Olde England’s green and pleasant land

The Thames, a river rich in history and economic significance for Old Blighty, runs from Gloucestershire through half a dozen counties to London – a distance of 296km.

Its course winds through pretty little villages in the Cotswolds through Oxford and Windsor and on to London and beside much of it are the towpaths, once used to “tow” the boats.

The Thames Path is clearly signposted and is well-worn with something worth seeing at every turn.

Visitors can explore as much or as little as they choose, taking a backpack and going out for days in search of its source or to hike from the Cotswolds to Oxford; or for a pleasant day’s stroll on a day trip from London.

There are plenty of little pubs or tearooms enroute to break the journey.

The 45km between Marlow and Staines is handy to London and is fascinating.

It’s all so terribly English, with elegant or old, and often both, houses lining up along the banks of the Thames.

The path is bustling with walkers and the river is speckled with canoes, sailboats, barges and leisure cruisers.

The Thames Path is clearly signposted.

Among the more famous residents of Marlow was Dr William Battie, who in the 18th century wrote the first book on the treatment of mental illness and nervous disorders and gave his name to the expression of going “batty”.

From her cottage on the edge of town at Quarry Wood, our great opera singing export Dame Nellie Melba sang for the trees as she practised her arias.

I kept a sharp eye out for Mr Toad, Mole and Ratty along the next stretch of the Thames as it was childhood memories made here that Kenneth Grahame drew on when he wrote Wind in the Willows.

And so it goes on, village after village, each filled with useless but fascinating trivia – Enid Blyton’s home in Bourne End; the pretty village of Cookham made famous by artist Sir Stanley Spencer; and the cottage by the river at Cliveden Reach where Secretary of State John Profumo’s affair with Christine Keeler caused the scandal of the early 1960s.

The fields become fewer and the urban tracks become bigger, better and busier as I cruise into Maidenhead, which had a saucy reputation from the early to mid 20th century.

A local is quick to ask if I have come looking for Skindles, a hotel which in its heyday built most of that reputation.

It was here that straight-laced Queen Victoria’s son the Prince of Wales, who later became Edward VII, and his mistress Lillie Langtry met and the social set soon joined them there for parties and naughty weekends.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Skindles became a music venue for the really big acts such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

Skindles has gone now, well outlived by the beautiful old stone bridge I cross.

Not much further downstream is the famous Sounding Arch Bridge, so named because there’s a perfect echo from the path underneath.

It was built by Isambard Brunel in 1838 to take the Great Western Railway across the Thames and has the flattest and widest brick arch in the world.

Onwards, and guests sit in the late afternoon sun at Oakley Court, an impressive Victorian house built in Gothic style by Richard Hall-Saye who wanted to make his French wife feel at home.

During World War II it was the secret HQ of the French Resistance, with Charles de Gaulle a regular visitor, then it was used as a spooky set for a number of films including the Rocky Horror Picture Show, before being converted to a hotel in 1981.

And so it goes on until, emerging from a bushy path to an expanse of green lawns, Windsor Castle looms into the picture. The Union Jack is flying, so the Queen is in residence. It makes an imposing statement on the horizon and then drops into the background of every street scene.

There’s a fun vibe in the home of the royal family’s weekender, which for almost 1000 years has impressed all-comers with its battlements and turrets.

It is still the oldest and largest inhabited castle in the world.

Next is St George’s Chapel, regarded as the finest medieval Gothic Church in Britain, which is the final resting place of many monarchs.

Add Eton; Datchet, where King Edward VII became the first monarch to ride in a motor car; and historic Runnymede where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

And that’s just one section. The Thames Path is rich in history, big names and big houses and turns a walk into a treasure trove.