Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Thames Path - Marlow to Henley

I had to drive home from Kent on Saturday and as it was such a beautiful day, despite being the first day of November, I really didn't feel like spending it sitting on the M25 and the M6. Instead I detoured to Marlow and spent the day walking along the Thames to Henley and only completed my drive in the evening. 

I parked in Marlow as this is an easy place to return to by bus from Henley and the street parking is free. I had wanted to walk from Bourne End as this was where I'd had to finish when I walked the Thames Path at New Year and flooding prevented me getting through to Marlow. Backtracking to Bourne End from Marlow proved quite difficult as the trains were only every two hours and my timing was out. I didn't want too late a start as I knew I'd have to be finished by 5pm as it's getting dark so early since the clocks went back last week. I never thought to check out the buses, so with hindsight maybe I could have got there. But not to worry, I'll try to do this 'missing section' next time.

Marlow was buzzing with Saturday morning activity. The sun was out and so were the people. Some were wandering up and down the high street, others wandering by the river. The local park was full of families with young, and not-so-young, children and the ice-cream van was doing a roaring trade.

I popped into the church, an impressive building with a chequer-board tower just by the river. All Saints was rebuilt in 1835, replacing a 12th century church. Inside I met a sprightly old lady who spotted my walking boots and informed me brightly that she was 93 years old, and not so brightly, that she'd recently had to give up walking as an activity. Her face momentarily clouded over as she remembered the day she'd taken her boots to the thrift shop. She brightened as she added that she's still driving and still attending yoga and aerobics classes regularly. Feeling inspired, and determined to make the most of my next fifty years' walking before I have to hand my boots over to the charity shop, I strode down to the river and started walking west.

A man sat on the river bank shouting commands and encourgement through a loudspeaker to rowers whizzing past making it look easy. Large boats with families and groups on board chugged past, not allowed to exceed 4 knots per hour. 


Bisham Church soon came into view on the opposite bank. Next to it, one of the UK's National Sports Centres can be found at Bisham Abbey, the 13th century manor house near the church which replaced the original priory. It was on this stretch of the Thames that poet Percy Shelley spent his time bobbing about in a skiff whilst writing about a boat and river in 'The Revolt of Islam'. 

Passing Temple Mill Island, I soon reached Temple Lock. A young couple were launching dinghies which they then paddled out of the lock and downriver. I sat and ate a sandwich, watching a boat pass through the lock as I enjoyed the sun on my face. 

Remembering I still had a lot of walking to do before I'm 93 I didn't linger for long and was soon off towards Hurley Lock and Islands. First I had to cross to the other bank using Temple Bridge which, with a span of just under 50 metres, is Britain's longest hardwood footbridge. Once at Hurley Lock I followed the path over a shorter bridge to reach Hurley Island, then walked the length of the island before crossing back to the towpath.

The path, which so far had led through trees and was deeply littered with autumnal leaves, now took me across open meadowland and fields. Looking back, the opposite bank rose into a high cliff with a mansion house sitting right at the top. This is Danesfield, named after the Danes who built a fortification in the field here. The present-day mansion is a hotel. 

A large caravan park lay to my left, the river was to my right. Large, expensive-looking houses soon came into view and the path joined a road labelled as private. The houses were to the left of the road and what seemed to be private gardens alongside the river were to its right. I puzzled for a moment, before realising that the path doesn't follow the road, but actually goes right by the river through the gardens. A couple of them had seats, lanterns and potted plants and looked like wonderful little spots for sitting and reading or just watching the world go by. 

Medmenham Abbey soon came into sight across the river. The Abbey had been founded in 1201, but all that remains of the original building is one derelict tower. The rest has been rebuilt over the years and now forms a luxury hotel. In the 1700s it became infamous as a meeting place for Sir Francis Dashwood's notorious Hell Fire Club. Members became known as 'Franciscans of Medmenham' after their host was said to have performed obscene parodies of religious rites there. 

Walking through more meadowland and crossing several bridged ditches led me to Culham Court. The strange looking sheep I saw from a distance turned out to be a very large herd of mostly white deer. A few were browner with spots and as far as I can make out they were fallow deer. I could be completely wrong on this. The house with its sixty-five surrounding acres is a privately owned family home, bought by financier Urs Schwarzenbach and his wife Francesca in 2006 for £38 million. 


After passing in front of the house the path then veers away from the river to reach the small village of Aston. The Flower Pot pub is a local landmark with chickens running around the garden. Outside was the largest pumpkin I'd ever seen. It was carved for Halloween and the inside could easily have held a small child. I touched it to check as I couldn't quite believe it to be real.

Walking from the pub along Ferry Lane to return to the river I passed several more huge pumpkins. One had an array of 'normal' sized pumpkins around it which looked tiny in comparison.

Back at the river, it was through a kissing gate and just a short way along a grassy path until Hambleden Mill came into sight. A long weir glinted in the low sun, backed by a splendid display of autumn colour. Realising I'd easily make it to Henley before dark, I sat awhile on a bench scoffing a snack and looking at my map. 

Greenlands was the next mansion to appear. White and palatial it stood proudly on the opposite bank, facing the river, and making me think of the White House in Washington DC. It had been built in 1853 for bookseller and First Lord of the Admiralty W H Smith. These days it houses Henley College. 

The sun was started to set behind the trees as I approached Temple Island. This is the start of the Henley Royal Regatta which runs to Henley Bridge. The 'temple' on the island, now a private fishing lodge, was designed in 1771 by James Wyatt who added frescoes inside. It was originally built as a folly to draw the eye to the view from Fawley Court which is situated a little further upstream. 


Facing Fawley Court is the hamlet of Remenham with its 19th century church. It was built to replace a Norman church and has its apse built on the line of its Norman predecessor. 

Houses and dog-walkers started to appear more frequently alongside the path and, rounding a bend, Henley itself came into view. The light was fading now and lights on the bridge and in the shops and houses along the bank produced bobbing gold reflections in the water. A raft of ducks, strung out in single-file, were out for a final swim of the day. I walked into Henley as the town was closing up for the evening. A bus was waiting at the stop when I arrived and twenty minutes later I was back in Marlow. 


Distance: approximately 8.5 miles.

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