Fashion editor, broadcaster and co-host of the Postcards From Midlife podcast, Trish Halpin reflects on her late love for walking and the commitment to take on the whole Thames Path, one luxury weekend at a time.
Walking is one of those hobbies that creeps up on you in life. As a child, it never made any sense to me to go on a walk, I couldn’t imagine why you’d do it other than to get from A to B. As a teenager I thought it was just for boring old people who had nothing better to do. In my twenties I was too busy trying to get a foothold on the career ladder, saving weekends for clubbing, hangovers and little else (well it was the 90s). But around the time I turned 30, the ‘Bridget Jones mini-break’ had officially become a thing; going to a swanky hotel in the countryside where you splashed out on romantic dinners by night and tried out country pursuits by day, all with the person you were desperately hoping would be ‘the one’.
My ‘one’, back then and still now, is my husband Neil, and we’ve been walking together for pleasure for more than 25 years. We’ve clocked up umpteen miles in many beautiful parts of the UK, we own walking boots, waterproof jackets and even a pair of gaiters (those things you put around your calves to stop your trousers getting muddy). Now it’s our teenagers who think that we are boring old people with nothing better to do!
Being fully ensconced in our midlife years, the next stage of the walking evolution seems to have taken hold – we don’t just want to go on a walk, we want a challenge, we want to complete an entire trail or a path from where it starts to where it ends. As a fan of the writer and walker Raynor Winn, author of The Salt Path, I was so inspired when she came on a recent episode of the podcast I co-host, Postcards From Midlife. As she talked about her latest walking adventure, from the north of Scotland all the way to her home in Cornwall, wild camping on the way, I decided it was time to make it happen.
And that is how we found ourselves checking into the boutique country inn, Wild Thyme & Honey in the Cotswolds on a beautiful autumn weekend (you might not be surprised to hear that we decided to leave the wild camping to Raynor). Situated beside Ampney Brook near historic Cirencester, this refurbished 16th-century inn oozes modern rustic chic. Centered around an outdoor courtyard, with a blazing fire and chairs draped in soft blankets and sheepskins, on one side is the attached pub and dining room, Crown at Ampney Brook, while the inn’s bedrooms are behind the courtyard overlooking the babbling water and village cricket pitch. Also outside is a deck featuring cool dining pods, with elegantly laid tables overlooking the water and nestled in pretty landscaping.
The location was perfect for the plan Neil and I had landed on – to walk the Thames Path from start to finish accompanied by our lovely labrador, Bridie. Not in one go mind you, (we have neither the time nor blister proof feet/paws for that), but in sections over the coming year, clocking up the miles over weekends while staying somewhere Bridget Jones would approve of. As soon as we entered our dog-friendly bedroom we knew it would be the perfect haven for pulling off our boots and putting up our feet for some post-walk relaxation. The modern-meets-cosy vibe came courtesy of exposed Cotswold Stone walls, a bed decked with super soft cushions and throws, concrete pendant lights, wood flooring and a very inviting free-standing bath.
On our first evening we fuelled up with dinner in the Crown’s restaurant – far from regular pub fare, I ordered the delicious twice-baked cheddar soufflé with porcini mushrooms, pressed potato terrine and charred sesame broccoli, while Neil opted for the venison cottage pie for Neil, washed down with a pint or two of Hawkstone lager made by a local Cotswold farmer by the name of Jeremy Clarkson, you may have heard of him… That night we slept like logs and filled up again the next morning with a fresh and tasty ‘Garden breakfast’, plus croissants and fruit aplenty. After filling our water bottles and checking the OS map, we were ready to set off.
There are 16 National Trails in England and Wales, from the Thames Path and South Downs Way to Hadrian’s Wall Path and the Yorkshire Wolds Way. Living in London, a stone’s throw from the Thames, we decided the Thames Path would be a good choice for our first walking challenge: the river is a permanent backdrop to our lives and we’ve crossed every bridge in the capital as well as walking for miles in both easterly and westerly directions along each of the embankments.
The path in its entirety is 183 miles, from the source of the river in the Cotswolds, through Oxford (where the Thames is known as the Isis), then Henley and Windsor before bisecting the capital and finishing at Woolwich. Our mission for the weekend was to find the very beginning and just start walking. There were practicalities to consider – it’s possible to plan your route using public transport to get back to where you started, but we opted for a circular route, walking eight or so miles on the path then looping back to where we had parked our car. On day two, we would pick up the path where we left off and do the same again.
Despite having a Geography A Level under my belt, I’d never actually considered where or how the Thames started. We followed the OS map across a field to a signpost and, lo and behold, there was a pile of stones indicating the spot where the groundwater began to surface – the very source of this majestic river. After another mile or so, it became a small rivulet, then a shallow, clear-watered stream. How fascinating to think it would then make its way into one of the most famous bodies of water in the world.
Back in the hotel room each evening, I had a well-earned glass of the complimentary sloe gin while soaking in the bath laced with By:BW bath salts. A gorgeous blend of Himalayan, Dead Sea and epsom salt, it miraculously eased my stiff right hip, which has become an unfortunate byproduct of midlife.
But the physical and mental benefits of walking are absolutely worth it – not only does it improve your fitness, strengthen your muscles and bones, lower your blood sugar levels and boost your immunity, it also improves your mood and gives you much-needed headspace to think clearly and creatively. In fact, I find it almost meditative falling into my stride, soaking up the visual beauty of the scenery and inhaling the scents and fresh air. My perfect weekend in fact. And while we may have many miles to go to complete our Thames Path challenge, we look forward to walking every single one of them.
Trish is an award-winning editor with 20 years at the helm of three of the UK’s most iconic magazines: Marie Claire, InStyle and Red. She has spearheaded campaigns on girls’ education, climate change and inequality in the justice system, as well as powering women’s careers through a mentorship programme, reader conferences and awards that celebrate women who are changing the way we live and work.