I do like to be beside the Thameside

By | Category: Travel destinations
Windsor Castle

Windsor Castle – without the tourists

Despite 20-odd years – some of them very odd indeed – in the UK, island life outside the London city limits, remains, to a large extent, the great unknown to me. When I travel, it tends to be abroad. Then, much to my delight, the opportunity presented itself to check out somewhere closer to home, visiting a variety of places along the River Thames. With some, such as Windsor, I was already familiar, but on the whole, this was new territory.

Windsor’s reputation as a UK must-see is well-deserved – the castle alone is obviously a great draw, as are the quaint teashops and excellent shopping – but don’t miss out on Eton, on the other side of the river. Much smaller, equally quaint and with fewer visitors, Eton is a lovely village to stroll around. Illustrious Eton College was founded here in the 1440s and there is an abundance of well-preserved historical buildings including Tudor architecture. The location of Windsor and Eton means you’re spoilt for choice in terms of beautifully situated restaurants and bars with river views, perfect on a sunny summer day. Sunday lunch at Sir Christopher Wren hotel & spa with “bottomless bubbles” and live soothing jazz tunes proved an excellent treat. Apart from offering great grub in a scenic location, the hotel also has a fascinating history dating back many centuries and it is rumoured that Sir Christopher Wren stayed here, hence the name, although proof of this has been lost in the mists of time and Thames.

French Brothers

and French Brothers whose boats take tourists past the castle

Continuing my river tour, I left the splendours and champers of Windsor and Eton for the serene beauty of Marlow, further upstream. Marlow couldn’t look more quintessentially British than on a summer’s day and although it’s a great base for exploring the river by boat, I confess I also found it perfect for exploring the Pimm’s in a pleasant pub with outdoor seating. Said pub was just a tiny amble from the All Saints church (past church-goers surely didn’t want to have too far to walk between venues on Sundays), that overlooks the river near the lock. The town has plenty of history  – Marlow was mentioned in the Domesday Book, Mary Shelley moved here in the early 19th century and the somewhat rickety-looking suspension bridge across the Thames (closing the week after my visit for repairs), dates back to 1832. An afternoon is enough to get to grips with the town and its laidback high street. Again, for such a small place (population less than 15,000), shopping is very decent with a number of nice boutiques to browse through.

Henley and the Thames

the riverbank in Henley

Shopping, sight-seeing and Pimm’s-drinking, noble pursuits though they are, were of course mere distractions – the following day it was time to get serious and take to the waters. Leaving Marlow for Henley-on-Thames, home of the Henley Royal Regatta, there was just about enough time on dry land to visit one of the town’s key attractions first. The River and Rowing Museum  offers rather more than what’s on the package and my visit proved well worth it. For the Wind in the Willows fans, there’s an entire gallery dedicated to this much-loved book, telling the whole story in glorious detail with 3D models – fun for children and adult children alike. Although rowing is a main focus, you’ll also find old automobiles, river wildlife and birdlife, temporary exhibitions and much more. My hour spent whizzing round was hardly long enough, but the Thames trip was calling.

Hobbes's boatyard

Hobbes in Henley

The Henley Regatta had just ended the day before, lending extra glamour and glitz to the river cruise, as I set off in a pristine, small boat, formerly used to transport VIPs to and from different locations at the London 2012 Olympics. Now the property of Hobbs of Henley, the boat takes eager visitors on shorter cruises between locks, of which there are 45. Travelling up towards Marsh lock, there are pleasant views of the riverside and several mid-Thames islands. This area was severely flooded in the winter rains and I was saddened, but not entirely surprised, to see several flood damages properties up for sale. Otherwise there was little evidence of what must have been some of the most severe floods the area has ever witnessed. At Marsh lock my guide and driver headed downstream, continuing the short, scenic tour for a good hour before returning to Henley, still in blissful summer sunshine, although with the clouds gathering, I felt as though I could almost see autumn approaching around the next river bend.

back down the Thames on the Lucy Fisher

back down the Thames on the Lucy Fisher

Sure enough, continuing down to Runnymede, near Egham, the rain came pelting down – bit of a shame as I was taking another river trip from there, aboard the Lucy Fisher, a replica paddle steamer. The heavens remained open for the duration of the trip, the water pouring down in a relentless onslaught and despite the roof over my head, the Lucy Fisher was otherwise open to the elements on all sides. From a scorcher of a morning, where I was kicking myself not to have brought a) sun screen, b) sun glasses and c) sun hat on the morning’s trip, I was now bemoaning the fact that I’d only brought one fleece and no waterproofs for the afternoon’s. Oh the British summer, how I love thee! Mulled wine anyone? Still, the captain and guide on the French Brothers cruise did his best to liven up the trip, pointing out landmarks along the way, from the monument commemorating where the Magna Carta was signed to old riverside pubs with history.

A cup of tea kept me warm, if not dry and I was secretly quite excited to experience the Thames in such dramatic weather. I do like to be beside the Thameside.

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Getting there:

The places visited are easily reached by car, bus, train or boat from London and other parts of the UK. The Thames Path running alongside the river is a great long-distance walking option.

Where to stay:

Thameside towns and village have excellent accommodation options, among others:

Sir Christopher Wren hotel & spa in Windsor  for history, scenic location and Sunday lunches.

The Macdonald Compleat Angler in Marlow  for unbeatable views over the river, fine dining and first-class sevice.

The Runnymede-on-Thames in Runnymede  for a laidback stay with excellent spa facilities.

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