Friday, 28 January 2022

Riverside is source of great inspiration

THE benches at Shiplake lock provide a view of wonderful flower boxes, passing boats so close

THE benches at Shiplake lock provide a view of wonderful flower boxes, passing boats so close that you can see in and talk to the crew and the island campers, coming and going to their craft or to their cars with wheelbarrows full of possessions.

The towpath from here towards Reading was a favourite of Eric Blair when he lived in Station Road, Shiplake, and went fishing with his friends from Quarry Close before and during the First World War.

Here he resolved to become a writer and, as George Orwell, he later used the area in Coming Up for Air. The description of Binfield in the novel seems to be Henley as he knew it in his teenage years.

The path has been fenced off now so that cattle no longer come down to drink and the banks are lined with teasel, mallow, chicory and pink balsam, which spreads along our rivers, and the big brown heads of great reedmace (bulrush) grow in the shallows.

In front of the the college boathouse a clear spring rises from a fringe of Canadian pondweed and flows out under the little bridge, ideal for Pooh sticks. In the weeds on the riverside are lots of little fish and the view is towards the “osier’d aits” of Tennyson’s poem, written on the occasion of his marriage to the vicar of Shiplake.

I will quote only the first and last stanza. It is not his best but heartfelt, for he married the vicar’s daughter and courted her here by the river.

Vicar of this pleasant spot Where it was my chance to marry, Happy, happy be your lot  In the vicarage by the quarry. You were he who knit the knot!

Sweetly flow your life with Kate’s  Glancing off from all things evil,  Smooth as Thames beneath your gates,  Thames along the silent level,  Streaming thro’ his osier’d aits.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson, poet laureate, married at Shiplake Church on June 13, 1850.

Ait is a version of eyot, meaning a small island, as in Rod Eyot at Henley, a diminutive of eye as in Sonning Eye.

If you take the path to the right of the boathouse you will see the old chalk quarry, now filled with boat storage, and pass round it steeply to climb up to the church and the Plowden Arms.

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