With the recent return of the spring sunshine, I have been doing a lot of thinking about our upcoming walks and travels over the warmer summer months. It was with good timing therefore that LOOK contacted me and asked me to submit my favourite place in the UK to their new ‘Hidden Gems’ map – a bid to put on the map those little unknown UK destinations that are normally overshadowed by their larger or more established rivals. You can see the map here.
I have definitely found a few hidden gems on my travels round the UK. One of my favourite off-the-beaten track destinations is the dreamy and remote village of Arnisdale. Located at the end of the road on the Glen Elg peninsula in the Scottish Highlands, Arnisdale is perched at the point where the brooding mountains tumble down to the sparkling sea and a visitor’s patience is rewarded with sightings of otters, golden eagles, seals and deer.
For a destination overshadowed by better known locations I would recommend Avebury in Wiltshire – the lesser known but equally impressive cousin of English tourist mecca Stonehenge and from where the ancient Ridgeway and modern day National Trail of the same name commence.
Also making my mental short list were a whole variety of beaches and harbours in Devon and Cornwall and favourite West Country spots from my childhood. And that’s before we get onto teashops, festivals or favourite walks!
The word ‘hidden’ though suggests to me something more. An attraction not necessarily remote or less well-known but rather one that is not where you expect it to be or different from preconceptions of it. For this reason it will not surprise regular visitors to Baby Routes that I would ultimately choose the rural Thames.
When you think of the Thames, you think of London. Indeed it’s largely down to the Thames that London was both located where it is and flourished into the thriving capital city it is today. London’s aerial view is instantly recognisable the world over (not just from Eastenders!) because of the famous river snaking through its midst and a lot of London’s most iconic landmarks would be lost without the Thames as a backdrop.
London’s Thames though is just a small section of the UK’s longest river. Head west out of the capital and you find a completely different but no less typically British scene – that of the fabled green and pleasant land. From the Cotswolds right up to London’s suburbia, the Thames ripples through glorious countryside – much of it overlooked by tourists too eager to head for the Big Smoke.
Reading is a good starting point for those looking to explore the rural Thames. Within five minutes walk of the station you can reach the riverside and be on the towpath following the Thames out of town. Head west and within fifteen minutes stroll the grey city bustle is a distant memory as the Thames widens out and the tow path passes through meadows with views of the rolling hills on the opposite bank. A simple stroll on the south bank takes you from Caversham down to scenic Mapledurham House (thought to be the inspiration for Toad Hall in Kenneth Grahame’s ‘Wind in the Willows’). In the summer months you can make a more leisurely return trip to Reading by boat. Alternatively, keep to the north bank of the Thames and you can return by train from Tilehurst station or for those up for a longer walk, from Pangbourne – the true Wind in the Willows heartland.
East from Reading takes you along the Thames to Sonning where the willow trees, vibrant in their spring green, trail lazily in the river whilst local teens test out the water. Beyond Sonning is where the Thames becomes really beautiful. Meandering through lush water meadows with the Chiltern Hills sloping down towards its banks, the Thames becomes a true rural idyll. Some of the more lyrical sections from Jerome K. Jerome’s ‘ Three Men in a Boat’ were written in reference to this stretch between Sonning and Henley-on-Thames and the walk from Sonning to Shiplake is one of my personal favourites.
Those wanting a glimpse into how the other half live should follow the Thames Path from Shiplake to Henley-on-Thames. Here the beautiful scenery is interspersed with some truly magnificent residences backing down onto the Thames with the obligatory boathouse. The walk is a lovely one in its own right and particularly in the autumn when the trees frame the sleepy waters with the muted rainbow of their leaves. It also has the bonus of both the splendid Baskerville Arms pub in Shiplake and the possibility of making the return journey by train.
If a summer stroll is more your thing then joining the Thames at Cookham also comes highly recommended. Just outside of Maidenhead, the river is reached from the National Trust land at the far end of the village high street. Again, there are some impressive boats and backyards onto the Thames to admire on the opposite bank (if only I had a spare million pounds or two…) and the meadows here are particularly inviting for a picnic – as is the ice-cream van that lurks in the car park and the afternoon teas and Pimms served in the neighbouring Kings Arms pub.
Whilst on the subject of Pimms, no trip to this part of the world would be complete without a visit to Henley-on-Thames. Too famous for its historic annual regatta to count as ‘hidden’ it is nonetheless a pleasant spot to sip its local staple whilst taking in the Thameside views and to take a wander up the south side of the river to iconic Temple Island.
One place along the Thames that used to be firmly on the map for the well-to-do but a little overlooked since the Profumo affair is Cliveden. Perched high above the Thames ‘ north bank, just outside Maidenhead, the Cliveden Estate commands fantastic views over not just the river but the surrounding countryside and offers acres of parkland to walk in. Here the path lingers along a quieter more secretive stretch of the river and takes you past the innocent little Spring Cottage that played such an important backdrop in 1961. It was here that Secretary of State for War John Profumo embarked on an affair with Christine Keeler – a 19 year old model suspected of having links to Soviet spies. Today Cliveden’s estate is managed by the National Trust and well worth a visit. Those with some spare cash can stay at the house which is now a suitably up-market hotel or even rent Spring Cottage.
Those with time and leisure to stray further from the call of the capital can follow the rural Thames on west past charming Goring & Streatley, through Dorchester with its famous Abbey and on towards the Cotswold countryside. The Thames is the only river in Europe to have a National Trail hiking route along its entire length and in my opinion its rural stretches offer some of the most beautiful and typically ‘English’ accessible countryside walking in the country.