Text and photographs copyright of Jim Shead.
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This article The Thames - Top to Tideway is the copyright of Jim Shead - The River Thames from Lechlade to Brentford. First published in Canal & Riverboat December 2002.
The Thames top to tideway
The generally accepted head of navigation for powered craft on the River Thames is the Round House near Inglesham. The Round House is a former Lock Keeper's house on the Thames & Severn Canal which joined the Thames at this point. From here we will cover the 129 miles and 45 locks to Brentford, where the tidal Thames meets the Grand Union Canal. There is hardly a reach on our journey that has not featured in history, inspired a literary work or has been the subject of a work of art.
Half a mile downstream is Ha'penny Bridge and the lovely little Gloucestershire town of Lechlade, the last place for shopping before Eynsham. If you moor overnight on the towpath here you may be disturbed by cows who like to rub against the boats. The 27 miles above Oxford have an entirely different character to the river below. Much of the channel is narrow and loops through woods and fields far from habitation, and often far from any road. The 10 locks before Godstow, on the edge of Oxford, are manually operated and represent a design that was used throughout the river until the first automated locks were introduced in the 1950s. Nearly all these locks boast immaculate gardens that are a joy to see. At this end of the Thames you will not see any of those large sea going cruisers that make their way up the Thames to Oxford, they cannot get under Osney Bridge.
On our way down river we pass Kelmscot, where William Morris lived in the Manor House, a pretty village with the excellent Plough Inn. On the backwater at Radcot is the oldest surviving bridge on the river (13th century) and at Newbridge we pass under another 13 century bridge standing isolated in the countryside except for the Rose Revived Inn on one side and the Maybush Inn on the other. At Bablock Hythe we pass a large caravan site, the first real riverside development so far. Swinford Toll Bridge crosses the river at Eynsham and 2½ miles on we come to the junction that leads to the Oxford Canal through Dukes Cut, just above King's Lock. After three more miles we pass another entrance to the Oxford Canal before passing under Osney Bridge, the lowest on the river. There are moorings for the city between the bridge and Osney Lock, or you can go on to the moorings below Folly Bridge. Take care when passing through Folly bridge as there are often punts and other small craft engaged in inexplicable manoeuvres here.
On the two or three reaches below Oxford there is often a lot of sculling and rowing. Although most oarsmen know their business they travel fast so keep a good look out in front and behind. We once shared Iffley Lock with a rowing eight and by the time we reached Sandford, less than two miles away, they had gone through the lock and were out of sight. At eight feet ten inches Sandford Lock is the deepest on the river. Abingdon is the next town, five miles on. There are plenty of moorings here from where you can visit this typical Thames market town. It was here, near the Old Anchor Inn, that the Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal joined the Thames - not where there is an iron bridge that still bears the company's name. This bridge crosses the River Ock. The point where the canal entered the Thames is not marked.
The thirteen miles to Wallingford contain a wealth of interest, starting with the villages of Culham and Clifton Hampden, each with a lock, and the large riverside houses at Burcot. Days Lock is next, close to Dorchester, Oxfordshire. Dorchester was an important centre of Saxon Wessex and today its ancient earthworks and Abbey testify to its long history. Further on is Shillingford Bridge Hotel the first of the grand riverside hotels on our journey. At Benson Lock we enter the longest reach on the river - 6½ miles to Cleeve Lock.
Wallingford, a mile below Benson, is another attractive town However, visitor moorings here are few and expensive. There are mooring places, between the trees on the towpath side before the bridge, where there is no charge. The long rural reach ends at the Goring Gap, where the Thames passes through the Chiltern Hills with Goring Lock following a half mile after Cleeve. On the right bank is the Berkshire village of Steatley and on the opposite side is the larger Oxfordshire Village of Goring. At Whitchurch Lock we have another pair of villages, this time the eponymous Oxfordshire village being smaller than Pangbourne on the Berkshire side. The Tudor Hardwick House can be seen down an avenue of trees before Mapledurham House and Lock.
Reading soon follows. It is a large town with a good shopping centre. Its museum has a Victorian copy of the Bayeux Tapestry, faithful to the original in every detail except that the Cheshire ladies who embroidered it have clothed some of the naked bodies. To the east of the town the River Kennet joins the Thames, leading to the start of the Kennet & Avon Canal. Between here and Henley is some excellent Thames cruising through the charming village of Sonning and on through Wargrave to Marsh Lock at the head of Henley's three mile reach.
This busy riverside town, famous for its regatta held in the first week of July, has many attractions including the new River Thames & Rowing Museum. On the river the regatta course passes Wren's Fawley Court, completed in 1684, and ends at Temple Island. The river then bends at Greenlands (once the home of W H Smith, the first Viscount Hambleden) before reaching Hambleden Lock. Beside the lock is the much photographed Hambleden Mill. Two miles on we see Medmenham Abbey, that has been both a Cistercian monastery and the home of the Hell Fire Club. It is now a desirable riverside residence. Bisham Abbey, three miles on, is another ecclesiastical building that has had a change of use is. Founded in the 12th century, dissolved by Henry VIII who gave it to the rejected Anne of Cleves, it is now a premier sports centre.
