#5 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames


The Thames is host to 41 major regattas. Thousands of oarspersons participate. At Henley alone in 2015 there were 528 entries. The marquees to accommodate them, their equipment and their supporters might cover 10, 12 hectares. There are more than 40 major long distance rowing events held annually on the river. The apex of these is the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, four miles and 374 yards, 600 strokes, from Putney to Mortlake through the western suburbs of London. There are 88 substantial rowing clubs on the river and goodness knows how many smaller ones.

I didn’t try to count the number of racing boats we saw in use and on the banks, certainly hundreds, possibly a couple of thousand, but we were looking again at money. A new racing eight from those eminent Australian suppliers Sykes the Boat Builders costs around AUD40,000, a set of oars 3,200. Most of the boats we saw in use on the Thames, even the eights, were double-rigged (each rower has two oars), comparatively rare in Australia, but very good for going fast, learning to row well and to create either-sided sweep rowers, i.e. with the one oar, as in most prestigious events (except single sculling). With an amoury like this GB should win every rowing medal all the time.

The ideal rower is a very strong robot with a long reach who can repeat precisely the same motion with undiminishing power for, depending on the size of the boat and the length of the race (championship usually 2000m) somewhere between six and 18 minutes (The Boat Race). For this reason it can be the case that competitive rowers are considered thickos. But while racing is never pleasant and usually occasions very high levels of pain and discomfort, the experience of rowing in a well-drilled eight on a glassy river with the catch of oar to water perfectly synchronised, the surge and glide of the boat under power and the click of the recovery in perfect time — it is a profound aesthetic delight.

We visited the National Rowing Museum at Henley devoted of course to rowing but the Thames as well, and while it meant well, it didn’t come close to describing and relating that pleasure.


In the Museum’s grounds. At left Sir Steven Geoffrey Redgrave, Commander of the British Empire, Doctor of Letters (hon), Doctor of Laws (hon) and Sir Matthew Clive Pinsent, Commander of the British Empire. Pinsent won gold medals for rowing at four consecutive Olympic Games 1992-2004. Redgrave, born at Marlow, dyslexic, a diabetic and occasional sufferer from ulcerative colitis, won gold medals at five Games in a row, 1984-2000. Big boys; grand men. 

tumblr_mxyz7nY2Dz1szju7bo1_540Actor comedian Hugh Laurie (second from the right with rowers’ thighs; dead set! you can find anything on the net) doesn’t have a statue but it may be of interest that he rowed in the Boat Race for Cambridge. He was on track to row in the Olympics until he got glandular fever. 

Racing is not compulsory. I mentioned my envy of the pair in the skiff in the previous post. A well set-up clinker-built boat would be close to perfect in these circumstances. Ratty’s skiff for example. If you want to go rowing, the Thames is your river; and we were entering rowing’s heartland.

Reading to Henley-on-Thames — 15 km

Reading, which has its own off-river ‘artificial’ 2000m straight course, was just fine. We pulled up short at the Crowne Plaza right on the Path for a cup of tea and sort of wished we were staying there. It looked like the sort of place where the floor might be flat and you mightn’t have to lug your cases up near vertical narrow staircases.IMG_1416 But the ‘Great Expectations’ (at right) met our modest expectations and, along with a very fine collection of fire doors, provided a comfortable bed and a good pie. I might note en passant that Reading was once the world capital of biscuit manufacturing and home to Joseph Huntley the inventor of that splendid symbol of Empire — the biscuit tin. (How else might you get scotch fingers to Chandigarh without them breaking up?)

Misery and wetness were forecast for the next day, but nothing of the sort occurred. We saw the clean-up of the early market and were centimetre perfect in our return to the Path which glided around another meadow mostly full of a giant Tesco before returning to what the guidebook calls ‘a simple country way’.

The zippy buildings in this pic are the Luscinia View housing development on Reading’s fringe. More importantly, note the goalposts in the foreground. Proper ones.IMG_1420

We noted that parking issues could also apply to boats.IMG_1422

This one might over time have accumulated some tickets. IMG_1421

IMG_1426The Sonning Bridge gets a mention in guidebooks because the borders of two Counties meet on its middle arch, one of 11 which are all different sizes. But we didn’t stop to enthuse. We were cantering along.

