England’s Thames of endearment

Drifting down the river between Oxford and London by boat, train and tow path, Andrew Eames falls for an England unchanged since Ratty, Mole and the rest paddled beneath its willows

Brunes’s railway bridge, its brick arches reflected in the river, was doing its best to blend in with the water meadows just south of Goring-on-Thames. Coots were nesting on it as I passed under it one early-summer morning. Saplings sprouted from its piers. Bushes peeped over its parapet. But the camouflage couldn’t conceal the railway that Isambard Kingdom Brunel built it for, back in 1838. I emerged into sunshine to see a train hurtle across the top, intruding on my parallel universe. As suited passengers prepared for meetings in the Big Smoke just 45 minutes away, here I was beginning another day in a drowsy backwater, immersed in fields of sage-scented purple knapweed. My approach to the capital was a grassy tow path, passing banks of blue forget-me-nots, and my meetings would be with moorhens. Trains on the Great Western Railway might run two or three times faster than when Brunel built his bridges, yet the Thames still flows below at the same pensive pace. I’d lived near its banks for years but never found time, among modern pressures and mundane drudgery, to see its forgotten corners. But, reading aloud a chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to a young relative one evening, I realised that much of the idyll in his 1908 publication lay virtually on my doorstep. If I took off, how easily might I find his timeless wilderness?

Walk the Thames Path from Oxford to London, and the frantic contemporary world recedes behind a leafy veil. Clocks and schedules fade to changing skies and the slow shift of seasons. Time flows backwards. The river, as it heads for the North Sea, is a water-world of nostalgia: wisteria-hung public houses, with tables among riverside apple trees; unhurried tow paths, where the only sounds are rasping mallards, rain on the reed-framed water, or cuckoos calling over sun-warmed fields. Poets, from Shelley to T S Eliot, were inspired by it; so were painters, among them the mystical Stanley Spencer, as well as novelists such as H G Wells and Jerome K Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat is a comic masterpiece.

On a scudding-cloud morning in early June I set off from Oxford’s Folly Bridge to follow the meandering Thames by boat, on foot and aboard the odd steam train. From this bridge, on mid-Victorian afternoons, maths prof Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would row Alice Liddell and her sisters, entertaining them with surreal adventure stories that began with a now-famous girl following a white rabbit down a hole. As I stood by a traffic-choked street, 151 years after Alice in Wonderland was published, it was easy to believe London was only an hour away by train. But boarding the Edwardian Lady Ethel, an open-topped, royal-blue craft, I was soon gliding into the past, spotting the long-horned cattle and lacy cow parsley of meadows, Oxford’s ochre spires sliding behind dappled oaks.

Salter’s Steamers was founded by two brothers back when Lewis Carroll was rowing Alice. The same family runs the riverboat company today. I was almost alone on the two-hour trip to the market town of Abingdon, with Tim doing the rope-work, Mark at the helm. As we drifted by flowering chestnuts and carpets of buttercups, they talked about the boat-lovers who escape to the sanctuary of the water every weekend; about the ‘rich and shameless’ living in the riverside properties; and about the Thames itself, which lashes out now and again at those who try to build too near.

From this bridge, on mid-Victorian afternoons, maths prof Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would row Alice Liddell and her sisters, entertaining them with surreal adventure stories

After 18 years working on this stretch of water, Mark, it seemed, had absorbed its calm. ‘When it comes to the Thames,’ he said, gnomically, as we parted by Abingdon Bridge, ‘you either get it, or you don’t’. I recalled his words some hours later, as I rested among blooming hawthorns and stately poplars, looking back down the river’s mazy curves from the grassy ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort. I ate my last pain au raisin (from Abingdon’s Patisserie Pascal), gazing across at Dorchester, a mossy-roofed village with a square-towered abbey church. I’d seen almost nobody on the 14km walk, just weeping willows dipping their long, green tresses in the meditative Thames. Now fork-tailed red kites wheeled over the beech-crowned chalk, dragonflies darted among ox-eye daisies, and I felt myself relax. ‘Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it,’ says Grahame’s Water Rat in his hymn to ‘messing about on the river’. I was, I felt, ‘getting’ the Thames.

The-Thames-Path,-acpublic-footpath
The Thames Path

But I couldn’t linger, not if I wanted to get a bed before nightfall. The medieval arches and flagstone floors of 12th-century Fyfield Manor lay a good walk east, near Wallingford and the old-fashioned bathtub was just what my sore feet needed. Waking in a building fundamentally unchanged for hundreds of years, with a kingfisher-haunted brook burbling through the garden, I wouldn’t have blinked to see Jerome and friends strolling past in striped blazers, or hear Ratty on the riverbank, singing to the ducks.

There was welcome respite for my feet that morning: a nostalgic jaunt on the Cholsey and Wallingford steam railway. The 4km-long branch line didn’t make much downstream progress, but the noisy red-and-green steam engine was a delight, drawing waving spectators on its cross-country puff to Cholsey, where Agatha Christie is buried in the churchyard.

