When on holiday we like to move around and see the world – but in unison every camp site of the Gower imposed a three-night minimum stay over the bank holiday. So instead we scrambled pitches along the Thames Path, former tow path now National Trail, which we walked for four days and something like 65 miles upstream from Kingston to Streatley, camping for three nights and in a Youth Hostel for the last. Though far from our first choice, the Thames Path exceeded expectations from the first few steps. We hadn’t expected so much interest on the river.
In the light of last fortnight’s looting, growing unemployment and various other interests, this trip set off so many associations that I’ve been writing this post for days and it’s reached such epic proportions that I nearly decided to divide it up – but then I didn’t.
We only met two other long distance walkers and two cyclists, and we didn’t see David Walliams, who is training to swim the Thames from its source to Big Ben (he says that the undertows round the bridge piers in the tideway are quite strong – you can see them, in fact, as you cross – as if a plug as been pulled).
Walking upstream, the going felt flat until the Chilterns around Henley. In fact the navigable part of the Thames between Cricklade and the sea drops 71 metres, and for centuries the flow from this fall had been focused with weirs to drive mills. However weirs are an obstacle to navigation, necessitating the 45 locks, situated every four miles or so, which allow river craft past the mills without any loss of flow. After many changes of hand these locks are now the responsibility of the Environment Agency. The 24 we passed were all hydraulic and a lock keeper told us that they can now be operated by the public round the clock. We wondered (to ourselves) whether his days as a lock keeper were numbered.
Each lock creates a reach – lake – above itself. The lock/weir combination also helps to control navigation depths and avoid flooding.
We crossed one of these at Shepperton on one the last remaining ferry on that part of the Thames.
Then you see islands – aits (sometimes ‘eyots’) – crowded with less substantial dwellings, some with postboxes and doorbells on the riverbank. Matt cut into my romantic reverie of life tucked away on an island to inform me that these are inexpensive boxes – mobile homes and prefabs with cladding – for the aspirational and/or river lovers of modest means.
The other thing you see a lot of are boat yards.
If you like engineering you’ll like the Thames. We passed under the railway bridge with the flattest arches in the world. Brunel, of course. Of course? Name some other engineers. There’s Telford, who at first riveted iron as if it were wood. There’s Stevenson, who did the light houses – Matt tells me that was before the split between mechanical and industrial engineering. On the final day we shunned the stations of Brunel’s railway line which we followed for miles along the river and walked for 20 miles or maybe a little further, the last section in the gloaming among the bats. We were quite fractious by the end. We have different attitudes to this punishment – I want to sit and recoup at intervals while Matt wants to get to the destination and end the pain for good. I start these things so unfit that suddenly acquiring a third of my body weight in kit and walking 20 miles a day on a flat gradient tends to hurt my feet and the backs of my knees, a discomfort that peaks in day 3, by which time my body and I are beginning to grow accustomed. Matt suggests I take a painkiller. I never take painkillers and the idea of taking one to carry out what is supposed to be a leisure activity is kind of weird. However, given his blisters, chafing and arthritis, it seems like a reasonable request.
All the while you cross and recross the river, crossing county boundaries at the same time. After Henley you are between the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs, very green and rounded – horse country. I’m only sorry that it was getting very late and we were hurrying too much to take photographs of that evening. We ended in the Goring Gap, where meltwater from the end of the last ice age dissolved a new route for the Thames through the chalky hills. It is an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty where Thames Path intersects with The Ridgeway. Goring was Village of The Year last year – not hard to see why.
The first diversion, just after the beginning at Kingston Bridge, was a stand-up paddle boarder toppled by the wash from a pleasure boat.
We were astonished by how many pleasure boats there were – cabin cruisers, lovingly-restored narrow boats, some splendid old barges with seafaring masts, yachts, little runabouts and rowing boats, including large numbers of skulling boats from the many clubs along the Thames – apparently 55,000 people in the UK participate in rowing in any given week. There are one or two paddle steamers on the Thames and we also saw a handful of Jerome K. Jerome Three Men in a Boat skiffs making their arduous way up river from Kingston to Oxford. And sailing.
But between one settlement and another, the river was often very quiet and sometimes – as in the case of Penton Hook Island near Laleham, which you access over the lock gates – even wild.
Interestingly, the one time we got demoralised at/by Marlow and looked for transport to Henley in time for dinner, we entirely overlooked the river service and instead put ourselves onto branch railway services with two changes. Duh.
