2006 Thames Path Day 9 / 7 Sonning to Marlow
Back to the Future: Messing About on the River
Back to 2006, that is, to the third of my 4 days of hiking that year.
I was staying in Pangbourne, for convenience to the rail line and for pleasant and reasonable accommodations, and I had walked the first two days downstream from Oxford and decided to wait until my final day hiking to fill in the shorter stretch from Cholsey to Pangbourne. So on this third day (my seventh overall of hiking the Thames), I started by catching the train to Reading and then a cab to Sonning, where I had first discovered the Thames Path. With waiting for a train, it was about 11 when the cab dropped me off at the Bull In in Sonning-on-Thames; I’d had a wonderful dinner here when I was teaching that class back in 2001. I strolled through the churchyard and down to the river, then joined the trail. It switches banks in Sonning, across a beautiful arched brick bridge. I took a few pictures, and walked past the old mill, now a dinner theater. The road continued across a modern bridge to Sonning Eye and the French Horn Inn I had stayed in, but the trail took a footbridge across the weir stream.
Then I was in pastoral, Wind in the Willows country. Fields and pastures lined the river on both sides, rising to low ridges. The riverbank was no more than 10 feet to my right, but trees, shrubbery, and invasive mustard sometimes hid it, or at least the lower parts of the narrowboats and cruisers moored so close by. For a while the path went through denser woods, then through an open space with the river just a couple of feet to the right, and the village of Shiplake perched atop a low cliff some fifty yards to the left. The towpath continued towards Shiplake Lock, with fancy homes and boathouses replacing fields across the water, although there were pastures on this side, complete with cattle. Then the lock itself, with lovely landscaping but not as exuberant with flowers as Sonning and Mapledurham. I did like a whimsical planter made from (or shaped like) a small dinghy.
Then the trail left the river to go through the town of Lower Shiplake. I stopped at the Baskerville Arms for lunch and a pint, it being nearly 1. Above the bar, a sign proclaimed “If you take my advice, when the weather is nice, go messing about on the river.” I was sure that this was Ratty talking to Mole soon after they met, but looking back, his comment then was “Believe me my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Similar spirit, at least.
Leaving the pub at about 1:20, I had another ¾ of a mile of admittedly pleasant stroll along residential streets before getting back to the riverside; the luxurious houses to my right faced the river to their rear. Fellmonger Farm at the end of the road had a sign on its gate warning of fierce dogs. Then another grand house to the right had an elaborate miniature railway complete with three story station among its lush gardens. I don’t know what the scale was, but the tracks appeared to be perhaps 8” apart: too small to ride, but huge compared to tabletop sets.
Then another 20 minutes of riverside walking among the trees and meadows, admiring a hillside of trees and expensive houses across the river. A long wooden causeway carries the path diagonally across the river to Marsh Lock, oddly situated in the middle of the stream. Returning to shore, I was now walking along manicured parkland, entering Henley. I noticed a River and Rowing Museum quite near to the path. Despite Henley’s fame for its Regatta, I would not have been tempted by the museum, except for a sign announcing a Wind in the Willows exhibit. This turned out to be not historical notes and artifacts from the writing and publication, but a delightful retelling of the story, largely through dioramas! My favorite was the scene of Rat and Mole caught by the snow in the Wild Wood, and discovering they are on Badger’s doorstep when Mole cuts his leg on Badger’s door-scraper. One diorama shows them having scraped away enough snow to see the door and pound on it. Then you walk further and you see the inside of Badger’s house, with the gentleman, lamp in hand, heading for that door. Then near the end, the fight for Toad Hall is illustrated by a scene of the grand dining room, with the great table spinning continuously as the vengeful comrades overturn it and dispense justice to weasels and stoats.
