Boating on the Thames

Whether you're drifting lazily along in your own boat or taking a sightseeing cruise past crucial points of English history, you’ll see the River Thames from a new and delightful vantage point out on the water.

"There is nothing—absolutely nothing—half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." So says the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame's timeless children's novel The Wind in the Willows. So take Ratty's advice: it's hard to beat gliding peacefully on the river, water meadows on either side of you, and then tying up for a picnic or lunch at a riverside pub. You can just putter about in a rowboat for an hour or so, or hire a boat and organize your own itinerary for a few days. If this doesn't appeal, go on a romantic lunch cruise or take one of the many organized trips. There are 125 miles of navigable water to explore, quieter nearer the source of the Thames in the Cotswolds, perhaps most picturesque between Pangbourne and Marlow, and busiest nearer London. Wherever you go, your pace of life will slow right down: boats aren’t allowed to travel above 5 mph.

Choose a Boat

Most boats rented by the hour accommodate four people. Motorboats are noisy, but you can opt for electric canoes or launches that have the benefit of canopies. Punts (flat-bottom wooden boats) require a strong arm so you can maneuver the long wooden pole and push the boat along. Narrowboats carried freight on canals but are now well equipped for pleasure trips.

Mess about on the River

The main hubs for hiring self-drive boats on the Thames are at Windsor, Henley-on-Thames, Oxford, and Lechlade. The cost varies from £15 an hour for a rowboat, £25 for an electric boat, £60 for half a day with a punt, to £175 a day for a motor cruiser. A short trip for four on a narrowboat from Oxfordshire Narrowboats ranges from around £160 to £1,000.

Cotswold Boat Hire. Buscot Mill, Brandy Island, Buscot, SN7 8AD. 01793/727083; www.cotswoldboat.co.uk.

Hobbs of Henley. Station Rd., Henley-on-Thames, RG9 1AZ. 01491/572035; www.hobbsofhenley.com.

John Logie Motorboats. The Promenade, Barry Ave., Windsor, SL4 5HZ. 07774/983809; www.johnlogiemotorboats.com.

Oxford River Cruises. Folly Bridge, Oxford, OX1 4LB. 01865/987147; 0845/226–9396; www.oxfordrivercruises.com.

Oxfordshire Narrowboats. Heyford Wharf, Station Rd., Lower Heyford, OX25 5PD. 01869/340348; www.oxfordshire-narrowboats.co.uk.

Push the Boat Out in Style

Hire an Edwardian electric launch with your own skipper (around £90 per hour) from the Compleat Angler in Marlow; take a vintage boat (from £185 per hour) or champagne cruise (£49) from Cliveden; or climb aboard the gleaming Victorian steam launch Nuneham for a short summertime afternoon tea (£39) or Sunday lunch cruise (£36) from Windsor with the French Brothers.

Cliveden. Off 404, near Maidenhead, Taplow, SL6 0JF. 01628/668561; www.clivedenhouse.co.uk.

Compleat Angler. Marlow Bridge, Bisham Rd., Marlow, SL7 1RG. 0844/879–9128; www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk/compleatangler.

French Brothers. The Promenade, Barry Ave., Windsor, SL4 1QX. 01753/851900; www.frenchbrothers.co.uk.

Pick an Organized Cruise

Windsor Castle, Runnymede, Henley (where you can stop for the River and Rowing Museum), and Mapledurham all lie on the banks of the Thames. Thames River Cruise has outings to Mapledurham from Caversham on weekends. Salter's Steamers runs short round-trips out of Windsor, Henley, Oxford, and Marlow, and French Brothers runs round-trips from Windsor.

Salter's Steamers. Folly Bridge, Oxford, OX1 4LA. 01865/243421; www.salterssteamers.co.uk.

Thames River Cruise. Bridge St., Reading, RG4 8AH. 0118/948–1088; www.thamesrivercruise.co.uk.

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