By the River Thames, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire

6 05 2007

One of the best treasures of London is neither secret nor hidden. It is open for all the world to view. Yet it remains unappreciated because its importance is sadly diminished. There was a time when the river Thames used to be the lifeblood of London. Today it contributes to London’s identity but it’s not essential to the city’s existence. When in London, visitors look at the buildings that line its banks. They walk the bridges that span its width. They rarely look at the river itself. In my own travel writings, I have rarely mentioned anything in particular about the river. I have seen no beauty in its flow. I have not heard any sort of music in its waters. The water is never clear. There are no scenes of life or drama taking place on its waters. It no longer supports trade, industry and business. It merely flows from its source to its destination because it is fated to do so. It has little choice in the matter. It cannot change its course. It has no will of its own.

We could see the same river in a different light. Through the centuries it has maintained its course with steadfast determination. It is not affected by political and social changes that affect Londoners. Yes, it may have suffered from the pollution of the Industrial Age. Yes, it may no longer freeze in winter. Yes, it may have lost its active business aspect of yesteryears. Yet it flows from the same source in the Cotswolds. It flows by the same course through changing cities, towns and countrysides. It joins the same sea at the same estuary. At London, it is that one thread of constancy that keeps the city ticking in a world beset with rapid changes. In its flow it carries a solid reliance of London’s identity.

The real reason for not appreciating the Thames is that it has little beauty in London. If its flow is meandering, it is on a scale that can be seen only from the air. Though the Thames gives its everything to London, it receives nothing in return. London appropriates all attention with its buildings and bridges. Each bridge proclaims a conquest of the river. If the Thames reflects the well-lit buildings by night, we take to admiring the buildings and their drifting images. In this manner we admire the Houses of Parliament by night. We take to appreciating the superb design of the Millennium Bridge. We pause to look at the slow turning wheel of the London Eye. The river gets left out. London imposes its mighty presence at every step. The necessary elements that contribute to making London lose their individual identities. They become an indistinguishable part of the whole.

A cricket club at Eton

A cricket club at Eton

When I had reflected on these lines long enough, I took to discovering the Thames outside London. There is no better place to start this than at Windsor & Eton. Unfortunately, I got waylaid at Eton where I wandered around for a good hour. Eton has many old buildings from different periods. Many buildings have Eton’s coat of arms. I couldn’t say if this coat of arms belongs to the town or to the college. Either way, given the fame of Eton College, I am tempted to think that the history of this town is inextricably linked with the college. My general displeasure of red brick buildings was somewhat relieved by those at Eton. The brick buildings come across with a medieval charm. The bricks are red but not bright “fire-engine” red. Each shade of red speaks its age. Some are dull red trying their best to remain inconspicuous. Some are ochre red. Some wear thin layers of accumulated dirt to become a duller shade. Other differences simply reflect differences in the brick firing process or perhaps more recent efforts of restoration. Some of these red walls contain patterns created of bricks deliberately coloured black or grey.

Not everything is red. Cream-coloured stones make Tudor-style frames for the windows and doorways. Windows of clear glass too speak of an age. Such glass appears thin and delicate unlike those of double-glazed windows we commonly use today. Cream-coloured stones can also be seen in other parts of the college buildings in Eton. Collectively, the beauty in these buildings comes from variety. Roofs slope in all sorts of ways. Some terminate abruptly by the side of another building. Some stop halfway to be replaced by another roof nearby. Many are punctured with chimney stacks. If we are unlikely to see smoke rising from these chimneys, at least we are sure to see some modern antennas rising from these brick structures. Just as many roofs as we see, we will also see gables. There are crenellated towers too to rival the numerous chimneys. To complete the picture, are the ornamented pinnacles that crown the buttresses of the Chapel. The Chapel itself is a beautiful structure in its bay windows, buttresses and pinnacles. I think its beauty is somewhat spoiled by modern stained glass. The medieval charm I had initially found was completely lost. An interesting feature in the Chapel is that the west side is wider than the east. The West Front stands from buttress to buttresses so that while the East Front has only one large Perpendicular window, the wider West Front has three smaller ones. The West Front also leads to an extension on the south side. This may very well be a later development but it is sure to serve as a place of initial expectation before entering the nave. I couldn’t say for sure. All I gathered of the Chapel was from the outside.

