1) College life in Oxford
I began in the celebrated university city of Oxford, famed for its historic colleges, for academic achievement and for its rowing prowess. I marvelled at the grand edifices behind which some of the leading lights of British life blossomed over the centuries. To get a taste of College life, I entered the austere-looking Worcester College through an ancient oak door, and stepped into another world. The impeccable lawn of the quad is surrounded by an eclectic mix of architectural styles, with an original medieval terrace on one side (pictured), facing a grand Palladian mansion on the other. One of Worcester’s standout highlights is the gardens, which stretch down to the Oxford Canal and feature a large lake, surrounded by woodland glades. I followed the winding path through colourful beds to the cricket field, where a very traditional white pavilion gazes out over the pitch towards the ultra-sleek Sultan Nazrin Shah of Perak Centre. At Worcester, the ancient and modern sit side by side in perfect harmony amid tranquil gardens.
2) Quintessential English villages
Before I came to walk the Thames Path, I dreamt of seeing pretty red-brick, half-timbered cottages with pan-tiled roofs, pink blossom in the churchyard, and weeping willows dipping their sinuous fingers into the river – and I wasn’t to be disappointed. I saw such picture-book villages along every reach – some were linear, like Hurley, where thatched cottages, the priory church, huge tithe barns and two inviting pubs lead down to what was once a ferry crossing over the river; or Whitchurch (pictured), where this iconic view from the quaint Toll Bridge sums up the charm of the river’s many settlements. Others, like Goring, cluster round the village green, narrow winding streets leading off in all directions; Holsey, where the tranquil churchyard quietly tends the modest gravestone of Agatha Christie; and Wallingford, where I walked ancient Anglo-Saxon ramparts that still surround this most historic of small towns. What they all have in common is their proximity to the river, their very foundation based on this most ancient of trade and communication routes. Take time to tarry awhile in each – enjoy the views and hospitality, and savour the atmosphere of quintessential ‘Middle England’.
3) Bird-watching along the river
As I followed the river, I was amazed by the large number of red kites that were wheeling around in the sky in their search for carrion. The 1990 reintroduction programme is reaping huge rewards – though a sign at one riverside café warned outside diners to beware these scavenging raptors! But there was more to come – each day, I saw many different species, from the iridescent orange and turquoise flash of a kingfisher to a family of great crested grebes tending their nest at Pangbourne weir (pictured). Seabirds like cormorant and common tern have found a home here, while lines of mallard ducklings bobbed along behind their mothers in search of a place to feed. Many meadows and marshes along the banks are protected as important habitats for flowers, too, and I saw several clumps of Loddon Lily, a huge snowdrop; as well as myriad dragonflies and butterflies. These habitats are perfect for otter and water vole, though (sadly) I saw none. However, I did see muntjac deer near Shiplake and a herd of white fallow deer within the parkland of Culham Court near Marlow. Despite the Thames being a busy waterway, nature is thriving...
4) Taking to the water
The Thames is a busy waterway and every manner of craft passed me each day. I saw traditional canal barges now converted into holiday homes; I saw sleek, highly-polished wooden slipper launches, lovingly restored cabin cruisers and some that defy description. I was surprised to see several bright orange emergency lifeboats (but no ‘Captain Philips’) moored near Shiplake, and even a trans-Atlantic rower getting some practice in before facing the sterner stuff of the open sea. I was hailed by jolly boaters making their way from one riverside pub to the next, and chatted with those who have chosen to make their homes in quiet backwaters. In Abingdon, Henley and Marlow, I saw would-be Redgraves competing in their own personal challenges, and others in more simple rowing boats, following in the wake of Ratty and Mole, or those hapless Three Men in a Boat. However, what brought a smile to my face was the sight of three cars, complete with red ensigns and picnic hampers, calmly chugging their way up the river, as I made my way from Henley to Marlow. The cars were red, white and blue (pictured) – how wonderfully British!
5) Walking with giants
Some of the world’s literary giants have certainly been seduced by the spectacular scenery of Middle England, and no one more so than J.R.R. Tolkien who wrote his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, set in a mythical ‘Middle Earth’ while teaching at Oxford University. I was staggered by the list of Oxford’s other alumni, which includes Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, Percy Shelley, William Morris, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Sayers, Robert Graves, Evelyn Waugh, John Betjeman, Harper Lee, Seamus Heaney, Philip Pullman, Helen Fielding, Jeanette Winterson, and Russell T. Davies, to mention just a few. Further downstream, I encountered the River Thames that so motivated Kenneth Grahame and Jerome K. Jerome to write their respective novels Wind in the Willows and Three Men in a Boat, which not only defined them as writers but also created timeless images of one of England’s greatest rivers. Like me, you can walk in Tolkein’s illustrious footsteps through the hushed halls of Oxford University, follow Lewis Carroll through the famous red door of the Alice’s ‘Sheep Shop’ (pictured), or be inspired like Kenneth Grahame by tales of the riverbank...
6) Fresh air and well-being by the river
I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds something very soothing and uplifting about wandering along the banks of a slowly moving river. It was my constant companion as I headed downstream, giving my walk a permanent focus with constant points of interest along the way. On Inntravel’s new holiday, you, too, can follow the Trails of the Riverbank
on well-kept and well-signed paths that require minimal navigation skills. Over the centuries, this former towpath has seen myriad fellow walkers, from traditional bargemen and busy lock-keepers, to today’s leisure seekers who walk, run and cycle between villages, while wise old fishermen seek solitude in some quiet backwater hoping to catch the big one. One minute I was walking across a wide meadow towards a busy lock, the next I was peering through trees at some grand country house and its landscaped gardens on the far bank. It’s a real joy to walk along this river, surrounded by ridiculously pretty countryside, and it’s easy to forget that the hubbub of the modern world is but a short distance away over the nearest hill...
7) Drinking it all in
When I walked the Thames Path in late April, the sun came out and I was blessed with an almost perfect week. I have to admit that the walking isn’t too arduous – there are no hills to climb nor rough terrain to negotiate. But with the sun beating down, a distant waterside hostelry beckoning me on was a welcome sight. There are great-looking pubs on both sides of the river and some, like the Kings Arms at Sandford Lock were accessible by narrow walkways across the lock and weir. Not that I visited them all, I must point out – not even in the name of research! I did however want to visit The Swan in Pangbourne, just one of many inns visited by the Three Men in a Boat. I read Jerome K. Jerome’s classic novel while in Oxfordshire and it’s great to report that all the pubs his protagonists visited are all still very much open for business today. I saved my reward until the end, enjoying a pint of Brakspears finest ale at The Angel on the Bridge in Henley, watching the world go by, after a very pleasant day’s walk...
8) Rowing regattas
There’s something terribly British about rowing, it seems to me. Maybe it’s the fame and tradition of the University Boat Race or the colour and pageantry of Henley Royal Regatta. There were people rowing everywhere. I passed Boathouse Island, where most of the University Colleges have their historic boathouses. I passed modern structures, too, standing serenely back from the river beneath a canopy of lofty pine trees; vying with those of every school and town I passed. It seems that if you live, work or school on the Thames you will, at some point, be introduced to rowing in one way or another. There are clubs for the elite, the Pinsents and Redgraves of this world, all the way to clubs for those who just fancy having a go. I passed the famous Leander Club in Henley, founded in 1818 making it one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world. It’s the sort of place you once had to be invited to join, but the sport is not so exclusive or elitist any more. Now you can pop in for refreshments and watch the rowers gliding past from the riverside gardens – they make it look so easy.