On Bank Holiday Monday just gone, I decided to go out for a walk that I’d been planning for a while; down the Thames Path between Windsor/Eton Riverside and Maidenhead.
I’d especially wanted to get a glimpse of Oakley Court, which was the setting for The Rocky Horror Show and many other Hammer House Of Horror Films.
I had no idea that the whole walk would be so beautiful! Windsor/Eton is gorgeous (if not touristy… which I guess one is to expect), and some of the villages that I encountered on the way up the path actually elicited a gasp from me when I saw them!
I managed to get some awesome photos on my Nokia N95 camera phone – please open them up to full size and let me know what you think… I think the level of detail that the lens has captured is remarkable!
My one tip for people planning on doing this stage of the walk – consider doing it in reverse! It took me 4 trains to get back home (Maidenhead to Slough; Slough to Windsor Central; a walk across town to Windsor/Eton Riverside; a train from W/ER to Clapham Junction [you can go on to London Waterloo]; and then another train back to where I live from Clapham Jct). After completing the walk and being all hot and yukky, faffing around with additional trains is the last thing you want to do! Start at Maidenhead and work your way back down. In my opinion, Windsor also has much more to offer the weary traveller than Maidenhead does.
This has to have been one of the most gadgety walks I have been on too; I had my Nokia N95 with me, my blackberry, mp3 player and a few other bits and pieces – definitely no way that I was getting lost with 3 different GPS mapping devices. If only we’d had all of this in the Scouts! heh.
In addition to providing details of the walk below, I have also created a vimeo video of all my pictures from the walk. It’s my first one, and done late at night, and so some of the wipe effects are a little rubbish; forgive me! 🙂
[I reckon that Vimeo is best viewed in full screen – to do this, click on the outward arrows icon situated next to the volume control]
I have taken the text for the suggested walk and the local history information from HERE and added some of my own pictures and comments to it. I would hasten to add that the walk probably comes in around 9 miles (signs on the path indicate 8 miles walking on the Thames Path, and I would add in a mile for walking to/from the respective stations – which is not covered in this guide).
The rural towpath remains on the Buckinghamshire bank, with views of a film set house and Bray village before passing under Maidenhead’s Brunel bridge. There are no refreshments on the towpath between Winsor and Maidenhead except in season at Bray Lock.
WINDSOR is derived from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Wyndesore’ meaning ‘winding shore’, which probably refers to the Thames’ twisting course. The castle, begun as a fortress by William the Conqueror, is the Queen’s main home and the resting place of many past monarchs, including Henry VI. The exterior is the result of extensive restoration by Sir Jeffry Wyatville for George IV. When a massive fire swept the west end in 1992 water was pumped from the Thames and two years later stone for the restoration came by barge. The only painting destroyed was one which George III had wanted to burn almost 200 years earlier. He also gave Franz de Cleyn’s painting The Last Supper to the parish church where curate JS Stone wrote the hymn The Church’s One Foundation. The next door Guildhall, where Prince Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles in 2005, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who had to add extra pillars (in fact not quite touching the ceiling) because the council thought it looked unsafe.
Almost opposite is a plaque recalling HG Wells’ apprenticeship to a draper, portrayed in Kipps and The History of Mr Polly.
WINDSOR BRIDGE is at least an 800-year-old crossing point. Both road and river traffic paid tolls, and in 1736 it was possible to walk over alive for 2d while being carried in a coffin cost 6s 8d. Tolls ended in 1897 after court proceedings, but the tollkeeper’s cottage remains as part of Sir Christopher Wren’s House Hotel on the Windsor bank. The present 1822 bridge was the first arched bridge on the river. Road traffic was banned in 1970. Until Eton College’s 550th anniversary in 1990 boys were not allowed over the bridge into Windsor unless wearing a tie and jacket.
The Thames Path crosses the bridge to Eton. (The towpath continues briefly on the Windsor side, but the ferry now operates only in late July when a fun fair is on the Eton bank.)
ETON College, dominating the village, was inspired by Winchester College and founded by Henry VI. Seventy poor scholars formed the school nucleus and today there are are still 70 ‘King’s Scholars’, although most of the school consists of ‘Oppidans’ paying fees. The chapel was built in the 15th century with the intention of later adding a nave to what is really just the east end choir. Part of the uniform is a black tail coat, worn in mourning for George III. Eton’s upstream riverside is known as the Brocas after the Brocas family who gave the land to the college – Sir John de Brocas from Gascony was one of the Black Prince’s favourite knights.
Turn left down Brocas Street. Beyond the Waterman’s Arms and the Eton College boathouse there is the Brocas meadow, where the towpath joins at the ferry point and main mooring. The way is over grass with a fine view back to the castle. After the wood there is a railway bridge.
WINDSOR GREAT WESTERN BRIDGE, carrying the Great Western Railway (GWR) branch line from Slough, was designed by Brunel and opened in 1849 just months ahead of the London and South Western Railway which was building the Black Pott’s Bridge.
After two footbridges (the first is Lower Bargeman’s Bridge) over Cuckoo Weir, the path is on an island only spoilt by the Queen Elizabeth (Windsor relief road) Bridge. On the far bank beyond the bypass is Clewer church on the Mill Stream.
