The tranquil middle Thames is Wind in the Willows country. My guide visits sites immortalized in Kenneth Grahame's book as well as Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat
Gentle walking in the middle Thames
The valley of the middle Thames (downstream from Oxford) is criss-crossed with paths and bridleways. These gentle tracks cut away from the river, plunge into wooded glades on the Chiltern foothills before re-emerging by some pool or forgotten backwater boomed off long ago.
For children, Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows is an excellent storyline to fire their imagination and let their instincts to explore flourish. For the older generation Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome is immortal. First published in 1889, it remains the gold standard for messing about on the water.
Over a century later, a weekend exploring the middle Thames allows you to get into the space and tranquility of the English countryside. With plenty of pubs and reasonable hotels throughout the area, a weekend by the river can be done on a budget.
Generally (but not always) the south bank of the river is the Berkshire side, whilst the north bank is Oxfordshire.
Pangbourne, Whitchurch-on-Thames and Toad Hall (Mapledurham House)
Kenneth Grahame spent a great deal of his life in the small riverside town of Pangbourne and it is easy to see how the story of Wind in the Willows came about. The river gently flows through pasture meadows, crooked old trees weep on the banks and the wildlife is in abundance at the water's edge.
The network of paths on either bank of the river are clearly marked and you are able to avoid Mr. Toad with his motor car for a great deal of your route.
For walking downstream I recommend the Berkshire side, it is easy going through Pangbourne meadows.
The walk provides a fantastic vista of Hardwick House and stables with the Chiltern foothills in the backgrond. At Mapledurham lock there is respite at the tea shop but sadly no ability to cross the river to the main Mapledurham House. If you wish to continue downstream then a few hundred metres on the busy road is required before regaining the riverside path and on to Caversham bridge.
For gentle mountain biking I recommend the bridleway on the Oxfordshire bank. It tracks up through the Hardwick House estate, peaks at a large iron gate then swoops down the flint path to Mapledurham House. If you are feeling energetic then other paths and bridleways lead off this track and up into the Chiltern foothills from where fantastic views of the river meandering through the meadows are to be had. In spring these woods are one glorious carpet of bluebells.
Mapledurham House is considered as the most likely inspiration for Toad Hall. It was also the setting for the film "The Eagle has Landed". Today you can visit the house, church and water mill through the summer months without having to dress as a Polish paratrooper. The estate has been in the Blount family for many centuries despite the area seeing heavy skirmishes during the English Civil War. As well as being a film set, the estate is a working farm and as you take the metallated track towards the milking sheds, look back at the main house sitting in its grounds. You can easily imagine Mr.Toad bashing his motor car around these small lanes.
Entrance to the house and mill cost £7 in summer 2010, however, a £1 ticket lets you explore the grounds and use their tea shop.
To gain another view of the estate take one of the footpaths up to a viewing point in the trees. The statue here is of Bacchus and it is an ideal spot in the woods to sit and have a drink. In the evenings plenty of deer are seen in these woods and fields.
The main track heads towards Caversham bridge, where the river can be crossed and the main railway station at Reading can be easily reached.
The bridge at Caversham has a long history that ties with the island a hundred metres further downstream. The island now supports a marina and the Bohemian Bowls Club. Before the gentle sport of bowls the island was the site for a famous trial by combat between Robert de Montfort and Henry of Essex. The latter had been accused of cowardice and fell seriously injured at the end of the duel. The detail of that duel allows us to reasonably date the bridge in the 13th century. The early bridge was also the site of a chapel where it is claimed the spear that piereced Christ's body whilst on the cross was held.
Near the bridge, is Caversham Court which sits below St Peters church on the Oxfordshire side. It is an ideal spot for a rest after 7 or 8 miles of walking. The gardens were excellently renovated in 2008 and is shielded from all but river traffic.
On the towpath around Caversham bridge you may see small parts of the embankment that have been closed off by low wicker fences. These are swan nesting zones set up by the Swan Refuge. In breeding season approach with extreme caution.
Swanning in Sonning after Jerome K. Jerome
A trip to Sonning is a must for Jerome K. Jerome fans. The 6 mile walk or cycle down from Caversham bridge is exploring at its most gentle. The book describes Sonning as the "most fairly like little nook on the whole river" , whilst the Bull pub is a "veritable picture of an old country inn". The proximity of the town of Reading means the route and pub are popular but numbers will thin out as the path plunges into a small riverside woodland. Much wildlife has returned to the river on this sweep round to Sonning lock. You will see herons picking at their fish like frock coated victorian bank clerks whilst in the branches of dead trees cormorants sun their wings and if you are lucky then you may catch the blue flash of a kingfisher.
Despite the large number of people messing about on the water, the lock keeper has had time to turn the cottage into a blaze of colour with flowers that catch the eye throughout the year. In the summer they run a tea shop and I recommend a short breather to watch the lock users. Sadly the pretty bridge at Sonning is clogged with traffic but this can be avoided by a footpath that leads to the back of the churchyard of St Andrews next to the Bull pub. Thankfully the area by the Bull would still be recognizable to J, George, Harris and of course Montmorency the dog. The few parked cars are owned by pub or church goers.
You can push on down to Henley on Thames but I prefer to mellow out with a pint and chuckle through Jerome K. Jerome description of river antics.
Where to Eat
Following a good mornings walk I recommend lunch at the Griffin Inn at 10-12 Church Road, Caversham. Telephone number 01189475018. A Harvester pub, it is reasonably priced with main courses between £6 to £14. www.thegriffincaversham.co.uk
A hotel close to Caversham bridge is The Rainbow Lodge hotel with prices from £40 per night.
Whitchurch-on-Thames and Pangbourne
If you have aimed to finish at Whitchurch-on-Thames or Pangbourne then I recommend the Swan on Shooters Hill, Pangbourne, it is just on from Pangbourne railway station and sits aside the weir. It has been serving travellers since 1642 and is where the "Three Men in a Boat" finish part way on their return trip from Oxford.. Telephone number is 01189844494. A Greene King pub with prices for main courses ranging from £8.50 to £18.00. Website is www.swanpangbourne.com/default.htm
In Whitchurch-on-Thames The Ferry Boat is just across the tollbridge on the High Street. Main courses range from £9 to £16.00. Rooms are £50 per night with breakfast extra.
The Bull at Sonning, immortalized in Jerome K. Jerome, is owned by the Fullers brewery. The website is www.fullershotels.com/rte.asp?id=67 . The Bull also has 7 bedrooms but is popular with busness travelers so prices are higher than in Reading.
How to get there
Many of the small riverside towns between London and Oxford retain their own railway station. Reading station is just some 25 minutes from Paddington by InterCity. Slower branch lines will take you to places such as Henley, Marlow, Goring and Pangbourne. A quick glance at the map will allow you to use any of these stations as a start point.
Metered parking is also available at all the stations but drivers should be aware that between Pangbourne and Whitchurch on Thames there is one of the few UK's private toll bridges. In summer 2010 the toll was 40 pence for a car. Passage for walkers and cyclists is free.