There are seven lovely islands - mainly accessible by boat from below lock - though of course the lock island is
accessed by the two footbridges from the Left bank.
1829: A Tour on the Banks of the Thames by A Walton & R Walton (2011 edition available)-
The appearance of things at this point is peculiarly interesting ;
on whichsoever side the eye turns is beheld lovely groves,
romantic cottages, green lawns, blissful bowers;
while the water rolling gently on, softly murmuring as it flows,
gives an agreeable finish to so excellent a picture.
The number, too, of ladies and gentlemen who are to be seen in their skiffs enjoying the gentle motion of their fairy vessels as they are slowly wafted over the silver wave, or engaged in their punts, "studious the finny creatures to deceive", all these tend to throw a charm over the scene more easily felt than described.
1881: George Leslie, "Our River" -
All the backwaters about Harleyford are very pretty, and in one of them Mr. Fildes painted his boat picture, Fair, quiet, sweet rest.
There are generally a good many artists at Hurley, and two or three house boats can usually be seen moored off the lock-house. Lady Place and Hurley Mill, with its fine old weathercock, afford a great variety of subjects for the artist. Some curious old fishponds inside the grounds of Lady place, the well-known wall with its old ivy on it, the dovecot, barns, and gateways, all testify to the grandeur and beauty of the house that has perished. Not the least picturesque features about here are the little wooden bridges, where the tow-path changes sides; long may they exist, as it is ten to one if they are ever repaired it will be with iron. The boat-house just above, which belongs to Sir Gilbert East, is not an ugly one, and in time it will look very much better, as it is chiefly the varnish which spoils it now.
In Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, Mole and Rat are out on the river at night time searching for baby Otter who has gone missing. They are approaching a weir with islands below it, rather like Hurley -
Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while
Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just
keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him
"It's gone!" sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again.
"So beautiful and strange and new! Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever.
No! There it is again!" he cried, alert once more.
Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spell-bound.
"Now it passes on and I begin to lose it" he said presently.
"O, Mole! The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin clear happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us!"
The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed.
"I hear nothing myself", he said, "but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers."
The Rat never answered, if indeed he heard. Rapt, transported, trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it, a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp. In silence Mole rowed steadily, and soon they came to a point where the river divided, a long backwater branching off to one side.
With a slight movement of his head Rat, who had long dropped the rudder lines, directed the rower to take the backwater. The creeping tide of light gained and gained, and now they could see the colour of the flowers that gemmed the water's edge.
"Clearer and nearer still," cried the Rat joyously.
"Now you must surely hear it! Ah - at last - I see you do!"
Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up, and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade's cheek, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung there, brushed by the purple loosestrife that fringed the bank; then the clear imperious melody imposed its will on Mole, and mechanically he bent to his oars again. And the light grew steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was marvellously still.
On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.
A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds with its solemn soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir's shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder. Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and, with the hour, those who were called and chosen.
Islands beneath Hurley Weir -
"In midmost of the stream, embraced in the weir's shimmering armspread -"
Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation
whatever, and in something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed
through the broken, tumultuous water and moored their boat at the flowery
margin of the island. In silence they
landed, and pushed through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that
led up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of marvellous
green, set round with Nature's own orchard trees - crab-apple, wild cherry, and
"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me," whispered Rat, as if in a trance.
"Here in this holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!"
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was no panic terror - indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy - but it was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.
With difficulty he turned to look for his friend, and saw him at his side cowed, stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and still the light grew and grew.
Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that, though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were death himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden.
Trembling he obeyed, and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fullness of incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth broke into a half smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nesting between his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the baby otter.
All this he saw, for one moment breathless and intense, vivid on the morning sky;
and still as he looked, he lived;
and still, as he lived, he wondered.
"Rat!" he found breath to whisper, shaking.
"Are you afraid?"
"Afraid?" murmured the rat, his eyes shining with unutterable love.
"Afraid! Of Him? O, never, never! And yet - and yet - O, Mole, I am afraid!"
Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship.
[ If C S Lewis could portray Christ as
Aslan the Lion, then why not our God as Pan the Piper? This is not some betrayal of Christianity in
favour of an older religion - rather it is a question of the setting within
which the eternal truths are portrayed.
There is nothing but goodness and holiness and joy here.
Whatever your faith and lack of it, you know
and appreciate that.
Those who would introduce evil into such a story bear a great and terrible responsibility.
Kenneth Grahame has given us a story of the experience of the numinous - the holy awe at the presence of the divine - which is almost unique, as far as I am aware, in that it is so English and set on the river. Those who use manually propelled boats know something of the silence and beauty that led him to this evocation of holiness. Cherish it!
And there are now baby otters back on the Thames!
Which is all to say that the islands below Hurley weir are a very special place. ]
I had for years instinctively identified Hurley as the place to set the quotation above but now I have come across authority for it -
1893: The Rural Pan, An April Essay, by Kenneth Grahame, (read online) -
Meanwhile, nor launches nor lawns tempt him that pursueth the rural Pan. In the hushed recesses of Hurley backwater where the canoe may be paddled almost under the tumbling comb of the weir, he is to be looked for; there the god pipes with freest abandonment.
1909: Fred Thacker (writing about the Thames above Oxford in The Stripling Thames) -
And who knows, for eyes that can see and for ears that can hear, from what fringe of willows
or rushy island the shaggy god may not emerge to cut and fashion a reed
and blow thereon with mad delight some "unheard, sweeter melody"?
For neither is he dead, nor Syrinx; herebouts they still inhabit
as surely as anywhere in England.
The reeds that rustle in the breeze
Still whisper of the god's pursuit
Slim Syrinx startled turns and flees
Great Pan has shrilled his oaten flute!
1906: G.E.Mitton -
Certain places are frequently associated with
certain seasons of the year, and to my mind at Hurley it is always summer. The
smell of the new mown hay on the long island between the lock channel and part
of the main stream, the faint, delicate scent of dog-roses, and all the other
scents that load the summer air, seem to linger for ever in this sheltered
The backwater running up on the other side of this island to the weir is a very enticing one. Thirsty plants dip their pretty heads to drink of the water that comes swirling from the weir like frosted glass, and trees of all sorts-ash, elm, horse-chestnut, and the ubiquitous willows and poplars-lean over the water in crooked elbows, giving a sweet shade and a delicious coolness.
The weir is a long one, broken by islands into three parts. Another long island is parallel to the first one. Indeed, Hurley is a complicated place, and one that is ever new.