Of Britain’s thousands of footpaths, the Thames River Path seems perfect for our self-guided walking holiday. Maps, guidebook and baggage transfers to pre-booked lodgings make it possible.
So, with our much younger daughter Jessica, we fit and feisty seniors travel this national trail from Oxford to Windsor. Shouldering daypacks stuffed with raingear, snacks and water, we leave medieval splendor for rural choruses of quacking ducks, caw-cawing magpies and cooing partridge. At Iffley Lock, a side-path takes us over a stone footbridge to lovely St Mary’s. “Notice the unique carved figures!” the pastor smiles. “Our 12th century church retains its original Norman simplicity.”
Seven-kilometres downstream, Sandford Lock manages the highest drop on the Thames, its weir known for treacherous undercurrents. An obelisk there memorializes “The Lasher’s” victims. After a brew and breather at King’s Arms, we continue southward, eventually meandering through a beautiful nature reserve. Kingfisher sightings ease aching muscles.
Spanning Abingdon Lock, we locate our accommodations down a quiet road alongside fields of grazing sheep. Abingdon, England’s oldest continually inhabited town lies minutes across a multi-arched bridge, first built in 1422. After finding St Helen’s with its prominent tapered steeple, we visit abbey ruins. Larger than today’s Westminster Abbey, Abingdon Abbey dominated this market town for centuries… until Henry VIII destroyed this and other powerful Catholic monasteries in 1538. In the village local, we munch cod ’n chips… and raise our lagers in praise of today’s 17 kilometres, our required daily average.3
A restful night on Rye Farm restores us. Amid flower-filled gardens, we relish the first of many BIG English breakfasts to come. Light rains force us into waterproof coats; by midmorning, we’re “snowshoeing” through a “chocolate pudding” of pasture mire and evading curious cattle. Passing through innumerable gates, we slip-slide through wet waist-high grasses and golden barley fields toward a small village, looking for shelter and a pit stop. The downpour increases as tea and scones revive us at Waggon & Horses. The publican wryly observes, “Yup… you’re seein’ a month’s worth o’ rain in one day! But y’know, there’s no bad weather in England… just bad clothes!”
Undeterred, we alter our game plan; a cabbie whisks us to a thatch-roofed pub in Little Wittenham six-kilometres away. Ducking under low doorframes and beams inside the snug Barley Mow, we soon tuck into jacket potatoes topped with baked beans and cheese as raindrops pelt outdoor pavements.
The downpour subsides. Back on another grassy track, we ogle luxury estates and movie stars’ homes on the opposite bank. Beyond Days Lock, we help each other ford deep puddles and navigate slick sections into Shillingford. Overshooting our stop, we backtrack to Marsh House and stand bedraggled at the door of a gracious country home. The innkeeper gasps, “Oh my dears… what’ll we do with you?” But within minutes, our sopping clothes drip above bathtubs. As we play Scrabble, sunshine creates a rainbow in the garden – a good omen!
Chirping birds herald our third morning. A walled passageway leads on to a kissing gate, prompting quick smooches! Six-kilometres of lush green panoramas later, we approach Wallingford. A dog walker points out the stony remains of Wallingford Castle, built by Normans and later demolished by Oliver Cromwell.
The town square and corn market building recall Wallingford’s importance as a major medieval centre. Perked up by a coffee break, we stroll to King Alfred’s earthen ramparts once surrounding this 9th century Saxon town and pop into an adjacent oak-beamed house, now city museum. One exhibit highlights famed resident Agatha Christie, who often based her Miss Marple and Poirot mysteries in this area. Continuing alongside St. Leonard’s, Wallingford’s oldest church, we trek downward to the Thames across a rowing club’s lawn.
Our pathway winds several kilometres along the river, upward onto a busy road and down again to Moulsford’s former ferry crossing where we check out Beetle and Wedge, an early literary hangout. Before long, we discover we’re not the only Canadians along the towpath! A local birder explains these huge flotillas of Canada geese, “We’ve had ’em since the 1800s; those’re molting; can’t fly ’til new feathers grow in.” Pointing skyward, he adds, “Once endangered, breeding programs re-introduced those kites!”
Skirting meadowlands, our footpath tunnels between hedges. Emerging in tiny Streatley, we enjoy a leisurely supper on the Swan Hotel’s riverside terrace.
Just over the neighbouring bridge, we reach Goring, south England’s most beautiful town. Finding the 17th century John Barleycorn Pub, we settle into comfy upstairs rooms for the night. Sunday church bells peal joyously as we depart lovely Goring.
Along the river, leafy canopies protect us from sudden showers. Minutes later, skies clear, and we’re passing through Little Meadow’s grasses and ox-eye daisies. As the valley narrows, the Chilterns rise into the distance. Swooshing cycle groups share this inland section; like them, we puff up our journey’s only serious slopes and descend through farmlands into Whitchurch. A ferryman's 300-year-old cottage, nowadays the Greyhound, gives us a timely break.
Crossing another stone bridge, we edge along Pangbourne’s water marshes. Brass plaques on wooden benches quote Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows. Taking turns, we dramatize Mr. Toad’s winsome observations of river life. According to our guidebook, both Hardwick and Mapledurham manor houses on the opposite shore claim to have inspired illustrations for Toad Hall.
Suddenly, a snowy swan nears the bank, circles with wings regally spread, sweetly beeps and fluffs her tail feathers! Enchanted by this fluttering fandango, Cheerios reward her performance. And at the next lock, a chatty café tea lady tells us: “July’s festival celebrates our royal mute swans, which are upped, meaning banded by conservation officers.” While watching sleek riverboats traverse Mapledurham lock, the attendant observes, “Once shipping wool, timber and stone from the Cotswolds, barges have since become these popular leisure boats.”
The pathway curves upward through neighbourhoods of charming cottages, tiny gardens overflow with roses, honeysuckle and hollyhocks. We catch a train at Tilehurst; one stop later, we’re walking through Reading’s historic centre to our hotel. Nearby, the magnificent 1700s brick Guildhall museum features Britain’s Bayeux Tapestry and Forbury Gardens lie adjacent to another abbey’s ruins.
Navigating busy streets the next morning, we return to the Thames. Among the oaks here, stinging nettles flourish, attack – and bite! A passerby points out burdock, a natural antidote, and it quickly relieves irritations. East of Reading, we marvel at countless swans preening near the Thames and Kennet river junction and cross the U-shaped Horseshoe Bridge. Beyond Sonning Lock, a narrow pathway takes us through St. Andrews 15th century churchyard. This lovely church incorporates early Saxon-style stonework and carvings.
Back at the water’s edge, fishers sit patiently along the banks. Across Sonning’s humpback brick bridge, the pathway winds along surprising fields of scarlet and purple poppies and upward onto a busy roadway into Shiplake. A train takes us to Henley, the river town famous for rowing culture and Royal Regatta. Following a delightful walkabout, another train carries us onward to Windsor.
Leaving explorations of Windsor Castle and hallowed Eton for another day, we celebrate our grand accomplishment with savory steak and mushroom pie at Windsor’s Trooper. We toast the Thames, drenched in history, sublime nature and even patchy rain! Exploring from Oxford’s spires, through tranquil countryside and ancient towns to Windsor’s pageantry proves an inspiring undertaking!
When You Go:
* Walking holiday details at www.explorebritain.com OR www.foottrails.co.uk
* Train information at www.nationalrail.co.uk or www.thetrainline.com/buytickets
* Holiday ideas at www.visitbritain.com or www.enjoyengland.com
JUNE 2013 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE
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