I’d googled parking in Henley before leaving home and discovered I could park for free in a small car park by the section of the Thames Path I was intending to walk.
I parked, got my boots on and walked across a field to the river. As it was a nice half term day and not too far from the centre of town there were plenty of families about.
Close to where I was starting today’s walk, houses and their gardens reached down to the river bank which should have necessitated an inland detour, but didn’t because a long, winding, wooden walkway sits in the river like a bridge connecting two parts of the same bank.
The walkway leads to a small island from which Marsh Lock can be accessed. The current lock dates from 1773, though there have been locks here for at least 600 years. The walkway, which continues from the island and returns to the bank, was originally created as part of the towpath, but is now a structure used for pleasure rather than work. An information board explains how the fish ladder to the side of the lock and weir works.
Once the walkway deposited me back on the bank I was able to follow the river through a meadow until the path turned inland towards the village of Shiplake.
The path led alongside some rather large houses including one that has its own railway running through the extensive grounds. The railway is of the miniature sort, but still has its own station building looking very real, albeit scaled down to about half ‘actual size’. The house is Thameside Court and has been owned by billionaire Urs Schwarzenback since the 1990s. It was after he moved in that the gardens were landscaped and the railway built. I guess if you’re a billionaire a miniature railway is no big deal. He could probably buy out Network Rail should he ever feel the whim.
I followed the road by the houses until Thames Path signs led me along a narrow path before leading to Shiplake Station (the full-size one) and through the village. Eventually, I was able to walk across a field to get back to the river.
As I walked through fields, I was overtaken on the river by a military task force canoeing their way on, I presume, a mission to invade Reading.
Houses and gardens yet again reached down to the banks of the river. So far today the problem of pesky private houses had been resolved firstly, by a walkway over the river the itself and secondly, by a long inland detour. I now found the third solution: to tramp right through the gardens themselves.
Each garden had fences or hedges running right down to the river and in each fence or hedge was a gate with a Thames Path footpath sign. I felt a little strange wandering into people’s gardens, but soon got over my hesitation as no-one seemed to be around and the gardens were far too interesting to keep my eyes averted anyway. Each owner had their own style, though there is obviously a bylaw compelling everyone to have a Buddha and wind chimes in some form or other. My favourite garden was the first which had a lovely summer house at the bottom right by the river.
The path signs eventually led right up someone’s garden and through a gate onto their driveway, I followed the road for a few minutes before getting back to the river at Shiplake Lock. The walk continued along a pleasant towpath with boats chugging by.
I crossed the bridge taking me back from Oxfordshire to Buckinghamshire and continuing now on the opposite bank, I stopped for a short break at Sonning lock and finished the coffee in my flask. There were a lot more people around now with many obviously just enjoying a short stroll.
I felt I was in Reading a long time before I actually reached it. I walked along playing fields with the river on my right and a busy road lined with modern office buildings on my left.
As I came closer to the town centre an offshoot of the river disappeared behind apartment buildings on the far bank. I could have reached it by crossing a bridge, but had no reason to. Instead I took photographs of swans swimming amongst rubbish with backdrops of huge gas storage tanks.
It was only when I stopped a bit later on and checked the map to see where I should turn away from the river in order to reach the train station, that I realised the narrow offshoot I’d seen was actually the Thames and I was now walking along the Avon and Kennet Canal. It wasn’t a problem as I was still able to easily get to the station.
There’s a Riverside Museum in Reading that I’d quite like to come back and have a look at one day. If I do, I may also walk a loop of the Thames and the canal so as to complete the small section of Thames Path I missed out on today.
I found Reading Station, bought a ticket to Henley, checked the platform number and time of the train, then, as I had lots of time, went for a wander. It was only when I went to catch my train that I realised just how big Reading Station actually is and I hadn’t allowed enough time to get to the platform. I arrived in time to see my train pulling out.
I had to wait a while for the next train and by the time I arrived back in Henley it was completely dark. I set off along the river to follow the Thames Path for today’s final kilometre to the car park. Although it was dark my night vision soon adjusted and I didn’t need to dig my head-torch out of my backpack. I’d expected this to be a lonely stretch as it was dark, but there seemed to be plenty of joggers and dog walkers still about. I quite enjoyed this last part of my walk even though I couldn’t see anything. It felt like I’d sneaked an extra bit onto my day.