Cruising Oxford to Hampton Court
Oxford is as far upstream as our boat permits, ahead lies a very low bridge and lots of over arching trees as the river narrows. Home to the oldest university in the English speaking world, seat of learning, rich of history and architecture dating back to the Saxon period. Potentially the finest pub crawl in Britain thanks to ‘Morse’. Shops, restaurants, museums, libraries and a vibrant indoor market, Oxford has the lot. A good place to stop over and explore.
Leaving ‘Oxford's Dreaming Spires’ we now head south through Iffley Lock. Thames locks downstream of Oxford are automated and generally manned, but for the more adventurous, out of hours self operation is positively encouraged.
Sandford-on-Thames lies just south of Oxford, a good place to moor up for the night. The ‘Kings Arms’ lies adjacent to this lock [the deepest lock on the Thames], with excellent food at reasonable prices and plenty of parking, this is one of our favourite restaurants.
Leaving Sandford-on-Thames we continue south towards Abingdon, the River Thames is swathed by water meadow and open farmland, the Thames Path running its entire length. Our boat speeds along at a comfortable walking pace, this is your cue to stretch those legs and burn off some of Wendy's tasty breakfast, don't panic, most people stay aboard and watch the world go by.
Through the lock and into Abingdon, once the county town of Berkshire, now a market town in Oxfordshire. A very fine market town, the pretty square bounded by cafés, almost has a Parisian feel to it, said to be England's oldest market town. The stone bridge dates back to 1416, built from local limestone, no doubt ‘man’ has been fording the river here for millennia, archaeology housed in the town's museum would support this. Church bells! not just on a Sunday, this brings back childhood memories, all in all a very good place to moor up for the night.
From Abingdon to Wallingford the river meanders through open countryside, locks and villages. Dorchester-on-Thames is home to an important Abbey and is rich in history, also, archaeology found here dates back to at least the Neolithic Period. On a lighter note, the annual ‘World Poohsticks Championship’ is held nearby at Day’s Lock.
It was along this stretch of the Thames, that a very kind man first introduced us to crayfish trapping, well worth the effort, many tasty recipes, crayfish tails in garlic butter with French bread is still our favourite. We are of course speaking of the invasive ‘American Signal Crayfish’ responsible for the near extinction of our native ‘White Clawed’ species, so you’re actually doing the river a big favour!
Wallingford is the site of another ancient Thames River crossing and has all the feel of a typical old market town, a market is still held here every Friday. The bridge is longer than most at 900 feet with 22 arches, parts are said to date back to the 13th century. The once Royal Castle that stood here was robbed of stone to renovate Windsor Castle. Wallingford's numerous shops and restaurants are not at all generic. A favoured filming location for ‘Midsomer Murders’ and once the home of Agatha Christie and the setting for many of her stories. Another very interesting stop over.
Wallingford behind us, we continue south through glorious countryside, the Chiltern Hills. Our native Red Kite now commonplace here, became extinct in England and was reintroduced in 1989 and now ubiquitous across four counties.
The 20th century Thames bridge links the twin villages of Goring and Streatley. Some interesting shops and restaurants, another very good butcher and a railway station for the city commuters. Leaving Goring, we continue downstream past Beale Park, there are moorings here on open grassland with access to the park.
Pangbourne is twinned with Whitchurch-on-Thames by yet another ancient crossing of the river. Whitchurch bridge is privately owned and charges are made to motorists of 60p to cross, ‘scandalous’ I hear you say, when the only other privately owned Thames toll bridge at Swinford charges only 5p for motorists to cross.
The National Trust’s wild flower meadows at Pangbourne provide overnight moorings with easy access to these pretty villages. A good selection of interesting shops, restaurants and that all important butcher. You may note a recurring theme, when living on a boat, such facilities are vital and we do love a good butcher.
The author Kenneth Grahame lived and died in Pangbourne, some say that the Water Voles once common here, inspired the author to create one of the characters, ‘Ratty’ from his most famous book, ‘The Wind In The Willows’.
West of Reading lies Mapledurham House and Mill, the last working water mill on the Thames and mentioned in the ‘Domesday Book’. Such mills require a head of water in order to operate, provided by the weir and race, such changes in river level might interfere with boating passage, hence every watermill on this river, in use or redundant, has an associated lock, therefore here also lies Mapledurham Lock. The House, Mill and Café/Restaurant are well worth a visit, in fact you may have already done so! This pretty hamlet is a favoured filming location, most notably the film, ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and an episode of ‘Midsomer Murders’ [‘The Fisher King’].
Reading is a major public transport hub with easy access to London and the Thames valley. Resting on the confluence of the mighty River Thames and the River Kennet. The River Kennet becomes the Kennet and Avon Canal, traversing Southern England and emerging in the Bristol Channel. We moor overnight at the 'Bel & the Dragon' which is a very pleasant and comfortable restaurant and bar, adjacent the canal at Blake's Lock and Waterways Museum. A ten minute walk along the canal brings you into the town centre.
