Three Women Without a Boat (Part One)

In the style of Jerome K. Jerome (sort of)

 No one quite knew whose idea first it was to walk the Thames Path, but I like to think it was mine.  We three were discussing the possibility of a little trip whilst drinking cocktails in the Radio Bar with its dandy clientele and fine views over London. Pressley was all for Venice before it sank. Smithy was up for anywhere, so long as she hadn’t been there before, but as there aren’t many places in the world she hasn’t been, we were feeling limited as well as of limited means.

As darkness descended, along with several more cocktails, the city’s skyscrapers and Tower Bridge lit up like Blackpool illuminations.  I was about to suggest Blackpool, but as my friends were busy admiring the view along the Thames, I said: “Did you know that the Thames Path has been voted one of the great walks of the world? Second only to Rio De Janeiro?”

My friends were stunned into silence, but that may have been because of the large bill for several Margharitas and a couple of Bellinis. Tipsy discussions began around how much of the Thames path we could walk and we all felt we’d easily manage the whole 184 miles, probably over a long weekend. Thus began several weeks of diary shuffling to find only two nights in April the three of us could do, but we still felt we could cover a decent stretch. Then it began raining. And raining, and continued until the Thames had its worst floods in centuries.  We thought it might have to be Rio after all, but we decided to go ahead with our original plan and walk a reportedly dry section between Marlow and Windsor, a mere 16 miles or so.

The eve before departure the forecast looked grim with heavy rain forecast the next day. I was undecided what to pack as we’d be carrying all on our backs like three crucifixes to Calvary. I texted my mates to find Smithy had broken down on the side of the A3 driving to Pressley’s, so I didn’t like to bother her with my tale of weighing my shoes on the kitchen scales. Also, as we were booked into The Sir Christopher Wren Hotel  as a treat at the end of our trip in Windsor, we’d need a cossie for the hot tub as well as something less mud-spattered to wear for dinner. I congratulated myself in ending up with a small rucksack looking like a rather tubby child in a too-tight dress. When I arrived at Paddington I was rewarded with the sight of my two chums: Pressley with a lumninous rucksack, perhaps so she’d be easy to spot if she fell in the Thames, whilst Smithy’s more voluminous rucksack had her looking ready for army wo-manoeuvres.

We almost missed the train to Marlow with the difficulty of finding platform 13, which wasn’t next to platform 12 as one might have supposed. but in a dark corner of the station, as if ashamed. We just made it and Smithy rewarded us with sweets from her rucksack, which it what the bulk of its contents seemed to be. So we deemed it a kindness to eat as many as we could and help her reduce its weight.

At Marlow, with a pewter sky threatening, we set off. However, Smithy had to make several phone calls to save her towed car, whilst Pressley and I looked for any sign that there actually was a river in Marlow as we’d begun to doubt it was even on the Thames. Could we have come to the wrong Marlow from the sinister platform 13?  Then Pressley spotted a signpost and beckoned us on, Smithy bringing up the rear still on her phone: “No, I’m not where the car is. I’m in Marlow. No, that’s not in Dorset. I live in Dorset, but the car is in Surrey.” I must say she was being very patient with people who seemed to think her car had no business to break down anywhere other than her own drive. Meanwhile, Pressley and I led the way down a high, brick-walled jennel that went on and on in dog-led fashion with no end in sight and certainly no sign of water. I began to wonder if this section of the Thames Path might actually become a tunnel under it, when finally we came around a corner to a river bank and a fine view of the suspension bridge and cheered.    

That’s when it began to rain, so we got out our macs and sheltered under a tree, looking at each other with a sort of eye roll. Yet, within a minute the rain stopped and we never saw another drop the whole walk.

Leaving Marlow behind us, we realised we were in for a real treat. There really were willow trees overhanging the water (this is Wind in The Willows territory after all) and we all suddenly relaxed everything but our shoulders. Smithy, now having sorted her car, went back to nature and began to spot birds: floating Red Kites, Greater Crested Grebes, and Blue Tits. Pressley and I were more interested in ogling the stunning waterside properties with exquisite, keep-up-with-the-Jones’ boathouses as essential accessories. Even so, we were quite picky about which ones we preferred and which we would reject.

“I’m not sure I’d choose to buy that white one with the tower and the turrets, the verandah and the sweeping lawn to the water’s edge with that boat house larger than my home, but if it was left to me in a will, I wouldnt say no,” Pressley commentated and I must say I had to agree. Smithy was of a mind that she’d never covet any property so close to the water, whatever it was like, as not worth the worry and imagine the insurance? And I had to agree with her too. Later, as we passed a rather large, rather garish, Canadian style log cabin finished in high varnish orange, we all rejected it outright as being an affront to its elegant neighbours. Even the fact that it had been built on stilts seemed somewhat cowardly. We concluded there was no accounting for taste and we were extremely grateful to be so blessed with fine taste. Pressley swung her luminous rucksack to a more comfortable position and on we went towards Cookham.

We went through a kissing gate and a sign that warned of livestock. Indeed, the area around this gate was extremely muddy and churned up by cloven hooves. Pressley expressed a hope that there weren’t cattle and we reminisced about the time we had narrowly escaped with our lives on the Isle of Purbeck from a stampede of braying Heiffers.  No sign of any life here anyway, but there was a bench by the water’s edge next to a weeping willow and we decided to take a rest.

Pressley & Smithy before arrival of the wildlife

Smithy managed to find further supplies and handed round a bag of home-made granola bars. As we set to chewing them, it crossed my mind to comment that if the floods had continued we might have lashed several together with willow tendrils and floated to Cookham, but I kept quiet. Soon, these fruity, seedy, nutty confections began attracting the attention of the local birds. First, some mallards quacked towards us amusingly, then several geese joined them and began to hiss, which was a coded call for the swans to come over and add some muscle. As Smithy stood to take a photo, a touchy cob began a flapping, agitated display of his prowess, causing a mild tornado that had us clinging to the bench in fright. As Pressley began to express a wish for the cattle, the cob calmed down, and I inched sideways off the bench, all the while avoiding the cob’s beady eye, as I began dragging my rucksack very slowly along the ground after me, and left my mates to their fate.  I reasoned at least one of us might need to raise the alarm and call an air ambulance if necessary. However they too extricated themselves and we were soon in sight of Cookham.

Here we partook of a nuncheon at The Teapot Cafe followed by a quick visit to the Stanley Spencer gallery, which I’ve long wanted to visit.  It currently has an exhibition about his work connected to the first world war, including this  shown here of the unveiling of the war memorial in Cookham. Then we set off for Maidenhead and a waterside pub, where we’d booked to stay the night.

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