10.3 miles (16.5 kilometres) circular walk from Henley-on-Thames, December, mild with cloud and sun. With lovely son and silly dog.
Henley-on-Thames is a beautiful old town, and unsurprisingly it’s on the River Thames, in Oxfordshire in a very wealthy part of the world. In July it is the home of the Henley Royal Regatta, essentially a boat race for toffs with mostly restricted viewing from clubs I am extremely unlikely to be allowed in, ever. But in winter it is peaceful down by the river. It is Yule and the river is frequented by a mostly egalitarian mix of ducks, except for the snooty tufted ducks. YES we remembered the duck food. FINALLY.
I do most of my walking by train from the big city and unfortunately this winter has been chaotic with rail engineering and strikes. Because I use the trains so much let me say the unions have my full support: when you love something you only want the best for it and you want it to stay safe. So this walk wasn’t even a plan B, more like an F or G. But damn we were delighted by it for all that.
The first part of our walk follows the Thames path to Hambleden lock and weir, past Temple Island, one of around 180 eyots (prounounced eights) on the Thames, small riverine islands. Needless to say as it’s owned by the Regatta one cannot visit or even moor there. As it is Yule I’m delighted to see mistletoe growing in abundance in the trees by the water’s edge.
As you navigate your way through the festive season you have Yule to thank for your chocolate log cake, hanging mistletoe, christmas ham, as well as bringing all manner of evergreen foliage indoors. It even brings you a certain chariot tearing through the sky with deer, Odin’s wild hunt, and even the very word jolly. Let’s embrace Yule as a light in the dark. Today’s walk is on the winter solstice, a day to appreciate the light returning and the dark nights getting shorter, not forgetting that Yule isn’t over till the end of January the first.
The river today is wide, tranquil and slow moving, no one is in a hurry, that is until Hambleden lock and weir where the chaos of the water takes us by surprise. It’s an exciting path to tread as you walk on metalled bridges right across the weir in full turbulence. It’s as elemental as old father Thames gets and you are inches from it, suspended above as the power of the water churns and turns.
Just beyond the weir as the bankside water calms is Mill End with its beautiful georgian mill, although there has been one on this site since the Domesday book of 1086.
We leave the river here and head across the fields to the ridiculously pretty and festive village of Hambleden, where there is a fabulous village shop and post office. On the wooden bench outside is the biggest branch of mistletoe I’ve seen this year, there is no question we’re going to stop here, it has everything we could possibly want. They also make an excellent cheese and tomato toastie and a huge slice of victoria sponge cake, so big and cakey that not even lovely son can finish it so we wrap them in bags and take them onwards.
We leave the village for the woods which are uphill. I’m carrying cake and a toastie now don’t forget, so I remind my son about the pain of childbirth I enjoyed bring him into the world but sadly he is unmoved and will not carry me up the hill on his back. I thought that was the point of having children? As he marches ahead unsullied by age (he really loves walking in woods) I take some time to admire the considerable mossy stumpage here in this oak and beech wood. We follow a bridalway into the next wood, the Great Wood which is not as dense as I had imagined, giving sight of the winter ice blue sky.
At Fawley village there is an abandoned pub. It has been gone for over 20 years, I imagine that is on account of some belligerent ghosts who live in it having a series of whacky adventures involving terrified planning consultants from the council, but the truth is it seems there’s been a 20 year campaign to get it rebuilt that doesn’t look like it will be resolved any time soon.
But even more terrifying than the ghosts that don’t exist is at the next farmhouse: cows that don’t exist. Having never seen plastic cows in my entire life this is my second encounter with fake cows in as many months. What the hell is going on in this part of the world? I begin to wonder if my life has been a lie. Maybe a fair percentage of all cows are plastic (or fibreglass, I cannot tell) and we just haven’t noticed. It is, however, creepy as hell to be stared at by plastic cows, let me tell you.
We pass a highly elaborate wrought iron gateway by a field of reindeer, ok regular fallow deer which are possibly heading to be venison, and sneak down the most thickety snicket of the day. At the next field we hear the steady slow ticking of an electric fence. I don’t know about you but I always want to test out a ticking fence.
As we step through the kissing gate into the expansive deer park above Henley, the sun is sinking lower and the light is fading once more. It has been a very fine walk, a fine way to spend Yule and, most fine of all, we still have a decent wedge of victoria sponge cake to eat on the train home.
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This walk is the first in the Time Out Book of Country Walks volume 1 which is an old book and now out of print. Some of the instructions are dated but it is still easy to follow. The Saturday Walkers Club has reproduced the walk online here if you have difficulty tracking it down. You can also download the GPX map here. The walk was muddy in places as you would expect after thaw and rain, but not enough to deter you from an excellent walk.
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