool of water in the road outside. And then I passed by the River Mole, and discovered why a large hotel was all shut up. The river was in full flood; substantially higher than it should normally be, and filling much of the surrounding land.

The hotel had temporarily closed its doors due to flood damage a few weeks earlier, and the flood levels had receded. But now another bout of rain had seen the Mole burst its banks once again. It had even made its way into the one place I needed to go to next. For it was here, in a subway under the A24 that the Thames Down Link made its link with the North Downs Way. This short section of pedestrian refuge was the only section that the two trails shared. And it was completely under water.

Flooded subway near Westhumble

There was nothing else for it but to head over the top instead, battling traffic on the dual carriage way, to get across the road. I had no choice. Not if I was ever going to get to the railway station. My journey to the North Downs Way wasn’t in total vain though. Over on the other side I found a piece of the subway entrance that wasn’t covered under brown, muddy water. A piece of pavement that was both on both Thames Down Link and the North Downs Way.

And with that, I headed up the road to the railway station. I’d walked from the Thames to the North Downs in a mere day. From urban walking, to flooded rivers. Mud splattered, with soaking wet boots, I went to find myself a nice clean train to whisk me home.

Planning Your Own Trip

The Thames Down Link is a fifteen mile walk from Kingston Upon Thames to Westhumble. It can easily be walked in a day, and there are railway stations at both ends with regular services. The trail also goes past Berrylands station, which is an ideal place to start the trail if you’re not fussed about doing the whole thing and prefer to miss out a section of complex, urban walking. The route also passes reasonably near several railway stations.


Thames Down Link


Paulo Cerqueira

14 April 2019 at 9:29 am

Hi, do you know where to find the best map for this. I have been looking. Will do this on saturday as i will travel from putney to kingston then box hill.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

14 April 2019 at 4:09 pm

Hi Paulo – you need the Ordnance Survey Explorer maps numbered 146 and 161.

Paulo Cerqueira

26 May 2019 at 10:34 am

Hi, did this 2 weeks ago. Not bad. There are some tricky points at epsom forest and when arriving at Kingston. Will do the Downs link tomorrow from Guilford. Thanks, Paulo.

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