Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Upper Thames is the copyright of Jim Shead - The Thames from Reading to Lechlade. First published in Waterways World August 1997
The Upper Thames
Reading stands at the junction of the Thames and its tributary the Kennet. The Thames Region of the Environment Agency also looks after a short stretch of the River Kennet, including Blakes Lock. This is the first lock after leaving the Thames and is an old traditional style Thames lock, manually operated with large "ship's wheels" on the gates to operate the paddles, as were all the locks on the Thames up until the late 1950's, now it is the only one to be seen below Oxford. If you enter the Thames from the Kennet and Avon Navigation you can buy a visitor's licence at Blakes. This interesting by-way is now visited by trip boats taking visitor's from the Thames through the lock and stopping at Blakes Lock Museum by the weir.
On the Thames, just upstream from the Kennet Junction, we pass a line of moored boats. This popular mooring is next to a large Tesco's. Half a mile further on we come to Caversham Lock followed shortly by Reading Bridge, which is the closest point the river comes to the town centre, with free moorings above the bridge, by the park. This length has several boatyards and is often busy. Once through Caversham Bridge the left bank is park land, with "no mooring" signs, and opposite are some of Reading's most desirable houses. For many miles above Reading the river and the Great Western main line share the valley, sometimes Intercity trains thunder by close to the river, as they do at Tilehurst, then the river meanders away to quieter countryside. At points where rail and river meet, like Pangbourne and Goring, villages have expanded and prospered founded on the Victorian love of boating and trains.
If you want to visit Pangbourne it is best to moor in the meadow before Whitchurch lock. There are moorings at the historic and popular Swan Inn, just above the weir, but these are usually full. Pangbourne is followed by more fields and woods in gently undulating country, the Thames at its tranquil best. We pass Childe Beale Wildlife Trust then under the Gatehampton railway bridge a mile or so before Goring, where rail and river pass through the "Goring Gap" in the Chiltern Hills. Good free moorings are provided before the road bridge that links Goring to its twin village of Streatley. Immediately after the bridge is Goring Lock then Cleeve Lock, just a kilometre later, making this the shortest reach on the Thames. There is plenty of interest and rural landscape before our next lock (Benson) over 7 miles (11 kilometres) away.
At Moulsford the Beetle & Wedge Hotel, has lawns down to the river and moorings for patrons. The inn was H G Wells' model for the Potwell Inn in The History of Mr. Polly and both real and fictional inns had a ferry boat. The towpath changes sides here but Beetle & Wedge ferry no longer operates, leaving walkers with no way of crossing the river. Beyond the village Moulsford Railway Bridge takes the Great Western main line across the river giving travellers to Bristol and South Wales their last glimpse of the Thames. Another two miles takes us to Wallingford, our first town since Reading. This historic borough is well worth a visit for shopping, eating, drinking or just to admire its architecture from past centuries. A mile and a half upstream from Wallingford the long reach ends at Benson Lock and the same distance above the lock brings us to Shillingford Bridge and the Shillingford Bridge Hotel, above the bridge, a well appointed hotel, much patronised by smart cruisers.
Before the next lock (Day's) the little River Thame joins on the right. Immediately past this are free moorings by the meadow. The footpath beside the Thame will take you into Dorchester; a prehistoric settlement, a Roman town, the seat of Saxon Bishops and now a delightful village containing an interesting Abbey, turnpike toll house, coaching inn complete with coach, and a high street full of medieval, Tudor and Georgian buildings. A mile and a half above the lock is the village of Burcot which, seen from the river, appears to consist of a mile of large houses with gardens that stretch down to the river. We then pass the little village of Clifton Hampden before reaching Clifton and Culham locks, each with a long lock cut above the lock. We soon approach the outskirts of Abingdon, our third town, 13 miles from Wallingford and 30 from Reading.
Abingdon was the place where the Wilts & Berks Canal once joined the Thames and the canal company bridge can still be seen on the left by the Old Anchor pub. This is another town worth visiting and moorings are available above the bridge. I was charged £3.50 the last time I moored here. As a general rule the higher up the Thames you go the less likely you are to be charged for mooring and Abingdon is the only place above Reading that I have ever paid a mooring charge. At the lock, just upstream of the town, all services are available, including refuse disposal and pump-out. Most locks have some facility available, if only a water tap to fill a container. Confusion can arise because if the guide book marks water available at a lock you may not be able to fill up your tank, what you need is a lock with a hose, also facilities get moved from one lock to another fairly frequently. The best plan is to ask the lock keeper, he (or she) will be able to give you up to date information about the location of services you require. I have found nearly every Thames lock keeper to be friendly and helpful, some extremely so, but they do expect you to follow the rules; switch off your engine in the lock and obey notices such as "no landing rubbish on the lock side". No wonder they are a bit fussy when you consider the standard of care applied to these locks. Not only is all the gear well maintained and smartly painted, and the gardens neatly maintained but you rarely see a slimy lock wall as they are all washed down regularly.
