October 4, 2013 7:09 pm

Great river journeys: the Thames

John McDermott steers Evie©Rafal Maciejczyk

John McDermott steers Evie, a 31ft launcher, along the river

I am no boatsman. I can barely tie a half-Windsor knot, never mind a ship’s rope. My favourite type of water is ice, in an old fashioned. But I want to return to the Thames.

Running through nine counties and under 134 bridges, England’s longest river is 215 miles of loops and twists. The current’s flow is slow and helical. The Thames is a trickle compared with the Nile. But only the pub quiz curmudgeon would use miles to measure a river’s greatness. What matters are its stories, what it whispers through its surroundings. “The Thames is a metaphor for the country through which it runs,” Peter Ackroyd writes in his history of the river. And England is an interesting place.

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William Waldorf Astor thought so. In 1893, the scion of the American dynasty bought a pile on the Thames. Waldorf Astor, his son, received Cliveden mansion upon marriage to Nancy Langhorne.

As Nancy Astor, she played host to Bright Young Things, the pro-appeasement “Cliveden Set” and a generally louche coterie. On the riverine edge of Cliveden’s 376 acres is Spring Cottage, where Christine Keeler was staying on the weekend in 1961 that she met John Profumo. Sex and scandal soon ensued.

R and I try to keep ourselves out of trouble. Cliveden is now a hotel. Spring Cottage is its secluded outpost and our home for the evening. Pocked with nooks, the cottage is large enough for debauchery but small enough to clean up afterwards. It is homely, not kitsch. As night flattens the Thames, the only sounds are made by the river.

. . .

Map of River Thames meanders

Whenever she left Cliveden, Queen Victoria would descend stone steps to a bespoke landing stage. I do not have the chops to moor our craft next to the old dame’s stairs, so we leave from the bottom of the garden.

Such a start is unbefitting of Evie, our 31ft “Frolic”-style launcher. Jonathan Hobbs, whose family has run a Henley boat business for more than a century, has lent her to us. Hobbs makes taking care of the boat sound simple. Put the key in the ignition. Keep to the right of the river. Stop at the locks. Do not go faster than 5mph. Watch out for mallards.

The first part of our meander along the upper part of the river takes us from Cliveden to Cookham. The boat is easy to steer. We gaze at the sylvan hinterland and a sudden sense of calm prevails. On the Cliveden side, a wood of oak, beech, ash and chestnut climbs towards an azure blue sky. Along the Thames, the riverbanks are like a flipbook of English landscape postcards. Some banks are bordered with polite rows of poplar trees. Others have weeping willows dipping their thin leaves in the cool water. Here, the depth of the green is absorbing.

The water has no one colour. It moves up and down the spectrum throughout the day, an effect noticed by chroniclers of the Thames. Alexander Pope considered the water a “translucent wave”; Samuel Johnson called it a “silver flood”, and Joseph Conrad knew it as “a sea the colour of lead”. In the late summer sun, it resembles William Blake’s “bar of gold”. Only when we reach the lock at Cookham, where the painter Stanley Spencer spent a lifetime capturing the river’s colours, do we get a glimpse of the Thames’s meringue-like froth.

Nick, the Cookham lock keeper, guides us through. We are amateurs, rogue urbanites on the water. No matter, he says. Using our ropes, Nick moves us inside the chamber as if we were riparian marionettes. Sluices open, and with the ascent beginning, the lock keeper explains that we will be fine so long as we obey the rules of the river – and take care at Marlow lock. “Even the best boaters have trouble at Marlow,” he says.

Sure enough, it is a difficult task, not helped by the Marlow lock keeper, one of life’s less forgiving characters. After an entrance that resembles a beachhead, we glide into the chamber. Unfortunately, we then glide into another boat, the side of the lock, and the back gate. “They don’t open automatically, you know”, the lock keeper helpfully observes.

Lock watchers are there to revel in our embarrassment. These individuals, who tend to pack their own sandwiches, silently score the agility of boats’ approaches, stony-faced like the judges of an eastern bloc gymnastic competition. Perhaps there is something calming about watching these engineering gems at work.

. . .

Spring Cottage at Cliveden©Rafal Maciejczyk

Spring Cottage at Cliveden

Leaving the lock with the odd nerve remaining, I wonder whether there is something about Marlow. Percy and Mary Shelley lived here while she wrote most of Frankenstein (1818), which may have provided a model for our lock keeper’s personality. The town spills out on to the bank in the form of a stone church, stables and cemetery. Time has aged its architecture but, idling past the headstones, one can try to imagine what Percy Shelley took from the Thames and put into “The Revolt of Islam”.