At the entry to Shiplake we met a couple who were unsure of the way back to their hotel. They’d gone for a walk and got turned around and the signage wasn’t decisive. It turned out not only that our immediate destinations were the same but that she had parents living in Mooroolbark (a suburb of Melbourne) who she visited annually. We chatted for 15 minutes or so. Fulfilling a lifelong dream her parents had moved to the other side of the world after a comparatively early retirement leaving friends and family behind. Now they were getting older and less capable this was presenting a challenge that several but not all of the parties were trying to resolve. So many people we met had personal and family connections in Australia, that slightly coarse and untutored but rich and suntanned relative so very far away. 

With the scent of a possible cream tea in our nostrils, we walked up to the Shiplake pub through an avenue of glorious trees and even gloriouser homes. Beyond very nice. VNH+, even ++. Their names had become riparian, The Ripples, The River Cottage etc, and for a kilometre or so they had their own private river frontages.

IMG_1432We stopped to look at the map for a moment and, blow me down, I was pretty sure that what we were looking at was a house featured on ‘Grand Designs’ (at right) and, apart from ‘budget’ and ‘then the winter rains came’, the big issue was building a distinctively modern house on this very narrow Shiplakian block. Out of keeping; not like the neighbourhood; neighbours stacking on a turn. Boo hiss, in fact, hissssss, to the stodgy complainants.

IMG_1434Looking very like the others nearby, this was the house next door (at left). In situ, I wondered if my hiss might have to be withdrawn or at least moderated. Can you build whatever you like, or should you pay respect to the rest of the built environment? From a cosmic perspective it is not of the slightest importance, and the new building was actually beautifully designed (still not finished I noted), but standing there in Bolney Rd I felt much more sympathetic than I had to the views of the locals.

Further down the road was Thames Side Court. We didn’t see it, you can’t see it unless you’re invited in. The Path takes you round its most substantial perimeter. Ooo ah you go, not least because in the midst of all this rain the huge garden was being watered, and Oo ahh a mini rail line is running along the fence. And then ahh ooh, the much photographed mini rail station. Unknown-1The tower is perhaps 2.5m high.

We ran into a tradie here who had been doing some work on the other side of the fence. What went on there? What was the railway about? Big money, he said. Pots of dough. Owns the polo grounds next door. They never come here, but they built the railway for the grandkids, but now they don’t come much either. So this property the size of a small farm with its enormous upkeep impost, well … as  far as I could tell, not far, was left to the artisans and the ducks to enjoy.

While we’re on houses, check this one out. IMG_1445

Start right at the pollarded trees. Then the patterned lawn. Move up to the arch of boulders. Left to the clipped fascia. Left again to the decorative elements on the feature wing. Down to the boat entrance. Left again and up to the brand new screened wing with huge viewing platform on its top. I’m not sure what it would be like to live in, but it’s worth a round of applause at least.

IMG_1454We got to the Museum, watched a wedding, drank elderberry fizz and ate scones. Could life have been improved? Only in one regard.IMG_1464

We went rowing.

This was not the well set-up skiff I was looking for; in fact it was an awful boat. But we were out on the water and with the regatta being set up a week away we rowed half the course.IMG_1488

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is Henley from the water, Temple Island the starting line just visible in the far distant centre with the finish line in the foreground. 

We repaired to our excellent hotel, The Row Barge, the one we liked most on the walk I think, and I drank beer and swapped good cheer with a party from Leigh-on-Sea which, for a start, my untutored ear took as somewhere in France. (Like Beyoncé?) It was a weekend and they’d driven over from the other side of London for a drink. ‘Mightn’t stop at one.’ The men averred they were rugby union fans. The two women said there wasn’t a match they’d ever seen the end of. ‘Roarin’ blind by then.’ They knew about Australia and Australians. Shit daytime TV and really bad ads generally. The people are friendly, but they’ve got no ‘brains’, meaning I think, are not quick-witted. No one goes to sport; they all go to the beach. Anyway it’s too hot to watch sport.  And if they do go they don’t know how to behave (don’t sing), and there are no good pubs. A cousin of the alpha male of the group lived in Sydney and was coming home for those very reasons.

