‘The Thames is no ordinary waterway. It is the golden thread of our nation’s history.’ It is not to disparage Churchill’s irresistibly orotund metaphor to assert nevertheless that, by comparison with the other great rivers of the world, the Thames is puny. But therein lies its enchantment.
While in its lower reaches the river passed through what was for a couple of centuries the largest city in the world and host to its largest port, above the tidal limit at Teddington it was too narrow, too shallow and too meandering to contribute much to the industrial or commercial might of Britain in the early modern era. A vital channel of communication when oars and poles were the locomotive forces – not least to transport rulers and courtiers to their country retreats upstream of the capital – for much of its length the Thames is now a bucolic backwater.
This tour selects some of the most attractive stretches of the river to walk along, but it does not follow a linear journey from one end to the other. While resorting regularly to the towpath (now a designated long-distance trail, the Thames Path), the itinerary also ranges through varied countryside and gentle hills, and includes a representative spread of the best of the buildings, artefacts and art in the region.
As much as anything, this tour is an exploration of the English village. The numerous examples are as well-preserved as they are various. Parish churches and Iron Age forts, manor houses and major mansions, rapturous gardens and leafy churchyards, medieval, classical and railway-era bridges, associations with artists and writers, and of course quintessential riverine landscapes: these are chief among the attractions of the tour.
It omits the larger towns; as a travel writer put it in 1910, ‘You cannot rusticate at Reading’. Even Oxford is by-passed; to cram the city into an afternoon would be cruel.
Thames Head. Leave The Swan Hotel, Bibury, at 2.15pm or Kemble Railway Station at 3.00pm. The tour begins with the source of the Thames. A soaring rockface, a majestic spurt: an awesome spectacle. Actually, no. A damp patch, the trickle varying with yesterday’s weather, reached by walking across three fields. Walk from Thames Head to Ewen: 3½ miles, c. 1½ hours. An easy walk on grassy, level fields and along the river bed. First of three nights in Bibury.
Inglesham, Lechlade, Great Coxwell. Begin the day with Inglesham church, a beautifully isolated church dating to Saxon times. Continue on foot and walk c. 3 miles along the river to Lechlade-on-Thames (c. 1½ hours), a vibrant small town with a fine Gothic church and a handsome bridge. Visit the masterful medieval barn at Great Coxwell, which King John gave to the Cistercian monks in 1203 as part of the Manor of Faringdon. Walk back to Bibury: 2½-miles, c. 1¼ hours. An easy walk through fields and woodland with two short ascents and a descent to Bibury.
Buscot, Kelmscott. Begin the walk at Buscot, whose church has a Burne Jones window. It is an easy walk to Kelmscott on a level, grassy path beside the Thames: c. 2½ miles, 1 hour. Break in Kelmscott Village, once the home of William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts movement. In the afternoon visit Buscot Park, a Palladian mansion with Burne Jones paintings and outstanding gardens.
Wittenham Clumps, Dorchester, Ewelme. Begin at the river at Shillingford and then walk up to Wittenham Clumps, a pair of hillocks with views over a particularly attractive stretch of the Thames Valley: c. 4½ miles, 2 hours. This is a moderate walk that descends through woods and across farmland, passing an Iron Age fort, to Dorchester-on-Thames. Visit the abbey church here, one of the finest medieval buildings in Oxfordshire, where St Birinus baptised King Cynegils of Wessex in 635. Continue to Ewelme, site of a Saxon palace, and today a unique complex of 15th-century church, almshouses and school, all still functioning. First of three nights in Marlow.
Hardwick, Henley-on-Thames, Cliveden. Mapeldurham House is an Elizabethan stately home that has been in the same family for about five hundred years. It is open by special arrangement. See the River and Rowing Museum at Henley-on-Thames with its extensive collection of art, photographs and boats relating to river history. Cliveden’s magnificent formal gardens and woods beside the Thames have been admired for centuries. Cliveden was once the glittering hub of society, visited by virtually every British monarch since George I, home to Waldorf and Nancy Astor in the early 20th century and renowned for its parties and political gatherings.
Cookham, Windsor. An easy walk from the hotel, on a level, tarmac or grass beside the river to Cookham: 4½ miles, c. 2 hours. Cookham is the life-long home of painter Stanley Spencer (1891–1959); there is a gallery of his work and a fine parish church. Visit Windsor Castle, founded by William I and occupied by every monarch since. The Queen spends most of her private weekends at the Castle, which is also used for State occasions.
Hampton Court Palace, London. An easy, level walk from Kingston Bridge to Hampton Court: 1½ miles, c. 45 minutes. Begun by Cardinal Wolsey, the palace was enlarged by Henry VIII and 150 years later partly rebuilt by Christopher Wren for William III and Mary II. The most sumptuous of surviving Tudor palaces is joined to the most magnificent of 17th-century buildings in Britain; great interiors, fine works of art, beautiful gardens, a formal park. Drive to London, arriving by c. 3.00pm.
A travel writer since 1991, Sophie has written for the Telegraph, Times, Guardian and Condé Nast Traveller among many others. She also lectures on travel writing and is a London Blue Badge Tourist Guide. Her book on the traditional events of the summer, The Season: A Summer Whirl Through the English Social Season was published in 2013.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,480. Single occupancy: £2,920.
Hotel accommodation; breakfasts, 1 lunch and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; transport by private coach; all admissions; all tips; the services of the lecturer and the tour manager.
The Swan, Bibury: former 17th-century coaching inn in the heart of the village. The Compleat Angler, Marlow: very comfortable hotel, well-positioned beside the Thames with excellent views. Single rooms are doubles for sole use throughout.
This is a walking tour, graded easy. There are 7 walks and all are graded easy with the exception of 1 moderately strenuous route which involves a climb of 230 feet up to Wittenham Clumps. Some walks include ascent and descent, climbing over stiles. It is essential for participants to have appropriate walking footwear, be in good physical condition and to be used to country walking with uphill and downhill content. You should be prepared for the (sometimes inclement) British weather. Average distance by coach per day: 38 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
'Wonderful itinerary – lots of variety in the terrain.'
'This is our fifth Martin Randall tour and we have been satisfied with each one and particularly the quality of the lecturers.'
'A really great tour which far exceeded my expectations.'