From Marlow to Henley, the river is replete with English eccentricity. Huge houses with littoral back gardens intermingle with small sheds stocked with fishing gear. At the end of one house lie plastic statues: tiger, leopard and purple panther. Another has hedges in the shape of ducks. It is as if the increasing distance from London and the deep wealth of the country comes with a generous allowance for oddness.

We proceed slowly, enjoying the river’s etiquette. There is delight in waving to our fellow boaters, sharing slithers of time. Compared with the stresses of city driving, the greetings on the river are almost anaesthetically pleasant. Bisham, Hurley and Medmenham – ancient hamlets where saints rest in abbeys – pass by. And then, eventually, the river widens as we approach Henley, the town of the famous regatta.

The scene is familiar in a preppy way. A charity boat race splashes beneath a country club crowd. Between two large houses we spot a wedding party resplendent in pastel. We moor at the Hobbs of Henley boathouse and stop for a late lunch at its new restaurant, opened earlier this year by Shaun Dickens, a young chef who studied under Raymond Blanc. His food is delicious and playful. From the terrace we watch Henley enjoy the last of summer.

I forget to ask about the legal limits for boating and off we go on the day’s final leg. From Henley to Sonning, the Thames stars in a bucolic scene. It might be the wine but, in the twilight, Ackroyd’s promise that the river offers “day-dreams of Englishness” comes true. Ducks – the mob among the Swans’ aristocracy – occasionally break the silence. At Shiplake, we seem to be the only boat left on the water.

. . .

Passing Henley-on-Thames©Rafal Maciejczyk

Passing Henley-on-Thames

Matthew Arnold wrote that the Thames “has a great charm from its entire loneliness”. Viewed from the fugue of commuters on a bridge in the heart of London, such an idea would seem like lunacy. But as we approach our last lock of the day, content with departed hours, I think I understand why people are still drawn to the river and to the gentleness of an English holiday.

We spend our second night at the French Horn, an inn in the village of Sonning, where Jerome K Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat, wrote that one could “dream of bygone days”. Our cottage is wee and lovely. The dining is unapologetically formal without being stuffy; the food rich, showy and exquisite.

In the morning we depart with a sadness soothed by the sight of a mysterious red letter box built into the foot of an arch at Sonning bridge. We sail past, imagining the life of a boating postie. I would like it if all love letters could be mailed here.

The Thames becomes wilder as we travel from Sonning to Goring, our final destination. This is partly Reading’s fault. Arnold loved the Thames because it was an escape from industrial London. It is hard to be romantic when boating past shiny glass office buildings and a Tesco Extra.

But these serve as a reminder that the river is not unceasingly georgic. There is a ramshackle anarchy to this section. Big boats share the water with flapping dogs, brave swimmers and lads in canoes. On the right bank, we spot a naked man at ease with himself.

What would Mr Toad have made of that? After Reading we come to Mapledurham, thought to have inspired the fictional home of the Wind in the Willows character. Kenneth Grahame, the book’s author, retired in nearby Pangbourne. We make a quick pilgrimage to the watermill in Mapledurham, one of the oldest still functioning anywhere in the world. Children peer dumbstruck at the sloshing waterwheel.

. . .

We reach Goring all too soon. The gorgeous little town once had a healing spring, which would attract tired London folk. Today we opt for pints of ale at the Catherine Wheel and the Miller of Mansfield, two (perhaps the only two) local pubs. Evie is left moored a quarter-mile shy of Goring lock, ready to be collected by Hobbs or one of his team. It is with sadness that we say goodbye. I used to wonder why anyone would name a boat but now I get it – you have to apologise to someone for all the neglect.

Before the trip, I had never given too much thought to the role of the river in the English imagination. But even after a mere three days it is evident that the Thames reflects a certain idea of Englishness, and that this idea runs longer and deeper than city dwellers appreciate.

It will also keep on running. As Lord Tennyson imagined of the river: “For men may come and men may go/ But I go on for ever”.

John McDermott was a guest of Hobbs of Henley (www.hobbsofhenley.com), the Cliveden House Hotel (www.clivedenhouse.co.uk) and the French Horn (www.thefrenchhorn.co.uk).

Hobbs of Henley rents boats you can live aboard and classic open boats; a 12-person Edwardian launch such as the one featured costs £375 per day. The Spring Cottage at Cliveden sleeps up to six and costs from £1,854 per night. Doubles at the French Horn cost from £160.

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