The best things to do in and around the waterways of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire
PUBLISHED: 12:51 23 May 2014 | UPDATED: 12:54 23 May 2014
Try something different this summer on the waterways of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire
BERKSHIRE - Whether by boat, strolling the banks or quayside dining, it’s time to fall in love again with our waterways and wildlife, says Claire Pitcher
On the water
With the summer coming, the best (and most enjoyable) way of exploring the river is by rowing boat, or if you are looking for an adventure you could hire a boat for the week or a few days. Hobbs of Henley provides rowing boats and a variety of other self-drive options available for hire by the hour or by the day including diesel, outboard and electric launches. Take a picnic and enjoy a lazy summer’s day boating. However, if you want to take the easy way out, opt for a river cruise. With French Brothers you can enjoy a 40-minute trip from Windsor travelling upstream to Boveney Lock. You could also take to the water on a canal boat with Calmer Cruising (Marlow), Kris Cruisers (Datchet) or Myrivercruising (Caversham).
By the water
Wine and dine
There’s no better setting for a special meal than next to the river and, needless to say, the floods were not great for business for many hotels, pubs and restaurants dotted along the Thames. The tide is changing this spring and we’ll all be able to enjoy a bite outside, whether it’s on the riverbank or in a restaurant.
Just a few months ago the river was teetering at the top of the wall on the terrace at The Swan at Streatley. However, The popular hotel is welcoming visitors as the weather warms up, as are many other river-based eateries including the Beetle and Wedge near Wallingford, The Compleat Angler in Marlow, Sir Christopher Wren restaurant in Windsor, Riverhouse restaurant and bar in Windsor and Boulters in Maidenhead, to name a few.
We’ve gone for luxury here. Why not push the boat out with an early evening champagne river cruise in a splendid vintage launch from Cliveden, £49 per person? The ultimate treat is to hire one of the launches for your own private picnic lunch or jaunt down the river with afternoon tea served. This might be combined with a stay for up to six people at Cliveden’s Spring Cottage, from £1,854 to £2,064 per night. See www.clivedenhouse.co.uk.
Or head to the Compleat Angler for a two night champagne river break with private one hour boat trip. From £389 per room, this seems excellent value. See www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk.
A lazy day on the river fishing is one of the most relaxing ways to spend an afternoon and there are many places on the Thames and the River Kennett where you can fish without having to pay for a daily ticket or permit. However, you must have a valid rod licence (see www.environment-agency.gov.uk). Just some of the places you can cast off include:
Newbury: Northcroft Recreation Ground, River Kennet
Reading: Scours Lane; Waterloo Meadows (River Kennet); Hills Meadow Caversham Lock; Christchurch Meadow; Thames Side Promenade and Sonning Lock.
For a full list visit the website www.environment-agency.gov.uk
Scenery & wildlife
The wild and wonderful
We’re all used to seeing the wonderful birds, mammals and fish that occupy the river and banks beyond. Indeed, it’s been a common sight of late to see swans some distances away from the rivers and lakes and spending time on newly-created ponds practically in the middle of nowhere across the Berkshire countryside.
The sighting of a rare bird caused bird watchers to flock to flooded fields in Compton too. The Iceland Gull (Larus glaucoides) a medium sized gull, smaller than the average Herring Gull, with a pale plumage, white wing tips, a rounded head and a smallish beak is on the RSPB’s amber list because of its rare breeding status in Britain. A Compton resident, Stephen Collier, snapped one of the feathered migrants in flooded fields between East Ilsley and Compton.
As the flood waters recede and the riverside paths become safer to traverse there’s plenty of wildlife to spot, including Canada Geese, great crested grebe, moorhens, kingfishers, water voles and otters.
Join the Chilterns Conservation Board and Hobbs of Henley for a ‘wildlife watching cruise’. The cruise travels between Henley and Hambleden and is ideal for families. The dates for the next few months are all on Tuesdays: 27 May, 22 July, 5 August, 12 August, 19 August and 26 August. The cruise costs £8.75 for adults and £5.25 for children. Call 01491 572035 for more details.
