Thames Region Virtual Cruise Day 4 Cookham to Sonning

After the clamour of history that surrounded yesterday’s voyage, today we are cruising through a tranquil, restful but very pretty stretch of the river - the Cookham Reach, the Bourne End reach, the Marlow reach and through Henley on Thames, as famous an English river town world-wide as one could wish, to our overnight mooring in Sonning. Today's cruise will be savoured for the river itself, its slow flow and continuously changing aspects; water meadows, hills, vernacular architecture at its best (and worst - don’t look too closely at some of the holiday shacks, although they are obviously loved by their owners)

The cruise starts in a leisurely fashion, as we slip quietly from the Cookham moorings in the early morning mist.

As the sun melts the mist away, Bourne End slips languidly into view, with its sailing clubs and, of a summer weekend, its dinghy racing, when a sharp watch and quick reactions are called for from a motor-cruising skipper. It is best to proceed at a very slow pace until well away from the racing course. Today, however, all is quiet and after Bourne End rail bridge, high enough to pass under with radar arch aloft, the rail-track follows the river to Marlow. This is the track of the ‘Bourne End Donkey’, named after its steam-engined predecessor, the line being saved by public subscription, and now an important commuter run into Maidenhead for London.  The main attraction for boaters along this stretch is Bourne-End Marina, as pretty a permanent mooring as one could find, which passes to starboard.

Marlow (originally Mere shore from all the lakes and gravel pits) comes next, and is always worth a visit. Its been an affluent town since the middle ages when the Knights Templar built the first bride in the 13th century. The present bridge, designed by William Tierny-Clark, and opened in 1832, nearly fell into disrepair, but was refurbished in 1965 to provide pedestrian and light local traffic with a convenient crossing point, heavier stuff taking the by-pass bridge. It’s rumoured to be the model for Clark’s chain bridge connecting Buda and Pest, across the Danube, in Hungary. Be that as it may, two things are for sure. With a headroom of just 12’ 8” (3.86m), most Brooms will have to pass with everything down as Another Knot found as she left the lock.


Secondly, the bridge itself is the only suspension bridge across the freshwater Thames, the one at Teddington only crossing the part-tidal part of the river.  Lord Desborough had commissioned the building of the bridge, and before its refurbishment each girder ended with a medallion of a swan and the motto Sigil de Desboro. Apparently, the passing of lorries over the bridge set the girders swaying, giving the impression of the swans majestically riding the waves. The question ‘Who ate the puppy pie under Marlow Bridge?’ is an old bargee accusation apparently repeated in different versions all over Europe where barges work. In the Marlow case, it seems a publican in Medmenham, suspecting his larder was being raided by bargees, and having just drowned an unwanted litter of puppies, as was the custom in those days, bade his wife bake them in a pie. The next day he came across a bunch of bargees eating pie below Marlow Bridge! A version on the Weser has an old tom cat as the centre of the story.

All Saints Church, with its 170 foot steeple, soon comes into view. Together with the Bridge, they  provide one of those quintessentially Thames views, captured here by John and Gill Oldham, on one of their many voyages up the river.

Although there’s been a church on the site since about 1070, this one was built in 1831, after the old spire collapsed, and it now provides a magical backdrop to the river views.

The town has a prestigious rowing club founded in 1871, and one of its members is the Marlow-born Steve Redgrave, the most decorated male rower in Olympic history. A statue in his honour is in the riverside Higginson Park. Another famous rower came from here too. Jerome K Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat, was a Marlow lad, and another claim to fame is the Hand and Flowers, the only pub to feature two Michelin stars.

Best not be tempted by all the scenery whilst working the lock though as the top gate sluices are below the waterline when empty, so keep well back and have your lines well-tended. The lock has also seen some strange looking craft pass through too, as Andrew and Celia Cotter spotted as they waited their turn.