From the timestamps on my photos, I only spent 40 minutes here. It seems like it was longer, but I’ve mentioned how much Grahame’s book means to me. Part of that goes back to early childhood memories of the Disney animated movie, and the ride at Disneyland, but I read it many times over the years, and my wife and I have read it aloud to each other. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter is wonderfully lyrical prose — ask Pink Floyd. In the ’90s, I found a wonderful illustrated edition; I prefer the art of it to the famous 1913 version. I have a special fondness for Mr. Toad, obsessive fool that he is. Did I mention my middle initial is K? It’s not easy being green.
But I had miles to go, and the rest of Henley had a stately Victorian feel to match this classic literature. I even saw a steam launch puffing upriver! I stopped for a pint at The Angel on the Bridge. Past a street market, I got a good view of the 16th Century St. Mary’s, then crossed the bridge to the east bank. A little over a mile brought me to the end of the Henley Reach Regatta course at Temple Island, where a spiffy social event of some sort was in full swing, overseen by the naked lady up in the Temple.
Beyond the Henley reach, the river makes more than a 90° turn, from almost north to southeast. Not quite the grand curve that approaches Dorchester, but still a nice sweep. The trail stayed on the inside bank of that curve, with big river cruisers tied up next to it, and grasslands filling the bight. Grasslands on the far side gave way to woods up the hills, with expensive (if not old enough to be Stately) homes along the far bank. The guidebook calls Greenlands, built in 1853 for the bookseller W. H. Smith, later Viscount Hambledon. Hunh. I wonder if Bezos ever dreams of being Jeffrey, Earl of Seattle… Greenlands is now the home of Henley Business School, and qualifies as a Stately Home, but I barely got a glimpse of it through the trees.
Shortly I reached Hambledon Lock. Another long series of diagonal weirs with a catwalk above them leads to a large old mill building, in service as late as 1955 (powered by water turbine rather than wheel), now converted to flats. The trail stayed on this side of the river, though, until after a half mile it turned inland to the village of Aston because the tow path had jumped sides there via long-gone ferry. Soon the trail was close to the river, passing in front of another Stately Home, red brick Culham Court dating from the 18th century. The owners at the time I was hiking here didn’t seem too happy with the national trail passing so close to their doorstep, and invited passers to divert to a “permissive footpath” even closer to the river. I stayed with the official path, which after an encounter with a small herd of cattle returned to the riverside for a very pleasant stretch of willows, reeds, and small boats that would have made Ratty feel quite at home. A couple of smaller curves, and another Stately Home named Danesfield, now a hotel, looked down from a cliff beyond the far bank.
Then Hurley Lock, with more willows among oaks and other trees, and a couple of foot bridges across the lock channel. The trail crosses the first of these to the lock island, along it to the second bridge, and then back. After less than half a mile, though, the towpath jumps sides of the river again, but for once a purpose built pedestrian bridge allows the trail to stay with it. This is the long and graceful Temple Footbridge, and soon you reach Temple Lock, adjoin yet another Temple Island. A very religious area.
Beyond this, the main sights are on the far back: a Tudor home built around (and partly incorporating) the remains of Bisham Abbey, and then shortly the 17th century Bisham Church. Then, all too soon (except that it’s actually the end of a long day), the spire of Marlow’s All Saints Church peeks from the next curve. As you approach it, the William Tierney Clark suspension bridge comes into view, together forming one of the classic Thames views (see picture at top). Clark also designed Hammersmith Bridge in London, but the path guidebook rightly calls this one his masterpiece.
It was nearly 8 by the time I passed the Thames Path fingerpost in front of All Saints. (Hmm, in the picture the clock says 12… must have been stopped by a lightning strike.) From here, I was off the trail as I headed for the train station to make my way back to Pangbourne. My other days in this trip had all been along the main London-Oxford line, but Marlow is on a side spur with an odd path; locals call it the Marlow Mule and there is a pub by that name. On the way to the station I passed an Indian restaurant that looked good, but I decided that given the time I should head back and have dinner in Pangbourne.