On the right path
The Thames Path follows the river for 184 miles from its source, making it the longest riverside walk in Europe. That many miles may prove a little too much for even the most experienced rambler, but there are plenty of short walks along the river to enjoy. At the time of going to print, the Environment Agency tells us that now that the weather and conditions along the Thames Path have improved the path is generally walkable. However you should be aware that there may be areas of churned up mud and a fair amount of debris around. On the Visit Thames website (www.visitthames.co.uk) you can download walks of varying lengths depending on your abilities.
Try the five-mile walk from Goring to Pangbourne which takes you through the dramatic Goring Gap. With the hills dominating the Berkshire Downs to the west and the wooded Chilterns to the east, The Goring Gap is the narrowest part of the Thames Valley, with the river and a railway nestled between the hills either side. Downstream of Goring the walk takes you under Brunel’s red brick railway bridge and over only one of the two remaining toll bridges on the river, in Whitchurch.
This is one of our favourite spots. It’s incredibly picturesque and with Pangbourne on the Berkshire bank you have a pretty little town to enjoy with plenty of independent shops, pubs and eateries.
It may be a couple of months away, but already hundreds of keen open water swimmers are limbering up to take part in the swim downstream along the Regatta course as part of the increasingly popular Henley Mile on Sunday, July 13. Taking place over the beautiful and historic Henley Royal Regatta boomed course at the Temple Island Meadows, the non-competitive Sporting category offers families the perfect opportunity to enjoy a truly memorable river swim together as a group.
For the more competitive swimmers, the Henley Mile also hosts H2Open Suits vs Skins Challenge in a bid to once and for all determine the performance impact of wearing a wetsuit. The often ignored category of open water sprinting is catered for by the Temple Island Sprints knock out tournament, run over 100m.
For those swimming who feel that a mile is a little too much of a challenge, and would like to start with something a little shorter, there is also an option to sign up for the Henley Half Mile. For the youngsters there is also The Henley Quarter, as well as the 200m Henley Splash. Junior categories cater for children between the ages of eight to 14 years old. Find out more online at www.henleyswim.com/mile-swim.
The most traditional of summer pastimes, summed up perfectly in the Wind in the Willows as ‘messing about in boats’, now is the time to hire a canoe or Katakanu at the Wokingham Waterside Centre and take a trip from Reading to Wargrave via the beautiful Hennerton back water. The stable and easy to use Katakanus make this an ideal family day out and no previous experience is required. Children need be accompanied by an adult and an experienced, qualified coach joins you on the trip. See www.wokinghamwatersidecentre.com or call 0118 926 8280.
BUCKINGHAMSHIRE - The coast may not lap up to Buckinghamshire’s borders, but there is still an abundance of entertainment by the water to be relished. Here, Sandra Smith selects her five perfect waterside venues
The family experience- Willen Lake
Willen Lake, just minutes from the bustle of central Milton Keynes, is an oasis of family entertainment boasting an unrivalled selection of watersports designed for all levels of enthusiasts from the age of eight upwards.
The selection of activities here is remarkable. For those wishing to avoid anything too strenuous, for instance, what better way to enjoy the water than on a
pedalo? Or you could push the boat out by hiring a canoe or kayak. In fact, with an RYA Level 1 Dinghy Sailing or Start Windsurfing Award, there is even the chance to hire a dinghy or windsurfer on the lake.
There’s no need for novices to feel left out, however, for introductory sessions covering sailing, canoeing, kayaking and windsurfing can be organised while the more experienced can book weekend Royal Yachting Association and British Canoe Union approved courses. As well as personal tuition (from £35 per hour) this popular spot, with its abundance of birdlife and landscaped grounds, is home to WakeMK, where both waterskiing and wakeboarding sessions are available.
Wonderful wildlife - College Lake
Visiting College Lake is not only an opportunity to observe wildlife but a feast for all the senses. Set amid 65 hectares of lakes, meadow and woodland, this popular nature reserve resonates with scented flowers in a sympathetically managed setting. Whether you are making your way along one of the trails or sitting to absorb the vista, the trill of birds is never far away while vibrant insects dart in and out of meadow flowers and lakeside flora.
In a Visitor Centre that is as colourful as it is accessible, background information advises and informs, while outside there is an abundance of things to do including hides which offer vantage points to view birdlife. Here live 30% of the county’s breeding Lapwing and Redshank population and College Lake is also home to the only breeding Shelduck in Buckinghamshire. Trails provide locations to spot wildlife and there are picnic areas, too. But if a pub lunch holds more appeal, then just down the road is the canal side Grand Junction Arms serving classic pub food either within their welcoming indoor ambience or in the sloping garden with its neighbouring wild flower and fruit tree orchard.