Locking out, the suspension bridge is ahead, and again concentration is required as the weir to port gives a strong pull, just at the time when the radar arch needs lowering to prevent leaving an expensive souvenir on the underside of the bridge. To port also is The Compleat Angler, taking its name from Izaak Walton’s 1653 ode to fishing of the same name. Originally The Angler, nowadays a hotel, its full title is Macdonald Compleat Angler, and is graded 4 stars. It is possible to moor alongside should you be tempted, but you’ll need to eat in the restaurant too.

 We’ll keep going today though and admire, with fond memories, beautiful Bisham Abbey, soon coming up to port, and famous as the site of the BOC 2015 AGM.

Its other claim to fame is as a site of one of three National Sports Centres. Bisham Abbey itself is a Grade I listed manor house, built for the Knights Templars in 1260. On their suppression, in 1307, Edward II took possession, and in 1310 confined Robert the Bruce and the Scots Queen Elizabeth within its walls. In 1335 the Earl of Salisbury bought the house and built a priory here, with Edward laying the first stone, and it became the home of the Austin Canons, its most famous son being Adrian IV, the only English pope. It later became a Benedictine Abbey, although not for long, as it was demolished in 1538. In the meantime, Henry VIII came snooping around and took possession of it, giving it to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, which was not a bad consolation for being married to him for six months.

 It is said that Bisham Church is the only church on the river when you can moor alongside and throw a line around a tombstone to secure your boat.

In front now is Temple Lock, which in 1773 replaced the 16th century flash lock. This is almost immediately followed by Hurley lock, the distance from one to the other being the second shortest between locks on the Thames. Before Hurley is that mecca to Broom Boats known as Harleyford Marina, which comes up to starboard, dominated not only by its many bank-side moored Brooms, but also by the 18th century Grade I listed manor house which gives the marina its name.

Just upstream, before the lock, is the famous boat building firm of Peter Freebody & Co, who’ve been building boats on the Thames since at least the 13th century, at Caversham and here at Hurley. Now run by Richard Freebody, the firm was set up in its present role in the 1950s by Richard’s father, Peter, who sadly passed away in 2010. They carry on the task of building traditional wooden boats, and their moorings are filled with lovely craft which must take hours of varnishing and polishing to maintain their pristine condition. They are a tempting proposition, and a cursory look at their brokerage reveals a classic Freeman slipper launch from 2003, for £52,000. Enjoy.

Hurley lock is next, built in 1793, first in fir and then in oak, it wasn’t until the 1900s that the wooden lock walls were replaced by masonry. Now, its electrically operated and offers an easy lock up for Gay and Mike Herlihy’s True Life. 

It also provides a good rendezvous for a Broom meet, and was a destination for Andrew and Celia Cotter for a previous Broom outing they had organised.

Through the lock to starboard is Medmenham Abbey, home to Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club and to various practices that would have kept good company with the activities at Cliveden in the 1960s.  Two hundred years earlier, Dashwood tunnelled out underground passages beneath the abbey, decorated them with phallic symbols and tributes to Venus, Daphne and Priapus amongst others and, dressed as monks, his club members carried out various nefarious activities. Allegedly, Hogarth was a member, and he painted Dashwood dressed as a monk, with various symbols included, to leave the initiated in no doubt as to their meanings.


The abbey itself was founded by the Cistercians in the 12th century, and went through various transformations until Dashwood created its present form, where the old ruins have been incorporated into the house. Its a very good looking building, now a private residence not open to the public, and gives no indication of its previous risqué past.

Going on we pass through Hambledon Lock and into Henley country. Its also home waters for Mike and Gay who, no doubt, get many guests during regatta week.


The great weir at Hambledon is impressive and there are walkways across it to the small village of Mill End and Hambledon Mill itself.  Given the time we could always continue just a little further to the site of a Roman villa.There’s always history not far away on the Thames.

Someone has chosen to moor their boat in a peaceful spot to starboard, and one wonders how it managed to make its way so high up the river. Its large and graceful, with lovely lines, and the Thames licence fee must be astronomical.

