It seems that we have hit the jackpot coming back to England this summer with daytime temperatures up to around 80F (27C) with night-time cooling down to 60F (15C) in what promises to be the longest, hottest, driest summer since 1961 (I was in shorts and sandals then too!).
So the temptation to re-acquaint ourselves with our favourite stretches of the River Thames, between Reading and Oxford (38 miles and 12 locks), has become a weekly occurrence. The Goring Gap forms the boundary between Oxfordshire’s Chiltern Hills and Berkshire’s Downs and is the classic setting for Three Men in a Boat and The Wind in the Willows.
Some years ago I found myself sitting next to a fellow Englishman, at a business dinner in a casino in Reno, Nevada, who kept a boat on this stretch, and before heading off to the Craps tables (best gambling odds for punters he assured me that his statisticians had worked out) I suggested that instead of timing and monitoring machines and TV on the rowing kit in his new chain of Health Clubs he should simulate a virtual reality based on the sounds and sights and fresh air of rowing down this stretch of the river. Later on in the evening – he lost heavily at Craps – he asked me to waive all intellectual rights to this idea! I’d rather have the reality than the royalty, any day.
From our mooring at the Thames and Kennet Marina it is a six mile two and a half hour cruise, up through Caversham Lock, past Tilehurst and Purley-on-Thames, and Mapledurham Lock to Pangbourne. Here there are lovely free 24 hour moorings (no services) in Pangbourne Meadows (owned by the National Trust).
A short walk away in Pangbourne Village one can buy award winning pies, bacon and sausages from Greens (the butchers), or cheese from The Pangbourne Cheese Shop (Wigmore Sheep’s Brie, produced in Berkshire, for me) or eat and drink in one of a number of upmarket pubs, restaurants, or coffee shops – or if you’ve had enough of boating get on a train here and head back to London (as done by Three Men in a Boat). Our choice late one evening after a BBQ with friends was to head back down the river under the light of a full moon getting home just after midnight. An unforgettable experience – I love cruising at night on an empty moonlit river.
Just above Pangbourne, through Whitchurch Lock, there are more free overnight moorings along the banks (now getting rather overgrown in places, no services) at Lower Basildon. This is a great stop for both peace and quiet at night and for entertaining any children aboard at the Beale Wildlife Park here – specialising in breeding rare birds and organic farming, with attractions. We were a little surprised on a glorious Sunday evening to hear a booming sound, which at first I mistook for some kind of alarm, but as the tone settled into a gentler rhythm I realised that it must be emanating from the World Yoga Festival in the final stages of “an incredible weekend filled with knowledge, harmony, love and peace”.
At Goring one can take a break at the moorings below the lock (free overnight but you need to register on arrival) and have breakfast, brunch, lunch or afternoon tea at Pierreponts on the bridge opposite the Mill. It could well have been in 1961 that on a rare ‘day out’ from prep-school with my parents I was introduced to Jugged Hare at the Miller of Mansfield pub (still going strong). I settled for rather good fish and chips this time from The John Barleycorn after finding The Catherine Wheel (favoured by the late local George Michael) exceptionally without cooking gas for the day. In Streatley, across the river bridge, The Swan Hotel (once owned by Danny La Rue) is undergoing extensive renovations.
On the stretch above Goring and through Cleeve Lock to Wallingford there are few mooring opportunities unless you want to take an expensive lunch or dinner at either the Ye Olde Leatherne Bottel or the Beetle and Wedge Boathouse. We found the moorings at Wallingford fully occupied on both occasions (we used to live in the town so had no particular desire to explore here although it makes a good boating stop) and carried on through Benson Lock upstream passing Shillingford (where there are moorings with services at the Shillingford Bridge Hotel) and Dorchester (where we had moored in the past on a high bank, which now looks uncomfortably overgrown) to Days Lock where we moored in the field just upstream (there are moorings on the weir side of the lock island which are pre-bookable, popular, and £9.50 a night) in company with cows, geese and an interesting assortment of birds in the scrubby hawthorn trees by the old concrete bunker.
