||If all you know of the Thames is the grey muddy stretch that runs through London, on this walk you are in for a pleasant surprise. The Thames above Marlow is a lazy, tranquil river, which runs between pleasant meadows and overhanging trees, occasionally overlooked by fine old manor houses. The area is also known as a habitat for red kites - look up to see them hovering overhead.
This walk follows the Thames Path for the first 8km (5 miles), passing the ancient village of Hurley, little changed since the days when it was a Benedictine monastery. Lunch is in Aston or Hambleden, both quaint riverside villages. By contrast, the afternoon takes you up over the wooded hills (passing through Homefield Wood, which in July is a prime spot for the silver-washed fritillary butterfly), and then back down into the well-preserved Georgian town of Marlow for tea.
- Alternative ending: This route into Marlow goes down a pleasant valley and then on tracks between fields into the centre of the town. It avoids road walking but is 2.3km (1.4 miles) longer, making a total walk of 23.9km (14.8 miles).
- Marlow to Henley: There are two ways to end this walk in Henley. i) From the Flower Pot in Aston you can carry on over Remenham Hill, making a total walk of 13.5km (8.4 miles) or ii) from Hambledon Lock you can carry on along the Thames path, making a total walk of 15.2km (9.4 miles).
- North bank route: With a 1:25K OS Map, instead of crossing the river on the Temple footbridge, you can stay on the north bank all the way to Hambledon Lock, to pick up the route there. This scenic route (roughly) follows the river via Low Grounds Farm, East Lodge, Harleyford Golf Club, Medmenham (Dog and Badger pub), the towing path to Hambledon Place, to Mill End / Hambledon Lock to rejoin the route. This diversion is about 1/3 of the entire walk.
- Number 800 buses between Henley and Marlow stop on the main road just beyond Hambleden Lock, making it possible to end the walk here after 11.2km (7 miles). There are up to three buses an hour during peak hours Monday to Friday and two an hour on Saturdays, with buses every 40 minutes or so in the evenings. There is one bus an hour on Sundays until around 9pm.
Trains run hourly between Paddington and Marlow, changing at Maidenhead (journey time: about 1 hour). Once on the branch line don’t be alarmed when the train reverses direction at Bourne End, which is quite normal. Catch the train nearest to 9am from Paddington to get to all the lunch pubs in time, though for lunch at the Flower Pot in Aston the train nearest to 10am is sufficient.
If finishing in Henley, trains back are twice an hour, changing at Twyford. Buy a day return to Henley-on-Thames (not "in-Arden"), as this is the furthest station. This should also be accepted on the outward route to Marlow, but if not, you would only have to pay an excess from Maidenhead to Marlow. There is also a "Thames Branches Day Ranger" that covers both Henley and Marlow, but it is priced the same as a Henley return and is probably only obtainable from the ticket office (not the machines) at Paddington.
Hurley Lock, 4.2km (2.6 miles) into the walk, has a tea kiosk which is open from 11am-5pm Tuesday to Sunday and bank holidays from early April to late September.
The Rising Sun, Hurley, (01628 825733 www.risingsunhurley.co.uk) is a possible early lunch stop, 4.9km (3 miles) into the walk. It is open all afternoon for drinks daily, with food served until 2.45pm daily and from 6pm to 8.45pm Monday to Saturday.
The Flower Pot Hotel Aston (01491 574721), 9.8km (6.1 miles) into the walk, will be the most practical lunch pub for most walkers. It is a somewhat quirky establishment decorated with stuffed animals and fish, and serves homely, unpretentious food from midday to 2.30pm Sunday to Friday and all afternoon Saturday (also 6pm to 9.30pm weekdays). For drinks it is open all afternoon at weekends, but is closed 3.30pm to 6pm on weekdays. It has a large garden.
The Stag and Huntsman Hambleden (01491 571227 www.thestagandhuntsman.co.uk), 12.9km (8 miles) into the walk, is a cosy, atmospheric old pub, with reasonably large garden. It serves food until 2.30pm and from 6pm to 9pm on weekdays and all day on Saturday and Sunday. It is open all afternoon daily for drinks.
Hambleden Post Office and Stores (01491 571201). Open 8.30am-5.30pm Mon-Fri; 8am-5pm Sat; 8.30am-4pm Sun. Located 12.8km (7.9 miles) into the walk, this superior village shop has few outside tables and serves tea, coffee, homemade cakes and delicatessen items, making it a possible light lunch or early tea stop. Hambleden church also sometimes sells tea and cakes on summer Sundays.
