Long before the River Thames reaches the capital, it has journeyed through some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes, weaving its way from Gloucestershire to Greater London, past historic gems and stately sights
The river’s source is a widely disputed subject but the majority would agree this to be Thames Head, close to the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire. For such a great river, the site is hardly dramatic. It is normally dry and there is simply a plaque marking the spot in the corner of the field.Money painted it, Dickens wrote about it, James Bond even took part in a boat chase along it. This is the River Thames: at 210 miles, the second-longest river in the UK (the River Severn is number one at 220 miles) and the only river in Europe to have its own National Trail – the 184-mile-long Thames Path.Often, when people think of the Thames they immediately think of the capital. However, by the time the river reaches Greater London (becoming tidal at Teddington Lock), it has already made its way 147 miles through the heart of England and three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Cotswolds, Chilterns and Surrey Hills).
Technically, the first navigable spot on the river is 12 miles away at Cricklade. This Wiltshire town was founded by the Anglo Saxons in the 9th century – the site was chosen as it was where the great Roman road, Ermin Street, crosses the River Thames – and was later walled as part of Alfred the Great’s defence strategy against the Vikings. In fact, so important was this settlement that it became the home of a Saxon royal mint.
Today, heritage hunters delight in churches such as 13th-century St Sampson’s and medieval St Mary’s, and nearby is North Meadow Nature Reserve, which is home to the UK’s largest population of wild Snakeshead Fritillaries; their delicate purple-chequered heads blowing a silent welcome in the breeze.
That is one of the beauties of the rural Thames – nature is everywhere, and as the river makes its way another ten miles to Lechlade-on-Thames, a plethora of wildlife makes an appearance. Kingfishers peek out from riverside perches; otters dart on the riverbank and families of ducks zig-zag their way through the water. Beneath the surface, over 25 species of fish swim freely, including wild salmon.
A walk along the towpath from Lechlade will take you to Buscot Park, home to the amazing Faringdon Collection of art, or Kelmscott Manor, the summer home of William Morris and described by him as so natural in its setting as if it had “grown up out of the soil”. Alternatively, simply sitting and taking in the view from moorings on the edge of this market town, across to the Church of St Lawrence, never fails to inspire. On this spot poet Shelley sat and composed A Summer Evening Churchyard, Lechlade; the church’s “dim and distant Spire” clothed “in hues of heaven”.
At Lechlade boats bob and glide, overseen by the Neptune-like statue of Old Father Thames at St John’s Lock, and leisure cruising really comes into its own. Spending a lazy day on the river is a pastime that dates back to the Victorian era with the new railways making towns on the river more accessible and provided a popular ‘day out’. It wasn’t long before rowing boat firms sprung up to accommodate with the increasing summertime visitors.
Well-dressed Victorian ladies and gentlemen in their straw boaters and striped blazers might be a thing of the past but pleasure cruising is certainly still going strong as the river makes it way east to Oxford. People take cruises, hire punts, or just sit at one of the many riverside pubs and watch the world-famous university rowing clubs in training.
From here the river flows through the historic town of Abingdon, six miles south-west of Oxford and one of the oldest Bronze Age settlements in England. People walk along this lovely stretch of riverside or dip into the town centre to the Abingdon Museum, housed in the former county hall of Berkshire, a building hailed as the “grandest town hall in Britain” and built by Christopher Kempster, who worked with Christopher Wren on St Paul’s Cathedral.
Jerome ends his tale in the village of Pangbourne, also famous as the home of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows. Grahame lived in Church Cottage and the area provided much material for his classic children’s story of waterside characters. National Trust-owned Basildon Park is also in the vicinity and eagle-eyed visitors might recognise it from its other guise as Netherfield in the film adaptation of Pride & Prejudice starring Keira Knightley.A few miles outside of Abingdon the river passes under Clifton Hampden bridge, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (who was also responsible for St Pancras Station and the Albert memorial). On the other side of the river by the bridge is one of Clifton Hampden’s delightful pubs, The Barley Mow. The building dates back to 1352 but was rebuilt and re-thatched in 1997 after being gutted by in 1975. The pub is described in Jerome K Jerome’s book Three Men in a Boat as “without exception the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river… its thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story book appearance, while inside it is even still more once-upon-a-timeyfied”.
