On a Saturday morning training session a few weeks before the famous Henley Royal Regatta the Thames is awash with rowers. Coxes are shouting words of encouragement while trainers pedal bikes along the riverbank, yelling instructions.
This is the Thames Path at its most active, the pain, endurance and determination of its rowing occupants palpable, as their blades slice through the rippling water. It makes dry-land observers like me feel positively exhausted.
For those who prefer a less frenetic pace, much of the Thames Path National Trail, a 184-mile journey which follows the river from its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Charlton south east London, cuts a more serene environment, where wildlife forms the heart of the action, birdsong is the predominant sound and wildflower meadows hem the pathways.
In its 25th anniversary year, I’m walking 50-plus miles of what some consider to be the prettiest stretch of the Thames Path, from Oxford the city of ‘dreaming spires’, to the lively Georgian market town and foodie paradise of Marlow, Buckinghamshire.
My journey takes me through some gorgeous old English towns and villages, with stopovers at the sleepy picture-postcard village of Goring and the buzzing, riverside-chic Henley on Thames. On this Trails of the Riverbank self-guided walking trip with Inntravel, idyllic boutique hotels have been arranged en route, with baggage transfers meaning I only need to carry a necessary rucksack.
Following the flat meandering of the river, walking here is not difficult. But sturdy boots are needed to tackle the softened terrain from overnight rain, which has left some areas pretty muddy. Covering more than 50 miles on this route in non-waterproof trainers could be a squelchy affair.
Two nights in each hotel – at Oxford, Goring and Henley – gives walkers the opportunity to explore the host locations as well as continue their journey, with the help of a hugely detailed guide which also gives more reluctant strollers easier options of shorter routes, tells you what to look out for on your journey as well as suggesting reliable watering holes at which to take a break.
Because of the distances involved due to the winding nature of the Thames, some bus and train travel is factored in, either to reach your destination more quickly, or to return to the hotel from a linear route.
Five minutes away from the commercial hubbub of riverside villages and towns, including Benson and Wallingford, I find rural relaxation – arable fields on one side, the gentle flowing river on the other, red kites forming graceful punctuations in the skyline.
Indeed, the landscape on this trail is ever-changing, from shady riverside cut-outs where cow parsley bobs above bristling nettles, to wide open fields with big skies, where walkers follow the path between waist-length pink-hued grasses or look out for deer in the vast parks of stately residences.
There’s time to explore the churches and old streets of pretty towns and villages including Sonning, home of the Clooneys, and Shiplake, where poet Alfred Lord Tennyson married Emily Selwood in 1850.
We venture to the Thames-side marsh of Cholsey, home to kingfishers, warblers and corn buntings, while iridescent blue banded demoiselle damselflies flit between foliage and water.
You might even see glow worms (although I didn’t), as some of the path’s grass verges are a known mating site, the flightless female beetle emitting a bright green-yellow light to attract a mate.
Vessels of all shapes and sizes grace the river, from the punts in Oxford, to the schmoozing cruisers and classic canal boats which easily dodge the sculls of practising rowers and the groups of paddleboarders just out for a bit of fun.
History is never far away from the riverbank, either. Deep grey sombre concrete pillboxes secreted in lush foliage in woodlands or placed in more open situations, are testament to the river defences manned by the home guard in the Second World War.
Castles at Oxford and Wallingford should satiate medieval history buffs, while walkers can also admire the quirks of architecture, from a post-modern interpretation of an Egyptian house known as Sphinx Hill – on the way to Goring, to a small-scale railway running through the grounds of a huge garden and its accompanying scaled-down station.
Stories on the river also abound. I am told by one Henley local that the swish boathouse on the far bank is just part of a vast estate owned by a Russian billionaire, who paid gazillions for Park Place, a country house incorporating 200 acres of parkland, listed monuments, houses, cottages and stables.
And then we’re back to rowing focus, first at Henley and then at my final stop, Marlow, which on the day we visit, is bustling with its own regatta.
It’s the first real crowd I’ve seen for almost a week, and it feels a little overwhelming trying to negotiate the hubbub of waterside competitors against a heaving backdrop of picnicking families out for the day. Time to get the bus back to Henley.
My feet are tired from my 50-mile jaunt, but as I see the rowers powering to the finish lines, my efforts feel like a drop in the ocean.
If you’re short of time, take a guided walking tour – in less than two hours you’ll see all the main attractions, from the colleges to the Bodleian Library.
Take in fascinating historical nooks and crannies, like the street which inspired CS Lewis to write The Chronicles Of Narnia, while behind the insignificant-looking fascia of Blackwell’s bookshop lies a vast cavern of books in the Norrington Room underneath the main shop, the largest single room selling books in the world. £14.95 for a 90-minute tour, Oxford Walking Tours; oxfordwalkingtours.com
George Michael fans will know that the iconic singer lived in a beautiful riverside home here for 17 years before his death in 2016. Each year, fans make the pilgrimage to the house on his birthday to pay their respects. It’s been sold, but you can spot the garden from the riverside.
Stop for a drink at The Miller of Mansfield (millerofmansfield.com), an 18th century inn and hotel which the star used to frequent, which serves fabulous food.
Henley on Thames
If you miss the annual Henley Royal Regatta, which has been postponed until August this year due to the pandemic, soak up some history at the River & Rowing Museum (rrm.co.uk), which features the boat used in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, in which Sir Steve Redgrave won his fifth Olympic gold medal, Sir Matthew Pinsent his third, and Tim Foster and James Cracknell their first. It seems a shame that the statues of our most famous rowing pair, Redgrave and Pinsent, are relegated to the back of the museum car park, but it’s worth a look, nevertheless.
The Georgian-fronted high street of this foodie paradise is awash with restaurants, while Higginson Park on the river offers trips on passenger steamers and rowing boats for hire.
Splash out at Tom Kerridge’s flagship restaurant The Hand & Flowers (thehandandflowers.co.uk), a beamed pub full of character and the first UK pub to receive two Michelin stars, where the top chef takes pub classics to a new level. You can even stay there, as it has 15 bedrooms in four cottages a stone’s throw away.
How to plan your trip
Inntravel (inntravel.co.uk; 01653 617 000) offers a six-night Trails of the Riverbank self-guided walking holiday from £895pp based on two sharing, including six nights’ B&B, three dinners, luggage transferred and route notes and maps. Available June 1-October 31, 2021 and March 1-October 31, 2022.