Henley-on-Thames is a very tidy up market Georgian town, market day is Thursday. Well known for hosting the world's greatest rowing regatta, the ‘Henley Royal Regatta’, lots of quality shops and very good restaurants.
Ring-Necked Parakeets found downstream in very large numbers, have colonised the Thames valley this far, and continue to extend their range year on year. Thought to have escaped from private collections during the 1950’s and 60’s, this now naturalised population numbers 50,000 or more.
Another ancient river crossing, the stone bridge was first mentioned in 1234, no doubt ‘man’ has been crossing here for far longer. Well worth mooring up for the night.
Another pretty Georgian market town with a plethora of interesting shops and quality restaurants.
Mary Shelley lived here, where she wrote ‘Frankenstein’, also home to T.S.Eliot during the First World War and most recently, Sir Steve Redgrave. Although this narrative may appear scant, Marlow is a seriously good place to moor up for the night, if you can find a mooring space!
En-route to Maidenhead we pass Bourne End then Cookham, these pretty riverside villages have sufficient shops and restaurants to support overnight mooring when Marlow is too busy. Cookham was home to the artist Stanley Spencer, the gallery cum museum in his name, displays many of his fine paintings. Soon after leaving Cookham Lock we enter the 'Glen', this valley is so called due to its unspoilt glen like appearance. As we look back , Cliveden House rears up above us with a most envious view of the valley, this stately home is now managed by the National Trust, visitor mooring is encouraged.
Maidenhead has two bridges, both are ‘Grade 1’ listed, the multi arched Portland stone road bridge dates from 1777, replacing the earlier bridge crossing. The second, a railway bridge was built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and still lays claim to the longest brick built single span arch in the world, known as the ‘Sounding Arch’ due to its spectacular echo.
Heading towards Windsor we pass Bray, home to the best restaurant in the world [possibly], then on to Eton Dorney lake, where the 2012 Olympic water sports took place. Through Boveney Lock, one of our favourite locks, which lies adjacent to Royal Windsor Racecourse. A couple of bends of the river and Royal Windsor Castle comes into view, the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world, home to the British Monarchy for almost 1000 years. Needless to state the obvious, but there’s no shortage of decent shops, café’s and restaurants here.
Runnymede is a water meadow alongside the River Thames, most notable for its association with the sealing of the Magna Carta. Some 800 years ago , King John met a group of Barons at Runnymede, where they sealed this historic document, seen by many as the symbolic first step towards modern democracy and the greatest constitutional document of all time. Ankerwycke, adjacent Runnymede, is home to the only living witness to this event, a 2500 year old yew tree.
Runnymede’s association with the ideals of democracy, equality and freedom under law has attracted further placement of monuments, most notable, the JFK Memorial and the Air Forces Memorial.
The Barons assembled at Staines-upon-Thames before they met King John at Runnymede, returning later, no doubt to celebrate.
Before the partial canalisation and taming of the Thames, Staines was the highest point at which the high tide would reach twice a day, this point is still marked by the ‘London Stone’ erected near Staines Bridge in 1285, representing the western limit of the jurisdiction of the City of London over the Thames.
The partial canalisation and the construction of 45 locks and weirs, served to control the flow of water along the river, facilitating navigation by maintaining a good depth of water between locks, in effect creating lakes of water called ‘Reaches’. Each ‘lock, weir and reach’ combination is managed and maintained by a lock keeper residing adjacent the lock. Anyway, Staines has a vibrant town centre, all the usual facilities, a jolly good place to moor up.
Weybridge sits upon the confluence of the rivers Wey and Thames, another ancient river crossing and mentioned in the ‘Domesday Book’. Here we find the River Thames most renowned ‘Eyot’ [a river island, pronounced ‘Ait’], Pharaohs Island was once owned by Admiral Nelson and used as his fishing retreat.
The very pretty river Wey runs from Weybridge, through Guildford and on to Godalming, Guildford being the limit of our navigation, beyond lies a very low bridge.
Outside of Greater London, Weybridge has the most expensive property in South East England.
Hampton Court Palace is regarded as the ‘Greatest Palace in Britain’. Over 60 acres of gardens, 750 acres of Royal Parkland, the largest kitchens in Tudor England and far more history than we could possibly cover here; Lets not forget the largest grape vine in the world, planted in 1769.
Perhaps this is the appropriate place to mention that 50 years ago, the River Thames was declared ‘Biologically Dead’. Now she is the cleanest ‘Metropolitan River’ in the World.
Beyond Hampton Court lies the Teddington Locks and the Tidal Thames, leading to the City of London and the Thames Estuary.