There are many playing fields at Eton. These are wide, grassy and green. All have been beautifully maintained. I counted as many as three cricket grounds but only one football ground and one rugby ground. Here at Eton, English sporting tradition is seen in cricket which is the only game privileged to make gentlemen of boys.

For all its charm, I had little liking for Eton. I had chosen to see it during a short term-break. The streets were empty. None of the shops were open. The town was dead. At Eton, we find a town where no one lives but still makes an interesting visit. Perhaps I am harsh. It’s a typical lazy Sunday morning after all.

From Eton, looking across the river Thames, we find Windsor Castle standing on a hill, like the castle at Arundel standing above the river Arun. The river was packed with scores of white swans. These graceful birds find it difficult to take off from the water. Even in this take-off their movements are graceful. As their wide wings beat, their webbed feet paddle the surface almost like sprinting on water. Only when they have gained enough momentum, they lift their feet clear off the water and take to their wings in earnest. Once they are in the air, their movements are graceful and poetic.

From Eton, I took to the Thames Path, a National Trail. Soon after leaving Eton, I read the following notice:

BATHING REGULATIONS AT ATHENS
Fifth Form Nants in First Hundred and Upper and Middle Divisions may
bathe at Athens. No bathing at Athens on Sundays after 8.30 a.m.
At Athens, boys who are undressed must either get at once into the
water or get behind screens when boats containing ladies come in sight.
Boys when bathing are not allowed to land on the Windsor Bank or to
swim out to launches and barges or to hang onto, or interfere with,
boats of any kind. Any boy breaking this rule will be severely punished.
From “School Rules of the River.” 1921

We can infer many things from this single paragraph: that the Thames created Arcadia at Richmond and Athens at Eton; that this bathing privilege was afforded only to some; that being lazy on a Sunday morning is not new; that the river Thames was once clean enough to tempt Eton boys to bathe in it; that the river Thames was once deep enough so that boys could let the water dress their decency; that those enrolled at Eton are never called students or pupils but rather boys who are yet to grow up; that Eton College was deemed not a place of study but an institution to make men of boys; that the adventurous and even naughty nature of boys has always been known and acknowledged; that everything that’s royal is not for the common man even if belongs properly to the river; that severe punishment was once legally possible.

Along the Thames are locks and weirs. A weir is a structure somewhat like a dam to control water levels. I spoke to the lock-keeper at Boveney Lock. He explained to me a little of the history of this lock and the purpose of weirs. Water levels have to be maintained within certain limits and a series of weirs all along the Thames right up to Teddington have been designed to make this possible. At Boveney, the locks are mechanically operated. The joy in watching these locks were hardly equal to my experience with the Hatton Locks in Warwickshire. Next to the lock is a small dry slope. These days it is used by Eton boys on their rowing practice. “The boys in their quads and eights would come along and carry their boats by this shallow slope. This way they can avoid using the locks”, explained the lock-keeper.

For some reason, authorities have been unable to agree if the Thames should belong to Berkshire or Buckinghamshire. The result is that the river is split and shared across these two counties. This split starts from about Boveney Lock and continues all the way to Reading. I kept to a clear path that followed the Thames on the side of Buckinghamshire. This path was crowded with plants in full growth. It was impossible to walk this way without brushing against these plants who claimed this space as their own. I had to actively avoid bees and flies. The countryside at this time of the year belonged to nature, not to man. I could almost hear the breathing of these plants. The air was not clear or fresh. The smell of vegetation was everywhere. At times it was almost suffocating. I could almost sense the concentration of carbon-dioxide.