What could I say except, my round? We had in fact become addicted to the early morning BBC, and there isn’t anyone as smooth and or as smart as Charlie Stayt and Naga Munchetty probably anywhere on Australian TV. But the ads? Ok we’ve got crap ads.

Henley and this stretch of the Path — fabulous.

Henley-on-Thames to Marlow — 14 km

We paid our respects to the late great Dusty Springfield and the Leander Rowing Club which is not where the guidebook thinks it is, and with a hop, step and a jump we knew when we’d done the first 2000m. The Path took us off the river to Aston through a thrilling display by a horde of kites careening around above a big chook run and from here there was the first sense of the Thames running through a valley.
The river is tucked away behind those trees. It is still no monster. Races at Henley are only ever rowed two abreast.

The pic above was taken just near Holme farm. A few hundred metres more and we were in Culham Farm walking past Culham House, its glorious chestnut tree, and its ha-ha.IMG_1529

Myrna was bemused by this vast pile and the efforts which had been made to ensure privacy when it was all battened down with no one home. And, lo and behold, what did I discover!

Daily Mail Aug 27, 2006: 

Schwarzenbach_2984188bWhen a magnificent country house went on the market for £25million, financier Urs Schwarzenbach decided that the owners weren’t asking enough. He offered £10million extra and exchanged contracts within a week on Culham Court, on the banks of the Thames. (!)

Swiss-born Mr Schwarzenbach, 57, and his wife Francesca, a former Miss Australia (!!), plan to move into the ten-bedroom house near Henley, Oxfordshire, later this year. … “We are thrilled at the thought of moving into Culham Court and making it our home,” the couple said in a statement. 

The departing owners, Paddy and Annabel Nicoll said: “We are delighted that a local family is buying Culham Court. The Schwarzenbachs have always been incredibly supportive of causes in and around Henley, most recently through their funding of the redesign and build of the River and Rowing Museum. (!!!)

Clive Hopkins, head of farms and estates at Knight Frank, said: “It is a classic Georgian house in a perfect location. It doesn’t get any better than this.” 

Mr Schwarzenbach, a keen polo player and friend of Prince Charles, has lived in Britain since the 1980s. His current home, Thames Side Court in Shiplake, has polo facilities and has been described as a ‘Disneyland-style park modelled on the train station at St Moritz’. (Et voila!!!!)

He also owns a 26,000-acre estate in Scotland on which he has lavished more than £20million, reportedly adding a bowling alley, marble-lined hot tub and a panic room to hide from potential kidnappers. The family also has a £3million chalet in St Moritz, four other homes in Switzerland and 123,000 acres in Australia, including a ranch where Prince Harry spent part of his gap year. 

This wasn’t in the guidebook! Especially the panic room bit. The threads — all drawn together — to unify the last 30 km! Even if he is only the 115th richest person in England, he owns a lot of south Oxfordshire including the village of Hambleden where ‘Midsomer Murders’ has been filmed. His paw marks are everywhere!

I note ‘In 2012 the Schwarzenbachs revoked their consent for the permissive footpath that had run alongside the Thames in front of Culham Court as part of The Thames Path for many years.’ Must have changed their minds. But we were there even if Mr Schwarzenbach, now 67, and his wife the former Miss Australia (godmother of Lady Louise Windsor, daughter, Earl of Wessex (Edward*)), weren’t.

IMG_1530The grounds were full of white harts and there was noise coming from a large industrial shed on the hill that sounded like something out of ‘Brittania Hospital‘. I didn’t like to make that connection and we moved on.

At Hurley Lock we did, for the very first time, find a cream tea and, as might be anticipated, it was not quite what it was cracked up to be. Bit stodgy. But the dogs enjoyed their repast. IMG_1531[Please insert your own humorous tagline. Publication and prizes will be considered.]