The narrow-boats were fascinating to watch – particularly around the narrow cut of former hotspot of the late Victorian and Edwardian craze for summer boating parties, Boulters Lock just outside Maidenhead. You can see how the congestion could turn into courtship.
Man on the Thames
With about three exceptions, it was “Man drive” the boat while women undertook considerable exertions at the locks. It happened that on the evening of our return we watched Timothy Spall’s wife Shane manage a staircase of locks on the Caledonian canal in a barge, entailing two hours outside in the rain with a rope. From the cockpit, Timothy explained “The man convinces his wife that she can’t skipper the boat, she can’t helm it”, and so she ends up outside in the rain. Shane, dripping wet: “Did he tell you I can’t steer? I can drive the boat. I can drive fairly well, actually”.
We probably saw upwards of 200 anglers – solitary men or dads with their sons in the daytime and, towards nightfall, taciturn gents in dark green waterproof clothes sitting in canvas chairs and staring forbiddingly into the water. Quite a few appeared to be living on the river bank in makeshift encampments, including one formed from fishing poles and tarps, and many had a staggering amount of kit. There were next to no women. We wondered for some time and eventually surmised that angling is a solid reason, exciting no censure, for a man at a difficult stage of life to do nothing and speak to no-one. In four days I don’t remember seeing any anglers on the move, nor did we see anything caught. Despite the fish ladders of the upper Thames, I began to wonder if the fish are a rumour – every angler knowing a man who knows a man who caught something once.
Outside Chertsey on our first night, we returned to our campsite late and encountered the first and only group of fishing men. They spoke an Eastern European language. I’m still inventing their back stories.
Angling is a cruel blood sport and when it occurred to me I put some energy to creating vibrations along the path.
Weirs don’t just stop boats – for the rumoured fish (who haven’t yet conquered operating the locks) there are fish ladders specially adapted for eels to slither upstream to the spawning grounds. As well as the fish, there were many other creatures on the path. Besides the many robins and some of the water fowl I couldn’t identify most of the birds we saw. One exception was a family of black swans at Reading.
When we were out at dusk bats flitted round our heads (but never very close). They may have been pipistrelles but given the proximity to fairly calm stretches of the Thames I wonder if they were Daubenton’s.
Dogs are invariably entertaining. Many dogs will treat a long distance walker normally until they catch site of your pack, which they often find appalling, disturbing, downright wrong. As you approach some abandon themselves to outrage, furiously vocalising their disgust at your grotesque deformity of the spine with the – ugh! – two spindly leg things coming out of the side (our poles). I call it prejudice and imagine them declaring that we should be put down. At Pangbourne we heard one dog before we saw him – he was beside himself because his owner was approaching the river in a wetsuit carrying a canoe. He kept pelting to the bank, braking hard, peering down, confirming all his fears – “Yes, it’s true, I knew it – he’s doing that thing again” – dashing back and barking “Turn back – for god’s sake man – I’m begging you, don’t do it again, it’s wrong, it’s ungodly, it’s witchcraft!” The man embarrassedly told him to shut up, put his canoe on the slipway, got in and paddled away. The poor dog had no choice but to dash backwards and forwards along the bank after him barking ceaselessly.
On the last day, in the mellow late evening sun we reached one of the most beautiful places I have seen, all trees, sussex-fenced pastures, grazing horses, airborne seeds and insects, overblown wildflowers and old soft redbrick farm houses dotting the round Chiltern hills. Ahead a man was effortlessly steadying a young horse, a russet coloured stallion with flowing mane and exquisite face which was up on its hind legs and then dancing in the lane with the bouncing gait spooked horses have when they’re expecting they might have to run for it. I thought the problem was the sight of us – but the man said it was a dog. Ha!
While Matt giggled his way through old Collings and Herrin podcasts, I listened to an RSA recording by Yale Psychology professor Paul Bloom, about pleasure. Bray is close by and molecular gastronomy was making its presence felt at the Swan Hotel in Streatley, where we had our penultimate cup of coffee and where, in the Cygnetures (groan!) Restaurant, you can buy ‘pigs cheek compression’ and something in a ‘Sauternes Gel’. Paul Bloom talked about a study scanning the brains of people drinking identical wine but with different names and different bottles. You can guess the findings – ideas are more important than senses in the end. Heston Blumenthal likes arsing about with food in his lab. He took that to the Thames Valley in Bucks, where people understand that wealthy humans quickly habituate to luxury and ‘more’ doesn’t mean anything to them any longer. There’s a limit to how far their maxed out taste buds can stimulate them; they have to go deeper, into their imaginations. Heston can help them, and get paid.
