Travel Story A Thames boat cruise: Simply messing about on the river

A view over a rower and the waterside buildings of Henley-on-Thames, home to the Leander Club, one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world based.

Follow The Wind in the Willows on a leisurely boat cruise along the Thames in England find castles, literary sites and "liquid history". 

If you enjoy crowds and organised entertainment then big cruises are probably for you. However, if you prefer to go your own way and set your own agenda then renting a small or family-sized river boat cruiser is a great option.

Just about every river and canal in Europe has self-cruise options. The Thames is England’s longest river and probably has more interest per kilometre than any other. It’s awash with unique sights and scenes, and has been described as “liquid history”. Stone Age tools and Roman artefacts litter the riverbed and its banks are a visual history book of England’s past. Up river from London, the Thames metamorphoses from an urban landscape into rolling chalk downs, woody vales, villages, market towns, castles and a treasure trove of historic landmarks.

We picked up our 12m, six-berth cruiser called Caprice from the river boat cruise company Le Boat at its marina in Chertsey, Surrey. It had two double bedrooms, two bathrooms, dining/lounge/third sleeping quarters, a well-equipped kitchen and upper and lower decks.

Though rental charges require a substantial initial cash layout, for six people the daily cost is a fraction of the price of the cheapest London hotel and less than a typical out-of-town B&B.

Our first landmark was Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed 800 years ago, and home to JFK and Air Forces memorials. A little further on, Windsor Castle loomed on the horizon and we moored up in its shadow. Most visitors could spend a couple of days here, visiting the castle, Sir Christopher Wren’s house, Eton College and more shops, pubs, restaurants and antique dealers than you could visit in a week.

Life is slow on the river, around 9km/h to 13km/h; it’s not about getting to a destination, it’s about enjoying the journey. A chance to opt out from the hectic world of rushing crowds, busy schedules and noise. River life is a tiny bit of the world where everyone is friendly. Passing boaters wave to you, as do walkers on the tow path. When you stop at a lock, everyone likes to chat. All Thames locks are manned by lock keepers from 9am to 6pm, after that it’s self-service, but they’re all electronically controlled so are simple to operate.

The slow pace of river life allows plenty of time to admire the tree-lined banks and grand river-frontage properties, and means wildlife is not scared away. Swans and ducks are everywhere, big fish splash in the water, herons perch on branches eyeing lunch, huge kites circle overhead, the occasional song of skylarks can be heard and bats hoover up midges at dusk. Early one morning, I thought I spotted a young otter loping along the tow path, but checking wildlife images, it turned out to be a mink.

The 290km Thames footpath follows the river all the way from source to sea, so whenever anyone wants to stretch their legs there’s always a riverside path. Joggers can easily get ahead of the boat and flag it down almost anywhere, although be aware that the path often crosses from left to right bank at bridges and locks.

We moored up in Maidenhead for lunch on day two and called in at one of its many riverside pubs. Meandering on, we stopped for the night in the picturesque village of Cookham. The Stanley Spencer gallery is in the heart of the village, which he immortalised by painting its inhabitants and re-imagining religious scenes such as Christ Preaching at the Cookham Regatta.

Pottering along towards Marlow the next day, it was easy to imagine that Kenneth Grahame’s childhood years in Cookham provided the inspiration for The Wind in the Willows. The riverside town of Marlow has one of England’s most beautiful Georgian High Streets and it seemed incongruous that behind these genteel windows Mary Shelley wrote much of her novel Frankenstein.

Henley was the next town and well worth a stop over. Preparations were already under way for the Royal Henley Regatta and the river was filled with rowing teams getting into practice. Parts of Henley and the local riverside will be familiar to lovers of Midsomer Murders and, for real enthusiasts, there are Midsomer Murder tours of film locations.

From Henley to Reading is a beautiful pastoral stretch, with a surprising number of islands, and we moored for the night at the pretty village of Sonning. Traffic queuing to cross the bridge aside, the village and the Bull Inn are unchanged since Jerome K Jerome stopped there in his Three Men in a Boat adventures, published in 1889.

The town of Reading looks better from the river than it does on its streets, so we quickly passed through. The green meadows to the west looked peaceful as they awaited the deluge of multicoloured tents and debris from 90,000 Reading Festival goers.

If you want to stop off at the splendid Elizabethan Mapledurham House, a popular TV and film location, moor on the right immediately after Mapledurham lock. The house has a rare working water mill and is said to be the inspiration for Toad Hall. 

A little further on, the Swan at Pangbourne is an excellent lunchtime stop and has its own mooring for patrons, otherwise there is free mooring beside the field opposite. We carried on to Goring, where some of us went shopping and others sampled its three pubs. All of us had a splendid meal at the 350-year-old Catherine Wheel pub.

Most of our crew voted Wallingford our last and best stopover. It’s a lovely market town with an impressive history of kings, queens and battles, and is packed with charming buildings, small shops, restaurants, pubs and a museum. Friday was market day. To my great surprise, Agatha Christie spent the second half of her life at Winterbrook Lodge in Wallingford. She wrote many mysteries here, though Wallingford was not the basis for St Mary Mead. But Danemead, Miss Marple’s house, was probably based on Winterbrook Lodge.

One more lock and 20 minutes cruising brought us to our final destination, Benson Marina. 

After five days I was really getting into the spirit of the river; I wished I’d booked longer and could continue on to Oxford.

All told, we only cruised 96km in four full days, but it was along a stunningly beautiful stretch of waterway that no one would wish to hurry through. The rolling landscape, woodland, farms, villages, market towns and the people were an absolute joy and something everyone should experience. No coach tour of the English countryside can match being on the Thames 24/7.

At top: A rower at Henley-on-Thames. Picture: British Tourist Authority.

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