Day 8 – Pangbourne to Henley-on-Thames

Today is a long 16 miles from Pangbourne to Henley-on-Thames – the longest day so far. It is also the first day that you encounter a large urban town – Reading. Though to be fair you only skirt round it. The villages of Shiplake and Sonning are much more pleasant.

Thames Path Route from Pangbourne to Henley-on-Thames

The path from Pangbourne starts on the south bank, just beyond the Adventure Dolphin Centre and continues through Pangbourne Meadow, owned by the National Trust, from where you have a good view of the Grade II listed Whitchurch Bridge – one of only two toll bridges over the Thames. The bridge is “owned and maintained by The Company of Proprietors of Whitchurch Bridge, who are themselves owned by the General Estates Company, who also own Bathampton Toll Bridge across the River Avon to the east of Bath (Wikipedia). First built in 1792 the bridge replaced the original ferry.

The views of the Chiltern Hills on the north bank lead you to the first lock on the Thames to be mechanised in 1956, Mapledurham Lock, which is actually in Purley (on the south bank) rather than Mapledurham (on the north). There are some stunning river views here.

From the lock the path takes a somewhat disappointing detour through Purley Park, a newish suburb of Purley, crosses the railway and onto the A329. After a very short road walk, the path goes back over the railway onto the towpath by a large and unwelcoming “Welcome to Reading” sign. Though we aren’t yet in Reading, but Tilehurst and the path itself feels quite secluded even though you are following the line of the railway, unseen and high up on the bank to your right.

Gradually the view opens out and some rather large houses come into view – and we are seeing the outskirts of Caversham, shortly joining the Thameside Promenade where a view of Caversham Bridge comes into sight.

The half mile walk between Caversham Bridge and Reading Bridge is surprisingly pleasant for a sprawling large town. Yet although visions of urban life are occasionally visible to the right, Reading rarely impinges upon this stretch. Reading has a strange relationship with the Thames – as it seems closer to the Kennet which flows through it and joins the Thames a little further on. Though Reading does have its moments. The Reading Festival in well known. Fox Talbot established the first mass-produced photo laboratory here in 1844 in Baker Street. Oscar Wilde was imprisoned in Reading Jail. Reading housed Huntley and Palmers biscuits between 1822 and early 1990s, and Sutton Seeds, which are now in Paignton. The town’s museum does however house the only full sized copy of the Bayeux Tapestry.

In Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K Jerome describes Reading;

Even Reading, though it does its best to spoil and sully and make hideous as much of the river as it can reach, is good-natured enough to keep its ugly face a good deal out of sight.

Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

Which is a bit harsh, but understandable.

Passing through the tunnel under Reading Bridge soon brings you to Caversham Lock, originally built in 1778, and immediately onto King’s Meadow.

Kings Meadow is a large open space with a pleasant walk along the towpath between Reading Bridge and Kennet Mouth. A popular picnic site, the area features groups of mature trees and willow beds. However, the park is susceptible to flooding during the winter. The Coal woodland is at the eastern end of the Reading section of the Thames corridor, it is a wooded area raised out of the flood plain, and it starts immediately adjacent to the foot of Horseshoe Bridge at Kennet mouth. There is a towpath between the woodland and the river bank, and a small area of open space adjacent to the river which extends beyond the towpath and into the river. The woodland separates a Tesco superstore and car park from the river. In the northwest corner of the Kings Meadow is an old Victorian river-fed bathing station. Opposite this is an island and river lock, which is owned by the Environment Agency. The playing fields are used by football clubs throughout the season, although fixtures may be disrupted by flooding. In summer there is Gaelic football, and various events are staged throughout the year including Reading’s annual beer festival.

Reading Borough Council

This is a deceptively rural scene before a fairly untidy stretch running along the railway line, past Tesco, and onto the graffiti covered but Grade I listed Horseshoe Bridge which is where the River Kennett feeds into the Thames. Horseshoe Bridge dates back to 1892 and is attached to Brunel’s adjoining brick railway bridge, which itself opened in 1839. The footbridge was designed with high sides so as not to frighten the horses who needed to cross over the tributary in order to continue along the towpath. Is seems now to serve the needs of graffiti artists. The bridge was earmarked for restoration in March 2022 – and not before time.

This was the only part of the river where I have seen pollution. Indeed in 1889 Jerome K Jerome claimed,

The river is dirty and dismal here. One does not linger in the neighbourhood of Reading.

Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

Still true 131 years later. A strange old building hides behind locked gates overgrown with bushes and weeds. This is The University of Reading Dreadnought. This is the old Dreadnought Pub, owned now by the University of Reading and used as an admin centre by its rowing club. Until 1999 it had been a Students Union bar. Planning permission exists for it to be turned into tea rooms, although those plans have yet to be progressed.

Beyond the Dreadnought, the view opens up with views of open meadows and across the river to the marina. As the path enters a wooded area it passes Sonning Lock, and passes alongside the grounds of Reading Bluecoat School, an independent day school established in 1646. A poignant pair of gates mark a memorial to a teacher who drowned in 1953.

Wew now reach the village of Sonning with its old houses, St Andrew’s church and the red brick Sonning Bridge. Over the bridge is Sonning Mill, the 18th Century flour mill, but now converted into a theatre. As you cross the bridge you move from Oxfordshire to Berkshire.

It is the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river. It is more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar.

Jerome K Jerome, Three Men in a Boat

We now enter into a quiet but beautiful meandering, often wooded stretch of the river, eventually passing the boathouse and slipway for Shiplake College, yet another independent school bordering the Thames.

Shiplake was for a few of his early years, the home of Eric Blair – who went on to become George Orwell.

Shiplake Lock, marks the spot where the path deviates from the riverbank, though it is still possible to follow the original route round a large bend, skirting Shiplake to Shiplake Railway Station. The path passes through a narrow fenced stretch along the gardens of some pretty large properties, including Thames-Side Court, built in 1914, now owned by Urs Schwarzenbach a millionaire polo enthusiast who Wikipedia tells us “in 2013/14, Schwarzenbach was investigated by the FCA (Federal Customs Administration) for alleged VAT fraud totalling some ten million Swiss francs and art trafficking“. Apparently he landscaped the 8 acre garden to include a narrow gauge railway and station, though it is doubtful anyone lives there. Googling Urs Schwarzenbach and Thames-Side Court provides some further illumination.

We are now approaching Henley-on-Thames though open meadows, and onto a long wooden causeway, in the middle of which is Marsh Lock, unusual because it is situated on the far side of the river approached via the causeway.

The end of the causeway lands you onto Mill Meadows, and the long and very pleasant promenade leading into Henley-on-Thames, with the view of Henley Bridge and St Mary’s Church.

Henley is an attractive town, built around the river, the Angel Pub by the bridge, and market square. Henley is the place where in 1970 George Harrison purchased 30-room Victorian neo-Gothic mansion Friar Park, and where he lived until his death in 2001. It was built in 1889 and set in 60 acres which you can see about three minutes up from the Market Square. Dusty Springfield is buried in the churchyard and Henley has a ‘Dusty Day‘ every year in mid-April, when her fans come from all over the world to celebrate her life.

At Henley-on-Thames, I stayed at the Grade II listed The Red Lion, possibly the only place I have stayed in that had also played host to royalty. The iconic Red Lion Hotel dates back to 1600s and many of the 35 bedrooms have been named after the Royal visitors who have said to have stayed there including George III, George IV and Charles I. in June 2020, just before my stay, it was put up for sale for £7.5m and appears to have been bought and renovated into the Relais Henley Hotel at the Red Lion.

This was my end point for this stretch.