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POINTS OF INTEREST
Points of interest along the Wokingham Way are listed in order as they occur along the walk. The numbers in green boxes reference the first point of interest on each section of the Way. Some are adjacent to the Way and others are a short distance from it or visible from it.
A Conway’s Bridge
Visible from the Thames Path and still carrying traffic on the road from Wargrave to Henley, Conway’s Bridge is a rustic, arched stone structure. Designed by Humphrey Gainsborough, brother of the artist Thomas, it was built in 1763 and is named after Henry Seymour Conway (1721 – 1795) of the surrounding Park Place Estate.
B Henley Royal Regatta
At a public meeting in Henley Town Hall on 26 March 1839, Captain Edmund Gardiner proposed “that from the lively interest which had been manifested at the various boat races.....on the Henley Reach during the last few years, and the great influx of visitors....., this meeting is of the opinion that establishing an annual regatta.....would not only be productive of the most beneficial results to the Town of Henley, but.......would also be a source of amusement and gratification to......the public in general”.
The regatta was first staged in 1839 and the next year was expanded from 1 day to 2, ultimately reaching the present 5 days in 1986. The ‘Royal’ was added in 1851 when Prince Albert became the first royal patron. Since his death, every reigning monarch has agreed to be patron. Foreign entries commenced in 1870 and the first woman cox was permitted in 1975. Though single sculls exhibition events for women by invitation only commenced from 1981, it was only in 1993 that an open women’s single sculls race was introduced with eights following from 1998.
The present course length is 1 mile 550 yards (2,112 metres). And very high standards of rowing are seen with many national squads competing for prestigious prizes such as the Grand Challenge Cup for eights.
The Regatta has also become one of the ‘Society’ events of the British summer where beautiful people mingle with old men squeezed into youthful, colourful rowing blazers and caps, reminiscing about long ago triumphs on the water!
C Leander Club
Leander Club was founded in 1818 on the Tideway in London and is one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world, though in its early days it was as much a social association as a competitive club. Membership numbers were restricted, initially to 16, then 25 and 35 until the limit was abolished in 1862. In 1858 it began to recruit from Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Women were not admitted to membership until 1998! Leander was London based until it purchased land in Henley in 1897 and built its present clubhouse flying the famous pink flag! Famous members include Steve Redgrave, Matthew Pinsent, Hugh Laurie and James Cracknell.
D Temple Island
The Island lies at the start of the course for Henley Royal Regatta, on the reach above Hambleden Lock. The downstream part of the Island contains a nature reserve. But the main feature is an elegant ornamental temple (a folly) designed by the famous 18th century architect James Wyatt as a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court and constructed in 1771.
In 1987 the Regatta was able to purchase a 999 years lease of the Island and temple, and significant restoration work has been completed.
E Culham Court
Culham Court is a Georgian house completed in the early 1770’s. It stands on the Berkshire bank of the Thames overlooking a 180-degree panorama of the Thames Valley. George III visited the house. Viscount Hambleden, grandson of the second W H Smith, bought the 650 acre Culham Estate in 1895 and later gave protective covenants over land on both sides of the river to The National Trust.
Since then the property has had some notable owners including the newspaper magnate Cecil King and Felicity Behrens, wife of banker Michael Behrens. In 2007 the estate was bought for £35m (£10m over the asking price!) by Urs Schwarzenbach, a Swiss born financier who made his fortune from founding Interexchange, the largest foreign exchange dealership in Switzerland. He has been UK based since the 1980’s and owns many other properties including the nearby village of Hambleden on the Buckinghamshire bank of the Thames, and a 10,000 acre estate in Scotland.
A long programme of improvements to the Culham Court Estate continues, including the creation of a maze containing 20,000 mature yew bushes and the extension of a 90 acre deer park.
F Medmenham Abbey
A Cistercian abbey was founded in Medmenham in the 12th century under the ownership of Woburn Abbey. In 1547 on the dissolution of the monasteries the Abbey was given to the Moore family and was then sold privately to the Duffields. In 1755 Sir Francis Dashwood, 15th Baron le Despencer, acquired the ruins of the Abbey from the Duffields and it became infamous as the location of The Hellfire Club, formerly called the Monks of Medmenham, where “persons of quality” participated in immoral acts from around 1749 possibly up to 1766. The Club’s motto was ‘Fais ce que tu voudrais’ (do what thou wilt)!
