Liquid history

Tracing centuries of history and heritage along one of the finest stretches of the Thames Path.

Ramblers Route in Depth - Liquid history

Words by Andrew White | Photo by Steve Morgan

Thames Path

Think of the River Thames, and most of us have visions of that iconic stretch of water flowing through England’s capital city, hemmed in by some of the world’s most recognisable buildings. But the Thames starts many miles from London, from a source deep in the Cotswold Hills. Starting here, the Thames Path follows its course for 184 miles, all the way to the Thames Barrier at Greenwich. 

This is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales, but the Thames Path is unique in being the only one to follow a river. First proposed in the late 1940s, it officially opened in 1996, making 2016 its twentieth anniversary. The Ramblers was instrumental in its conception, working with the River Thames Society to persuade the Thames Water Authority and the Countryside Commission to produce a feasibility study on a continuous route from London to the source – a move that paved the way for its ultimate creation.

The trail is split into numerous stages of varying lengths, each taking in distinctive stretches of the river as it meanders its way through countryside, village, town and city. One of the sections that is richest in history and heritage lies between the regatta town of Henley-on-Thames and Maidenhead. That’s the section I’m following – my journey to Maidenhead along the banks of the river is about 17 miles, or about seven hours of walking, but it’s mainly easy going along well-maintained paths, albeit with the odd boggy section after wet weather. Getting there is easy – indeed, its sheer accessibility is one of the most appealing features of the Thames Path.

Starting in the Newtown area of Henley, I find myself right alongside the Thames from the start, in the company of many other walkers and cyclists, testament to the enduring appeal of the trail. In just the short section through Henley, you get a sense of how large a part the river played in the history of this town, with boats of all shapes and sizes moored along the banks. The first record of Henley was in 1179, so there’s a lot of history here – most visibly, the five arched road bridge the path uses to cross the river, built in 1786 and now a Grade I listed piece of architecture. I note that I’m now in Berkshire, as opposed to Oxfordshire, on the Henley side of the Thames. Then, within moments, I’ve left the town behind and entered a lush green, pleasant landscape – one that feels almost timeless.

One of the biggest surprises about the Thames soon becomes apparent – the sheer number of islands in the river.  Perhaps none is more startling than Temple Island, just past the village of Remenham.  As you walk towards it, you cannot fail to spot the elegant ornamental folly built by James Wyatt in 1771, which was designed as a fishing lodge for Fawley Court, a stately home on the far side of the river.  Its main significance today is as a marker for the start of the Henley Royal Regatta, first held in 1839.

Once past the island, there’s another grand building straight ahead on the far bank – Greenlands – whose most famous owner was William Henry Smith, the son of the founder of the booksellers WH Smith. 

There are several weirs along the route, with the necessary diversions for boats bypassing these hazards using locks.  The first I encounter is Hambleden Lock, with its marina and former mill buildings now converted into luxury flats. 

Although most of this section of the Thames Path faithfully follows the river, there are parts that branch off from the river bank. A right turn takes me down Aston Ferry Lane to the little village of Aston, away from the riverside, which is left as a natural flood plain and grazing land. One of the few buildings here is a pub, which provides a most welcome and refreshing pit stop. 

As the path rejoins the river, I admire another majestic country house. Culham Court’s striking red brick façade dates back to 1771 and was designed by Sir William Chambers to replace the original built in 1706, which was destroyed by a fire started by a careless workman.  After some zig-zagging, the path finds the river again and passes the quaintly named Frogmill, a camping and caravanning site. On the far side, just peeking out through the trees is the former country estate of Danesfield House. The house commands a dominant position on a steep-sided plateau at the river’s edge, and it’s unsurprising that it was once the location of a hill fort. It was thought this camp was Danish – hence the name ‘Danes-field’, although subsequent archaeological finds from the Neolithic, Bronze and Iron Ages date the site as being much older. Today, after several rebuilds, the house is now a hotel and spa.

Walking on the opposite bank, I hear the sound of rushing water.  At the village of Hurley, the Thames splits around yet more islands – with water taking the left fork speeding over a large weir, and on the right, the more calm and controlled passage for vessels through Hurley Lock.  Just off the path are the remains of a former Benedictine priory originally founded in 1086, with the surviving part of the priory church now serving as Hurley’s parish church.  By now, I’m used to the path crossing and recrossing the river, but here it journeys onto one of the islands for a while. It is fascinating to compare the speed of the water on either side of the island – particularly the pace at which the water on the untamed side flows thanks to the Hurley Lock, which was first built by the Thames Navigation Commissioners in 1773.

