12 miles (19 kilometres) along the Thames Path National Trail. February, overcast. With son and dog.
February is drab. The skies are grey, but it’s not cold enough for frost. Rain is threatening but not the kind that leaves the earthy rich smell of petrichor. It’s a month of strikes and school is closed at the last minute. Some of the train unions are out too but not all. It’s hard to know where we can go, or if we can get back. Could it be any more souless and lifeless? If in doubt follow the river. All I know is that it’s February, the month that I dread each year, and I need to go in search of life.
Reading isn’t likely to be top of any walking lists but it has the advantage of being easy to get to and to walk away from. The station is near the river and, grabbing croissants from the coffee stall, we make our way straight there.
This is a good spot for swan watching. They outnumber the ducks, even the gulls. We feed them for a while and they begin to follow us down the river. It’s the start of a Daphne Du Maurier horror story. I’ve never believed they can break your arm, but this many could eat you alive for sure with their toothy beaks. There’s a red kite circling overhead. He’s probably their puppet master.
As we leave the city behind us we leave the concrete embankments and graffitied bridges and before long we are under trees with the river slowing to the soft earth banks. We have found some life, the dusty dark purple catkins and grey slate of alder buds. Tightly held still but the signs of growth are there.
As I look at the satellite map it looks completely different and I realise we’re looking down at thousands of tents and the scorched earth of Reading festival. All is quiet, we can still hear the geese honking at us to come back. Do they stay in summer for the rock music?
At Tilehurst we pass several more permanent tents by the railway line, homeless people pitched up? Travellers maybe. People who came for the festival and never found their way out again? Beer cans scattered around. On the bin there’s a code to tweet Reading Council when the bin is full. Lovely son tweets them; we work for the council now. We’ve given them a grid reference but they tweet back asking the location of the bin. We’re overqualified for this job. They should probably look at their fingerposts while they’re at it. It’s both drunk and hysterical.
The fancy houseboats turn to run down barges and decaying cruisers. At Tilehurst someone owns the river and there’s a tedious haul up the embankment as we’re shunted through a housing estate. Oh February, why do you do this? At least we have the kites for company.
Eventually we are permitted to rejoin the river at Mapledurham. Lovely son has been here before. He says he remembers it but he was wasn’t even one and we pushed him. A lifetime ago and the sun was shining.
Mapledurham lock is empty, no sign of boatlife and no café so we walk on. Despite the gathering grey, it’s a tranquil stretch of the river which looks like it could be a thousand years ago. I look into the soft sand of the banks for Iron Age torques and Roman coins, but they are all embedded deep in my imagination.
We talk a little about a book I just read called Wilding by Isabella Tree, and the management of her bit of river running through Knepp, the importance of flood plains and not building on them, slowing the river down. The reintroduction of the beaver and the work my dear friend Peter has done over the years. I’ve seen a beaver in the wild once. But only once.
At Pangbourne we head inland and find a café. It’s freezing but we sit outside anyway because of Mr Dog. Neither of us is tired and I’m looking forward to the next part because it takes me back to Hartslock Wood and on to Goring & Streatley. He likes the toll booth (I knew he would) and the metal bridge to Whitchurch.
As we walk around Coombe Park (private, keep out, no trespassers, guard dogs, cctv.) I tell him about another book I’ve just read, The Book of Trespass by Nick Hayes. He gets it. Young people generally do, having an innate dislike of inequality and unfairness. It’s only as we age that most want exclusiveness and wealth. I put my trust in the young people. Always. And with no prompting he loves Hartslock Wood as much as I do. He spots a bird of prey in the trees, I was distracted. We find more of the tiniest hazel flowers, pink sea anemones. He spots more lichens that I’ve become obsessed with this week.
I still cannot photograph them. Sigh. Or identify them, but I’m working on it. Winter is the best time, before the leaves return. At the end of the wood I saw my first bud burst, three little lime green leaves. It’s much too early, someone’s clock is wrong.
We pass by Hartslock and follow the river back to Goring. It’s a peaceful stretch, usually. Today there’s a rowing lesson with loudhailers and yelling. It’s nice to see the river in use. The light is starting to fade, it’s after 4pm but we find the time to watch the herons, there’s always time for that.
It’s two days later as I write now. February is still doing its worst. The day after our walk I get a headache and then tumble downhill: I am sick with Covid. That’s the end of walking for at least a week. Oh February you absolute monster. Why can’t we just learn to get along?
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This walk followed the Thames Path National Trail, which is clearly signposted the whole way. We detoured into Pangbourne for a late lunch. Our GPX for Ordnance Survey can be found here.
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