CLEWER William the Conqueror attended services at St Andrew’s. Buried in the southwest corner of the churchyard (noted for its wild flowers) is Sir Daniel Gooch, GWR’s first locomotive engineer, who decided to make Swindon a railway centre. Also buried there is Nanny May (Mary Ann Hull), who looked after Queen Victoria’s children as listed on the stone. A now closed convent in nearby Hatch Lane once received prostitutes sent by William Gladstone from London for rehabilitation. (Clewer church can be reached by going up the path on the upstream side of the bypass bridge, over the bridge and down into the village. Follow the road round to the
Although the main path now cuts the corner, the Thames Path stays with the towpath. The paths are united at a bridge when the towpath leaves the island. There is a view of Eton Wick inland. Behind the trees on the far bank is Windsor Race Course and by the path there is soon a riverside seat at a bank known as Athens.
ATHENS was an Eton College bathing spot where rules required that ‘boys who are undressed must either get at once into the water or get behind screens when boats containing ladies come in sight’.
Soon after Boveney Lock there is a last view of Windsor Castle – the upper turret and flagpole can just be seen above the trees. Soon there is Boveney church.
BOVENEY CHURCH, which has a Norman window, may have been a chapel for nearby Bolney Court, which belonged to Burnham Abbey three miles north. It is now in the care of the Friends of Friendless Churches, which has recently completed work on conserving the 15th-century weatherboarded and timber-framed tower.
After lonely Andrew’s Boat House the river bends to give a view of substantial riverside houses at Ruddle’s Pool and then Windsor Marina. After a mile the path is level with Oakley Court, which will have been glimpsed earlier.
OAKLEY COURT was built in 1859 as a residence for an Englishman who hoped the Gothic style would make his homesick French wife happy. General de Gaulle is the most famous Frenchman to have visited. In 1950 the house was purchased by Hammer Films who used it for making St Trinian’s, Half a Sixpence and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In 1970 the 92-bedroom mansion became a hotel.
Just beyond Queen’s Eyot is Bray Marina on the far bank. On the towpath, by an iron cyclists’ mile post, an unmarked footpath leads inland, passing through Wallbank Grove (planted 1996) to Dorney Court.
DORNEY COURT dates from about 1440 and stands on slight high ground to avoid flooding. The house, ‘one of the finest Tudor manor houses’, has been the home of the Palmer family since 1600, and among the portraits is Sir James Palmer, Governor of the Mortlake Tapestry Works. Dorney means ‘bee island’ and honey is sold here. It is also where England’s first pineapple may have been grown and given to Charles II who visited here. The church dates from the Norman period. The house, used as
‘Syon’ in the film Lady Jane, is open on bank holidays in May (and the preceding Sun) and Sun–Fri in August; 1.30–4pm; admission charge; www.dorneycourt.co.uk.
A short distance beyond the Dorney footpath turning, the towpath passes under Summerleaze Bridge.
SUMMERLEAZE BRIDGE opened in 1996 as both a footbridge for public use and a support for a conveyor belt carrying gravel from an excavation for a 1½ mile rowing lake developed by Eton College on the left bank. The bridge is named after the contractor from nearby Maidenhead.
Just before reaching a line of residences at Dorney Reach, where the path is well maintained, there is the beginning of Monkey Island.
MONKEY ISLAND probably means ‘monks island’ as it belonged to Merton Priory on the River Wandle (see section 2) which had a house upstream at Amerden Bank. But in 1738 the 3rd Duke of Marlborough decorated the fishing lodge ceiling with
monkeys. The island’s foundations for building had been strengthened when barges brought rubble from London after the 1666 Great Fire. The lodge has been a hotel since 1840. Edward VII and Queen Alexandra had tea on the lawn with three future sovereigns – George V, Edward VIII and George VI. H.G. Wells visited several times with Rebecca West who describes the island in her novel Return of the Soldier. The island could only be reached by boat until a footbridge was built from the right bank in 1956. The ‘Birmingham Six’ spent their first night of freedom here in secret after being released from prison in 1991.
Beyond a gate the way is through a copse and under the M4 Bridge (1961) to Amerden Bank. Soon there is Bray Lock and, after Headpile Eyot, a clear view of Bray village on the Berkshire bank. A seat is directly opposite The Waterside Inn
BRAY is famous for the song Vicar of Bray although which vicar is uncertain. Simon Alwyn adapted to the many changes of the Reformation years but the song probably refers to the Stuart times. The church is early 14th-century and among those married there is snooker player Steve Davies. The village is noted for celebrities including Rolf Harris who came because it reminded him of his “river’s edge home in Perth”. Gerald Ratner lived at upstream Somerville (with the American wrap-around
balcony). On the Waterside Inn jetty is the warning ‘restaurant only’ in case anyone thinks it’s still The George pub rather than Michael Roux’s 3 star establishment opened in 1972. Diners have included the Duke and Duchess of York who came just
two days after announcing their separation. Journalist John MacCarthy first met friend and campaigner Jill Morrell whilst on an outing to the inn – the group made alternative arrangements when they saw the expensive menu. The inn is next to Ferry Lane but a ferry no longer runs across to the seat.
After reaching a house the path is gravelled and then metalled to pass under Maidenhead Railway Bridge.
MAIDENHEAD RAILWAY BRIDGE, completed by Brunel in 1839, carries the Paddington-Bristol railway line and appears in Turner’s 1844 painting Rain, Steam and Speed on the GWR. These are the largest and flattest brick arches ever built and many thought they would collapse under the first train. A shout or whistle from below will echo. The bridge, widened in 1893, partly rests on Guards Club Island – the club was on the far bank.
When you come to the below bridge, you have reached Maidenhead. To leave the Thames Path, keep to the right hand side on the private road, and walk up to the bridge, turn left, and go over it.