G Bell Pub, Waltham St Lawrence
The building is a ‘Wealden’ house dating from about 1400, originally comprising a narrow hall open to the roof (the smoke blackened timbers are still evident), with a parlour and a pantry/buttery on either side. Separate staircases led to the two rooms above. Between 1596 and 1723 a first floor was inserted and a chimney stack built, while the building was tenanted by a vicar – no vicarage was provided in those days – but mainly by small farmers.
In 1723 John Cumber, victualler, rented the property which was referred to in the lease as “the tenement commonly known by the name or sign of the Bell”, for £8 per year. The cellar was excavated in the 19th century and improvements have continued from time to time to the present day.
H Billingbear Park
Billingbear was a manor owned by the Bishop of Winchester and then the Crown until 1549 when King Edward VI granted it to Sir Henry Neville, a younger brother of the 5th Lord Bervagenny. He built a fine red brick Tudor mansion. The heirs to the Nevilles were the Lords Braybrooke and Billingbear was their chief residence until the 3rd Baron inherited Audley End in Essex. Tragically Billingbear Park was devastated by fire in 1924. The shell was torn down and no longer remains leaving only the parkland and 9 hole golf course.
J Caesar’s Camp
This iron age hill fort, more than 2,000 years old, covers an area of about 17 acres and is surrounded by a mile long ditch; it is a remarkable piece of engineering having been constructed entirely by hand using basic tools. While primarily a defensive location, it is possible that Caesar’s Camp could have been a market place or a religious or political centre. English Heritage conducted various surveys of the site in the 1990’s but little was revealed.
K Devil’s Highway
This was the Roman road from London to Silchester, whose Roman name was Calleva Atrebatum. This was a large town covering about 40 hectares, an administrative centre and an important trading centre specialising in metal, wood, textiles and leather working. It was largely abandoned after the Romans left Britain in the 5th century, and has been “rediscovered” by archaeological investigation in the last 100 years.
L Broadmoor Hospital
The hospital was built to a design by Sir Joshua Jebb of the royal Engineers and covers a secure area of 53 acres. It received its first prisoners in 1863. During World War 1, Broadmoor’s Block 1 was used as a prisoner-of-war camp, called Crowthorne War Hospital, for mentally ill German soldiers. Broadmoor now houses about 260 patients and is also a centre for training and research.
After an escapee, John Straffen, murdered a local child in 1952, an alarm system to alert residents in surrounding towns was established. A two tone alarm sounds in the event of an escape and it is tested every Monday morning at 10am for two minutes, after which a single tone ‘all clear’ sounds for a further two minutes.
M Ambarrow Court
Once a Victorian country estate, the original 1855 house has since been demolished. What remains is a 21 acres Nature Reserve and Wildlife Heritage site, open to access, with a nature trail. Ancient woodland includes coppiced birch and hazel, and there are marshes, ponds and a meadow on the lower slopes of Ambarrow Hill. Notable plants include bluebells, cuckoo flower and yellow rattle, plus mature trees such as Cedar and Douglas Fir; and some large specimen trees and yew hedges are leftover remnants of the Victorian era.
N Stratfield Saye House
The Manor of Stratfield Saye dates from the 12th century or earlier. In 1629 it was sold to the Pitt family (cousins of the great father and son prime ministers) and enlarged in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Following the Battle of Waterloo, a grateful nation wished to give the victor, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, a country estate to rival Marlborough’s Blenheim. He was given £600,000 for the purchase and construction. In 1817 Wellington chose the 5,000 acres estate of Stratfield Saye and the Pitt family sold it to the nation. Wellington planned to demolish the existing house and replace it with a more prestigious home to be known as Waterloo Place. However, by 1821 he’d abandoned these plans as too expensive and settled for enlarging and improving the existing structure. The 3rd and 4th Dukes are buried there and it remains the family home, with the 1st Duke’s commemorative column at the eastern entrance.
P Reading Gaol
HM Prison, Reading was built in 1844 as the Berkshire County Gaol in the heart of Reading. Designed by George Gilbert Scott, it was based on London’s New Model Prison at Pentonville with a cruciform shape and intended to implement the latest penal technique, the separate system. Executions were carried out, the first in 1845 (before a crowd of 10,000!) and the last in 1913. It closed as a gaol in 1920 but was an internment site in both world wars and also at one time, a borstal. Since 1992 it has been a young offender’s institution.