Bisham Abbey is less than a mile from Marlow, Buckinghamshire, another appealing Thames town with an impressive suspension bridge opened the year before Queen Victoria came to the throne. On one side of the bridge is the tall spire of the church on the other the Compleat Angler Hotel next to the wide curved sweep of the weir. Unfortunately there are few places to moor in this popular town and the long length of towpath with "no mooring" signs do little to make the boater feel welcome. Beyond Bourne End, and 3½ miles from Marlow, is Cookham, a village immortalised by the artist Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 - 1959). Many of his paintings depict the village, villagers and river based activities.
Between Cookham Lock and Boulter's Lock at Maidenhead is the beautiful wooded Cliveden Reach where, looking back, we can see the Cliveden House behind the trees on the top of the hill. The present house was the seat of the Duke of Westminster before he sold it to Lord and Lady Astor, who gave it to the National Trust. It now operates as a hotel. Boulter's Lock is perhaps the most famous on the river and was certainly one of the busiest in Victorian and Edwardian times when the railway brought thousands of trippers to this Thames resort.
Maidenhead is rather an ordinary town that is flattered by its river front with a fine white bridge built in 1772. Beyond the road bridge are the huge red brick arches of Brunel's railway bridge, still claiming the record of the largest brickwork span in the world. It certainly impressed J. M. W. Turner who painted a train crossing it shortly after it was opened in 1839. The painting called "Rain, Steam, and Speed - the Great Western Railway" can be seen in the National Gallery in London, and clearly shows the white Maidenhead Road Bridge shining through Turner's impressionistic background. There is a millionaires' row of houses lining the river from here to Bray Lock followed by the M4 motorway bridge and the Bray Film Studios. There are a few miles of open country before Windsor Racecourse and the Royal Borough itself.
It would be superfluous for me say anything about this town, dominated by the walls of its famous castle, so I will stick to the river from where the views of Windsor are unsurpassed. This stretch of river is also often directly under the flight path from Heathrow and planes pass low overhead. We pass Datchet before arriving at Old Windsor, four miles by river from Windsor. The National Trust land that follows is Runneymead and opposite is Magna Carta Island, the supposed signing place in 1215.
Approaching Staines and the river has a decidedly suburban feel to it. Gone is the twisting rural stream that we navigated above Oxford. The country towns and villages have gradually disappeared, now what we have are remnants of countryside squeezed between London's dormitory towns and villages. That said, there is still a lot of pleasant and interesting cruising through Surrey's stockbroker belt and the select suburbs of Greater London. After Staines and Laleham there is some more open land each side of Chertsey Lock before waterside housing engulfs Pharaoh's Island and the surrounding river banks.
Below Shepperton Lock is a waterway junction of uncommon complexity. To the right is the branch to the weir and the River Wey Navigation, ahead is D'Oyly Carte Island, which can be passed on either side, followed by a channel to the left that is the natural channel of the river containing two large loops. Ahead is the straight Desborough Channel (opened in 1935) a more direct but less interesting route.
The channels reunite before Walton Bridge and continue to Sunbury Locks. Here there are two locks, a modern powered lock on the right and next to it one of the old manually operated locks that is not often used.
The next lock is Molesey and beyond Hampton Court. The moorings at Hampton Court Palace have been improved and extended in recent years but are still not sufficient to meet the demands of all those wishing to stop at this tremendous attraction. The last four miles of non-tidal water by way of Thames Ditton and Kingston ends at Teddington Locks.
There are plenty of moorings by the towpath above the locks and we normally stop here to consult the lock keeper about the tides. If you are on a schedule that would not allow a day being spent waiting for a suitable tide you can ring the lock keeper in advance on 0208 940 8723 to enquire about suitable locking times. Many narrowboats and other small craft make the tidal journey from here to the Grand Union Canal at Brentford, although the tides restrict the times at which boats can enter the canal. There is also a half tide lock at Richmond where a moveable weir descends when the tide is low. At these times it is necessary to use Richmond Lock, for which there is a £5 fee. The Lock Keeper at Teddington will advise you of the right time to go. It is also possible to go down the Thames to Limehouse where the Grand Union - Regents Canal joins the Thames. This is an exciting journey through the centre of London for the more experienced boater but we will not be covering it in this article.
There are three locks at Teddington; the small Skiff Lock, the Launch Lock, used for most traffic and the massive Barge Lock used at busy times. Once out of the lock the river does not look much different to the non-tidal river as we make our way past Eel Pie Island towards the busy riverfront at Richmond and on past Richmond Lock.
The river widens as we pass Kew Gardens and finally the entrance sign for the Grand Union Canal appears on the left. So we leave this royal river, once described as liquid history, having made the journey from the head of navigation to the tideway.
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