Kenneth Grahame’s creations might have enjoyed messing about in boats but there is certainly no messing about downriver in the beautiful town of Henley. The first Oxford and Cambridge boat races were held here and finished at Henley bridge (today it starts in central London at Putney Bridge and ends at Chiswick Bridge) but perhaps the town is best known for its annual Regatta, which started here in 1839 and gained royal patronage in 1851. The town’s sporting heritage is celebrated at the River and Rowing museum in front of which stands statues of Olympians Sir Steve Redgrave and Sir Matthew Pinsent.
Henley might be one of the most visited towns on the Thames but perhaps the river is at its loveliest as it flows through the Georgian market town of Marlow, spanned by an elegant suspension bridge built in 1832. A must-see in the town centre is West Street where Blue Plaques line many of the houses indicating such famous former residents as Percy Bysshe Shelley (his wife Mary completed her novel Frankenstein here) and T S Eliot.
Lining this stretch of the river are many picture-perfect places to stay but the grandest surely has to be Cliveden, now a five-star hotel and set amid 376 acres of formal National Trust gardens. Guests have included everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Winston Churchill.
Bray Lock and Boulters Lock
Surely there’s no better way to arrive at Henley Royal Regatta or to further explore the Thames along ‘millionaires row’ – between Bray Lock and Boulters Lock – where the rich and famous make their homes outside of London? The village of Bray is also home to the three-Michelin starred The Fat Duck. Owner Hester Blumenthal – a “culinary alchemist” – is well known for his scientific research into taste and flavour. His Snail Porridge and Egg and Bacon Ice Cream certainly make colourful additions to the menu.Hidden within Cliveden’s grounds, right on the riverside, is Spring Cottage. Built as a summerhouse for the Duchess of Sutherland in 1813, the cottage regularly played host to Queen Victoria who would take a carriage from nearby Windsor Castle in time for tea. Today guests can cruise the River Thames in one of Cliveden’s famous vintage launches.
Science and other scholarly pastimes are definitely on the menu downstream at Eton (both Prince William and Harry attended school here) and with royalty in mind pay a visit to Windsor with its castle dating back to the days of William the Conqueror. Following William’s invasion of England in 1066, he built castles here, at Wallingford, Rochester and the Tower of London.
The Thames was once described as “liquid history” and this seems quite apt, especially with the historic spot of Runnymede (derived from the Anglo-Saxon of a place in the meadows or ‘medes’ used to hold regular meetings) just downriver from Windsor. It was on an island here in 1215 that King John signed Magna Carta.
As the Thames makes its way into Greater London, stop off at Bushy Park, lying to the north of Hampton Court, the second largest of the Royal Parks. At Teddington (Tide-end-Town), the non-tidal part of the Thames comes to an end and as you stand watching this world-famous river continue its course through the capital the words of an old song springs to mind “Old Father Thames keeps rolling along… Down to the mighty sea”.
Messing about on the Thames
Hiring a boat: For boating holidays on the Thames contact Blakes Boats (www.blakes.co.uk) who have been hiring out cruisers since 1908. If you only have a day, try Kris Cruisers (www.kriscruisers.co.uk) or for something a bit different hire a punt in Oxford (www.cherwellboathouse.co.uk).
Locks on the river: Uniquely, all 44 locks on the non-tidal River Thames are staffed. The smallest lock is Buscot Lock, just east of Lechlade, and the oldest is at Switch Drift near Abingdon.
Old Father Thames: The figure of Old Father Thames is now reclining beside St John’s Lock at Lechlade. It was carved by Rafaelle Monti, and was originally displayed at the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in 1851.