The age old river Thames passes through Oxford, Reading, Henley, Marlow, Windsor, Runnymede, Hampton Court, Westminster…. The very names sound like a history of England. This river is full of stories.
Sweet Thames flow gently till I end my song…Edmund Spencer
There is no hurry here. The river runs softly, soothing and slowing us down. The ‘unhurrying’ mid-Thames that I grew up with passes through green and rolling country, of Oxfordshire and Berkshire, between low wooded hills, open farmland, quiet villages and towns.
A favourite walk was here at Henley along the towpath downstream to Temple Island by the start of the famed Henley Regatta course (top photo). A beautifully quiet stretch of the river, except at the busy Regatta week. Then, this quiet riverside town was filled with ‘boaters’ and striped blazers and the pubs were filled with rowing talk of oars and oarsmen, coxswain and crew. The old Leander Rowing Club has its base here. Some rowers and crews have made a name for themselves here and gone on to be Olympic champions. Thames is the home of rowing.
Beautiful Sonning lock, seen from the Thames long-distance footpath, used to win the area best kept lock competition – perhaps it still does. A school friend kept a double seat canoe here and sometimes I used to join him. In those days the lock was a quiet place as in this photo. Today it’s a busy spot in summer as the many pleasure craft queue up for their turn passing through the lock.
‘Where black-wing’d swallows haunt the glittering Thames.’From ‘The Scholar Gypsy‘ by Matthew Arnold
Passing Oxford’s ‘City of dreaming spires’, the Thames (also called Isis here) is busy with students, tourists and college rowing crews practicing for the summer ‘eights week’ inter-college rowing races. Then the river settles as it gently flows through the lovely Oxfordshire countryside of Matthew Arnold’s ‘Scholar Gypsy’. Cows quietly graze in waterside meadows, while swallows dart across the water after insects. A good place to relax at the riverside, watch and listen to ‘all the live murmur of a summer day‘.
Wind in the Willows
Just above Pangbourne (above) the Thames passes the beautifully named Hartslock Woods (now a nature reserve) on the other side of the river. I knew this stretch of the river well. It was a place where one listened, perhaps half-expecting to see Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Ratty‘ ‘messing about in boats‘ or hear ‘Toad‘ in his new motor making a lot of noise somewhere in the neighbouring woods! Wind in the Willows was based on the Thames not far downstream from here.
The music of this old river has secrets and stories to tell if we will listen like Mole:
Mole sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”Wind in the Willows
His friend ‘Ratty’ was very much part of the river scene. Perhaps he is still there:
“… sculling gently homewards in a dreamy mood, murmuring poetry-things over to himself,”
The Thames and the History of England
‘the quiet of an age-old river is like the slow turning of the pages of a well-loved book’.Robert Giddings
Here the Thames passes between the playing fields of Eton College and the Royal Windsor Castle. In past days the river has witnessed many of the major events of English history. On its banks at Oxford it watered the growth of education and academic study, at Runnymede the home of democracy with the passing of the Magna Carta. At Hampton Court Palace the home of Henry VIII. At Westminster, the Houses of Parliament watch over the flowing waters, near where the Romans first made the settlement Londinium.
After Teddington lock the Thames is tidal. Here it becomes a different river, busy and bustling, but that’s another story. I’m happy to stay with memories of the quiet stretches of this great river between Oxford, Henley and Marlow.
Flow on sweet Thames….
This highly recommended book on the story of the Thames looks interesting