The River Thames at Boulters Lock
The Thames Trail
Throughout history people have tended to live on or near great rivers. This is true of the River Thames and as it flows in to the west of The Royal Borough it matures and widens on its route to London. There is something particularly appealing about the River Thames on the stretch from Hurley to Runnymede as it is perhaps the most historic, offering easy strolls along the Thames Path, many visitor attractions and lots of messing about in boats.
The river has always been an important part of Hurley's history with records of a ford as early as the 6th century. During the summer, Hurley Lock is at its most picturesque. You may like to stop at the Olde Bell Inn for tea. Dating from 1135, it is one of the oldest inns in England.
The splendid woodlands at Bisham provide a dramatic backdrop to many historical buildings. Bisham is best known for its Abbey, founded by the Knights Templar in 1338. In spite of its name, Bisham Abbey was never inhabited by monks and is today a national sports centre. Bisham has a delightful church with a graveyard that slopes down to the water’s edge.
Downstream is Cookham, one of the most popular Thameside resorts. This pretty village is a mix of rustic workmen’s cottages and grand Georgian and Victorian houses with a High Street packed with excellent restaurants and pubs, the oldest dating from 1417.
Poignant images of Cookham from the beginning of the First World War until a sea-change in British life following the Second World War can be seen at the Stanley Spencer Gallery. Sir Stanley Spencer was one of the greatest British painters of the twentieth century and was born in the family home in Cookham High Street. Many of Spencer's works depict vivid fusions of the ordinary with the extraordinary and the earthly with the spiritual. Those paintings set in Spencer's beloved Cookham speak to us of the village, the river, the surrounding commons and meadowland from a less materialistic age – yet with a timeless quality, often touched by the trauma of Spencer's World War I experiences. The Stanley Spencer Gallery provides the largest collection of Spencer's works on display anywhere in the world. Others of his paintings are in the Tate and other major galleries, as well as with private collectors. At just £5 admission for adults (children free), the Gallery is an unmissable stopping point for those on the Thames Trail. It has, in 2014, been designated by ArtFund as one of the five most unmissable small galleries in the UK.
Kenneth Grahame lived in Cookham as a child and was later inspired by the village to write The Wind in the Willows.
From Cookham the river flows towards Boulters Lock at Maidenhead, made famous by Gregory’s painting, Ascot Sunday (1895). Ray Mill Island, behind Boulters Restaurant, has a very restful atmosphere, the peace broken only by the roar of the weir at the far end of the island. At the end of the fishpond is a statue entitled Maiden with Swans by local artist Eunice Goodman. The back of the rock on which the maiden sits has a copy of the “Godayn Seal” used by the Borough of Maidenhead from at least 1612. Beech woods that rise steeply on the east bank are part of the Cliveden Estate. Set on the cliffs, 200 feet above the Thames, Cliveden was once the home of Lady Astor. Some 376 acres of National Trust gardens and woodland include a splendid parterre, water garden and woodland walks with spectacular views. An incident at Cliveden sparked the Profumo affair and the scandal that followed. The house is now an hotel.
Edwardian Maidenhead had something of a risqué reputation. The town was a place of recreation for members of the Guards Club, whose lady friends (the Gaiety Girls) lodged in close proximity to the riverside quarters of the officers themselves. Well in to the 1920s, Maidenhead was the place where fashionable London motored to let its hair down, as recorded in Michael Arlen’s novel, The Green Hat (1924). Today, the town – the largest in the Royal Borough – still retains the charm that earned it the soubriquet “Jewel of the Thames” but has shed its decadent image, retaining just a touch of glamour as home to many media and show business personalities. Fans of Isambard Kingdom Brunel can marvel at his famous brick-built Sounding Arch (1838), which carries the west country mainline railway over the Thames just downstream of Maidenhead Bridge. A technical wonder now as then, the Sounding Arch formed the setting for JMW Turner’s famous Royal Academy exhibit Rain, Steam and Speed, which was painted in 1844.
Maidenhead is surrounded by villages and areas which have their roots firmly planted in our historical past, not least at Maidenhead Thicket, a couple of miles outside the town centre. The thicket, now owned by the National Trust, was once the haunt of the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin. Today it offers walkers and cyclists hours of pleasure.
Further down river is Bray, a large riverside parish with attractive houses and period cottages from various centuries surrounding the old Church of St Michael. Simon Alwyn lived here and was known as the Turncoat Vicar of Bray, who changed his politics to retain his living during the times of Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. He is buried in the churchyard and a plaque telling his story hangs in the Hinds Head Hotel. Bray has become synonymous with exquisite dining experiences, now boasting three of Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants – The Fat Duck, The Hinds Head and The Crown – as well as the famous French restaurant The Waterside Inn.
Before reaching Eton, the Thames passes through Dorney. Here a visit to Dorney Court is a fascinating experience. Built in 1440 and owned by generations of the same family for over 400 years, the rooms are full of history with 15th- and 16th-century oak and beautiful 17th-century lacquer furniture. Dorney is the ancient word for “island of bees” and Dorney is famous for its honey which is still produced today. The very first pineapple to be raised in England was grown at Dorney Court and presented to Charles II in 1661. Enjoy lunch or afternoon tea in the adjoining Dorney Kitchen Garden Centre, and then a guided tour as part of a day out. Dorney Lake hosted the Rowing and Kayak events during the Olympic and Paralympic Games for London 2012.
Passing through Windsor and Eton towards London there are stunning views of Windsor Castle. The original settlement in this area was in Old Windsor and it was not until the 11th century after William the Conqueror’s success at Hastings that the first wooden fortress was built. For hundreds of years the town existed primarily to house courtiers, the garrison and their families and visitors. The real expansion of Windsor did not take place until Queen Victoria’s reign, with the coming of the railways in the 1840s. Old Windsor is home to superstar Elton John who lives on the edge of Windsor Great Park.
As the Thames widens and grows in strength, it brings you to the attractive village of Datchet, the inspiration for Sir Izaak Walton who wrote The Compleat Angler. Shakespeare certainly knew Datchet, which is referred to in The Merry Wives of Windsor, along with Datchet Mead, where Falstaff was dumped into a ditch by the Thames. To commemorate Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee in 1887 the great oak tree was planted in the middle of the village, to be joined by the jubilee cross for the 60th jubilee in 1897. The two world wars affected Datchet as they did every village, and the war memorial, erected in 1920, is a particularly fine one.
Three miles south-east of Windsor, the river leaves the Royal Borough at Runnymede, the famous site of the signing of the Magna Carta. A walk through the peaceful meadow to the top of the hill offers breathtaking views across the Thames Valley.
There is nothing more relaxing than enjoying the River Thames by boat. Hire a craft for an hour, a full day or longer, or join a passenger boat with onboard commentary. The choice is yours.
Thames Trail Guide [PDF] Download our guide to the River Thames, showing locations of riverside towns, attractions, distances between locks, etc.
www.visitthames.co.uk A guide to the River Thames, brought to you by the River Thames Alliance Marketing Partnership.
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