With all due respect to the waterways of the Norfolk Broads, the Thames is unquestionably Britain’s premier ’cruising playground’, where pleasure boating first became popular in the 18th century.
The river flows seductively across southern England, through a rich and varied landscape, its banks lined with the homes of the rich and famous. Teddington marks the lower limit of the non-tidal navigation. Travelling upstream you encounter all manner of craft, from large trip-boats (including those of Salter Bros – Thames operators for over 100 years) down to punts and dinghies. The scenery is never less than gorgeous, and the roll call of riverside towns makes impressive reading: Kingston, Hampton (with its palace, park and maze), Sunbury, Windsor and Maidenhead are just some of the ports of call on the lower reaches. A feature of the river is its admirably maintained locks with their colourful and well-tended gardens – and what’s more, the locks are normally worked for you, making for an especially relaxing holiday.
Selecting the most beautiful section of this delectable river is virtually impossible. But, perhaps the length between Cliveden and Reading may just shade it. Here the waterside houses are at their grandest, the lovely towns of Marlow and Henley need little introduction and Sonning’s ancient bridge and village are exquisitely charming.
But the Thames continues to enthral, through Pangbourne, Goring, Dorchester and Abingdon. Goring is especially enchanting – a riverside village of quiet beauty. It was the final home of Sir Arthur ’Bomber’ Harris – chief of RAF Bomber command in World War II – until his death in April 1984.
And then there’s Oxford. The world-famous university city doesn’t necessarily turn its best face to the Thames (you’ll have to hire a punt and explore the Cherwell for that), but the reach just above Osney Lock is a good place to moor for a few hours and explore all the sights at your leisure.
Above Oxford the character of the river changes, becoming quieter, narrower and altogether more intimate. Some 32 lonely miles (and there are those who find this section the best of all) take you to Lechlade and the end of a river journey with no equal anywhere in the British Isles.