Length: 96 miles
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Britain’s grandest river is an obvious candidate for a cycling break from London – and the Thames Valley route doesn’t disappoint.
You can’t cycle along the river all the way to Oxford. Instead, this is a varied route that mixes up rural lanes, riverside paths, little-known bridleways and purpose-built cycle tracks to make a relaxing route to the great university city.
No. The Thames Path is solely a walking route from the source of the river in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier. Most of it is classified as ’public footpath’ – bikes aren’t allowed, it’s grass or mud, and there are (lots of) stiles. (Unlike canals, the riverbanks are privately owned, and most of the rich Thames landowners aren’t exactly bike-friendly.)
So unfortunately, you can’t cycle the Thames from source to sea. That said, you can cycle along the riverside most of the way from Putney to Staines, and in Reading and Oxford.
It is, but not a fast one. As part of the National Cycle Network, it’s cleverly pieced together from riverside paths, country lanes, residential streets and rural tracks. Inevitably that means a fair amount of turning hither and thither – it’s not the sort of route where you can just put your head down and go for it.
If you want to cycle from London to Oxford in a day, this isn’t the route for you. (We’d suggest this route instead, which at 66 miles we think is a good compromise between speed and relaxation.)
But if you’ve got a weekend or longer, the Thames Valley route is greatly enjoyable. Since you’re never far from a railway station that will take you back to Paddington, Londoners won’t need to book accommodation along the way. The 95, largely flat, miles should take most cyclists two or three days.
Much of the route is within the reach of a road bike with sturdy tyres, or any hybrid or MTB. Cooper’s Hill, by Runnymede, and Knowl Hill, near Wargrave, are both a little rough: alternative road routes are possible in both cases. Peep’o’Day Lane, north of Sutton Courtenay (near Didcot), can also be rough and road bikers would be better advised to take a longish detour onto the other bank, via Culham.
It’s pretty flat. Only the Reading–Wallingford section across the Chilterns really taxes the muscles: we think this picturesque length is well worth the exertion, but it’s perhaps not ideal for a novice cyclist on a heavy bike.
But if you’re looking for a flat waterside ride for your first cycling holiday, check out the Kennet & Avon Canal instead.
There are railway stations at regular intervals. From central London to Staines they’re suburban services, heading into Waterloo. From Maidenhead onwards, they’re on the Paddington–Oxford line, where you can just stash your bike in the vestibules of the local trains. (Bikes aren’t permitted in the weekday rush-hour.) There are GWR expresses from Reading and Oxford, too, but you need to book bike spaces on them.
Between Oxford and London, there are also regular fast coaches (the Oxford Tube and the X90) which take a limited number of bikes at no extra charge.
NCN 4 officially starts at the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, then threads its way along the South Bank to Lambeth Bridge, where it crosses to Pimlico and Chelsea – here’s the route. It’s a practical way to get through the city, but if you have the choice, we’d recommend starting at Putney. This is where the route gets leafy and (largely) leaves the busier roads behind, and it’s where our detailed guide begins…