As I cross from bank to bank, over numerous attractive footbridges, I find myself looking across to Temple Mill Island – so named as three watermills, formerly used to beat copper and brass, were located on the island. It’s now a modern housing estate along with a marina. From this side I’ve also a rather good view of Bisham Abbey, a Grade I listed manor house built on the site of a monastery, now long gone, with the same name. The manor house is today part of an extended number of buildings which all make up one of the five National Sports Centres run on behalf of Sport England as a residential training camp.  I wonder whether any of the sports teams based there have ever seen the ghost of Elizabeth Hoby, who is said to haunt the Great Hall as she repents of the death of her son, purportedly caused through her own neglect and cruel punishment…

The next major habitation on the route is Marlow. Here the path leaves the riverbank for a while, climbing alongside the beautiful Grade I-listed suspension bridge, built in 1832, and passing through the church yard of the impressive All Saints Church, before threading its way through peaceful roads at the edge of town and back to the river. Admittedly, the road bridge carrying the A404 over the Thames is not as elegant as the Marlow Suspension Bridge, but is ingenious in its use of an island as a supporting pillar in the middle of the river. Here, the Thames Path is joined by Shakespeare’s Way, a long-distance trail covering some 146 miles from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to the modern Globe Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames in London.

Crossing the bridge alongside the railway at Bourne End brings me back to the south bank. Away to the west are fantastic views of Cock Marsh, an area of flat water meadows and steep chalk hills that are home to many rare plants – which is why it is now a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  It also has four burial mounds, which are scheduled ancient monuments and are believed to date from the Bronze Age. This has been used as common land for grazing by residents of the nearby village of Cookham since 1272. Cookham itself is another detour away from the river, with the signs taking me to the right as I see the blue road bridge across the river, and through the churchyard of Holy Trinity. 

If someone could time travel from Cookham’s past to the present day, I’m sure they’d recognise it instantly, for it retains a beautiful collection of historic buildings spanning the generations. It’s a lovely village well worth a look around – fortunately, the Thames Path passes right through it. Cookham’s cosy feel, stunning architecture and choice location beside the Thames make it a desirable residence. In 2011 The Daily Telegraph labelled it Britain’s second richest village. Comedians Chris Barrie and Tim Brooke-Taylor as well as presenter Ulrika Jonsson and Queen’s John Deacon are all local residents, although none appeared to be enjoying village life as I headed down another Mill Lane back towards the Thames.

One the far side of the river the imposing Cliveden Estate can be glimpsed through a screen of trees. Built by the architect Sir Charles Barry, the man responsible for designing the Palace of Westminster, it was home to the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland in the 1850s. The steep slopes of the estate are a marked contrast to the flat, low-lying land on the south side of the river.

As I begin the last stretch, urbanised Maidenhead starts to unfold in front of me, and the path joins the pavement along the A4094. But the Thames is just on the left, and there’s a lovely view of Boulter’s Lock and the associated original lockkeeper’s house on Ray Mill Island.  The walk along the A4094 is pleasant, and both banks of the river are densely wooded. Soon I reach the roundabout with the busy A4, which marks the end of my walk. The Thames Path continues across the bridge and southwards along what is now the east side of the river, where its next port of call is Eton.

I’ve enjoyed this gentle walk along the Thames Path and for a history and heritage geek like myself, there’s been much to interest me along the route.  And I’ve certainly been inspired to do more sections of this under-rated national trail in its twentieth year.

walk it!

TIME/DISTANCE The 184-mile Thames Path is most commonly split into about 20 stages, each of which makes a great day walk. Henley-on-Thames to Maidenhead is a classic linear river walk of 17 miles that showcases just what the ‘countryside’ stages of the Thames Path have to offer.

BOOKS & MAPS OS Explorer 171 and 172, Landranger 175. Thames Path in the Country: National Trail Guide, David Sharp & Tony Gowers, Aurum Press Ltd, ISBN 9781845137175, £12.99. Walking the Thames Path, Leigh Hatts, Cicerone Press, ISBN 9781852848293, £15.95.

ACCOMMODATION Various B&B options in Maidenhead and Henley, including Reachview Bed & Breakfast, 1 Cromwell Rd, Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1JH. 01491 573193, info@reachviewbedandbreakfast.co.uk

FURTHER INFO www.nationaltrail.co.uk/thames-path