‘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, mediaeval, 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. Ascent: 386m. Descent: 420m. 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. Total walk: 3½ miles on grassy, level paths. First of three nights in Bibury.
Inglesham, Lechlade, Great Coxwell. Ascent: 130m. Descent: 125m. 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, a vibrant small town with a fine Gothic church and a handsome bridge. Visit the masterful mediaeval barn at Great Coxwell, which King John gave to the Cistercian monks in 1203 as part of the Manor of Faringdon. Return to Bibury with a 2½-mile walk along grassy paths and through woodland from Coln St Aldwyns.
Buscot, Kelmscott. Ascent: 239m. Descent: 258m. Begin the walk at Buscot, whose church has a Burne Jones window, and continue c. 2½ miles on a level, grassy path beside the Thames. Visit Kelmscott Manor, the Tudor house acquired by 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. Ascent: 464m. Descent: 470m. 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. Descend through woods and across farmland, passing an Iron Age fort, to Dorchester-on-Thames. Total walk: c. 4½ miles. Visit the abbey church here, one of the finest mediaeval 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. Walk from the hotel beside the river (4½ miles on a level path along tarmac or grass) to Cookham, 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. Hampton Court was begun by Cardinal Wolsey, 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.
Lecturer, writer, curator and broadcaster specialising in the art, architecture and design of the 19th and 20th centuries. Has published many books on pottery, porcelain, silver and antiques, also on canals and railways, and two books on the Thames. He has worked as an external curator of the V&A on a number of exhibitions including Pugin & The Victorian Vision and was Historical Advisor to Royal Doulton in Stoke-on-Trent. He is a long standing expert on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow.
Price – per person
Two sharing: £2,440. Single occupancy: £2,740.
Two sharing: £2,460. Single occupancy: £2,790.
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.
There are 6 walks of between 2 and 5 miles, usually on flat and well-trodden grassy paths or tracks through woodland, combined with some paved roads and towpaths. Some walks include ascent and descent, climbing over stiles and on day 4, a climb of 230 feet up to Wittenham Clumps. You should be accustomed to countryside walking and 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.'