In Thrall to the Thames

Costa Rica

The Thames Valley is the splendid, easy to reach, slab of country between Oxford and Outer London. As well as the main feature, Britain’s most historic and spectacular river, it is full of pretty bankside towns and villages, and major attractions such as Legoland, Windsor Castle and the shops of Reading. This is my list of things not to miss. Photo - stately 18th-century Palladian mansion Basildon Park, by Gareth Huw Davies

Pride Park

This stately 18th-century Palladian mansion Basildon Park, set in glorious grounds above the Thames, was rescued from deep decline in the 1950s by Lord and Lady Iliffe. They restored original delicate plasterwork and elegant staircases and filled it with fine pictures, furniture and textiles. Enter the location directors for the recent movie of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, starring Keira Knightley, Judy Dench and Donald Sutherland, and it became the dead ringer for Netherfield House. Tour the (now National Trust) mansion, the permanent exhibition on the making of the film and the parkland
in any order you like. Just be sure you return to the café in time for the scrumptious home-made rock cakes. Stay at the Elephant in Pangbourne, and they do you a gourmet picnic.
Adults: £6, child £3, family £15. 0118 984

Unforgettable Elephant

Here’s some news to trumpet. The Elephant is back in Pangbourne, the
agreeable little village on the Thames. This fine old Victorian hotel and pub regained its original name last winter when Hillbrooke Hotels, who specialise in doing up interesting old hostelries, reopened it after a complete makeover, with rooms way below West End prices (£140).
Designers went to India for handcrafted furniture, rich oriental rugs, and delicate fabrics and fitted it out to maharajah standard. There are wooden elephants everywhere. They gave the bedrooms individual styles, on the Indian theme. (If Kama Sutra is too much, try the Empire or Gatsby.) Fancy a game of croquet on the lawn, followed by a Singapore sling in the bar?

There’s an easy, informal tone to the restaurant, serving good ‘modern British’ food . The receptionist doubled as a head waitress; the barman was wine waiter.
The station is a short walk (13 mins to Reading, 57 mins to London).

River Rambles

The Thames Trail hugs our greatest river, from Gloucestershire source to the Thames Barrier. In three weeks you could walk it all, a gentle downhill saunter through great history and superb landscape. But it is from Goring Gap (Goring & Streatley station railway station), where the Chiltern Hills meet the Marlborough Downs, where the river becomes really accessible. There are umpteen easy riverside walks you could concoct, just by consulting the railway timetable Take the train to Pangbourne
(where Jerome K. Jerome’s three men in a Boat ended up), for example, and stroll to Reading. From Maidenhead, where Turner painted his Rain, Steam, and Speed on the river bridge, it’s not far to Cookham (for Cliveden House, and Marlow. Plenty of stations to get you home, or back to your car. Find long stretches pure rural peace right into London, with entertainment all the way, from passing boats, brilliant birdlife (kingfisher and
grebes) and frequent, welcoming pubs.

The wind of fame

Take a mole, a rat, a badger and a toad, throw in a daring jailbreak, an exciting railway chase, some furious driving in a canary-coloured antique car, and you have one of the most well loved and enduring children’s book’s of all.
Now Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published exactly 100 years ago, is back where it belongs, on the very riverside where the author, who lived nearby in Cookham Dean, found his inspiration. There is a permanent exhibition at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley. The museum secured exclusive rights to use E.H. Shepard’s original illustrations to make 3-D models depicting the adventures of the riverside foursome. We see those famous scenes - Ratty and Mole’s riverbank picnic, getting lost in the Wild Wood and eiecting the weasels from Toad Hall. Another gallery tells the story of the
Thames. Henley on Thames, 01491 415600.

Boat bonanza.

Nothing beats the multicoloured razzmatazz of boating on the River in that famous Victorian painting of Boulter's Lock (near Taplow) in the Lady Lever Art Gallery. But you can come close.
Dress your finest, hire a boat by the hour or the day from Hobbs of Henley, and stage your own river pageant. Hobbs offer a choice of rowing boats, fibreglass skiffs and electric launches – from Henley or various venues on the river (The Swan at Streatley, 01491 878800, and the Runnymede Hotel).
You can be chauffeur driven in a motor launch, or join a trip on the New Orleans, the Thames’ answer to the elegant Mississippi sternwheeler. Sail the dead straight stretch of water at Henley where they hold the annual regatta.
They also do Jazz and Italian cuisine themed trips.

Wildlife wonders

In the 1960s the founder of the remarkable Thames-side Beale Park, a wildlife reserve he created out of farmland, used to drive around with a peacock in his Rolls-Royce. The park management long ago ditched eccentricity in favour of serious conservation – they are breeding Bali starlings, green peafowl, mountain peacock pheasant and our own water vole for reintroduction into the wild. This year’s babies include red handed tamarins, one of the smallest monkeys in the world, and a pygmy goat. Adults £8.50. Children £6.00 Lower
Basildon, RG8 9NH, 0870 777 7160 .

Another Thames eccentric was artist Stanley Spencer whose often joyful and sometimes weird paintings are now in galleries around Britain and North America. Find his art and read his story in the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, where he lived and worked. Adults £3, children free.

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