Hambleden Mill to Henley-on-Thames – a circular walk
This circular, 6.1 miles (9.8 km) walk starts at the site of an extensive Roman villa complex with a dark history. It then crosses the River Thames via a weir and a lock at Hambleden Mill, before heading upstream along the river bank alongside the regatta course to Henley-on-Thames. This stretch of river is usually busy with boats of many types, and a wide variety of geese, ducks, swans, cormorants and other water birds. In the summer months it is popular with numerous leisure boats. Before returning to the river, the walk heads across a low hill above Remenham, which offers panoramic views across the Thames Valley, with occasional glimpses of the river itself. The route eventually returns to Hambleden Mill, along a quieter stretch of river where you may see the occasional flash of azure blue, as kingfishers dart along the riverside.
Please always follow the Countryside Code.
Some of the land in this walk is protected by the Greenlands restrictive covenant. This is a legal agreement dating from 1944 between the National Trust and Lord Hambleden which means the land is protected in perpetuity. The land has various private owners, but any changes to the land or the buildings require the prior consent of the National Trust. The route follows public rights of way, including parts of the Thames Path and the Chiltern Way (Berkshire Loop), and a permitted footpath.
Start at the free public car park in Skirmett Road at Mill End Hambleden. Grid. Ref: SU 785854
From the entrance to the car park, cross the Skirmett Road with care and turn right along the narrow roadside path. Although there is no obvious visible evidence, you are now in the middle of the site of a large Roman Villa complex which straddles the road. Continue along the road towards Mill End Farm. When you run out of footpath, cross the road again and then follow the tarmac path diagonally away from Skirmett Road to reach a crossing point on the A4155 opposite the entrance to Hambleden Marina. Please take great care crossing the road here as you cannot be seen easily by traffic coming from your right. When you have crossed the road, follow the track into Hambleden Marina. On reaching a traffic barrier, take the path to its right between fences. You will soon emerge onto Hambleden Weir.
Yewden Roman Villa
The Roman villa at Yewden in Hambleden was excavated in 1912 by A H Cocks and consists of at least five buildings of various sizes. The site produced a number of unusual discoveries, including a large number of iron styli - pens for writing on wax tablets - as well as numerous corn drying kilns, but most startling, was the discovery of 97 infant burials. Infant mortality was high in Roman times, so Roman infant burials are common, but the very large number found at Yewden is highly unusually. Recent examination of the skeletons by Dr Simon Mays of English Heritage, has revealed that the infants almost all died around the time of birth, suggesting this may be an example of deliberate infanticide. This was legal in Roman times if the baby’s mother was a slave. The villa was occupied for several hundred years, and there is a theory that for part of that time, it may have been a brothel, which would explain the high number of ‘unwanted’ babies. Another theory is that it was an imperial supply depot, with a lot of literate and numerate workers. If the literate workers were mostly women, then the need to keep them working may help to explain the infanticides. Some of the finds from the villa are on display in the Buckinghamshire County Museum in Aylesbury.
Follow the footpath across the weir. As you do so, take the opportunity to look back at the Hambleden Mill building.
Hambleden Mill is an historic watermill built for grinding flour. It was constructed on the fast-flowing, narrow Hambleden Bourne, which discharges into the River Thames at this point. It has now been converted into flats and it is Grade II listed. A mill on this site was mentioned in the Domesday Book when it had a rent of £1/year. A nearby fishery at Hambleden in 1086 produced 1,000 eels, for which this part of the Thames was famous. Alison Uttley, who is best known for her children's series about Little Grey Rabbit and Sam Pig, described the Mill building as ‘The most beautiful place in the whole length of the long Thames valley’ and it appears in many paintings and photographs.
Once you have crossed the weir, you will emerge at Hambleden Lock, which is a hive of activity in the summer months and a popular place to sit and watch the boats as they are lifted or lowered between adjacent stretches of the River Thames. Cross the lock via the lock gate (you may have to wait a moment if it is in use!) and turn right, along the lock side to a gate at the far end that leads into a field. Follow the riverside path towards Remenham and Henley-on-Thames.
