Tales of the riverbank with Hurley as the star
Ivor Baddiel discovers the charm of the Thames on a weekend in the heart of rural Berkshire
Living in London, as I do, one tends to think of the Thames as nothing more than a dividing line between the lovely North and the grotty South. Unfair on many levels, but mainly because, having just spent a weekend in the Berkshire village of Hurley - midway between Henley and Marlow as the river flows - I now know it to be a divine stretch of waterway teeming with life and beauty.
And what's more, if, like me, you were under the aforementioned illusion, it can be shattered moments after arriving in this delicious slice of England's green and pleasant land.
As luck would have it we'd picked that scorching hot weekend in May for our trip - I'm sure you remember it, as soon as Monday came around again it was back to winter - and after the short (an hour and 15 minutes) journey from Crouch End, we dumped our bags at The Olde Bell inn - of which more later - and strolled through the village to the water's edge and a whole new world. Crossing a bridge, you arrive at Hurley Lock where boats, barges and canoes glide up and down the river, passing through in orderly and amicable fashion, crew-members and captains waving to onlookers as they float on by.
For reasons that are probably held deep within our psyches, it's an oddly comforting and relaxing sight and, should you wish to watch it in even more leisurely fashion, there's a teashop on hand offering refreshments as you idly gaze at the nautical traffic. There are also camping facilities either side of the lock, which - having pitched the odd tent or two in my day - seemed a lovely place to grab a bit of time under canvas.
Just as there's a steady, but genteel flow of humanity sailing along the river, so the towpath running alongside it is also alive with many of our species, though in this instance they're mainly travelling on foot or by bike.
The Olde Bell, High Street, Hurley, Berkshire, SL6 5LX (01628 825 881; www.coachinginn.co.uk) has rooms in the main Inn and the Malt House from £119. Larger rooms in the main Inn and the Malt House from £169. Doubles in the Lodge, from £119, all with breakfast. Rooms are designed by Ilse Crawford, with free standing baths in the larger rooms
The towpath is actually part of the Thames Path National Trail. One of
a family of long-distance routes established by the Countryside Commission, it follows the river for 180 miles, from its source in Gloucestershire right the way to the Thames Barrier near Greenwich.
From Hurley, it's a very pleasant two miles to Marlow or a slightly more strenuous six miles to Henley, by far the nicer of the two towns and worth the extra effort.
The only minor downside is that, if you're travelling by bike, you have to shlepp your transport over the odd bridge or two, though to be honest, the bikes we subsequently hired from the hotel were pretty light and easy to carry, even for a man of my considerable weakness and ineptitude.
The experience really did transform my view of the Thames and, feeling rather guilty for doubting one of the world's great rivers, we headed back through the village to our hotel.
The Olde Bell markets itself as a traditional coaching inn updated. And given that parts of the building date back to 1135, it is most certainly that. But my somewhat romantic notion of an inn is as a place for weary travellers to rest and refuel (and, of course, as a place for horses to rest and refuel, but with no horses to bring from Crouch End, that was slightly less relevant). So how did it fare in that regard?
Well, as mentioned, we hadn't travelled a great distance so resting and refuelling was about the style and the food. The main building is a beautiful, rustic house which opens out on to a large expanse of lush greenery where little bunnies bound happily about when dusk melts in (honestly). And, as first impressions go, it was most welcoming. I could feel weariness and its chums departing rapidly.
There are actually five separate buildings to stay in, the barn and the lodge are across the road from the main inn, while two - the Malt House and the Cottage - are adjacent to it.
We had a room in the Malt House which was spacious, bright and with a bed so comfortable that since returning home I have invested in a pair of goose down pillows in an attempt to sleep as soundly as I did there.
There was also a roll-top, claw foot bath in the room as well as a large, en suite toilet and shower room packed with some lovely smellies from a company called Aesop.
Add in free wifi and a delightful view across those lawns, and it really was a joy.
On the refuelling front, the Olde Bell offers both a pub with pub grub, and a restaurant with restaurant grub. All the food is sourced locally and the Sunday barbecue attracts folk from miles around.
The choices were lamb, chicken and burgers, which makes it a problem for kosher diners, but there was a selection of salads from their own garden, liberally sprinkled with wild flowers and wild garlic. The food concept is overseen by Rosie Sykes, author of The Kitchen Revolution and ex-Food Doctor on The Guardian. The food is rustic, home-cooked, seasonal and served simply, though it is worth a call ahead to ensure there will be fish and vegetarian options.
The following morning, we perused the supplied list of things to do and decided to head first to Enid Blyton's house, Old Thatch, in nearby Well End.
From the outside it looked the perfect place to enjoy the requisite lashings of ginger beer, but unfortunately we'd failed to spot that it's only open from 2 to 5.30, so had to consume our beverages at the Old Spade pub next door, a fine establishment which helped make up for our disappointment.
Vowing to return later, we moved on to Cliveden House. Now owned by the National Trust, this impressive Italianate mansion with its unbelievably vast and immaculate grounds was where Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies frolicked in the pool with John Profumo, as well as the meeting place in the 1930s of the notorious Cliveden set, a bunch of right-wing politicos who thought it might be a good idea to appease and become friendly with Hitler.
Don't let that put you off though, as these kind of places go, it's blinding. The house itself is stately and ornate, and all very nice if you like that sort of thing (antiques, paintings of former inhabitants) but the grounds are stunning and large enough to keep the hardiest explorer busy for a good few hours.
The Water Garden is about as lovely a place to sit and contemplate life as I've found and, even though the maze is currently being rebuilt, ducking in and out of the shrubbery in the Long Garden kept the kids amused for ages.
We lunched at the Orangery restaurant in the shadow of the house itself and, though a bit pricey, one could also picnic on the lawn next to 150-year-old trees, which would be heavenly. There are a couple of play areas and you can also stroll down to the Thames, which runs majestically alongside the grounds, adding a further stake to its claim to be one of nature's greats.
On the way back we did pop into Enid's place. The whole family can go in for a tenner, and though you can't actually go inside the house (there's a family living there), the gardens are gorgeous and it's a lovely place for a cup of tea and a slice of homemade cake. Disappointingly, ginger beer is not on the menu.
As the day drew on we popped in to Henley-on-Thames and sat by the river again. It's obviously somewhat livelier there - there seems to be quite a trade in floating stag parties - but very pleasant nonetheless.
Our last morning was spent exploring the neighbourhood and river a little more, this time by bike, before sampling a Sunday lunch and heading back home.
Liz Hurley might not exactly have covered her surname in glory, but the small corner of England bearing her name made up for that in spades.