We are in late spring but the ground has all the signs of summer in full flow. There is profusion of growth. There is greenery everywhere. Wild flowers are plenty. Open fields are coloured with spots of yellow and white. Whether these are buttercups, hogweeds, bindweeds, ragworts or dropworts, I could not say. I know little about wild flowers. Their variety is unending. Dandelions too are a common sight, both in their flowery form and in their spectacular seedy heads waiting to be airborne. Beautiful hawthorns display their little white and rose-tinted flowers. Red poppies and wild roses are less common but they too make their presence. The purple thistle, an icon of summer, is occasionally seen, early for the year as is everything else.

Among the trees, the leaves are in youthful splendour. Among the giants, there is one with a romantic heart. This is the horse chestnut. All chestnuts put on an extravagant display of showy flowers. These little flowers are bunched together on little stems which on their turn are arranged around a central stem which rises from a base of fresh green leaves. Each little flower is white and coloured at the centre with pink, yellow or occasionally orange. From a distance, each tree towers to a great green height. This greenery is peppered with these flowery heads to make a beautiful display.

This aspect of nature is complemented with exquisite gardens laid out in front of elegant country houses. One can imagine the residents cross their gardens, cut across the public path, pass under an archway covered in spring’s virgin leaves, climb down a few steps and sit on a bench to view the quiet flow of the Thames. Here the water is a lot cleaner though it can never match the mountain streams of Arran. Across the Thames, on the side of Berkshire, are magnificent buildings. The Oakley Court Hotel is one such example.

On the river itself, were the leisure boats. Rowing is a common activity. There were a couple of geese fighting on the waters. There were grebes wading without a sound. They were mallards keen to fill their stomachs. I fed three of them a slide of bread.

The beauty of Thames is that it gives its beauty to everything else that surrounds it without itself being beautiful. Much of the beauty I have seen today by the Thames Path is not of the Thames itself. Nonetheless it is a beauty that can be attributed to the Thames. The paths are green and the flowers are lovely. The buildings are elegant and the gardens are lovely. Yet all of them will lose their appeal if not for the river and its constant flow. The river is the only element in this landscape that we perceive as being active. The trees grow and the flowers bloom but we hardly sense the activity in their growth. The Thames on the other hand is always on the move. It flows without rest. We could also say that it flows with so great an ease that it needs no rest.

I continued along the banks till I reached Maidenhead. I skirted the village of Taplow before entering the woodlands that surround the famous country residence long known as Cliveden. At Cliveden, there are many items of description and almost as many items of study, reflection and analysis. Among these, let us first start with the view of the Thames. There are many views of the Thames but there is one that captured my attention like no other. Quite near the Chapel is a steep stairway that climbs down through densely wooded slopes. I am told this path goes all the way to the banks of the Thames. This is a popular path for most visitors who enjoy it as a physical exercise. Perhaps they are motivated in the reward of seeing the Thames from its banks. Everyone was active in walking up and down this worn-out path. None really paused to look at the Thames from this high vantage point.

I stood here for minutes looking at the beauty of the Thames. Finally, I had found what I had always been looking for in this great river. Finally, at Cliveden, the house and its famous gardens stood aside and let the river claim its rightful ownership of beauty. In the middle distance, across this luxurious green vegetation, is a gleaming river of beauty. We do not see its banks. We do not see its width. We do not see its turn or the end of its journey. We do not see period buildings or classical temples. We do not take the trouble to look for Windsor or London on the horizon. We see only the Thames. We see glimpses of it. We see it losing itself into woodland cover. We see it flowing quietly in the distance unperturbed by the little lives of man and the great works of mankind. We see it in a form as it has always been: an essential part of nature and nature in itself.

The parterre gardens of Cliveden

The parterre gardens of Cliveden

I continued my visit through the rest of Cliveden: I walked the woodlands; I took in all the magnificent vistas from the height of the chalky hill on which Cliveden stands; I viewed the famous parterre gardens but doubted its appeal; I rested in the Secret Garden which was no secret at all being mapped and sign-posted clearly; I loved the Shell Fountain; I admired the topiary in the Long Garden; I admired the purple blooms of wisteria which to me was the most beautiful flower today and a true winner in the face of stiff competition. Yet, for all such creations of man and nature, the one view of the Thames remained with me throughout my wanderings at Cliveden. I could not be bothered to visit the Chapel or the house though both were open for visitors. I did not have the patience to queue up at the crowded restaurant for a little meal. I went back to the same place for a view of the Thames. I went back to satisfy my thirsty eyes with one last drink of the Thames.

