Freelance writer and journalist based in west London.
Published May 20th 2013
While away a day on the waterside
Just about an hour from London by train lies the pretty market town of Henley-on-Thames, right on one of the most beautiful stretches of the River Thames. It was near here that author Kenneth Grahame spent much time doing what the characters in his famous novel 'The Wind in the Willows' do; "simply messing about in boats." The glorious Oxfordshire countryside inspired him and on a day trip on a fair day, it's easy to see why. The river is a very short stroll from Henley-on-Thames railway station. From here a walk up river to Marsh Lock, and then back down and beyond Henley to Hambleden Lock, will transport you to another world.
Once you reach the river, turn right along it and you'll immediately be greeted with signs offering all sorts of boats for hire. Hobbs of Henley has been plying this trade since 1870 and has diesel, outboard and electric launches, as well as large cruisers and rowing boats. You can pootle along the river for as long or short a time as you wish. When you're ready to stretch your legs, simply follow the Thames Path on up past the boats. Marsh Lock is about a mile along the way. The river marks the border between Oxfordshire and Berkshire and on the Berkshire side, beautiful waterfront properties can be seen. As you walk, look out for Rod Eyot, a little island in the middle of the river. On it are ten chalets and a brick cottage, which can only be accessed by boat.
You'll know Marsh Lock is imminent because of the long wooden bridge that appears just before it. Because the lock is unusually situated on the opposite side of the river to the tow-path, the bridge was built from the Oxfordshire bank to the lock island below the weir and then back again to the riverbank above the weir. This feature is unique on the River Thames. There are records of a lock here from the early 1400s. Two mills used to sit on each side of the river. In the 17th and 18th centuries, wool, timber, grain and malt all passed through Marsh Lock on their way to or from London. The first lock-house was built in 1813. Next to the weir, you can see and read about the salmon ladder that's been installed, or simply watch the boats.
The Thames Path continues, but we're going to turn around here and make our way back over the wooden bridge and retrace our steps to Mill Meadows. You'll pass this lovely area as you walk up to the lock. Mill Meadows is a great place for a picnic. There's a children's play area, toilets, a café and a bandstand where bands regularly play. The River and Rowing Museum is also situated here. It has three galleries dedicated to rowing, rivers and the history of Henley-on-Thames. It's also home to the Wind in the Willows exhibition, which brings the story to life using 3D models, lighting and music.
When you're ready, continue back down to Henley and where you started, but now cross the road and go over the Henley road bridge, before turning left to pick up the Thames Path on the Berkshire side of the river. You'll pass Leander Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world. It was founded in 1818 and has an incredible record in rowing achievements; members have won more Olympic medals than any other single sport club anywhere. Luminaries include Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matthew Pinsent and double gold medallists James Cracknell, Steve Williams and Pete Reed. Walk along the river for about a quarter of a mile and you'll see the point where the annual Henley Royal Regatta finishes. For five days every July, thousands of people come and watch oarsmen and women from all over the world compete in various rowing disciplines. Depending on when you visit, you'll see the huge set-up or close-down operation. Keep walking; you'll walk all the way down the regatta course. Roughly at the half way point you'll come across Remenham Club and then beyond that, Remenham Farm and an open space surrounded by pretty buildings. This is another great place for a picnic and is quieter than Mill Meadows.
Carry on along the path and Temple Island will soon come into view. It marks the start of the Henley Royal Regatta. The Temple itself is a folly, which was designed by James Wyatt and built in 1771 as a fishing lodge for Fawley Court. The court was designed by Christopher Wren and landscaped by Capability Brown. It's just visible on Henley Reach. The Temple can be hired out throughout the year.
Past the Temple, the river curves around towards Hambleden Lock, but before that keep your eyes open for Greenlands, which is situated on the other side of the water (now Buckinghamshire). The large, white mansion was built for W.H Smith, the bookseller. It's now home to Henley Business School. Hambleden Lock, with it's long weir, is on the Berkshire bank. It's named after the village of Hambleden, a mile to the north. The great weir is impressive and there are walkways over it from the lock to the small village of Mill End on the Buckinghamshire bank, where you'll also find the pretty Hambleden Mill.
Hambleden Mill is mentioned in the Domesday book. It is Grade II listed. In 1086, the rent at the mill was worth £1 a year. Nowadays, it's been converted into flats. Just next to the mill is Hambleden Marina. Caleb Gould, the lock keeper at Hambleden from 1777, is infamous for his eccentricity. The story goes that he ate a dish of onion porridge every night and 'wore a long coat with many buttons'. He's buried in nearby Remenham Churchyard. He baked and sold bread to the Thames bargemen and the bread ovens were found in 1975, when the current lock-keeper took over at the lock.
Take your time to explore the area before retracing the walk all the way back to Henley. You'll notice many different things walking the other way round. As you walk, it's worth remembering that the stretch of river between Hambleden Lock and Henley Bridge was the home to the first Oxford and Cambridge University boat race in 1829. Oxford won in a time of 14 minutes 30 seconds.
By the time you return to Henley, you'll have earnt a drink. The Old Bell pub has been dated at 1325, making it the oldest in town, but there are many lovely watering holes and eateries. From all of them, it's only a short walk back to the station and back to London.