College Lake, Upper Icknield Way, Bulbourne, HP23 5QG, tel: 01442 826774, www.bbowt.org.uk.
Grand Junction Arms, Bulbourne, HP23 5QE, tel: 01442 891400, www.grandjunctionarms.co.uk.
Relax and enjoy - Grebe Canal Cruises
If a less energetic pastime is more appealing, then head for Pitstone Wharf where a leisurely cruise along the Grand Union Canal radiates relaxation and the
opportunity to view a slice of English countryside from the water.
The emphasis here is on informal and friendly. Whether you are on board Princess or Countess – each well appointed and with excellent sightlines – the crew entertains with a commentary and passengers are allowed to either assist at locks or, near Marsworth reservoirs, walk along the towpath for a while to witness the
nature reserve close up.
Food is an enticing aspect of many trips and Grebe Canal Cruise have a choice of Fine Dining, Roast Lunch or Fish & Chip cruises. They source delicious fare locally with Chesham’s traditional family bakery, Darvell and Sons, providing scrumptious scones and cakes for passengers choosing a cream tea trip.
Anyone with a slightly more adventurous approach, or who prefers their independence, may opt for Lady Jane or Little Grebe, smaller day boats which are available for hire. No experience is necessary and staff will guide you through canal etiquette before setting off.
Regardless of your choice, the peacefulness of the water on a stretch of the UK’s longest canal is there to be savoured.
Grebe Canal Cruises, Pitstone Wharf, Cheddington Road, Pitstone LU7 9AD, tel: 01296 661920, www.grebecanalcruises.co.uk.
Stylish Marlow - Down by the Thames
There are two ways to appreciate The Thames in Marlow. First, try ambling through the adjacent 23 acre Higginson Park. One of our most inspiring Olympians and former Marlow schoolboy, Sir Stephen Redgrave, is celebrated here, his giant of a statue in a commanding position overlooking the water. And don’t miss the
Millennium Maze, a myriad of bricks and mosaics set into the ground in recognition of the town’s 1,000 years connection with the river which gushes in the background where the water tips over Marlow weir.
From the park exit turning right leads you straight to the Marlow Suspension Bridge. The stroll is worth a pause to take in the scenery which includes the delightfully located Compleat Angler where a second opportunity to embrace the river awaits; this time via a couple of classic craft. Book a seat on either the Edwardian style Silent Waters or the larger, Sovereign Waters, and you will be guaranteed an unrivalled trip along the river taking in historic views and stunning backdrop. There are picnic hampers or cream teas on board (order in advance) or return to this classic hotel for some of the best food and most stylish surroundings anywhere in Buckinghamshire.
Higginson Park, Marlow SL7 2AE, tel: 01865 243421.
Compleat Angler, Marlow, SL7 1RG, tel: 0844 879 9128, www.MacdonaldHotels.co.uk/CompleatAngler.
Wonderful Wendover - Our Canal Arm
The Wendover Canal Arm clings to the base of the Chilterns, its six miles embracing woods, a Rothschild mansion and open fields. Not surprisingly, this stretch is a refuge for a variety of wildlife and, while visitors inevitably encounter an abundance of native flowers, the ever present bird population includes moorhen, little grebe and swans amongst the canal’s reed beds. The towpath on the three mile stretch between Wendover and Aston Clinton is particularly well maintained, making it deal for walkers and cyclists. Some of this route takes you through picturesque residential areas where private gardens gain from enviable positions next to the calm water.
To make the most of this trip, incorporate the charming village of Wendover with its array of beautifully presented independent shops. Should you decide on a picnic, there’s no better location than Hampden Meadow, just off the High Street. Here the trickle of Heron Stream, which feeds into the canal, skirts tranquil acres of grassland. But if you prefer to sample local cuisine, Wendover is the place to find some of the county’s best cafés including the award winning Rumseys. This chocolaterie serves mouth watering food throughout the day as well as an enticing array of chocolates made on the premises.
Rumseys, The Old Bank, 26 High Street, Wendover HP22 6EA, tel: 01296 625060, www.rumseys.co.uk.