The Thames borders the Chilterns to the south west and includes the magical villages of Goring & Streatley, busy market towns of Henley and Marlow and much in between.
Marlow grew around an important river crossing on the road from Reading to High Wycombe. River trade with London was important, and boats and barges carried timber, firewood, flour, corn and malt to the city. Today’s splendid suspension bridge was designed by William Tierney Clark in 1832. It was a prototype for and is famously twinned with the much larger Széchenyi Chain Bridge across the River Danube in Budapest – I wonder if they share this?
Marlow’s reputation as a popular resort has been well established amongst Edwardians and Victorians who left their mark on the town. The wide pedestrian-friendly high street of this well-heeled Chilterns town is usually festooned with bunting and flowers. There are plenty of independent shops and restaurants to tempt to you to stop awhile. And shop awhile. The cosy pubs are along the river and down the pretty side streets amongst the brick cottages and churches.
The towpath and Thames Path National Trail shadow the River on the north bank, busy with strolling locals and long distance hikers. Kites drift overhead and summer swallows swoop and cry, some peeling off to take a sip from the Thames. Impressive balustrades mark the boundaries of enormous Edwardian waterside villas, their ornamental gardens reaching the Marlow riverbank.
Marlow is a sporting town, with an impressive sports complex surrounds the extant manorial buildings at Bisham Abbey. The manor house was built around 1260 as a community house for two Knights Templar. The subsequent substantial rebuilding and alterations is evident in the rich variety of brickwork and masonry. In 1310 the building was used as a place of confinement for Queen Elizabeth of the Scots, wife of King Robert the Bruce. King Henry VIII granted the manor house to Anne of Cleves as part of her divorce settlement, and it was later bought by the Hoby family, who lived there until 1768. I was there during the 2020 Covid lockdown for a change of scenery and Messing about in Marlow.
The Hand of St James
The Hand of Saint James the Apostle is a holy relic brought to England by Empress Matilda in the 12th century. Following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, monks hid the hand in an iron chest in the walls of Reading Abbey. It was dug up in 1786 and given to Reading Museum. In 1840, it was sold to J. Scott Murray, who put it in his private chapel at Danesfield House. The Hand ended up the care of St Peter’s Church in 1882 and has remained there until now This summer however, the well-travelled Hand has been returned to St James’ Church in Reading Abbey Quarter to coincide with their renewed focus on ancient pilgrim routes and relics.
The Queen’s Swan Marker
The historic and quirky Swan Upping ceremony dates from the 12th century, when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans. Punishment for poaching Crown property was harsh, punishable by death by hanging.
Once a prized dish, today the Crown retains the right to ownership of all unmarked mute swans in open water, but The Queen only exercises her ownership on certain stretches of the Thames and its surrounding tributaries. This ownership is shared with the Worshipful Company of Vintners, one of the “Great Twelve” livery companies of London, and the Worshipful Company of Dyers, who were granted rights of ownership by the Crown in the fifteenth century.
Once rounded up on the water, the birds are taken ashore to be weighed and measured each July to obtain estimates of growth rate and the birds are examined for any sign of injury caused by fishing hooks and line. www.royalswan.co.uk for dates and times.
A good place to start is at Marlow Museum, a treasure trove of local stories and history of the town and surrounds. Free admission.
The Stanley Spencer Gallery is in nearby Cookham, dedicated to the life and work of the local artist Stanley Spencer.
A significant local industry has been brewing, and much of this heritage can still be seen around town. It is also home to Rebellion Beer at the nearby Marlow Bottom. Opening times and tastings
It doesn’t get more gothic than a tour with Mary Shelley! Mary tells the stories of some of Marlow’s famous and infamous residents. ‘Mary Does Marlow’ tours can be booked marydoesmarlow.eventbrite.com
Spend time in the glorious Chilterns villages of Goring and Streatley.
Celebrate the seasons in the naturally outstanding Chiltern Hills with our range of beautifully designed Chilterns Gifts and souvenirs. UK mainland deliveries only.