‘Goring on the left bank and Streatley on the right are charming places to stay,’ wrote Jerome in 1889. Nearing these large villages, across the Thames from each other, I saw the valley narrow, rising through woodland either side.
The ‘rich and shameless’ were starting to make their presence felt: magisterial lawns dotted with frowning oaks; mock-Tudor summerhouses on the riverfronts. For a little luxury, I slept at the Swan, with its fourposters and fancy restaurant terrace. How easily Td forgotten the proximity of the modern world. I even spied a deer on the island across the narrows over breakfast.
But soon I was at Brunel’s bridge, its intrusive inter-city railway warning of the suburbs beyond. The banks began crowding in, pushing the path uphill as the current wound through Goring Gap, Chilterns to my left, North Wessex Downs to my right. Presently it dropped into busy Pangbourne, the first of the large villages ahead to cast its net. The Thames skulked virtually unnoticed through Reading, my progress laced with graffiti and littered cans. Only late that day was my equilibrium restored when I reached the far side, and the tea garden at Sonning Lock, with its ’Keep Calm and Eat Cupcakes’ sign.
Jerome calls the village of Sonning ’the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’, every house smothered in roses, and old men drinking outside the lattice-windowed pub. The lawn of the creeper-coated French Horn restaurant- with-rooms, sloping gently to the water’s edge, perfectly captures his feeling that Sonning is ’more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar’. The evening view was so still it could indeed have been a theatrical set awaiting an actor, the setting sun gradually adjusting the lighting. Only the occasional movement of a heron, silhouetted against a curtain of willows, proved I was not looking at a painting. I sat still listening to the river until chilly twilight mists drifted out of the gathering dark. Inside, a duck crackled on a spit by the open fire.
By now my feet were bleating for another morning off, so from Sonning I took a Salter’s Steamer along one of the richest stretches of river. Crew gossip was that the Clooneys were renovating a lavish property hidden behind the trees. As Henley-on-Thames approached, the celebrity addresses came thicker and faster, along with boathouses and varnished launches nodding their bows at private landings. The town, a crucial 18th-
century staging post for coaches between Oxford and London, has always been the pricey jewel in the river’s antique coronet, and I disembarked to find it busy with jazzy paddle steamers, grandstands and bandstands, preparing for regatta week.
I was on foot again, the Thames now majestic as it threaded its way beyond Henley into a valley dotted with grand country houses. Twelve kilometres and two counties later, I reached Marlow at teatime, having strolled out of Oxfordshire into Berkshire and back across the Thames over an elegant suspension bridge. Hungary’s Count Szechenyi admired Marlow Bridge so much he had a larger version built across the Danube at Budapest, where it still stands.
Marlow’s well-heeled boutiques and coffee shops made a cheerful contrast to the relics of its varied history. Mary Shelley finished Frankenstein on West Street, while her poet husband rowed his skiff on the river, and T S Eliot lived on the same road during WWI (’Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song’ he wrote in The Waste Land). I felt a pilgrim’s pleasure in sharing the road with these ghosts, encountering what Jerome calls ’standing arches in the shattered bridge of Time’.
The mental postcards I was taking back to the city reminded me of Stanley Spencer’s paintings, in which the landscapes of his childhood are recreated as a heaven on Earth. And so I pushed on for 5km to the village of Cookham, where the artist grew up and where his works are on show. On the way, a final sunset tinted the widening Thames, mystic light on the waters, towering woods tinged with fire, a golden glory of piled-up clouds. In Cookham, a village of flint and brick, ivy and wisteria, snatches of cricket commentary over garden walls, I found a bed in Bel and the Dragon, an inn dating back to 1417, and so one of England’s oldest. It was a place of rambling floors, low ceilings and walls leaning conspiratorially.
All that remained next morning was to ease back into modern life: to Maidenhead, a 5km wander along the river, another boat trip to Windsor, then a train to London. Before leaving, I walked around Cookham. Spencer’s ashes rest in the churchyard near the flowery path to Bellrope meadow, whose evergreen cedars and mauve Michaelmas daisies he painted.
My very English adventure ended, like the Three Men’s, bathetically in trudging rain, but I’d ’got’ the Thames. The river had taught me, like Grahame’s Mole the joy of running water’. With my ear to the reed-stems I’d caught at intervals ‘something of what the wind went whispering so constantly among them’.