The Thames River Trail is a national walking path that opened in 1996 and stretches 294 km (184 miles) from the source of the Thames in the Cotwolds, through London, and out to the sea. The trail is fairly well-marked and passes through numerous rolling meadows, rural villages and historical sites. Many sections of the trail use the original old towpath as well. I am an avid hiker and jumped at the opportunity to walk a small stretch of the longest river in England (someday I would love to hike the entire trail!)
I began in Reading and walked to Henley-on-Thames, exploring the villages of Sonning and Shiplake along the way, and returned via rail. This section of the trail is quite rural. I only saw a few other people on the trail (many of which were near Henley-on-Thames).
2 feet. 6 hours. 26 kilometres. 380 photographs. 38420 steps. Here we go!
I began my trip in Reading, walking through the town centre down Broad Street and King’s Road. You can find the Kennet River walking path by going down to the Oracle shopping mall or by walking to the end of King’s Road (go over the bridge around the roundabout and the path is directly underneath you). After a few minutes, you come to Blake’s Lock, which is one of 45 locks on the Thames River trail.
The Thames River is home to 25 species of fish and plenty of waterfowl. Birding is excellent in the more rural sections of the river, with plenty of warblers, robins, magpies, ducks, geese, and other waterfowl. A passerby had mentioned Mandarin duck sightings along the river at Shiplake, so I went looking for them (but was not able to snap any good shots!)
The Middle English spelling of the River Thames was typically Temese and Celtic Tamesis. The th spelling lends an air of Greek to the name and was added during the Early Modern period.
In Poly-Olbion, Michael Drayton reimagines the Thames, shrouding it in chorographical myth and legend. In Song 18, Drayton describes the marriage of Thames to the river Medway, but recounts this achievement as a martial chronicle, calling the rivers abroad to return from their conquest for the celebration:
To grace his goodly Queen, Tames presently proclaims,
That all the Kentish Floods, resigning him their names,
Should presently repaire unto his mighty Hall,
And by the posting Tides, towards London sends to call
Cleere Ravensburne (though small, remembred them among)
At Detford entring. Whence as down she comes along,
She Darent thither warnes: who calles her sister Cray,
Which hasten to the Court with all the speed they may.
And but that Medway then of Tames obtain’d such grace,
Except her country Nymphes, that none should be in place,
More Rivers from each part, had instantly been there,
Then at their Marriage, first, by Spenser numbered were
(Song XVIII, ll. 97-108)
After a few miles, or about 1-1.5 hours of walking from the Reading town centre, you will reach Sonning Lock and the lovely little village of Sonning. In his book Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome described Sonning as “the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river,” and I believe that this is an apt description. Thirteenth-century houses still dot Sonning’s windy streets, indicating remnants of its past medieval roots.
Sonning began as an Anglo-Saxon village, pronounced Sunna in Old English, and was an important location as the lesser centre of the bishopric of Ramsbury. Many pilgrims traveled through Sonning, staying at The Bull Inn since it was right beside St. Andrew’s Church (this medieval-pub-by-the-church layout seems to be a common trend). Pilgrims could visit the church to worship a relic of Saint Cyriacus. The Bishops of Salisbury succeeded those of Ramsbury and Sonning and Sonning became the seat of the Bishop of Salisbury. A Bishop’s Palace was situated in the village until the 16th century. King Richard II’s young bride, Queen Isabella of Valois, was also kept captive there during his imprisonment and deposition.
James Sadler, beekeeper, poet, and lock keeper from 1845-1885 also praises the little village’s charm (which does not seem to have changed much in the last 150 years):
“Is there a spot more lovely than the rest,
By art improved, by nature truly blest?
A noble river at its base is running,
It is a little village known as Sonning.”
Sonning Lock also has an afternoon tea garden from April-October (when the weather is nice) with a variety of herbal, breakfast, and cream teas—relax outside by the river before heading up to the village!
The Thames River along Sonning is incredibly picturesque, with weeping willows overhanging the river and daffodils sprouting by the water’s edge. The red-bricked Sonning Bridge, built in the 18th century, adds to the village’s beauty and peaceful setting.
Walking over the bridge brings us to the next leg of the trip: Sonning to Shiplake. After you cross the bridge, you will see a sign pointing the way to “Shiplake” and another footbridge.
The trail continues in a countryside setting, with fields of cattle, goats, and other farm animals. Shiplake College, an all-boys boarding school, is just down the river and you may be able to catch the students practicing their rowing techniques (they also seem to be fond of quoting the 1992 film “Wayne’s World” as they row along the river)
Passing the college, we enter a large open parkland that stretches for half a mile or so until we reach the Shiplake lock—only another three miles to Henley! This stretch of the river is occasionally home to Mandarin ducks, which fly over from China and are a rare sight here. Note that you cannot cross the lock here. The trail continues off the river through Shiplake and returns to the river later (more details below). The peaceful village of Shiplake apparently dates back to the thirteenth century and later known for its regatta, the second largest after the Henley-on-Thames Regatta. The Shiplake & Wargrave Regatta also holds races specifically for Canadian canoes!
I often find myself wondering why things in England seem haphazardly labeled: roads, trails, shops, etc only appear labeled if someone felt like posting something. The Thames River trail stands out in this respect, for it is exceptionally well-marked EXCEPT for this one area, which cost me about an hour and a massive detour. If you are following the trail this way (west-east) and you cross a little bridge at Shiplake and come to the junction called “Lashbrook Farm,” the signage appears somewhat confusing. One sign on the bridge states “Thames River Trail” pointing to the junction, but when you arrive at the junction another sign points to the bridge (and the way you have just come). So, the the experience looks like this:
Thames River Trail >> [where the heck do I go?!] << Thames River Trail
Here is how to end the sign-loop (had to throw in a code pun somewhere!): when you get to the junction, turn right and walk down the street until you come to another Thames River trail sign, then turn right. You should see the Shiplake rail station on your right (and, if your feet are tired, you can take the train to Henley-on-Thames from here). Do not, I repeat, DO NOT turn into the little alley when you come to a sign that says “To the river” (unless you want to check out the river’s edge at Shiplake, of course). Somewhat confused, I ventured down this path, which certainly took me back to the river (though I wasn’t even sure it was the Thames, thinking the river may have split). If you follow this trail, it will lead you back to Shiplake lock (and will take between 45-60mins).
Finding the trail again, I headed off to Henley-on-Thames just as the sun was starting to set. The rest of the way through Shiplake takes you past a number of large houses, one of which has a mini railway train set up in his/her front lawn!
After another half hour of walking, we reach the Marsh Lock. I thought the overhanging bridge across the water was a real treat and provides excellent views of the gates and riverside.
The path along the river brings you to Marsh Meadows park with trees sprinkled across a rolling meadow. If you continue down this path, it will take you right into the heart of the town.
The first record of medieval settlement dates to 1179, when it is recorded that King Henry II “had bought land for the making of buildings.” King John granted the manor of Benson and the town and manor of Henley to Robert Harcourt in 1199. The street plan dates to about the thirteenth century and the oldest buildings, sprinkled throughout the town, date to the fifteenth century (one of which I will be discussing in a later post). During the Black Death that swept through England in the 14th century, Henley lost 60% of its population.1
I also had the pleasure of watching two Egyptian ducks resting in the harbour:
If you are looking for a place to eat, check out Thai Orchid located down the street from the Town Hall, which serves delicious, traditional-style Thai cuisine. The decor includes Thai wood carvings and each table features unique engravings under glass. I tried the red curry, which came in a clay chicken-looking pot over a candle.
They are closed on Sundays and Mondays. I arrived at about 7:30pm on a Friday and the place was not busy at all. The servers are quite kind and seemed surprised that someone had walked from Reading. I find good Thai food difficult to find in England (so far, anyway), but the curry at Thai Orchid was well-spiced, hot, and satisfying—an excellent meal after a long day of walking!
Henley-on-Thames is a wonderful town to explore—if you are ever in the Oxfordshire or Berkshire area, I highly recommend visiting this little gem!
- Stuart Hylton, A History of Reading (Philimore, 2007), p. 34. [↩]