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This article River of Renown is the copyright of Jim Shead - The River Thames. First published in Waterways World January 1996


 

River of Renown

The Thames, more than any other river in Britain, has cast its influence on our history, commerce and culture, from the Roman and Norman conquests to the wealth of literature, about it, and written on its banks. So many books and pictures eulogising the Thames have been produced that it seems almost irreverent to treat it as our pleasure ground, but that too has been its history. All through the ages it has been used for recreation but it was the Victorians who intensified pleasure boating and gave the upper river a character that it retains to this day.

When Lewis Carroll rowed Alice Liddell and her sisters on the Thames at Oxford, in the 1860s, the Oxford Canal was long established, having joined the river more than 70 years before. Today the traffic between the canal and river is perhaps greater than it has ever been, and we, like many others, approached the river from the Oxford Canal. From here there are two routes on to the Thames, one via Dukes Cut and the other through Isis Lock, close to the city centre. We chose to go through Isis Lock and were lucky enough to find a mooring close by so that we could visit Oxford. A short backwater connects the canal with the main course of the river. At one time this route was seldom used as it required a railway bridge to be swung open, but this is no longer the case.

Registering a boat as a Thames visitor is easy as it can be done at the next lock to the point of entry, in our case Osney Lock, but is quite expensive, 52 for 15 days with our 57 foot narrowboat. Thames locks are in a class of their own, all electrically operated below Oxford, with Lock Keepers and Assistant Lock Keepers, they are well maintained with houses and many have magnificent lock-side gardens. It was 5 years since our last Thames trip and I needed reminding of the custom of switching off the engine in locks.

The river is often used as a route to one of the connecting waterways, the main ones being the Regents Canal, the Grand Union, the River Wey, The Kennet & Avon Canal and the Oxford Canal. But it is a shame to hurry down the Thames, so rich in beauty and interest both urban and rural. Oxford, of course, needs no introduction but just eight miles downstream is Abingdon, once the entry point to the Wilts & Berks Canal and a town with an ample history of its own. There are good moorings just below the lock but, as in most Thames-side towns, there is a mooring fee, 3.50 in this case.

Another eight miles brings us to Dorchester which is set back from the river and, like its namesake in Dorset, was a Roman town. This was a town of great importance in the Middle Ages and today is a large village, worth visiting for its 7th Century Abbey, shops and pubs. There are footpaths to the village from the Days Lock and from the moorings near where the River Thame joins the Thames. After passing under Shillingford Bridge and through Benson Lock we arrive at Wallingford, a town with a history of settlement dating back to the Bronze Age and a charter dated 1155. A bridge of 17 arches, 5 of them across the river, marks the start of the High Street for the boater visiting the town. Wallingford is on a 6 1/2 mile stretch of river between Benson and Cleeve locks, the longest reach between locks on the whole river but Goring Lock follows Cleeve in just over half a mile, this being the shortest reach.

Goring is a pleasant Oxfordshire village with a good selection of shops. Across the river is its twin village of Streatley in Berkshire. Four miles downstream Pangbourne is rich with literary associations, you can moor outside the Swan Inn where Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat stopped, John Galsworthy in The Forsyte Saga used Pangbourne as a setting, as did Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for a Sherlock Holmes story, and Kenneth Grahame, author of Wind in the Willows lived in the village. The Swan Inn is right next to the weir and on the other side of the river is the entrance to Whitchurch Lock.

After passing through Reading we pass the entrance to the River Kennet, the start of the Kennet & Avon route to Bath and Bristol, then just over 2 miles further on we come to Sonning, one of the most attractive villages on the river, with good free moorings above the lock. One of the advantages of the Thames is that in most places you can easily turn, even a long boat, to go back to moorings you have passed, saving the "I wonder if there are moorings nearer the centre or should we moor here to be on the safe side" routine that Beryl and I go through on the canals. The next lock after Sonning is Shiplake where there is a water point and a free self-service pump-out station. It is not always easy to know where you can fill up with water, the Nicholson Ordnance Survey Guide to the River Thames marks a water point at nearly every lock but although you can fill a kettle or a container at the places marked only a few have facilities for filling a water tank. The Lock Keepers are always good sources of information on these matters and will have up to date information about the new facilities that the NRA are introducing.

