We passed the half way mark today on our journey from the source to the mouth of the Thames. We won't know the exact half way point until we complete as there are northern and southerly options within London itself that effect the overall length. However somewhere between Pangbourne and Shiplake we reached that milestone – I set it at Tilehurst to give us a notional transition point. I must admit to some annoyance with the intransigence of local landowners which have resulted in several on-road diversions from the River itself. The first of these before Lechlade is the most irritating in part because it is a dangerous and lengthy road diversion but in the main because it misses that point where the Thames moves from a stream to a river. We had another today on the approach to Tilehurst where a glorious bend in the river has to be missed for want of a bridge over a Marina exit.
Since Oxford we have increasingly seen power evidenced in architecture. Some of the houses on the River are worth millions, but that is not the point I am making. The bridge above is in Sonning, until the 16th Century the location of the Palace of the Bishop of Salisbury one of the most powerful political prelates in the land. All that is now left is the wall of the churchyard, and the town itself is a small delightful village. At its height the Thames was crossable here thanks to some islands, but also navigable to London within a day if necessary by river. From now on there will be more sites like this, including of course Runnymeade.
The other thing we started to realise is that rural nature of this walk will soon be lost. Our next two sections from Shiplake to Marlow and then to Windsor are the last rural sections, after than the walk is the main urban and on metalled roads or engineered tracks. The section to Mapledurham is a delight, but after that its best forgotten. From the road diversion to Tilehurst until you leave Reading the bath is rank in parts and only the delights of modern urban architecture can be seen to the right. The rule along this section is look left. The Gasometers can be sort of scenic at a mush (see right) but the river is the main attraction and with the setting sun providing a backcloth the walk returns to rural delights.
The Kennet and Avon (a walk I completed earlier this year) joins as you leave Reading and the Thames itself swells and grows. It moves less quickly, or least it appears too give the volume and depth of water. We are also in the territory made famous by Kenneth Graham in Wind in the Willows. There are many competing claims to the source of Toad Hall, and of Toad with speculation that the two may not be connected. But the river now has many a boat, but more the serious rowing club than Edwardian gentlefolk. However you can see the attraction. I am half thinking of hiring a boat once we have completed this walk and reversing the journey on the Thames itself.
Private schools abound, we passed Bluecoats (alma mater of Ricky Gervais) and we finished shortly after Shiplake College which has a wonderful visa to complete the architecture. I'd still remove their charitable status by the way, but their presence has preserved the playing fields and buildings.
By the time we reached Shiplake my muscles were starting to fee the effect. I had walked three miles more than my companions the previous week and also thrown in a solo walk from Eastbourne over Beachy Head and the Severn Sisters midweek. My fitness levels are coming back slowly, but I am pleased to say the stamina is still there. I am also remembering how much I enjoy walking, both with people and on my own (the two are very different). Pressures of work and travel have provided an excuse until I decided to take myself in hand last year and its coming. The long distance paths that are feature of the British Landscape allow for a ritual to be established and goals to be set. For a timetable fetishist such as myself, augmented by the internet there is the added pleasure of planning!