IMG_1538 2Despite a sign defaming its very elegant bridge as ‘weak’, Marlow was as welcoming and pleasant as Henley. The concentration of Rollers, Mercs, BMs, and Bentleys in High Street Marlow was just as high as in Hart St Henley; the number of Ferraris, Bugattis, Aston Martins, Maseratis, and top end Jags on a par. Felt right at home.

* From a biography: ‘Prince Edward made two very public attempts to pursue a career but, after failing at both, returned to his life as full-time member of the royal family.’

Marlow to Windsor — 24 km

The mess round the two first toes on my left foot was in train of becoming pretty gross. Several new blisters had emerged consequent on trying to correct the implications of the first including, not that I realised it at the time, a blister or blisters below other blisters, deep blisters. I couldn’t see anything properly, but what you couldn’t see could still be a bit painful. The bottoms of my feet are generally like rhino hide but they had been constantly wet for most of 10 or 12 days, absorbed water, got soft and their calluses had lifted off the underlying skin. My standard treatment had caused more harm than good and when I removed the elastoplast a fair bit of skin came too. Ha ho. Issues.

I plundered Marlow’s Boots for anything that might work. I had also put some ti tree oil on the affected areas, as we professionals say, in anticipation that it would produce a magic result. What it did was to make it difficult to stick the ‘second skin’ plasters on. But, hey, what’s science but trial and error?

We had three choices: just walk on; get a cab the whole way to Windsor; or take punt on getting a cab to somewhere in the middle and see how I went from there. It wasn’t if we were in the middle of a wilderness.

It was one of the longer sections so walking the whole way was probably not that good an idea. But it was another nice day and I didn’t want to miss it by sitting still. So we decided to get a cab to the bridge at Maidenhead which the driver insisted on calling Boulter’s Lock which was about 2km north and not where we wanted to go at all. My advantage of being in possession of the relevant A-Z map had no impact. There are times when foreigners just can’t win. But he did drop us at the bridge where we got some coffee served by a gal from Mt Isa on her gap year.

We’d knocked off 8km and in doing so we missed seeing a Stanley Spencer-assisted resurrection in the Cookham cemetery (a pictorial representation of which we were later able to consult in the Tate), missed drinking in the atmospherics of Cliveden and Cabinet Ministers playing up with Russian spies possibly joined at or near the hip by Ms C. Keeler, missed eating at the Fat Duck at Bray (wrong bank) but anyway Heston Blumenthal was in Melbourne.

I began a bit nervously, but it wasn’t problem. Perhaps as we warmed up my foot had self-anaesthetised. I don’t know. Maybe I had a shoe full of blood. I didn’t look. By the time we got to Brunel’s next bridge I’d forgotten about it.IMG_1546What a killer. What an absolute killer. All brick with two long flat arches. The sign says [still, since 1838] the longest (128 feet, 39m) and flattest (24 feet, 7m) brick arches in the world. I have read that his backers would not believe this bridge (I think) would hold up, so they demanded that he build in-fill supports. He did, leaving a gap of a few inches between the top of the supports and the bridge, i.e. there was no support happening. Some time later at the next high water the supports were washed away and never replaced. That’s confidence for you. But who could believe that a curve shaped like that built out of bits of baked clay and burnt lime would support generations of train traffic? Applause applause.

On exit, Maidenhead offered a generous esplanade lined with VNHs which could even be described as gracious. It wasn’t long before we were walking along the side of the Dorney Lakes Rowing course. Ten years to build and costing £17m, it is owned and of course used by Eton College, but was the site of the rowing events held at the London Olympics. (Wags head. Were we walking through money or what?) The Path was grassy and busy with walkers and cyclists and, closer to Windsor, swimmers (of the naughty boy variety). The last stretch perambulates around and was sheltered by trees.

You walk through casual artIMG_1548IMG_1551 and more deliberate art (at right, for the Olympics, on the track to the rowing), just moseying along, and then suddenly across a river meadow called ‘The Brocas’, named for a 13th century family of local nobles and now owned by Eton, you come out of the wood andIMG_1552

Have a rest and then continue east.

One thought on “#5 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

  1. Pingback: #4 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames | mcraeblog

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