A walk along Thames

English culture

A walk along Thames

“You could be excused for thinking that the principal industry of Britain is the manufacture of chlorophyll” — Bill Bryson, Notes from a Small Island. This line came to mind when, on a glorious spring morning, we went for a walk along the river in the town of Henley-on-Thames, in Oxfordshire. The skies were blue, occasionally slashed by white jet plumes. The Thames was sparkling. The weeping willows were graceful, and everywhere you turned, you could see the vibrant green of grass.

As we left the car park and approached the river, we could see the Henley Bridge to our left. This is a beautiful stone road bridge with five elliptical arches, and was built in 1786. Beyond the bridge, we could see the distinctive stone tower of St Mary’s Church, a 13th century structure.

A walk to remember

We started walking towards our right, on the banks of the river. The walking path alongside the river at Henley is part of the Thames Walk National Trail, which is a 294 km trail following the length of River Thames, starting from its source in the Cotswolds, right up to the Thames Barrier in Greenwich. This trail can be walked or cycled on, but in several places, it is not very easy to navigate. But this stretch at Henley is gentle and picturesque. The path wanders alongside grassy banks, with a view of the wooded Chiltern Hills on the opposite side. The levelled paths make it easy for those with limited mobility, and for those like us, looking for a relaxing and leisurely stroll, soaking in the beautiful sights.

There is a small strip of island in the middle of the river here, that are lined with about five or six pretty houses, all of them with lovely little gardens and tiny jetties projecting into the river. It was wonderful to imagine an idyllic summer holiday spent in a small house in the middle of the river.

The river is home to many birds — ducks, swans — many of which floated tranquilly along the river with entire broods of tiny offspring behind them, following in a straight line.
Houseboats passed us too, complete with small, colourful gardens on their decks, and smoke swirling out of chimneys. An occasional glimpse behind parted curtains hinted at cosy and comfortable living spaces inside. Some houseboats were moored, and there were signboards on the banks with details of the mooring charges and rules. Now, that’s something you don’t get to see very often.

A number of benches line the path, and these are interesting in themselves, as each one carries the name of the person who donated it, bears a short, touching message, and the name of the person in whose memory it was placed there.

Picnickers’ paradise

The wide, grassy stretches of land next to the walking path were scattered with picnicking families. People stretched out on picnic mats. Children ran around and played ball. We spent some time there too, as the children with us went quite wild, faced with such rare and unexpectedly wide swaths of safe, green land to run about in. Apart from the walk by the river, one can also take rides on boats along the river. The River and Rowing Museum on this same walking stretch is also a very popular tourist attraction.
The town of Henley is perhaps best known for its annual Royal Regatta, the oldest river regatta in the world. Founded in 1839, it is not only a great sporting event, but also a social occasion. It takes place at the end of June, or early July. This year, it is to be held between July 3 and 5. At this time, the city is transformed, as thousands of visitors, both spectators and participants, flock to the town from all over the world.

But when you visit Henley at any other time, it is almost impossible to say that an event of this magnitude could possibly be held here every year. The reason is that nowhere do you see any installation, or any structure that is a part of the Regatta’s arrangements. All the installations of the Regatta, both on the bank and in the river, are removed after the event, and the next year, they are re-erected. This practice preserves the natural beauty of the place.

Apart from the Regatta, there are many festivals, events and shows that are held in Henley throughout the year. Festivals of art, music, food, sports and youth are popular and well-attended. Over the years, this little market town has become a hotspot for festivals of this kind.

But for us, on that balmy spring day, just this lovely riverside walk was enough to swell our hearts, lull our minds, and leave us with beautiful memories. It was well worth the visit.

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