I also, by happy coincidence, since I was feeling pretty melancholic, I listened to a podcast on happiness by the pioneer of positive psychology Martin Seligman, on how individuals can flourish. I am more of an Ehrenreich sympathiser myself – I harbour a suspicion of happiness as something blithe and indifferent. Seligman responded to Ehrenreich’s critique of positive psychology by pointing out that depressed people are often solipsistic and unable to contribute to the struggle for social justice. He emphasises a formula for happiness which goes by the acronym PERMA – positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning, and accomplishments / achievements. One important thing is that the first element of the formula – the positive emotions – is highly heritable, with any improvement capped at 20% – but the rest of the elements are not, as far as we know. Good, I have an excuse and a way out. He runs the Authentic Happiness web site at the University of Pennsylvania (as well as explaining many exercises for happiness, it functions as a data collection vehicle for the ongoing investigations).
And on the dark side of happiness, something else I listened to was Eli Pariser on the dangers that personalisation of Web services poses to politics. He asked various friends to search Google for Egypt. One was returned a front page of links about the revolution, another a front page of links about holidays. Google depends on selling advertising space; advertisers depend on purchases; purchases depend on dopamine. So Google serves us the things we like. Think about the implications for, say, a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Correspondingly on Facebook, the ‘Like’ button is heavily weighted in the algorithm. But who is comfortable pressing ‘Like’ next to a story about a massacre in Syria? Eli Pariser argues for a second button, titled ‘Important’. He also advocates thinking of the £free web services as not free at all, but rather services you pay for in £100s worth of private data. He calls for web service providers to offer a way of opting out of the personalisation algorithms. He doesn’t think they will be easily persuaded. His book is called The Filter Bubble.
Too much money
As we notched up the westerly miles Conservative England took shape and we noticed how much property there is on the Thames – large dwellings with boat houses and huge craft moored outside.
By the time we got to this one, I’d lost my sense of humour:
To my sensibilities – abraded by the recent outbreaks of smashing and looting in London, the recent news that 949,000 16-24 year olds are out of work, and the prediction that inequality is set to deepen – the concentration of wealth on the Thames is both seductive and an affront.
In The Argyll, Henley, I picked up the local mag (ads organ for the local business interspersed with, I have to admit, superior articles on various things of concern to Henley residents – for example informative historical articles on treasures about to go under the hammer at the local auction). There we read an upsetting piece about the most expensive yacht in the world. It cost £3bn. Its hull is gold. It has platinum-clad rooms. There’s a decoration made of a tyrannosaurus bone. In the Horn of Africa, people are starving to death. It’s not all Al Shabaab – it’s about how we share out wealth.
Matt and I discussed the properties of gold, a very stable but very soft metal. Small molecules of gold will easily wear off that hull and sink to the bottom of the ocean. They will never coalesce. Entropy can have poetic justice.
The expensive pursuit of boating tends to be undertaken by the prosperous. Not that all older people have accrued great wealth – far from it – but today if you are wealthy enough to have a boat you are likely to be advanced in age, and this was borne out on the upper Thames. The presence of a model railway in the grounds of a massive property (Bolney Court) between Henley and Shiplake, was depressing, but arriving in Marlow (Buckinghamshire) tired and hungry on Monday afternoon brought about a particularly sharp spasm of bitterness. The best I can explain it is as an ill-fated coincidence of aspirational high street commercialism, shopping as leisure pursuit, over-large cars, the absence of crossing places and a rampant meat and dairy culture that forced us to eat supermarket food in a windy park. For some reason half remembered celebrity insults of British cities like Liverpool and Wolverhampton came to mind, and I thought that the average Marlow shopper with their purchases, animal-based comestibles and huge car is damaging the planet far more than their Wolverhampton counterpart, simply because the wealthier you are, the more you tend to.
