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Novels featuring the Berkshire section of the River Thames

PUBLISHED: 16:10 07 August 2015 | UPDATED: 16:10 07 August 2015

Sonning, ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’ according to Jereome K Jerome. Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/skivory

Sonning, ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’ according to Jereome K Jerome. Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/skivory

Archant

Our section of England’s longest river has featured in many novels, so let’s turn some pages with a look at these literary records

Cattle finding a cool spot at Shiplake. Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/greenexplorerCattle finding a cool spot at Shiplake. Photo: www.flickr.com/photos/greenexplorer

WINDSOR & ETON

One of the most unusual offerings comes in News from Nowhere, a late Victorian novel by artist and designer William Morris. It combines early sci-fi with utopian socialism, all viewed by a narrator, William Guest, who wakes up in a society where big cities and class systems have vanished and apparently happy people follow an agrarian lifestyle, raising crops.

It’s set some 100 years after a supposed revolutionary upheaval in 1952. We missed it!

Guest travels down the Thames with companions, and while passing Eton discovers the former school is now considered to be a place where ‘instead of teaching poor men’s sons to know something, they taught rich men’s sons to know nothing.’

In this new world the college is inhabited by local people engaged in learning and ‘folk from round about come and get taught things that they want to learn; and there is a great library there of the best books.’

Sculling in Clewer Reach, the narrator learns the fate of Windsor Castle: ‘It looks fine from here, doesn’t it? But a great deal of it has been built or skinned in the time of the Degradation, and we wouldn’t pull the buildings down, since they were there; just as with the buildings of the Dung Market (once Westminster Palace). You know, of course, that it was the palace of your old mediaeval kings, and was used later on for the same purpose by the parliamentary commercial sham-kings, as my old kinsman calls them.’

The Castle, like Eton, is now in ‘multi occupation’: “A great many people live there,” said he, “as, with all drawbacks, it is a pleasant place; there is also a well-arranged store of antiquities of various kinds that have seemed worth keeping - a museum, it would have been called in the times you understand so well.”

The Thames at Windsor, an iconic scene photographed by Maureen McLeanThe Thames at Windsor, an iconic scene photographed by Maureen McLean

THE THAMES PATH

After that stroll through Victorian imagination and travels we can come right up to the present day with The Rambling Man, Andrew Bowden, who has a blog taking us along his walk through 16 stages of the 184 miles of the Thames Path National Trail from The Thames Barrier to Oxford. It’s an ideal guide for planning your own walk, if only a section of his efforts, see ramblingman.org.uk/walks/thames-path.

Andrew records the quirky signs, wildlife and people he meets along the way as well as providing a meticulous guide to the turns of the Thames Path’s route.

For instance, at Mapledurham Lock he records: ‘As I said “hello” for the fifteenth time, I mused on what a weird custom we walkers have. Out in my part of London, it takes months before you may even see your neighbour in the flesh yet alone get to a stage of saying “hello there” to them… Yet here I was saying “hello there” and “morning!” to every Tom, Dick and Sally who passed me in the opposite direction. All people I’d never seen before, and probably never would again. Like I say, it’s a strange thing.

‘It’s also a custom that seems to be peculiarly British. I’ve been hiking in Canada, Norway, France, Switzerland and Iceland, and pretty much the only people to ever stop and say hello to a fellow walker are Brits who do it out of habit, and then instantly freeze as they contemplate that they’ve probably just made some major faux pas.

‘And just as I was musing on all this, a man walked past with his dog in tow, who remained completely mute as he walked the path. “How rude!” I muttered to myself, shaking my head as I continued on my way.’

Away from the river, you can also buy his Rambling Man Walks The Ridgeway, £1.99 on Kindle and iTunes.

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WARGRAVE, SHIPLAKE & SONNING

In Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, the 1889 account of a boating holiday from Kingston to Oxford, the travellers enjoy a pleasant stay in this area, and we learn ‘Wargrave, nestling where the river bends, makes a sweet old picture as you pass it, and one that lingers long upon the retina of memory.’

Shiplake is described as ‘a pretty village, but it cannot be seen from the river, being upon the hill. Tennyson was married in Shiplake Church.’

And then it’s on to Sonning: ‘The river up to Sonning winds in and out through many islands, and is very placid, hushed, and lonely. Few folk, except at twilight, a pair or two of rustic lovers, walk along its banks. Arry and Lord Fitznoodle have been left behind at Henley, and dismal, dirty Reading is not yet reached. It is a part of the river in which to dream of bygone days, and vanished forms and faces, and things that might have been, but are not, confound them.’

Sonning is described as ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river. It is more like a stage village than one built of bricks and mortar. Every house is smothered in roses, and now, in early June, they were bursting forth in clouds of dainty splendour.’

Visitors are advised to pull up at The Bull where they might view ‘the old men group of an evening to drink their ale and gossip over village politics; with low, quaint rooms and latticed windows, and awkward stairs and winding passages.’

Jerome’s travellers enjoy an hour roaming Sonning before heading back to one of the Shiplake islands, where they make ‘an Irish stew’ of cold beef and vegetables, adding the remains of half a pork pie, some potted salmon and cracked eggs. Jerome declares it to be ‘a great success, that Irish stew. I don’t think I ever enjoyed a meal more.’

Many fans of the book still recreate the journey of Three Men in a Boat and, surprisingly, all the pubs mentioned along the way remain open today.

***

READ ON

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