The next stretch of the river, which is the longest straight stretch on the Thames, is known the world over as the home of Henley Regatta.  The start of the racing is Temple Island, with its 18th century folly providing a clue to its name. It originally belonged to Fawley Manor, a nearby stately home, but after protracted negotiations, and a substantial gift from one of their own, in 1987 the Regatta Stewards purchase a 999 year lease on the island, renovating it to its present glory.


Back in the 1980s it was still possible to turn up, as we did for a number of years, find a spot to moor below the course, and tie up to the racing lanes on Saturday evening to enjoy the fireworks. How things change, and Henley is now very corporate, although of course still a wonderful venue for the true racing fan.

Even so, if you can get there, its still great to go, and Mike and Gay, travelling from Temple Marina, are regular visitors.


First held in 1839, it received its royal title in 1851, Prince Albert becoming the first royal patron. During race week, Henley operates a knock-out draw with only two boats racing in each heat along the 1 mile 550 yard course (112m longer than the standard international distance of 2000m) which starts at Temple Island and goes upstream to Henley.

Just after the island, is Greenlands, a large white house which used to belong to William Henry Smith, who owned one or two newsagents and stationery stores. Its now part of Reading University, and houses their business school.

Apart from the racing, Race Week attracts its regular characters, and the Elvis Tribute boat is, according to Gay and Mike, a regular visitor


Perhaps it was this tribute boat that the lady who involved John Oldham in conversation was talking about, as Gill explains. Gill and John have happy memories of cruising this part of the Thames in the mid-eighties in their first boat, a 19’ Shetland Family Four. It had very cramped and basic facilities, including a Portaloo.


The only way that John, who is 6’3” tall, could give himself enough space to use this essential item was if he put his head out of the cabin hatch. Early one sunny morning, a lady walking her dog along the tow path, had an extended chat with John as his head protruded out of the window. Little did she know what was going on down below! 

Getting through Marsh lock, on a busy regatta weekend, can involve hours of queuing as the lock-keepers, working in relays and way beyond normal closing time, try to keep everyone happy. They normally do in their usual friendly manner, although when Marjorie Walker locked through with Don, they had a quieter time, and a very different boat for company.

Marjorie is standing by the remarkable wooden lock walk-way which carries the towpath out over the weir stream onto the lock-island, for nearly 300 yards. Its original purpose was to take the tow-path past a mill, which drove a brass foundry. Henley still had bread though, as the corn mill was on the opposite bank.

Once through Marsh Lock, the river returns to its normal peaceful, quiet self, and we have just one more lock to go before we reach the end of our cruise for today.  To port is Val Wyatt Marine, where we bought both Kohaku, our previous Broom 1070, and Sinemora, our lovely Broom 42cl. Val Wyatt’s is quickly followed by Bushnell Marine, and in both yards all boating facilities are available, including fuel and pump-outs and permanent moorings. A little further up is the St George and Dragon, which over recent years has had a make-over into quite a good gastro-type pub, although the last time I passed, the mooring were looking definitely dishevelled.  It won’t concern us however, because we’re going to lock up through Shiplake and then we’ll have reached our destination, Sonning.

Sonning (pronounced sunning, although not even the locals seem to know this) is as pretty a Thames village as one could wish. Its named after a Saxon chief, as are many villages ending in ‘ing’, short for inga, or clan, tribe or family.  There was most likely a ford here, that the people pf Sunna used, but since 1604 a brick bridge, where the centre arch is well shielded from wayward boats, has provided a crossing, or for us an under-ing and the centre one is obviously the arch to take. Don’t forget that boats coming down have priority.

There are plenty of moorings available on a good day, and this is one of them, and with the mill, The Bull pub, a restaurant and of course Sonning Mill Theatre, where Branco and Karen recommend the teas, there’s plenty to explore to keep a cruising boat happy for an overnight stop.  Could this be where the pot of gold is buried? Its out there somewhere.


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