But after tiring of my own litany of condemnation over the following days I sadly concluded that my attitude is folly and that the sites of the most social damage are just as likely to be behind the charming flowerbeds and leaded window panes of dignified London commuter belt villages like Whitchurch and Goring, where there may only be a village emporium, an inn, a little tea shop and an art gallery – a Merchant Ivory setting, nothing offensive to the eye – but all the while hosting the operators of the money markets with their boat houses and velvet lawns. Maybe we even saw some of them raising a glass like Pan with their friends on their cabin cruiser. You don’t earn that kind of money. You may acquire it, but you don’t earn it.
We had had a row with a couple in their 60s, orange of skin, white of sock, and unplummy of accent, who had parked their car (which Matt said was a low quality Merc) over our entrance to the foot path (Matt said it was because the man couldn’t be bothered to squeeze out between his car and the roped off grassy area). Because I had frowned the man had asked me if I had a problem, to which I had responded resignedly “No”. But the man had persisted, telling me that I was supposed to walk on the grass, and when I pointed out he had parked over my access, telling me to climb over the rope. That was when I lost my temper (as if I had not been a walker but somebody with dodgy hips or a wheelchair), drawing his wife and Matt into the argument. It became clear how they felt about us when the wife sneered “Goodbye, we’re going to our home“. They despised us because they thought we were gypsies walking with our belongings on our backs. I began to dislike the area. Which I acknowledge to be another kind of prejudice.
All this was thrown into sharp relief in Reading, where we followed two twelve year old boys along the promenade, watched them get bawled at by a boater for throwing things at the grebes, noticed that we were walking along the perimeter of the Reading Festival site on the day after it had finished, and shortly afterwards saw the boys peel off to a dark corner where a unit of high fencing had been wrenched away by their brothers and used as a ladder to scale the inner barrier into the site and scavenge the things of value that intoxicated festival-goers opt to waste or, in their assured prosperity, neglect to look after.
And looking into the site through one of the loosely fastened metal gates at the Tilehurst end of the enclosure (as two more urchins helpfully informed us that we couldn’t enter the site that way) the wealth of leavings was astonishing. And whereas these kids somewhat reminded me of others in far away places who eke out a living on rubbish tips salvaging good stuff that nobody wants any more, we watched yet another documentary on the night we arrived home which included footage of last months’ looters’ counterparts – specifically those who did not break but did enter and take – the 2007 scavengers of motorbikes and face creams from the break up of the MSC Napoli which spilled its shipment of containers onto Branscombe Beach. Middle class. Looters. That is not to say I find the sentences meted out on the looters too draconian – I’m not sure I do. But what about the rest, and what about the future?
At some stage Matt pointed out that we both find model railways on that scale very exciting.
If you click, you’ll see the man cleaning the station. He was one of at least five working in the gardens of that house that day. This is an affront. But ah, whimsy. If it weren’t for rich eccentrics whose creative imaginations now populate the National Trust, what would be made to delight us? What about the curiosities and the jokes? Can these be achieved by the committees of co-operative organisations? Can they be incubated by the National Trust? Then I took a photograph of a lawn mown into perfect stripes after which fell into a morose confusion, peppered with angry outbreaks, which lasted for much of the holiday. It seems I will accept wealth but not the appearance of aspiration. Sometimes I make myself uncomfortable.
At the campsites
Self-consciously we declined to dance at Laleham where a rollicking annual fancy dress party was held that night, joyfully breaking the site’s own curfew with The Supremes, medleys of Grease hits, and Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. The tents were alike – old fashioned, square semi-permanent-looking things hung with bunting (not the Cath Kidson kind) and with what looked like cookers and wall units inside. They were basically down-to-earth, economical Featherdowns before glamping was invented. I think Laleham is a place of annual migration – somewhere people look forward to reuniting in the summer, joined for short spells by their children and grandchildren during the holidays. In the washroom the next morning I heard a 40-something woman tell another than she had been coming to the site since she was a child, and then introducing a little girl she referred to as her future daughter in law. Laleham has a nice atmosphere.
The following night we swapped the M3 for the M4 (still on the Heathrow flight path and, if you aren’t used to it, incredibly noisy) and Amerden House campsite. It had rained and the couple who worked on the site (they are from north Manchester and come down each year) told us they had never seen the pitches so muddy. Amerden is another nice site, and the apple trees were laden. Maidenhead is a mile or so along the bank.
A mile out of Henley-on-Thames where humpy chalk hills of the Chilterns begin is a beautifully landscaped site of trees and beech hedges called Swiss Farm, where we spent the third night.
