I’m a travel writer. Often on the road, exploring, looking for off the beaten path places, funky addresses, alternative experiences. Funny how little I know the region I live in, Hampshire, in comparison. Time for a (local) adventure along the Thames Path! Although London is most associated with this river, there is much to discover before it reaches the capital. Follow me.
9 am: a stroll through Reading’s abbey ruins
Is Reading merely defined by its shopping centre, bars and restaurants? Is it “just another big city”? Look again. There is a whole page of history to unfold there, a mere two minutes’ walk from the train station… especially now that the Abbey ruins, after being closed to the public a whole decade, have now been renovated.
Let’s travel back in time first. Henry I wanted his own abbey, as his burial place. The location, on a strip of land between the rivers Kennet and Thames, was chosen carefully, every detail clear in the king’s mind. His body would be brought by boat and a path to carry the casket designed, from the banks to the altar. It had to be grandiose and grandiose it was. In the pictures below, you will see a modern building shaped as a blade (also its nickname). It would have been that high at the time, longer than Westminster Abbey – we’re talking 1121 – and quite a milestone in the whole region, visible for miles.
Henry died in Normandy in 1135. His corpse was first taken to Rouen to be embalmed: his entrails were buried locally, and the preserved body was taken back to England, to his beloved abbey. Reading subsequently became one of the main pilgrimage centres of medieval England and remained so until Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries. After this, the abbey was mostly destroyed: the glass and lead, quite valuable, were stolen, the stones used for other buildings. Remain part of the transept, vestry, chapter house, dormitory, the arch of the former mill over the river…. and the gatehouse (Abbey Street), which led to the abbot’s lodgings. It found a new use as a ladies’ boarding school, which in 1785, had two famous students: Jane Austen and her sister, Cassandra. By the 19th century, though, the building was threatening to collapse. An architect was called to restore it beautifully: no less than Sir George Gilbert Scott, which you already know for its amazing work on St Pancras station.
From there, step into the Forbury gardens, so pretty with its flower beds and central fountain. There stood the outer court of Reading Abbey. Make a little detour to see St James Church, on the outskirts of the park, also built by a famous Victorian architect: A. W. N. Pugin. The name may not be familiar, but his masterpiece is – he designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster and its iconic clock tower, home to the most famous bell in the world, Big Ben. The ornate Roman construction, made of flint, also gives you an idea of what the abbey would have been like. There still is a little piece of one of the original walls on the parking by its side.
What about Henry I, then, where is his sepulchre today? This remains a mystery. Historians expect he would have been buried by the altar… which would have been where the Forbury Nursery now is. Could it still be there, far below the surface? Maybe. The Civil War, which saw fierce fighting on this site, may have (re)covered, the remains thrown away or any object of value stolen…
From the gardens, you can access the rest of the abbey. The walls might be lower than they originally were, they still hold some majesty, some grand elegance. You will notice wild grass growing on top of them: a method used in the Middle Ages to strengthen the structure and slow down erosion. Talk to the locals while wandering through the ruins. Many have fond memories of playing here as kids and now bring their own children, grandchildren in turn. The abbey aims at bringing the community back together by organising concerts, outdoor theatre plays and other immersive experiences.
There might be more coming up. At the back of the abbey is the Reading Prison, now closed. Also part of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s architectural designs, it is known for one particular inmate: Oscar Wilde. There are talks of transforming the site into a cultural centre. To be followed!
11.30 AM: making fresh pasta at the Miller of Mansfield
A short drive through the countryside takes me to Goring, the kind of village you think only exists in magazines. There are waves of wildflowers growing by the parking, neatly kept gardens, independent shops with old-fashioned façades but the sweetest selection of products, a sense of belonging. It’s difficult not to instantly fall in love with the place. There it is, at the corner of a street: The Miller of Mansfield. An elegant 18th-century coaching inn over flowering with ivy, the green and white leaves framing the bricks and tiles beautifully.
Husband and wife Mary and Nick Galer opened the Miller in April 2014. Both worked in Heston’s The Fat Duck Group. They share a passion for great food, beautiful surroundings and the sharing of good times. It has it all. A welcoming bar with an open fireplace and comfy armchairs where you just want to cosy up. A relaxing courtyard planted with roses, lavender, irises to catch up with friends. A fantastic gastropub offering exquisite seasonal dishes that will make you want to go for starter, main and dessert. Romantic bedrooms should you wish to spend an exceptional weekend with your loved one. It’s the perfect rural escape: the railway station (with regular services to London Paddington) is a few minutes’ walk away, so is the Thames path, the perfect excuse for inspiring walks.
I joined just in time for one of Nick Galer’s cookery demonstration: fresh pasta. How from 2 simple ingredients, 00 flour and free-range eggs you can make a fantastic range of pasta. What machine you need (and which for which budget), how many times to get the dough through it to get this, to get the perfect suppleness? How to fold a simple circle of that dough into tortellini or a mezzelune, or turn 2 circles into a mouth-watering ravioli?
The filling? Pea, mint, a little butter. Simple, refreshing: it will bring you to your knees…
The cooking? A few minutes at most if you want that gentle bite.
We were only 5. It was ever so lovely being part of such a small group, more like a conversation with newly met friends than a lesson. The instructions were professional but uncomplicated, giving us all the confidence we needed to tackle this at home and wow partners, family, friends.