Feet reinvigorated, I could feel the river’s reedy calm calling as I hurried along Cholsey’s sycamore-fringed Ferry Lane, back towards the Thames. The tow path soon led to the hamlet of Moulsford and a drink outside the Beetle & Wedge Boathouse, where I watched geese and swans glide on their rippling highway, enjoying the smell of the Beetle’s charcoal barbecue. The Beetle & Wedge is the ‘little riverside inn’ in Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where George and J stop off on a walk and where the trout on the wall in the bar, which all the locals claim to have caught, turns out to be made of plaster. It’s also H G Wells’s Potwell Inn, where Mr Polly takes a job. Just as Wells described it, the rose-trellised garden runs down to a broad bend in the Thames; and, as the light faded, the river started to resemble Jerome’s imagined watery idyll near the start of the novel, full of sighing rushes and rustling trees.

‘Goring on the left bank and Streatley on the right are charming places to stay,’ wrote Jerome in 1889. Nearing these large villages, across the Thames from each other, I saw the valley narrow, rising through woodland either side. The ‘rich and shameless’ were starting to make their presence felt: magisterial lawns dotted with frowning oaks; mock-Tudor summerhouses on the riverfronts. For a little luxury, I slept at the Swan, with its fourposters and fancy restaurant terrace. How easily I’d forgotten the proximity of the modern world. I even spied a deer on the island across the narrows over breakfast.

But soon I was at Brunel’s bridge, its intrusive inter-city railway warning of the suburbs beyond. The banks began crowding in, pushing the path uphill as the current wound through Goring Gap, Chilterns to my left, North Wessex Downs to my right. Presently it dropped into busy Pangbourne, the first of the large villages ahead to cast its net. The Thames skulked virtually unnoticed through Reading, my progress laced with graffiti and littered cans. Only late that day was my equilibrium restored when I reached the far side, and the tea garden at Sonning Lock, with its ‘Keep Calm and Eat Cupcakes’ sign.

Jerome calls the village of Sonning ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’, every house smothered in roses, and old men drinking outside the lattice-windowed pub. The lawn of the creeper-coated French Horn restaurant-with-rooms, sloping gently to the water’s edge, perfectly captures his feeling that Sonning is ‘more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar’. The evening view was so still it could indeed have been a theatrical set awaiting an actor, the setting sun gradually adjusting the lighting. Only the occasional movement of a heron, silhouetted against a curtain of willows, proved I was not looking at a painting. I sat still listening to the river until chilly twilight mists drifted out of the gathering dark. Inside, a duck crackled on a spit by the open fire.

By now my feet were bleating for another morning off, so from Sonning I took a Salter’s Steamer along one of the richest stretches of river. Crew gossip was that the Clooneys were renovating a lavish property hidden behind the trees. As Henley-on-Thames approached, the celebrity addresses came thicker and faster, along with boathouses and varnished launches nodding their bows at private landings. The town, a crucial 18th-century staging post for coaches between Oxford and London, has always been the pricey jewel in the river’s antique coronet, and I disembarked to find it busy with jazzy paddle steamers, grandstands and bandstands, preparing for regatta week.

As Henley-on-Thames approached, the celebrity addresses came thicker and faster

I was on foot again, the Thames now majestic as it threaded its way beyond Henley into a valley dotted with grand country houses. Twelve kilometres and two counties later, I reached Marlow at teatime, having strolled out of Oxfordshire into Berkshire and back across the Thames over an elegant suspension bridge. Hungary’s Count Széchenyi admired Marlow Bridge so much he had a larger version built across the Danube at Budapest, where it still stands.

Marlow’s well-heeled boutiques and coffee shops made a cheerful contrast to the relics of its varied history. Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein on West Street, while her poet husband rowed his skiff on the river, and T S Eliot lived on the same road during WWI (‘Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song’ he wrote in The Waste Land). I felt a pilgrim’s pleasure in sharing the road with these ghosts, encountering what Jerome calls ‘standing arches in the shattered bridge of Time’.

Marlow-Bridge
Marlow Bridge

The mental postcards I was taking back to the city reminded me of Stanley Spencer’s paintings, in which the landscapes of his childhood are recreated as a heaven on Earth. And so I pushed on for 5km to the village of Cookham, where the artist grew up and where his works are on show. On the way, a final sunset tinted the widening Thames, mystic light on the waters, towering woods tinged with fire, a golden glory of piled-up clouds. In Cookham, a village of flint and brick, ivy and wisteria, snatches of cricket commentary over garden walls, I found a bed in Bel and the Dragon, an inn dating back to 1417, and so one of England’s oldest. It was a place of rambling floors, low ceilings and walls leaning conspiratorially.

All that remained next morning was to ease back into modern life: to Maidenhead, a 5km wander along the river, another boat trip to Windsor, then a train to London. Before leaving, I walked around Cookham. Spencer’s ashes rest in the churchyard near the flowery path to Bellrope meadow, whose evergreen cedars and mauve Michaelmas daisies he painted.

My very English adventure ended, like the Three Men’s, bathetically in trudging rain, but I’d ‘got’ the Thames. The river had taught me, like Grahame’s Mole, ‘the joy of running water’. With my ear to the reed-stems I’d caught at intervals ‘something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them’.

Andrew Eames/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing