Thames Path Stage 13: Henley-on-Thames to Tilehurst

Published 1 April 2015

The Thames near Henley

January would be a relaxing month. That was the idea. My career break would be a month ijn, and all the busyness of Christmas would be over, and the hoards of family members who had invaded our home over the festive period, would have been dispatched back to their own abodes. This would leave me with plenty of time to unwind; to relax, potter around. Do some walks; have some leisurely days. I was fortunate that I didn’t need to rush back to the world of full time employment, and could afford to take a few months off and enjoy life.

That was the plan, anyway.

And then there was the reality. Barely a week into the New Year, water was found leaking from the loft into our bedroom. It had clearly been going on for a while, judging by the way the ceiling was sagging; all hidden by the fact that the water was dripping slowly onto the top of our wardrobe. The insurance people came out, then a few days later part of the ceiling collapsed and traces of asbestos were found in the Artex, adding further complications to the already slow repair process.

For good measure, the washing machine conked out, my 97-year-old grandfather was admitted to hospital and to cap it all, I ended up having to prepare for a job interview. For although I’d had absolutely no intention of even applying for any jobs for another two months, a great sounding opportunity had come my way. One that was too good not to go for. And to cap it all, they offered me the job.

January was ebbing away fast, and I certainly wasn’t feeling rested and merry. After one particularly hectic day, full of ceiling related phone calls, I drew a line in the sand. I was going out.

So the next morning – after having nowhere near enough sleep thanks to a gale battering the house, and rain crashing heavily on the window – I forced myself out of bed at an infeasibly early hour of the morning, and started the journey back to Henley-on-Thames. I was ready to see the Thames again, more than happy to walk alongside its calming presence. The previous section, with its woods, islands and rural charm, had re-invigorated my enthusiasm for the Thames Path which had been waning after several sections walking along insanely large houses and gratuitous displays of wealth. Although as the train from Paddington sped on its way, there was one reminder of what I’d left behind back at home. As we sped towards Slough, the train window began to leak, sending a shower of water all over my head.

Henley Bridge in Henley-on-Thames

The Thames Path left Henley through a park, which seemed to be home to the town’s collection of interpretation boards, revealing local history and extolling the virtues of visiting the nearby River and Rowing Museum. One went on about the Keep Britain Campaign, for no obvious reason, and another informed that the parkland I was now walking through had once been used for farming. It was abandoned following the problems caused by the Thames breaching its banks, which meant the farms were rarely profitable.

Perhaps it wasn’t just the river that caused it. Huge chunks of the grass were drenched, hidden under large puddles caused by recent rain. The footpath – a sturdy tarmac construction – was similarly affected, and the locals out walking their dogs (invariably women wearing Ugg boots for some reason) were required to skip and dance around them, in order to avoid their feet getting soaked. Naturally the dogs didn’t care, and given I was wearing a sturdy and trusty pair of walking boots, I joined them by wilfully splashing my way through the puddles.

Just outside the town, was Marsh Lock, which rather unusually sits closer to the opposite side of the river than the old tow path. This meant that the tow path was required to head out on a large wooden walkway in order to reach the lock island, before heading back to the river bank once more.

Marsh Lock, seen from the Thames Path, near Henley

Despite having passed many on my Thames Path walks, I’d never really given much consideration to lock design before, but this one intrigued me. It seemed like the whole thing had been constructed in the most awkward way for everyone, and the lock island seemed particularly smaller than others I’d seen, meaning the lock keeper’s cottage was rather tiny. Had land been at a premium? Was there some landowner who had caused problems? Or was it purely an engineering decision based on river flows, to build the lock out in the middle of the river? I couldn’t tell. Still, the ability to head out on a walkway into the middle of the river made a nice change.

North of the village of Shiplake, the path diverted inland. The riverside was now hidden behind houses, and it was time again to head down alleyways and along muddy roads. As I did I came alongside a large and particularly grand railway station, far grander than most of those on the area. What could possibly have required a three-story station building with a substantial canopy?

Oh, and why does it look rather small? And why is the station named St Mortiz?

Model of St Moritz railway station, as seen on the Thames Path in Oxfordshire

Of course it wasn’t a proper railway station at all. St Moritz station, Oxfordshire, was merely part of an elaborate model railway running through the grounds of someone’s house. Looking at it – with no trains running on a winter weekday – I made a sweeping piece of gender stereotyping, and wondered how the railway’s owner had got the idea past his wife.

“Well, yes you can have the living room redone, but in return I want to get to recreate a Swiss railway station in miniature form. Deal?”

Of course who is to say that the railway’s owner had a wife? Or, was even male? I had no evidence either way, and the assumption was all in my mind. I dutifully told myself for making such a sweeping generalisation, and headed off on my way again.

Shiplake railway station

The actual railway station in Shiplake village was a bit of a let down in comparison. The Thames Path passed over a level crossing at the end of the platforms of a station that had clearly seen better days; the station buildings were long gone, and one of the trackbeds had been lifted and repurposed as a car park.

After the station the trail headed down a small road, lined with houses of varying sizes that was perhaps not the world’s best-maintained street. Finally after coming off the road, the Thames Path wandered through some muddy fields before finally returning to the river. My guidebook enthused about how the detour round Shiplake was merely temporary and that a replacement, aligned much closer to the riverbank, would be open “before too long”, although how long that would be, no one was particularly sure.

Muddy path near the village of Sonning

The path was a little on the muddy side, but after passing through the grounds of Shiplake College – another of those private school things which resided in the grounds of an old manor house – I entered a stretch with a whole new level of mud. The path consisted almost entirely of sticky brown, and my walking speed dramatically reduced as I tried to make my way along. It was a struggle just to stay upright, and images of slipping, and suddenly finding myself absolutely covered in the stuff from head to toe, filled my mind.

At least if it did happen, there’d be no one around to see it happen. The Thames Path was devoid of life, with no one out walking, and very little housing. Yet rather surprisingly, and despite being some way from any roads or tracks, there were several houseboats moored look, looking for all intents and purposes like they were permanent fixtures. It was difficult to imagine how anyone could really live there, given the complete lack of facilities, but each one seemed to be occupied, and one of them even had smoke coming out its chimney. A strange sight indeed.

The Bull Inn, Sonning

The clock was about to strike noon as I arrived outside the village of Sonning. I wasn’t massively hungry – a pretty naff railway station breakfast was still sitting rather heavily on my stomach – but the village did have a 16th century coaching inn, and I was in need of warming up thanks to a cold wind battering me. Besides, the Bull Inn had been mentioned in Jerome K Jerome’s classic Thames related book, Three Men In A Boat; a tome I’d been meaning to read ever since I’d first set foot on the Thames Path. I’d even got as far as downloading a copy for the Kindle, but still it remained untouched.

Although I hadn’t read the book, I had at least managed to find out what Jerome had said about Sonning.

“If you stop at Sonning, put up at the ‘Bull,’ behind the church. It is a veritable picture of an old country inn, with green, square courtyard in front, where, on seats beneath the trees, the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and winding passages.

Sounded good to me. Although naturally past glory doesn’t always mean present day wonderfulness. As I approached the pub buildings, I thoroughly expected to it have been turned into a chain pub monstrosity or something; the exterior clad with large plastic signs informing potential customers of a “2 for £10” meal deal, and that there were special offers on hotdogs served covered in curry sauce and broken poppadum.

My fears were, thankfully, unfounded, and I entered to find a pub that looked like it hadn’t changed much for years. Even the small rugs on the wooden floor looked like they’d seen many a muddy boot walk over them.

The bar of The Bull Inn, Sonning

It was soon obvious that people sitting in full hiking gear were not the pub’s usual lunchtime customers. Despite being in a small rural village, the Bull was mostly full of people in business suits and other smart clothing. Sitting next to a window wearing mud-splattered trousers, I did my best to not look too out of place as the corporates nattered away.

The popularity of the pub with the business community was no doubt related to the fact that Sonning village is only a few miles from Reading. The group on the table next to me had popped down for a team lunch to celebrate the arrival of a new team member. Sitting at my table, I listened in and learned that one of them – a man who sounded suspiciously like David Mitchell – had once worked in Brazil, and had had to be airlifted out of Egypt just before the 2011 uprising in the country. In contrast, Reading must seem particularly tame.

These facts may or may not have been the most useful things to know, but I had plenty of time to learn about his life story seeing as he seemed to do most of the talking; although given the laughter generated by other members of the table, it didn’t seem likely that he was the team bore.

A bare tree and a bench in front of the River Thames near Reading.

The outskirts of Reading, on the banks of the River Thames.

The Thames flowed merrily behind the grounds of Reading Blue Coat School; the location of the school made amply clear by the large number of “Private Grounds” signs at the edge of the path. I was coming up to Reading, something made abundantly clear by the noise of the trains running over the nearby railway, and the offices at the edge of a business park. Had it been a sunny summer lunchtime, the fields I was walking through now would no doubt be full of workers from the nearby offices of Oracle, sat picnicking on the grass.

Reading’s a big town, but interestingly it was built alongside the River Kennet, a forty five mile tributary of the Thames, rather than of the Thames itself; the smaller river being perhaps more easily crossed in comparison to the wide width of the Thames. As a result, the Thames feels almost coincidental to Reading. It’s just some water on the edge of town, and little more.

Wide meadows around the river also managed to keep the town at bay, and were it not for the sight of gasometers, office blocks, train horns and a large Tesco, I would barely have known I was in a major town. At least I wouldn’t have until I arrived near Reading Bridge to find the footpath closed for maintenance, and that I’d be required to walk down a busy main road.

Sign saying ‘Thames Path Diversion’

It was a reminder, if ever one was needed, that the Thames Path was often an oasis of calm in an otherwise busy and bustling world. Mere meters away cars, lorries and buses noisily thundered down the main road, yet from the sanctity of the river, their impact had been minimal. The riverside buildings shielded them all from both sight and from the ear. The only interloper had been the sound of the trains, with their horns blaring as they ran over embankments nearby. Now though, with the path diverted away it was time to embrace the cacophony of sound, and the chaos of the traffic. A dart across a road here, a quick dash past a fellow pedestrian there. All the trappings of civilisation. I couldn’t wait to be away from it frankly, and return to the calm of the river.

The offices of Thames Water and the Environment Agency glared at each other across the road, all under the gaze of Reading’s substantial railway station and a shopping centre, which seemed to have no visible way for shoppers to actually get in. I walked past them as fast as I could, hurrying along until I finally found the bright yellow sign that would tell me I could return to the river once more. I’d only been away for barely a quarter of a mile, but it felt so much longer.

Thames Promenade, Reading

A metal sign welcomed me to ‘Thameside Promenade’, which seemed an especially fancy name for a strip of mown glass running along the side of a river. It was a name that instantly brought to mind images of Victorian men and women walking arm in arm; the men in suits with stiff collars, and the women in their finest dresses, padded out by substantial petticoats. It was a name that didn’t seem to quite suit its actual occupants. Joggers in lycra, dog walkers being pulled along by their hounds.

Slowly but surely the grand houses of Caversham lining the opposite bank, faded away, as did the firm tarmac path of the Promenade; the latter replaced by a muddy track alongside fields. Familiar. Dependable. Slippery.

Amongst the trees a radio crackled, and I peered into the bushes to see the signs that I was passing someone’s abode. Most of the residents on the river lived in houses or flats. Some lived on boats. Here though, someone was residing in a tent. Just looking at the faded canvas made me shiver. It was a cold day for the walker, and I was decked out in fleeces and thermal underwear. Living out in this cold weather? I had a sneaking feeling the occupant probably wasn’t doing it out of choice.

Their choice of location had clearly been picked with camouflage in mind. An attempt not to be spotted, or moved on. They may have achieved this a little better had they been just a little subtler about it. Perhaps leaving bicycles strewn along the side of the path, and rubbish bins, wasn’t the best way to conceal your presence. They’d also chosen a spectacularly noisy spot, right underneath the railway embankment. Perhaps that was the reason for the radio. Put on a blast of music to drown out the noise of the high speed trains rushing overhead, which they did at frequent intervals.

A train seen on the railway embankment near Tilehurst

It was a high embankment, and the Thames Path came alongside it, next to a large brick wall. Somewhere up there was Tilehurst Station where I would be catching my train. I glanced at the train times on my phone. Twenty minutes until the next one, and then a half hour wait. Perhaps I should put my foot down, I thought, and I began earnestly hurrying along. The idea of sitting on a cold and draughty platform for half an hour was a far less appealing than lingering around the Thames.

A few minutes later I could see the station buildings, noting that there was naturally no way to get from the tow path and up to the station. It would have taken very little effort to connect the two up, but that was perhaps asking too much. Instead I would have to go past the station, get to the main road at the main road and double back on myself to get to my train.

For good measure, there was also the requirement not only to walk up to the railway embankment via a set of steps, but also to climb even higher in order to cross over the tracks on a bridge. I glanced at my watch again. Less than ten minutes. This was going to be tight, but my legs were in no mood for running.

Sign on the Thames Path saying ‘Welcome to Reading’

Down the road I strode, ignoring everything in my way, determined to get there just in time. And I did, racing over the bridge to get to the right platform. I arrived with seconds to spare; giving me just enough time to notice the complete absence of a train, and to digest an information screen that informed me the train was delayed by five minutes.

Well, at least it hadn’t been early.



5 January 2016 at 7:07 pm

My 13 year old son and I are walking the Thames path, going upstream as you have been doing. We did part of this stretch today (early January 2016) and actually turned back a little way after Shiplake! Not only was it – as you say – a whole new level of mud, but on a winter afternoon we were concerned that we might reach a stretch that was totally impassable, and not have time to get back to somewhere lit before the sun went back. And some of the fencing along the path appears to be formed of an electric fence, which I wouldn’t want to grab if I were to slip on mud.

Thanks for blogging about this

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