Saturday, 26 March 2016

TADS #2:The Thames Towpath and the Chiltern Way (or Springtime in the Chilterns).

The night before the 2nd TADS walk of 2016 I got the news that Tadley legend, rockin' maniac, and all round crazy guy Pat Still had passed away. He was 54. Although I'd not seen him for some time he'd been a big influence on my life and many others. Including some of my fellow TADS. It became apparent that our stroll from Henley-on-Thames to Marlow would be punctuated, yes punctuated, with anecdotes and remembrances of Pat.

In fact the last time I can recall being in Henley was in the summer of 1996. It was just after Euro 96 and our friend Stuart was wearing a suit in sweltering heat and trying to do impressions of Gazza (with the ball, not the booze). By the turn of the millennium Stuart would have succumbed to his demons and taken his own life.

So this beautiful walk in fine company was sure to be tinged with a certain sadness. On Thursday night it was pouring down with rain and when I spoke to Adam on the phone and he told me the forecast was good and we'd probably be sat in a pub garden during our Good Friday gadabout I told him I thought that was highly unlikely.

But he was right. The sun came out and lifted the sadness in our hearts. Instead of mourning our walk was filled with laughter, joyful memories, and anecdotes of the NSFW nature.

Once we got there that was. Being a Bank Holiday weekend there was, of course, scheduled maintenance work causing severe disruption on the lines. I met Pam on the train in Paddington. Due to my confusion we had a little wait in the Slough sunshine where we at least got reacquainted with Station Jim. Then an even longer one in Twyford. There we retreated to The Golden Cross for a weak (3.6%) pint of Upham's Tipster. There was a copy of Tractor & Machinery magazine laying dormant on the bar letting us know we weren't in London anymore. Soon we weren't in the pub anymore either. But its garden. I was very happy to have been proved wrong and it wouldn't be the last, or best, beer garden of the day.

Finally meeting up with Teresa, Adam, and Shep we headed straight down to the Thames. Henley looked glorious in the sunshine and it would have been tempting to get a picnic and sit in the riverside park all day soaking up the spring rays.

But the TADS are made of sterner stuff so we set off along the side of the river. Crossing over to the East bank we wandered out of Henley past rowing clubs, Egyptian geese, and below red kites. The book we've been using for our walks was printed over five years ago and mentioned we may be lucky enough to see a red kite or two on our walk. We saw tens, if not hundreds, of the beauties. Showing off their spectacular wing spans as they graciously swooped ever lower.

There were some beautiful houses our side of the river and across we could see over to Fawley designed by Christopher Wren in 1684 with gardens by Capability Brown. Half a kilometre further up was Temple Island, Fawley Court's fishing lodge, a James Wyatt design. It led to a heated discussion of what constitutes a folly.

Things were cooled down with a 99 from a Mr Whippy ice cream van. The first alfresco gelato of the season and as sure a mark of the onset of spring as a bluebell blossom. Looking back across the river again to the village of Greenlands we could see a white Neoclassical mansion built by the newsagent W H Smith. It disappointed me that ol' Smudger hadn't used his shop's corporate colour scheme for his own accommodation but it also occurred to me that I'd never really thought of W H Smith as an actual person before.

We soon reached Hambleden Lock. There's a waterfall, a weir, and a pedestrian only bridge. So many of my favourite things. Almost too much going on.

We pondered briefly before crossing back over Old Father Thames and setting off through the tiny settlement of Mill End, through the fields, and into the village of Hambleden. Wow! What an impossibly quaint place. Village green, churchyard, brick cottages, cobbled streets. It's almost like a Disney recreation of Ye Olde England. You half expect to see an old maid cycling to communion. The only thing that ruined it were the anachronistic modern cars parked up. Though honourable exception is made for the Riley photogenically positioned outside the post office.

In The Stag & Huntsman pub we met Darren, Cheryl, and Tommy. Tommy's beaming smile lighting up the pub garden nearly as much as the now quite impressively hot sunshine. Pam was on the factor 50. The rest of us stuck mostly to Doom Bars. It was such a gorgeous spot and the company was so good that a 'two pint mistake' became inevitable. The old saying "life's too short" seeming more pertinent than ever.

After the pub we had a nose around the churchyard of the Norman Church of St Mary the Virgin. I was trying to find W H Smith's grave. I couldn't see any with a special offer on Mini Eggs and some overpriced Volvic so we asked a church official and he said the newsagent was buried in another nearby churchyard. There was a stained glass window and plaque commemorating him though.

There were also other impressive plots and an alabaster and marble memorial to Cope and Martha D'Oyley (died in 1633 and 1618 respectively) and their five sons and daughters. Two of the sons wear Royalist garb; the rest Puritan outfits. The children who predeceased their father hold skulls. Death, once again, loomed over the walk.

Leaving Hambleden we had our first real climb of the day as we picked up the Chiltern Way. There was such a variety of terrains in this walk it was never in danger of getting boring. We passed a manor house where Charles I stayed in 1646 during his flight from Oxford to St Albans just prior to his imprisonment.

We passed through the hamlet of Rotten Row. We saw a skylark flapping its wings as if it had forgotten it could fly and wondered what it was doing up in the sky. The red kites hovered again. In the pond there was a duckhouse and we noted, how after the expenses scandal, these can never be viewed the same way again.

We'd seen a few deer earlier on in the walk but around Davenport Wood we caught sight of about 30-40 of them running up and down the field, gamboling and frolicking. I guess it's what counts as foreplay in the deer community. It was certainly a spectacle to behold.

Descending into Marlow our walk was coming to its end but there was one last treat in store. A white villa with pointy Gothick windows where Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein between 1817 and 1818. She'd lived there with her husband Percy. It's highly satisfying that such a remarkable tale could be forged in such suburban ordinariness.

Marlow is a pleasant commuter town that I'd visited before but we didn't get to see much of it this time. First Clayton's, a pub with Kool and The Gang posters and Babycham adverts on the wall, where we enjoyed both the table service and the Brakspear's Oxford Gold. After that the Tiger Garden Indian restaurant where Shep made his usual complaint about them not serving Bangla and the rest of us tucked into a well earned, tasty, if not exceptional, curry.

A quick walk back to the station where I woke up the driver of the bus replacement service who, in turn, let me travel home for free. Coach to Maidenhead. Train to Paddington. On the train Pam & I both dozed off. Legs full of walking, stomachs full of curry and ale. Able to reflect on another successful TADS trek that didn't, despite all the hints given above, end with us having our eyes pecked out by red kites. Look forward to planning the next one. A two dayer has even been mentioned.

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