The next place we stopped was Henley, famous for its regatta held in the first week of July. We arrived on a sunny Sunday in August when there was a large vintage boat rally being held on the regatta course below the bridge and the river was alive with boats of all descriptions, day trippers in rowing boats and motor launches weaving from one side of the river to the other, a large trip boat pretending to be a Mississippi Steamer, narrowboats and all types of cruiser as well as vintage boats with people in period costume. Luckily we did find a space at the Municipal Moorings in the town park as Henley does provide good facilities for visiting boats albeit at a charge. At the next town, Marlow, I was disappointed to find that many of the former mooring places are now marked as private and we could find no mooring above or below the lock. There are some Municipal Moorings at Cookham, a picturesque village that was the home of the artist Sir Stanley Spencer and features in many of his paintings, but these too were full and we had to continue to Bourne End.

Maidenhead became a centre for boating activity in Victorian times, the town being on the Great Western main line from London as can be seen from the huge brick arches of Brunel's railway bridge built across the river in 1839. Boulter's Lock at Maidenhead appears in many Victorian photographs and paintings but is not quite the same one as we use today, having been rebuilt and enlarged in 1912. The best part of Maidenhead is by the river and the town centre is quite a long walk from here should you need some shopping.

Windsor is another riverside town too famous and historic to need any description in this brief account of my river trip. There are moorings on both sides of the river before the bridge, the municipal moorings close to the town having a 4 charge for 24 hours. The 70 miles of river from Oxford to Windsor may be described as archetypal rural Home Counties, undulating farmlands, parks and woods, landscaped estates, prosperous villages and market towns. The remaining 24 miles of the non-tidal river, from Windsor to Teddington, is more suburban. Gradually the riverside houses become more frequent, smaller and closer together. Houseboats, boatyards, marinas and moored craft ever increase with our passage down river. Not that this journey is without interest, either on or off the river, passing as it does the entrance to the River Wey, just past Shepperton Lock, and Hampton Court, just after Molesey Lock.

Below Teddington Lock the river is tidal and controlled by the Port of London Authority rather than the NRA, no license is required for these waters, but you will need to consult the tide tables or take the easy option, as I did, and ask the Lock Keeper when is the best time to go through. We went 5 miles down the tidal river to Brentford, where we joined the Grand Union for the trip through London. This was a pleasant trip on a sunny day, in the company of several other narrowboats, taking us past Richmond and Isleworth to the point where we left the Thames, opposite Kew Gardens.

Our Thames cruising did not end then, however. Emboldened by our smooth trip down the tidal river we decided to come up the tideway from Limehouse to Brentford on our return. The day was dull and rainy but I don't suppose that the people looking down at the water from Tower Bridge would have considered it choppy but things seemed different on our narrowboat on the river. As we came out of the shelter of Limehouse Lock, followed by the Narrowboat Random Still, we were pitched and tossed by the swell and the wash of passing boats. After passing Tower Bridge we passed a large white cruise liner moored in the Pool of London towering above the HMS Belfast by her side.

After a while we got used to the rough waters and they grew calmer as we went upstream. To guide us on this voyage we had the excellent Thames Tideway Guide written by Chris Cove-Smith for the Inland Waterways Association London Region, this is available from Brentford, Teddington and Limehouse Locks and from BW, NRA and PLA information centres or for 40p post paid from the IWA. A 57 foot narrowboat, which in some circumstances seems quite large, seems minute on the wide Thames with London Landmarks towering above, but this was one of the highlights of our year and a fitting finale for our farewell to the Thames.

The Pictures

  1. A narrowboat comes under Wallingford Bridge.
  2. The elegant lines of a traditional Thames launch in Hambledon Lock.
  3. Chertsey Lock.

  

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Jim Shead Waterways Photographer & Writer
Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
Home Introduction Waterways List Waterways Map Links Books DVD Articles Photo Gallery
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