The celebrated Parterre deserves a mention. Anyone who has seen Sissinghurst and admired its design will hate the formality of this parterre. It is modelled on the principles of the Versailles. We may be tempted to add that this formality is not suited to the modern age. The truth is that such a formality does not suit any age. Our ancestors may have taken pleasure in this design but we are better informed. We should seek to destroy these gardens of rigid formality which require more work for less enjoyment. Nature is inherently free and will always remain free. Any attempt to tame it or constrain its growth is bound to fail. If we deem to have achieved success it is only because we choose to believe we have controlled nature to our whims and fancies. Such is the case with these parterres. The hedges are clipped to precision. Box hedges are laid out in triangular shapes. The whole design is angular and geometric. It consists of sharp points and rigid lines. Nothing as unnatural has ever been created as the pyramids of yew hedges. Even the grass that grows within the box hedges looks unnatural. Everything appears to be artificial. The leaf does not dare to peep beyond the set boundaries of danger. The grass is unwilling to grow knowing that it will quickly be mowed down. How else can I respond to this garden after having seen the free spirit of nature on the banks of the Thames?

In these parterres, there is much art but no gardening. The design is that of an artist but the creation is not of a gardener. Contrast by way of colour is lacking. The yew hedges are green. The box hedges are in lighter green and so is the grass. The enclosed beds are empty or colourless. The patterns are elegant and stylish. The angular lines and shapes are amplified by repetition and symmetry on a grand scale. These are effectively balanced by a semi-circular hedge at the far end of the lawn. The wide open lawn in between and on either sides of the parterres are lovely places to walk although the parterres themselves do not contribute to the enjoyment of the walks. The neat rows of lime trees planted along the walks on slightly higher ground make that transition from the formal design to the informal woodlands beyond.

My walk for the day came to a close at Burnham Beeches, an ancient woodland not far from Cliveden. Removed from the Thames, this woodland was not in line with the theme of today’s walk. However, I could not miss this famous woodland having come so close. Like Epping Forest, it is maintained by the Corporation of London. While I had seen both Epping Forest and Hampstead Heath in late winter or early spring, it was a nice variation to look at Burnham Beeches differently.

This is wonderful time to visit Burnham Beeches. This is the transition from spring to summer, from early youthfulness to full-fledged adulthood. The leaves of magnificent beeches reclaim the canopy that had for many months disappeared in the grip of winter. The leaves are in youthful freshness that is seen in their translucent greens. Such shades of green are seen best as afternoon sunlight streams through the canopy. Against this backdrop of sunlit green we see the networking lines of branches, twigs, stems and trunks. The contrast is striking and accentuates the growth of a new generation on older supports of life. There is much inspiration for painters in this scene. It’s a pity that little of such beauty has been captured. It’s a pity that most modern painters look to abstraction and political correctness. In the process, they fail to capture the simple scenes of life all around us.

Burnham Beeches as we may easily guess is full of beech trees though the woodland has its share of ancient oaks as well. Here dead trees are left to decompose at their own time. Man maintains the woodland but does not tidy it up. Nature is free to exercise her wild ways. Birth, death and rebirth are played out in an endless cycle of life. Among the oaks is one called the Druid’s Oak said to be some 800 years old. The Victorians had an endless energy about anything and everything in themselves and their surroundings. The name “Druid’s Oak” is their creation. Burnham Beeches became a part of London in Victorian times. If not for the forethought of the Victorians, perhaps this woodland would have been lost to the expanding residential and industrial settlements of Slough, Maidenhead, Burnham, Beaconsfield and Gerrard’s Cross.

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