Written by Jeannette Briggs.
For the many keen cyclists who are keen to ride along or near the River Thames or the many canals that connect with the Thames, there are some problems!
The River Thames banks
Basically, virtually all of the Thames towpath alongside the River from Lechlade to London is privately owned, but designated as a public footpath, The Thames Path Please note that this is NOT a cycle route.Use of the footpath sections by cyclists can be a contentious issue and there are some stretches where it is quite hazardous to walkers because of careless cyclists. Walkers have priority on footpaths by the river so cyclists should approach groups of walkers with care and signal their approach by using their bells. Extra care should be taken when trying to pass groups with children, animals, the elderly or the disabled etc.
Cyclists have no "rights" as such to ride on the Thames Path, and are actually prohibited from riding through lock gardens and riverside public parks because of safety issues.
Much of the towpath is designated as the Thames Path National Trail and this is not a cycle route. There is usually not sufficient width for walkers and cyclists to safely pass side by side.
In addition, the surface conditions, steps, stiles and muddy sections often make the path unsuitable for cyclists. Cyclists should plan to use the Sustrans Thames Valley cycle route.
See more information about the Thames path on this web-site here
The Towpaths of the Canals
The situation is slightly different when we consider cycling along the towpaths of the canals. Here the towpaths are by and large owned and maintained by British Waterways, and cyclists make use of the towpaths to complete their intended journeys, sometimes with BWB permits.
Having said this, it is not all doom and gloom for cyclists! Some sections of the River Thames provide idyllic cycling along hard-surfaced tracks that are free of traffic, and run adjacent to the river. These tracks often link places of historical interest which are difficult to reach by car, but staggeringly easy to cycle to. The villages, towns and landscapes that the Thames flows through seem to exist in a delightful timewarp - often because they have been by-passed by recent bridge and road building, and thus are not to be missed.
The Greater London section of the River Thames has limited access for cycling near the river on roads, and you can plan your ride along roads and tracks to pass the most interesting parts of the city. We should emphasise that you should consult the Environment Agency's web site for full details. Sections of the Thames Path have bridleway status, over which cyclists have a right to pass - but these sections are often away from the side of the river! When you reach the Greater London area you can cycle from Weybridge to Hampton Court along the Thames thanks to the local Highways authorities.
The National Cycle Network 'Sustrans' route number 61 runs alongside the Jubilee River in Maidenhead, with a cycleway running for approximately 11km from the A4 at Taplow to Pococks Lane Eton. National Cycle Network routes 4 and 5 also run along the River Thames, and the Kennet and Avon Canal in Reading. Route 4 travels east towards London past Thames Valley Park, Charvil and Twyford, and west past The Oracle shopping centre along the banks of the Kennet. Route 5 travels north from the Thames through Caversham and Emmer Green to the Chilterns towards Oxford. For a copy of the 'Thames Valley Cycle Route' map which is published by SUSTRANS as part of the official route map of the National Cycle Network (Route ref NN51 - ISBN 1-901389-11-1) call SUSTRANS via its 'Information Service' on 0117 929 0888, or from the National Trails Office 01865 810224. This map will give you details of a continuous route from Oxford to London using much of the towpath, particularly downstream of Staines.
Do try cycling the Sustrans route 61 and always be prepared to give way to walkers. When you get bogged down because cycling is prohibited on certain sections, consult the maps.There are other routes like bridleways or minor roads which will take you to where you want to go."
Bridleways are of course available to cyclists and walkers but the quality of them varies hugely. Trial and error will win the day ! You will thus enjoy fascinating rides through the history of England and the magic of the English countryside in all its glory.
Good luck!- Jeannette Briggs