Slipping down the Thames – Day 8, Sunday 02/08/2020

Whitchurch lock – Henley-on-Thames

I strike camp about 8 am – a lot of dog walkers are around already. Few people on the river as yet though – I have the next lock, Mapledurham, to myself. It’s reassuring to see there are still herons about as I slip downriver.

Quite a few kayakers too. The river takes me past Pangbourne and Purley into the centre of Reading, though you would not guess that down here at water level. En route I call into the hirers, Thames Canoe Hire in Tilehurst, late morning for a cup of tea. Any news about my partner-in-crime (my phone is still dead) – apparently he’s suffered a broken oar-blade and is some miles upriver.

Thames Canoe Hire, Tilehurst
Thames Canoe Hire, Tilehurst

By midday the river is busy. It is Sunday of course, so perhaps not surprising. Queueing time at locks for narrowboats and motor-cruisers is sometimes over an hour – fortunately in a kayak I can slip through to the front and fit into a small space within the lock.

I’m often invited to leave the lock first – hopefully only because of the beard … But I usually wave the motor boats forward – after all, as I tell them, they are paying higher fees! (Truth is that I feel safer behind some of those steering than I do in front of them …).

A fair number of people on paddleboards and inflatables seem to have little idea of safety on the river. They’ll enter the locks unless the lock-keeper waves them away – not realising the dangers of locks for such fragile craft. But there’s also clearly a hierarchy of trust on the water – boat owners tend to be wary, perhaps justifiably, of the hire boats – as temporary skippers have a different attitude to paint damage.

Sonning lock
Sonning lock

At Shiplake, the lockkeeper warns boaters that Hambleden lock, two locks ahead, has shut down due to an electrical fault, and no boats can pass up or down-stream. It’s likely to remain so for 24 hours, he says, so I take the suggestion of a canoeist I meet and decide to camp overnight at Henley-on-Thames, a short distance ahead.

Villa and geese
Villa and geese
Villa at Henley lock
Villa at Henley lock

In 2016 Henley was judged, according to one housing survey, to be the second most expensive market town in the country. Judging by the size of some of the villas I’ve seen on the riverside, I’m not surprised.

Embers campsite just outside Henley turns out to be a bit of a find. It’s a small site, but right on the river and with generous plot sizes. Facilities are simple but all there, and the showers are hot. Welcome back to civilisation!

Seems I’m camping next to my friend the canoeist, who rolls up a bit later. He’s with his young son in a rather nice old Canadian canoe. Fully loaded up with camping equipment it looks a handful, but he seems to have no problem.

Henley town centre
Henley town centre

Turns out he’s a teacher at a local private school, where both he and his wife enjoy accommodation as part of the job. I don’t have the impression he’s particularly well off, so am impressed to find that this couple put every spare penny towards private education for their son.

I ask the obvious question (why?) – he explains that he had learning difficulties himself as a child, and is convinced that small class sizes will provide that much better education for his own son. I cannot argue with the logic of a parent, and wonder to myself if children always realise the sacrifices that people make for their offspring. I know that I didn’t when I was younger …

Campsite at Henley
Campsite at Henley

Later on, scrubbed up into a bona fide member of the civilised world, I head off to the Stag & Huntsman pub in the nearby village of Hambleden. Arrive at eight pm, only to be told that the kitchens closed at 4 pm that Sunday! WTF ….

Cannot face walking back to the site, then miles in the opposite direction to Henley itself, so call a taxi. Henley town centre is surprisingly quiet. I know very little about the town – my main experience is from driving through it a few times, usually on the old route to London before the M40 was built.

The restaurants and bars are open but with few customers. I would have expected more, but we are only just out of lockdown.

One very nice Indian meal later I head back to the campsite. It’s fortunate I brought the torch, as I’m unable to find the river path back to the site in the dark. Walk back along the main road, a pretty hazardous undertaking at night. So to bed.

Go to Day 9: Henley-on-Thames – Romney lock (Eton)

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© Philip Hunt 2020

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