The bridge below Days Lock was the site of the annual World Pooh Sticks competition, started by the then lock-keeper in 1984, until it was moved to Witney in 2015. The river is overlooked by Wittenham Clumps, local landmarks 110m-120m above sea level and at one time housing an Iron Age hill fort and overlooking what were some of the first settlements of the English – “a beautiful legendary country haunted by old Gods long forgotten” (Paul Nash, artist) – and sometimes otherwise known as the Sinodun Hills, Berkshire Bubs or Mother Dunch’s Buttocks. Cruising doesn’t get much more English than this!
Another major landmark soon comes into sight above Days Lock as the river takes big loops to Clifton Hampden Lock and past Appleford to Culham Lock; the remaining cooling towers, 110m high, of Didcot Power Station are always on display across the fields until one reaches Abingdon, holding claim to the title of Britain’s oldest town. Here boaters are provided with plentiful moorings, free for three days above and below the bridge and above the lock too, surrounded by well-kept parks and gardens and a short walk from the town centre and Waitrose. A very nice staging post in what was once a flourishing agricultural centre, trading in wool, with a well-known weaving and clothing manufacturing industry.
Whilst tying up here Ade, from new Piper barge Sirius, having read my blog, came to ask about his upcoming trip across the Channel to Calais and beyond, this August. He and Ruth are new to barging so it was a pleasure to share what little I know of cruising on French waters – and I think I may have put the case strongly against hanging around in Northern France instead of heading directly south! They plan to spend their first winter in Auxerre whilst they decide.
Moving on the next day and stopping for lunch at Sandford Lock (free 24 hours, no services at the far end of the lay-by) another barge owner whom we had met at the Kingston 2011 DBA Rally also came to say hello and let us know of their plans to cross the Channel for the first time this year. It seems to be a Brexit induced exodus! We were soon through Iffley Lock and into Oxford where somewhat to our surprise there was a gap in the row of moored ‘houseboats’ opposite Christchurch Meadows (free mooring if you can get in – no controls appear to be in place, hence the permanent moorers here in what is the closest mooring to the town centre, and the nicest). It is a great spot and actually with less park bench drunks than I remember from years ago.
We were disappointed to see the permanent closure of the only fishmonger in the Covered Market but did manage to find a kiosk there selling a new cover (only in pink though) for my MotoG mobile phone and a new USB for my old IPad2. Moving across town via the Shuropody shop (2 new pairs of shoes at sale prices) we made our first visit to the refurbished Westgate Centre and were impressed by the choice of restaurants and bars (and Cinema) up on the Roof Garden Terrace. It reminded me very much of our visit to the Confluences in Lyon – just with an English view.
For some reason on all our previous visits to Oxford I had never got around to visiting the Botanic Gardens. Really nice and well worth a visit!
A small cruiser fitted in behind us in the morning having had a bad night with a fouled propeller and the need to call home for diving gear – all cleared just in time to start a team-building exercise with staff! I remembered all the times I was glad to have a boat with a weed hatch. The team of young office ladies arrived and after lunch we found ourselves setting off downstream with them behind us.
As I pulled past the College Boathouses to let the Salters Trip Boat and them go past there was a loud bang and the engine cut out – signs of wood astern, but I couldn’t engage the forward drive and so had to be rescued by the cruiser with some good rope throwing (all part of the team building tasks I understood) and nudging us in towards the bank where we were able to raft up against Alphi (no-one aboard) whilst I rummaged through lockers and holds in search of the only saw that would be able to reach and cut through the 4’x4’x3ft long piece of wood speared by one propeller blade and jammed up against the underside of the hull. The hacksaw, first try and pictured, was not up to the job but the short bladed one-handed ‘flick’ saw, found eventually deep in the hold above the black tank and below the safe, was and we carried on quietly to Abingdon where we found the team-builders moored and clearly well into their (well-provisioned) exercise. Thumbs up all round!
We spent 5 days going up-river to Oxford (allowing for a day to get our routine dental check-ups in Pangbourne) and 4 days coming down – making stops again at Abingdon, Days Lock, Beale Park and Pangbourne (for lunch only); wonderful cruising in wonderful scenery with wonderful weather.