Almost anywhere in the first five miles of the walk would be an ideal place for a picnic.Marlow High Street (passed early in the walk) is the obvious place to buy picnic items: if you forget, the Hurley Farm Shop (actually a normal convience store) in the village of Hurley can help you out. It is open 8am to 5pm daily.
There is no shortage of cafés in Marlow High Street, some of them staying open till 6pm or 7pm, but they tend to change names quite often. A reliable old favourite is Burgers on the left at the bottom of the High Street, just before the church. Despite its name, this is an upmarket patisserie and tea room, open till 5pm Monday to Saturday (closed Sunday).
Just beyond Burgers, the George & Dragon Inn is a modernised but very comfortable pub, which has big sofas and serves Costa Coffee hot drinks and cakes well into the evening.
If finishing in Henley: The Chocolate Cafe (01491 411412) on the waterfront by the bridge is the recommended tea option, open from 9am-5.30pm Mon-Thurs, to 6pm Fri-Sun. The nearby Angel on the Bridge is one of many pleasant Henley pubs.
Most of the fine buildings in Marlow's High Street and West Street are Georgian (18th century), but the town was already well established in the days of the Doomsday book (1085), when it had "twenty three copy-holders, one serf and one mill", as well as "a fishery which yields 1000 eels". Its church was famously surrounded by marsh, prompting one churchwarden in 1777 to ask for money "for a cast iron brazier wherein to make a large charcoal fire and warm the church in cold damp weather". Famous residents include Mary Shelley, who lived in West Street for a year along with her poet husband Percy Bysshe Shelley while finishing her novel Frankinstein. TS Eliot also came to Marlow to escape the bombing in London at the end of the First World War, and the town was home to Jerome K Jerome, whose novel Three Men in a Boat so immortalised the pleasures of "messing about on the river".
Bisham Abbey (pronounced Biss'am), seen across the river on this walk, was given by Henry VIII to his divorced wife, Anne of Cleeves. Enticed by a flattering portrait by Holbein, Henry found he was not attracted to Anne when he actually met her. The marriage was never consumated and only lasted seven months. In return for swallowing the humiliation of the king's rejection and agreeing to an annulment, Anne got a generous financial settlement, including several fine estates (one of which was Hever, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn). She lived out the remaining 17 years of her life in comfort and honour. Henry became good friends with her and she was known as “The King's beloved sister”, with precedence over all woman in England save his own wife and daughters. She is the only one of Henry's wives to be buried in Westminister Abbey.
The islands on which Hurley Lock is situated are one of the few places where the Thames splits into channels. A ford across the river at this point was the origin of Hurley, which is mentioned as far back as the Saxon Chronicles. Since the islands and the weirs erected between them were barriers to navigation, the villagers not surprisingly made a good living helping boats through them
The village of Hurley was once a Benedictine Monastery, and you can still get a real feel for what it must have been like in those days if you wander around it. The chapel of the monastery (now the Parish Church of St Mary The Virgin), its refectory and several other buildings are still extant. A leaflet is on sale just inside the church which gives a guided tour.
Hambleden - not to be confused with Hambledon in Hampshire where cricket was invented - was the home of WH Smith, founder of the newsagents and stationery chain, who is buried in the churchyard. His widow became Vicountess Hambleden and the family still own the manor house. Smith became First Lord of the Admiralty after ten years as an MP, and as such was the assumed target of the song Ruler of the Queen's Navy in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic operetta HMS Pinafore, in which an obedient MP rises to that post without any nautical experience. Gilbert denied this, probably to avoid libel suits, but Smith was still known as Pinafore Smith in his lifetime, even being called this by the prime minister who had appointed him, Benjamin Disraeli. Towards the end of his life Smith also became Warden of the Cinque Ports and after six months in that role died in Walmer Castle, the warden's official home.
Hambleden parish church has several interesting memorials, including one to the family of Sir Cope D'Oyley, who died in 1633, on which the children are shown carrying skulls if they died before their parents. To the left of this tomb is an oak chest used by the Earl of Cardigan when he led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854.
The parish church has several interesting memorials, including one to the family of Sir Cope D'Oyley, who died in 1633, on which the children are shown carrying skulls if they died before their parents. To the left of this tomb is an oak chest used by the Earl of Cardigan when he led the ill-fated Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854