We then sat down for a relaxed lunch. Homemade bread. A filo pastry, a nest of pea shoots, a quenelle of pea ice-cream, quite unexpected. Cornish Gunard, grilled to perfection, on a bed of avocado ravioli and sliced heritage tomatoes – such a palette of flavours and tastes. Dessert was a splendid version of the Eton Mess – fresh strawberries, strawberry sorbet, sprinkled pink peppercorn, goat curd mousse. A macaron on the side of a cup of coffee. A sigh of pure happiness…
There is such a love of quality ingredients, celebrated with just the perfect seasoning rather than a heavy sauce. Such a creativity to highlight them. British refinement with a touch of French elegance. The Miller, undoubtedly, has Michelin star quality. Yet it’s a warm, friendly place. People know each other here, are happy to tell you about the village, the region, share anecdotes and tips. I would stop there as much for a romantic dinner than for a Sunday lunch. It found the perfect balance between the two atmospheres. In other words: it makes you feel at home.
2:30 PM: Discovering Basildon House and its stunning gardens
No road trip to the British countryside would be complete without a visit to a National Trust property… Basildon Park is a mere 20 minutes’ drive from The Miller of Mansfield and oh, what a gem! A quick walk from the parking and the woodlands open onto this stunning Palladian beauty. It simply stops you in your tracks.
The house itself was built between 1776 and 1783 but was never completed. In 1914, it became an army convalescent hospital. During WWII, it served as barracks, a training ground for tanks, and finally a prisoner of war camp. The soldiers used to shoot the statues in the park for fun – hence the decapitated heads you can now see in the library kept as a memory of times past. By 1950s, it was an empty shell, falling apart, with barely any window pane left. Lord and Lady Iliffe stopping to visit it saw through it with different eyes. It had charm, character, a soul. They bought it and lovingly renovated it… The interiors are gorgeous beyond limits. Think Neo-classical hall, spectacular staircase hall, octagonal drawing room, a room which furniture is entirely decorated in shell patterns. Make sure to have a look at Graham Sutherland’s studies for the tapestry “Christ in Glory” which hangs above the altar in Coventry Cathedral. Masterpiece comes to mind…
The Iliffe also restored the gardens, offering incredible views on the estate. Sculptures floating above the flower beds, bees flying from foxgloves, an ocean of peonies… The roses, planted in the 1960s, are particularly enchanting. There is a whole waterfall of white, pompom shaped ones. I lost track of time entirely there. Every bloom seems to be positioned as if by a painter on a composition…
My mistake was to plan only an afternoon at Basildon Park. There are 400 acres of historic parkland to explore, admirable forest trails, wild orchids to be spotted in summer, play areas for children, guided tours by volunteers… The kind of place you leave with regret, thinking “I will be back. With friends and a picnic”.
5:30 PM Walking along the Thames Path
Back at the Miller of Mansfield. Cup of tea. Time for a walk! I crossed the bridge over the Thames, which overlooks the Goring lock then turned on Church Lane, briefly stopping at St Mary’s where Charles Dodgson (which you know better as Lewis Caroll) preached in 1864. Although ordained to be a priest, the famous author never became a priest – by choice. From there, you can easily reach the Thames Path, a wonderful therapy in itself. You may meet a few fellow walkers, locals with their dogs but that’s about it. It’s mostly you, the river, birds and little treasures along the way. Hundreds of swan and geese feathers along the bank, an honesty bench with redcurrants for sale, dream houses with their own pier, sailboats like a fairy-tale illusion, suddenly appearing over wildflowers in the distance… Trust me, you will completely forget about your mobile phone, your social media applications, your emails. You do have reception and 3G. You just do not need it – how is that for a compliment, these days?
7 PM: dinner at the Beetle and Wedge Boathouse
I walk under willow trees, their branches brushing the water, feeling like a child on an adventure. In 1889, Jerome K Jerome rowed his boat between Henley and Windsor. This trip, these very trees inspired him to write his Three Men in a Boat book. I sat down, remembering, wishing I had taken it with me. A racing shell appeared, turned around, the oars ever so graceful on the water. Following it, at a more peaceful pace, I reached the terrace of the Beetle and Wedge, nestled in a former old beamed boathouse. It’s the perfect place to watch dusk settle, preferably with a glass of prosecco in your hand…
By then, I had worked up quite an appetite. Unable to choose from the menu – too many mouth-watering options! – I asked locals for recommendations: the restaurant is the perfect excuse for a stroll along the river and many meet there for lunch or dinner. The crab salad was a serious affair and one of the best I had tasted – beautifully presented too. The fillet of seabream served on a bed of samphire and drizzled generously with caper beurre noisette definitely should be top of your list. Preferably with a glass of white wine. Make sure to ask for the signature rosti, crunchy on the outside, creamy inside and quite addictive. And linger for dessert, even if you’re full. It’s too magical to not stay a little longer…
Too tired to walk back? Goring is a mere 10 minutes’ drive by taxi. Or you could stay there for the night, they do have beautiful rooms overlooking the river.
10 pm: sweet dreams at the Miller of Mansfield
Each of the 13 rooms there has its own decoration, its own style. Each also offers a wonderful cocoon: super comfy bed, antique style dresser… The rain shower and REN toiletries were absolute bliss… And to go with your evening cup of tea (there is a kettle and Nespresso machine), you will find a little treat: golden syrup biscuits on that day. The aroma itself is enough to bring a smile to your face. And so you fall asleep, book in hand, cheeks pink with happiness.
Sweet dreams guaranteed.
Enchanted by this first day?
The map belows shows every location mentioned along this journey.
Check the River Thames website for more information on the region.