Slipping down the Thames – Day 9, Monday 03/08/2020

Henley-on-Thames – Romney lock (Eton)

Left the campsite about 9 am to carry on downriver. Henley is I think perhaps a well-kept secret. The town itself looks quite ordinary despite the festival atmosphere once a year around the regatta. But some of the villas along the river just downstream of the city are extraordinary. I can only hazard a guess at the value, perhaps around £10 million plus? The taxi driver last night told me there’s a fair few celebs living round here.

A fair amount of traffic on the river even though today is a Monday. From Henley down to Windsor, the Thames is like a journey through English history. Names such as Medmenham, Marlow, Cookham, Cliveden and Maidenhead reverberate down the years – all have their stories to tell.

Medmenham Abbey, later the location of the notorious Hellfire Club.
Medmenham Abbey, later the location of the notorious Hellfire Club.

Medmenham Abbey for example was once a Cistercian abbey that after the Dissolution fell into the hands of the Duffield family. In their care the abbey became infamous as the location of The Hellfire Club, headed by Sir Francis Dashwood. The “Monks of Medmenham” were reputed to use the abbey for “obscene parodies of religious rites” between the mid 1700s and 1774, before eventually removing their activities to West Wycombe. The house is now a private residence, but I wonder what kind of hauntings occur.

Marlow is recorded in the Domesday Book – William the Conqueror gave the manor of Marlow to his Queen Matilda. While Cookham has been inhabited since prehistoric times. In the Saxon period it became the centre of a power struggle between Mercia and Wessex, and later King Alfred made Sashes Island on the river one of his burhs to help defend against Viking invaders.

Cliveden House is a pallatial residence built in Victorian times for the Astor family, and became home to a group of influential intellectuals (the Cliveden set) in the 1920s and 30s. Now owned by the National Trust, it is a luxury hotel with grounds that are a popular visitor attraction.

Despite increasing urbanisation as we near London, there are still stretches of river with just trees and greenery to be seen. And red kites remain plentiful in the skies above.

Many fishermen line the banks – this has been the case since Oxford. And being in a kayak averaging just 2.5 miles per hour, I’m frequently forced into the banks by faster traffic, and so fouling their lines, which doesn’t endear me to them. Some gesture to me to move out to the middle of the river, but that’s the one thing I‘m not going to do.

The Riviera hotel and restaurant in Maidenhead town centre is a handy place to pause for a bite, mainly because it has a landing stage and steps at water level. In the past Maidenhead was the first stopping point for horse-drawn coaches travelling from London to Gloucester and Bath, and the town became populated with numerous inns. By the mid 18th century, Maidenhead was one of the busiest coaching towns in England, with over ninety coaches a day passing through.

Windsor Castle, a royal palace since Henry I
Windsor Castle, a royal palace since Henry I

Past Bray to Eton and Windsor. Windsor Castle dominates the skyline – a reminder of its original purpose, to command the river, its traffic and the surrounding area. The original castle was built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror after the Norman invasion of England. It has been used as a royal palace by the reigning monarch ever since the time of Henry I, and is the longest-occupied palace in Europe.

Present-day reality is rather more mundane. Windsor town centre appears to have numbers of drunk young people milling around – surprising for a Monday night. A lot of people are still on furlough I guess. But if those castle stones could speak, I’m sure they’ve seen their share of rioting and revelry over the years.

As dark falls I find a place to pull out in a small area of green just past Romney lock. It’s not ideal – I’m sandwiched between the river and a railway line, and there are occasional runners about. But it will have to do.

Go to Day 10: Romney lock – Hampton Court

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© Philip Hunt 2020

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