Streatley-on-Thames has no campsite. Its three-star Youth Hostel has wonderful showers and warm front of house service but the lighting in the sitting room sears your eyeballs a bit, there was food up the curtains, and we wouldn’t recommend a vegetarian breakfast. I love YHAs and would stay in it again, but I think their guests sometimes treat them badly and a lampshade doesn’t break the bank does it.
My ideal campsite is taking shape in my mind. The landscaping affords some areas for seclusion and some for groups. It includes many edible plants. There’s winter camping in (well drained, well ventilated, well insulated) dugouts with light pipes and little stoves so you can cook – you sleep on the ground in bags like you do in a tent. There are woodcraft and permaculture weekends, mushroom walks, birdspotting, and residential holidays teaching people to construct and maintain dugouts (this helps the campsite to acquire and maintain its dugouts). There are other structures, like benders and huts, for hire.
Our first stop was The Weir Hotel before Walton-on-Thames, where we paid an ill-advised £4.50 for Fire Dancer, a featureless cider with a gimmicky red tint (see Paul Bloom above, whose observations helped us to avoid Goddess olives later in the week). That evening we walked from Laleham to Chertsey and had a pint at The Crown and a pizza at Ask (me substituting cheese for raw avocado). Then next morning a breakfast of half a Coop rhubarb pie each on the river bank outside the camp site. We stopped for a drink (Rebellion) at The Kings Arms, Cookham, Windsor. We had lunch (pasta arrabiata) in the quaint but down to earth Fox and Castle in Old Windsor. There was a cup of coffee at a pub in Eton. Thames Valley pubs have a lot of armchairs. For dinner we walked along the dark river bank to Maidenhead and had ate spring rolls, red curry and boiled rice at the Thai Orchid near the bridge. Very nice. The second morning we paid £5 each for a cooked breakfast at the B&B next to the camp site, which saved time hunting it out in Maidenhead. For lunch the ridiculous menus of Marlow forced us to Marks & Spencers. At Henley we had a pint before dinner at the Argyll, then pizza at Zizzis, then another pint at the last free house in Henley, the Bird In Hand. Breakfast that morning was an iced currant bun and yellow rasberries from Waitrose. Then we had lunch, a mixture of Waitrose sandwich and M&S left-overs from the previous day. At Sonning Lock we shared a pot of tea, Matt had carrot cake and I had crisps. Dinner that night was a very good Indian meal at Masoom’s in Goring.
Autumn is early this year and the trees were on the turn. To eat, there were elderberries, blackberries, plums, damsons, and the occasional cheeky apple or pear. There were many plants I couldn’t name. If I had more electricity and time, or less distance and the possibility of increasing my load, I would have consulted reference materials.
An alternative to a YHA Streatley breakfast is to cross the river to Goring and go to the Miller of Mansfield (“perfect base from which to explore Kate Middleton country”!) or one of the cafes.
Earlier this year Matt found us a very good tent – a two person Terra Nova Wild Country Duolite tourer. Good for several reasons: it’s light; the outer tent clips onto its frame rather so you don’t have to arse around threading poles; the inner tent is already inside and though you can detach it, there’s no need to – big advantage in wet weather; the alloy ‘v’ pegs are very light and can be easily trodden into the ground; its height varies intelligently and consequently it’s very warm. We also have light mummy sleeping bags which stuff into very small compression sacks (n.b. I’m told you shouldn’t store your bag in its compression sack since it compromises its heat keeping properties over time). We have full length mats which weigh little, insulate well against the cold ground. and inflate in a few puffs. As usual I walked in my amphibious teva sandals, and carried a pair of crocs, which are incredibly light.
One object I really appreciate is a Björn Dahlström Urbana toiletry bag I bought from the Bauhaus museum years ago when we went to Berlin. Made from lightweight rigid plastic it is ideal for a pack, sliding easily into a bellows pocket and protecting bottles and tubes from being squashed. When it opens – vertically in two separate halves – the bottom half has a divider and keeps your things in place as well as a central post which can receive the up-ended top half, converting the bag into a two-tier container. Less rummaging. The post has a long elastic loop which can hang the container from a hook or, when the bag is closed, fits snugly into a groove holding the two halves together. The whole thing is waterproof and easy to clean and dry. It is an object of beautiful simplicity, a true design masterpiece.
And on that contented note, I will finally draw this insanely detailed post to a close.