A famous inmate was Oscar Wilde who was there from late 1895 to 1897 and was designated prisoner C.3.3 i.e. cell block c, landing 3, cell 3. In 1898 Wilde’s poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was published.
Q Reading Abbey
Having been largely destroyed in 1538 during Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries – the last Abbot, Hugh Cook Faringdon, was convicted of high treason and hanged, drawn and quartered in front of the Abbey church – parts of the Abbey continued to be used by Reading School and to be Reading’s Town Hall until the 18th century. Now relatively few ruins remain.
Henry 1 founded the abbey in 1121 and gave it extensive lands in Reading and much further afield. Monks from the French Abbey of Cluny and from the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras at Lewes in Sussex were resident in Reading and the abbey was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. Wharves were established on the River Kennet and the river also provided power for the Abbey Water Mills, most of which were on the Holy Brook, a channel of the Kennet. Henry 1 died in France in 1135 and was buried in front of the altar of the then still incomplete Abbey.
Because of Royal patronage Reading Abbey was a medieval pilgrimage centre and a very rich religious house. It held many religious relics including, allegedly, the hand of St James. The song ‘Sumer is icumen in’ was first written down in the Abbey in about 1240.
The Abbey was frequently visited by kings notably Henry III. It hosted the weddings of John of Gaunt in 1359 and Edward IV in 1464. Parliament met there in 1453.
R Maiwand Lion in Forbury Gardens, Reading
This is a metal sculpture and war memorial, erected in 1886, to commemorate the 329 men from the 66th Berkshire Regiment who died during the Afghanistan campaign 1878-80. It is named for the Battle of Maiwand.
The sculptor was George Blackall Simonds, a member of the Reading brewing family. The sculpture took two years to design and complete and is one of the world’s largest cast iron statues, weighing 16 tons. Rumours persist that Simonds committed suicide – he did not, living another 43 years! – on learning that the lion’s gait was incorrectly that of a domestic cat. In fact he had researched thoroughly and the stance is anatomically correct.
S Blakes Lock
The first mile of the River Kennet from its junction with the River Thames has been navigable since the 13th century. Blakes Lock was originally a flash lock known as Brokenburglok. In 1404 the Abbot of Reading Abbey, who controlled the Kennet, made an agreement with the town’s guild to allow craft to pass through the lock between sunrise and sunset on payment of a 1d toll. By 1794 little had changed with John Rennie, the engineer of the Kennet & Avon Canal, describing it as “a very bad and inconvenient staunch lock”.
It was converted to a timber-constructed pound lock in 1802 to improve navigation from the Thames into the River Kennet enabling boats to travel all the way to Bristol using the aforementioned canal. The lock retains its manual beams – new timbers were fitted in 2006 – avoiding, so far, progress to hydraulic power.
The Riverside Museum at Blakes Lock tells the story of Reading’s two rivers, the Kennet & Thames.
T Sonning, sometimes called Sonning-on-Thames
The historical name of the village is Sunning derived from the Saxon Sunna. Sonning prospered as an important stopping post for travellers, both by road and boat. One old hostelry is the Great House on the site of the original ferryman’s cottage. The Great Western Railway passes about half a mile to the south of the village in a 2 miles long cutting, opened in 1840, and the site of a very early railway disaster in 1841 when a train ran into a landslip and 9 passengers died when thrown from open trucks behind the engine.
It is a pretty village with still today many older buildings of character. Jerome K. Jerome in his book Three Men in a Boat described it as “the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river”.
U Shiplake Church
Reached by taking the steep path up the hill just behind the Shiplake College boathouse, the earliest parts of St Peter’s and St Paul’s Church date from about 1140. In 1850 Tennyson married Emily Sellwood in this church.
V Shiplake College
The original buildings of Shiplake Court date from 1890. It was a private residence, and then owned by the BBC until being bought by Alexander and Eunice Everett in 1958 with the intention of opening a school. Shiplake College opened its doors on May 1st 1959 and now stands in 45 acres. It is an independent school of about 370 pupils; admits day boys from 11-18 and boarding boys from 13-18. Day and boarding girls join in the 6th form. Pupils are encouraged to pursue a broad education including development of leadership and management skills.
W Thames Path National Trail
The Thames Path was opened in 1996 following the length of the River, sometimes on one bank, sometimes on the other, from its source near Kemble in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier at Greenwich, some 184 miles. The entire length of the Path can be walked and some parts cycled; and most of it uses the original towpath.