Four and a half miles of pleasant open countryside brings us to Sandford Lock, at 8 feet 10 inches the deepest on the Thames. As the lock fills we can see mill buildings and the King's Arms appearing on the right-hand side of the lock. If you are tempted to stop there are a few moorings above the lock. We are now only three miles from Oxford with just Iffley Lock to pass through before Folly Bridge. There are pleasant moorings below the bridge, walk across Folly Bridge and keep straight on for the city centre. Alternative, more urban, moorings are provided by the Environment Agency just below Osney Bridge, these are close to the Waterman's Arms and are convenient for the railway station.
Osney marks the change that takes place in the river above Oxford. Osney Bridge has only 7 feet 6 inches headroom so only narrowboats and low profile cruisers can pass this point. We shall no longer share locks with cruisers like small ships, the helmsman looking down on us from the giddy heights of the flying bridge. These white triple level cruisers (called "Surbiton Wedding Cakes" by some) are very much a part of the rich, smart image that can be seen in the expensive houses and hotels that line the more fashionable reaches of the river, but they cannot pass Oxford. A little way past the bridge the backwater leading to the Oxford Canal appears on the right. Half a mile further on the river opens out into farm land and grows wider. On the left is Port Meadow across which we can see the "dreaming spires" of the city. Godstow Lock is the last electrically operated lock we shall pass through. Above the lock are moorings and the remains of Godstow Abbey and the narrow arches of Godstow Bridge. Soon we meet another feature of this part of the Thames, bends that take us backwards and forwards so that, across the fields, we can see the boat behind going in the opposite direction.
Our next lock, King's, is the first of the manually operated locks. These must surely be the best manually operated locks in the world, every working part well maintained and giving no resistance, and everything designed so the lock can be easily operated by one person. I am always pleased to find the lock keeper absent so that I can operate one of these locks myself. The paddles are operated by a wheel like a ship's wheel, as this is turned two rods move up and down so that everyone at the lock can see the paddle setting. When the rod with the red tip is up the paddle is open, when the white tip rod is up it is closed. There is no need to run round the lock to open, or close, the gates on the opposite side. On the lock keepers side of both upper and lower gates is a long aluminium boat hook that fits into a steel eye on the opposite gate. With the gate on this side of the lock closed the opposite gate can be easily open or closed with the pole. Just watch the lock keeper's procedure and marvel at the efficiency of the operation. Shortly after leaving King's lock there is a wide backwater on the right which leads to the Oxford Canal through Duke's Cut.
From King's Lock the river has comparatively few bends up to Eynsham Lock, another lock with all facilities. Above Eynsham Lock is Swinford Toll Bridge where a ridiculously low toll of a few pence per vehicle is still collected. Above the bridge the river returns to its meanders for about three miles, up to and beyond Pinkhill Lock. Another mile takes us past Bablock Hythe with its rows of mobile homes and moored boats. This kind of development, common on much of the Thames, is rare above Oxford. Now we have seen enough of the river above Oxford to recognise some of its features; the narrower channel often twisting and looking more like a contour canal than the bustling lower river, the lack of development, or even villages, along the banks, fewer boats and fewer people on the bank, an un-exploited rural tranquillity that most of the Thames lost long ago. This character is maintained for the remaining 21 miles to the head of navigation.
After Bablock Hythe and Northmoor Lock we come to Newbridge, 14 miles from Oxford. This gem of a place consists of The Rose Revived Inn, on the right bank, and the Maybush Inn opposite, linked by the "new bridge" built in the 13th century. From here the river winds through the fields to Shifford Lock and on to Tadpole Bridge, where the Trout Inn stands. On through Rushy and Radcot Locks to the hamlet of Radcot, ten miles from Newbridge. The Swan Hotel is on the right by the eighteenth century bridge, built when a new navigation channel was made, but Radcot also has the oldest Thames bridge, now on the backwater, just down the road from the bridge across the main channel. Three miles and one lock on is the village of Kelmscot. Little of the village can be seen from the river except a sign advertising the Plough Inn. The first building we encounter is Kelmscot Manor where William Morris once lived. There can have been few changes to the village since he died here a hundred years ago.
Only four more miles of navigation as we head up to Buscot Lock and then St. John's Lock, the last on the river, where the statue of Father Thames, brought here from the source of the river, can be seen on the lock side. The normal limit of navigation is a half mile above Lechlade Bridge, at the Round House. Lechlade is a small market town with St John's Church spire declaring its presence for miles around. There is a pleasant circular walk from a footpath by the church down to the lock and back along the towpath. In this small Gloucestershire town, we end our 70 mile river trip, which started in the large Berkshire town of Reading. A journey of delightful contrasts, an inexhaustible variety of things to discover and the supplier of golden boating memories.
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