Hambleden Lock and Weir
The first record of a lock at Hambleden was in 1338. It was a flash lock, with a single gate made from removable boards called paddles, with a winch for pulling boats up through the lock. Boats moving downstream would wait above the lock until the paddles were removed, which would allow a ‘flash’ of water to pass through, carrying the boats with it. In 1773, the first pound lock was built. It had two sets of gates operated manually by heavy wooden beams. In 1777 a small brick house was built and Caleb Gould became lockkeeper. Caleb, who worked the lock for 59 years, lies buried in Remenham churchyard. He died aged 91, and his epitaph on his grave stone reads, 'This world's a jest, and all things show it; I thought so once, but now I know it'. Old Caleb baked bread and sold it to the Thames bargemen. The bread ovens were rediscovered at the Lock in 1975. The first Oxford and Cambridge University boat race was rowed in 1829 between Hambleden Lock and Henley Bridge (Oxford won in a time of 14 minutes 30 seconds). In 1869 Hambleden Lock featured in Charles Dickens' short ghost story ‘The Phantom of Regatta Island’. The lock was completely rebuilt in 1870 and in 1884 the new weirs with a walkway, reopening an ancient right of way. The lock was rebuilt again in 1994. Regular kayaking and canoeing events are held on the rough water just below the weir.
After 650 metres you will be opposite a group of large white buildings with landscaped gardens. This is the University of Reading’s Henley Business School at their Greenlands Campus.
Greenlands Lodge, as it was once known, is a Grade II listed building. It was a country house with a number of prestigious owners including Thomas Chaucer, son of Geoffrey Chaucer. The house was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. In 1868, it was bought by William Henry Smith, son of the founder of W H Smith. He extended the building, though its appearance received a cool reception from Jerome K. Jerome who joked in his book ‘Three Men in a Boat’ that it was ‘the rather uninteresting-looking river residence of my newsagent'. In 1946, the building was rented to the Administrative Staff College. In 1952, the house was bought by the College and renamed Henley Management College. In 2008 it merged with the Business School of the University of Reading, to form the new Henley Business School.
After a further 750 metres you will reach a small island in the river with a distinctive temple at its far end. This is Temple Island.
Temple Island is the start of the Henley Royal Regatta course. Its main feature is an ornamental folly in the form of a temple which was constructed in 1771 and designed by the 18th century English architect James Wyatt. It was initially intended to be a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court. Wyatt designed both the structure of the building and its interior decoration; it is likely that he also provided designs for the original furniture. The wall paintings in the principal room are thought to be the earliest surviving example of the Etruscan style in Great Britain. Henley Regatta purchased a lease for the island and the temple in 1987. Following the purchase, the Stewards of the Regatta undertook restoration and conservation works. The downstream portion of the island was retained as a nature reserve and was extensively replanted with trees. The temple was fully restored and a statue of a nymph was placed under the cupola in keeping with the style and age of the Temple.
From Temple Island, continue along the river bank. You are now following to route of the Henley Royal Regatta. Shortly after the village of Remenham you will see the east façade of Fawley Court. Continue along the riverside path until you reach a small hump-backed footbridge.
The first recorded owner of Fawley, under Edward the Confessor, was Earl Tosti in 1065. After the Norman Conquest, Fawley Manor was given by William I to his kinsman Walter Giffard, who was one of the leading compilers of the Domesday Book. His steward, Herbrand de Sackville, was recorded as the land holder when the book was compiled in 1086, and the Sackvilles held it in their family for almost 400 years. The house was completely rebuilt for William Freeman, a plantation and slave owner and merchant, in 1684. The resulting house is a large square brick and stone house with two tall storeys, plus basement and attic. During the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III of Orange stayed in the house during his march from Torbay to London. Between 1764 and 1766 the grounds were dramatically landscaped by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Between 1770 and 1771, the architect James Wyatt worked on decorations in new rooms in the house. The principle downstairs salon was designed by Grinling Gibbons, Christopher Wren’s master carver, and the ceiling features carvings of the prancing fallow deer. Fawley Court was requisitioned by the British Army and used in the World War II by Special Forces for training, but it was left it in a poor state after the war. In 1953, the house was acquired by the Polish Congregation of Marian Fathers, and with its associated library, museum and school was one of the cultural centres for the British Polish community until its closure and sale in the late 2000s. The Court is listed at Grade I for its architecture, and it is reputed to have been Kenneth Graham's inspiration for Toad Hall in his book ‘The Wind in the Willows’, written in 1908.
The footbridge, which is about halfway along the Henley Regatta course, is a good vantage point from which you can appreciate the straightness of the Thames at this point, making it suitable for a regatta course. From here, continue in the same direction until you reach the Leander Club just before Henley Bridge.
