Brunel’s railway bridge, its brick arches reflected in the river, was doing its best to blend in with the water meadows just south of Goring-on-Thames. Coots were nesting on it as I passed under it one early- summer morning. Saplings sprouted from its piers. Bushes peeped over its parapet. But the camouflage couldn’t conceal the railway that Isambard Kingdom Brunel built it for, back in 1838.
I emerged into sunshine to see a train hurtle across the top, intruding on my parallel universe. As suited passengers prepared for meetings in the Big Smoke just 45 minutes away, here I was beginning another day in a drowsy backwater, immersed in fields of sage-scented purple knapweed. My approach to the capital was a grassy tow path, passing banks of blue forget-me- nots, and my meetings would be with moorhens. Trains on the Great Western Railway might run two or three times faster than when Brunel built his bridges, yet the Thames still flows below at the same pensive pace. I’d lived near its banks for years but never found time, among modern pressures and mundane drudgery, to see its forgotten corners. But, reading aloud a chapter of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows to a young relative one evening, I realised that much of the idyll in his 1908 publication lay virtually on my doorstep. If I took off, how easily might I find his timeless wilderness?
Walk the Thames Path from Oxford to London, and the frantic contemporary world recedes behind a leafy veil. Clocks and schedules fade to changing skies and the slow shift of seasons. Time flows backwards. The river, as it heads for the North Sea, is a water-world of nostalgia: wisteria-hung public houses, with tables among riverside apple trees; unhurried tow paths, where the only sounds are rasping mallards, rain on the reed-framed water, or cuckoos calling over sun-warmed fields. Poets, from Shelley to T S Eliot, were inspired by it; so were painters, among them the mystical Stanley Spencer, as well as novelists such as H G Wells and Jerome K Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat is a comic masterpiece.
On a scudding-cloud morning in early June I set off from Oxford’s Folly Bridge to follow the meandering Thames by boat, on foot and aboard the odd steam train. From this bridge, on mid-Victorian afternoons, maths prof Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll) would row Alice Liddell and her sisters, entertaining them with surreal adventure stories that began with a now-famous girl following a white rabbit down a hole. As I stood by a traffic-choked street, 151 years after Alice in Wonderland was published, it was easy to believe London was only an hour away by train. But boarding the Edwardian Lady Ethel, an open-topped, royal-blue craft, I was soon gliding into the past, spotting the long-horned cattle and lacy cow parsley of meadows, Oxford’s ochre spires sliding behind dappled oaks.
Salter’s Steamers was founded by two brothers back when Lewis Carroll was rowing Alice. The same family runs the riverboat company today. I was almost alone on the two-hour trip to the market town of Abingdon, with Tim doing the rope-work, Mark at the helm.
As we drifted by flowering chestnuts and carpets of buttercups, they talked about the boat-lovers who escape to the sanctuary of the water every weekend; about the ‘rich and shameless’ living in the riverside properties; and about the Thames itself, which lashes out now and again at those who try to build too near.
After 18 years working on this stretch of water, Mark, it seemed, had absorbed its calm. ‘When it comes to the Thames,’ he said, gnomically, as we parted by Abingdon Bridge, ‘you either get it, or you don’t’. I recalled his words some hours later, as I rested among blooming hawthorns and stately poplars, looking back down the river’s mazy curves from the grassy ramparts of an Iron Age hill fort. I ate my last pain au raisin (from Abingdon’s Patisserie Pascal), gazing across at Dorchester, a mossy-roofed village with a square-towered abbey church.
I’d seen almost nobody on the 14km walk, just weeping willows dipping their long, green tresses in the meditative Thames. Now fork-tailed red kites wheeled over the beech-crowned chalk, dragonflies darted among ox-eye daisies, and I felt myself relax. ‘Nothing seems really to matter, that’s the charm of it,’ says Grahame’s Water Rat in his hymn to ‘messing about on the river’.
I was, I felt, ’getting’ the Thames.
But I couldn’t linger, not if I wanted to get a bed before nightfall. The medieval arches and flagstone floors of 12th-century Fyfield Manor lay a good walk east, near Wallingford and the old-fashioned bathtub was just what my sore feet needed. Waking in a building fundamentally unchanged for hundreds of years, with a kingfisher-haunted brook burbling through the garden, I wouldn’t have blinked to see Jerome and friends strolling past in striped blazers, or hear Ratty on the riverbank, singing to the ducks.
There was welcome respite for my feet that morning: a nostalgic jaunt on the Cholsey and Wallingford steam railway. The 4km-long branch line didn’t make much downstream progress, but the noisy red and green steam engine was a delight, drawing waving spectators on its cross¬country puff to Cholsey, where Agatha Christie is buried in the churchyard.
Feet reinvigorated, I could feel the river’s reedy calm calling as I hurried along Cholsey’s sycamore-fringed Ferry Lane, back towards the Thames. The tow path soon led to the hamlet of Moulsford and a drink outside the Beetle & Wedge Boathouse, where I watched geese and swans glide on their rippling highway, enjoying the smell of the Beetle’s charcoal barbecue. The Beetle & Wedge is the ‘little riverside inn’ in Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat where George and J stop off on a walk and where the trout on the wall in the bar, which all the locals claim to have caught, turns out to be made of plaster. It’s also H G Wells’s Potwell Inn, where Mr Polly takes a job. Just as Wells described it, the rose-trellised garden runs down to a broad bend in the Thames; and, as the light faded, the river started to resemble Jerome’s imagined watery idyll near the start of the novel, full of sighing rushes and rustling trees.