Henley Royal Regatta
Henley Royal Regatta (originally Henley Regatta) is a rowing event that has been held annually on the River Thames since 1839. The regatta lasts for 5 days (Wednesday to Sunday) over the first weekend in July. Races are head-to-head knock out competitions, raced over a course of 1 mile, 550 yards (2,112 m) from Temple Island upstream towards Henley Bridge. The regatta regularly attracts international crews to race. The most prestigious event at the regatta is the Grand Challenge Cup for Men's Eights, which has been awarded since the regatta was first staged. The regatta is very much part of the English social season, and as with other events in the season, certain enclosures along the course regatta have strict dress codes. Three other regattas are rowed over approximately the same course: Henley Women's Regatta, Henley Masters Regatta and Henley Town and Visitors' Regatta, each of which is an entirely separate event. Henley hosted the rowing events of the London Olympic Games in mid-July 1908, two weeks after the Royal Regatta.
Just after the Leander Club, the path heads away from the river to emerge on the main A4130. Here turn left, crossing the driveway to the Leander Club. Keeping to the left side of the road, follow the roadside path until you reach Remenham Lane. The Little Angel Public House is on the other side of the lane. Turn left into Remenham Lane. Initially there is no footpath, but after it bends to the left you pick up a roadside path with the Henley Cricket club on your right. At the moment the roadside path suddenly ends, turn right through a wooden gate, signposted for The Chiltern Way, then follow a gravel track towards a large house on the hillside ahead of you (Matson House), and towards a stile at a narrow gap in the hedge.
Henley on Thames was recently voted by The Times as one of the best places to live in the English countryside and a regular winner of RHS Britain in Bloom medals. The first record of Henley is from 1179, when it is recorded that King Henry II ‘had bought land for the making of buildings’. A church at Henley is first mentioned in 1204. In 1234 the bridge is first mentioned and the street plan was probably established by the end of the 13th century. During the Black Death pandemic that swept through England in the 14th century, Henley lost around 60% of its population. The current Henley Bridge was built in 1786 and it is a Grade I listed building. The River and Rowing Museum, located in Mill Meadows, is the town's only museum. It was established in 1998. The museum, designed by the architect David Chipperfield, features information on the River Thames, the sport of rowing, and the town of Henley itself.
Cross the stile and turn half left following a straight grass path across the lawn in front of Matson House towards a wooden stile. Cross the stile and follow the path uphill through a belt of woodland until you reach a metal gate leading into an area of pasture. Take the uphill path across the pasture towards another area of woodland. As you approach the woodland, you will see another stile. Cross this and follow the path uphill through an area of coppiced woodland. After about 270 metres, the path emerges from the woodland into a field. Continue half right and uphill across the field until you reach the highest point, which offers a panoramic view of part the Thames Valley.
Continue in the same direction towards a gap in a hedge about half way between two prominent trees. Go through the gap to reach a lane. Here turn left and follow the lane gently downhill. After 230 metres, turn right, crossing a stile by a double metal gate onto a footpath, signposted as the Chiltern Way Berkshire Loop. Follow the path straight ahead with a hedge on your left. The view soon opens out on your left to offer more views of the Thames Valley and into the distant Hambleden Valley. Eventually the view gives way to a belt of trees and the path becomes more enclosed. As you approach a wooden gate, turn left and downhill just before it, along a permissive path. You will soon see further views towards Greenlands as you approach a large metal gate. Cross the stile to the right of the gate and turn right along a narrow lane into Aston Village until you reach the Flower Pot Hotel.
Thames Valley View
Although you are less than 35 metres above the river valley, this vantage point gives you a 180 degree view of the Thames Valley between Henley-on-Thames and Hambleden Mill. You should be able to see the river in places. At this point, the river follows an arc, which is an ‘incised meander’. At some time in the past, the natural sinuosity of the river channel has been cut down into the landscape, preserving it in a fixed position. This view is at its most colourful in the autumn when many of the trees turn yellow, brown and red. This is also a good place to see red kites gliding on the wind and to hear skylarks singing overhead.
From the Flower Pot Hotel, turn left into Ferry Lane. Follow the lane for 400 metres until you reach the river bank at the disused ferry crossing.
On reaching a river jetty for the Flower Pot Hotel, turn left through a gate, following the riverside path. This is usually a quiet stretch of meadow and river bank where it is not unusual to catch a glimpse of the unmistakable bright blue flash of a kingfisher darting between the trees and shrubs along the riverside. Continue along the bank until you return to Hambleden Lock. From here, retrace your steps across Hambleden Weir back to the car park.
Public car park in Skirmett Road at Mill End Hambleden. Grid. Ref: SU 785854
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