HENNERTON BACKWATER - downstream entrance
[ Only for small boats - for main stream click here ]
Hennerton Backwater, Wargrave Local History Society.
1910: Hennerton Backwater in Thames Villages by Charles Harper.
At the end of the reach above Marsh Lock
the river bends away to the Right bank side but, if in an unpowered boat, go
straight on crossing over to the Left bank.
If in a punt you will be out of your depth and need to paddle.
Here is the downstream end of Hennerton Backwater, the very centre of the world, known personally to me as "Jammy beggar land"! That came about whilst camping up here during Henley Regatta. Punting down the backwater on a warm summer morning with blue skies and perfect silence, anticipating the regatta, it suddenly came to me "I'm a Jammy beggar!" (=lucky) and "Jammy Beggar Land" it has been ever since
The backwater was probably formed by the River Loddon; and then the Thames in its meanderings cut into the Loddon at Wargrave, and so captured the backwater. It would naturally have silted up and disappeared long ago were it not for the maintenance of the riverside owners who quite rightly cherish it. This is Thames water flowing - there is a right of way for all vessels that can get through the very low Fiddlers Bridge at the upstream end.
Apparently until the 1900s the stream was known simply as "The Backwater". When the landowner (C F Johnson who gave his name to Johnson's Bridge) owned the land on both sides of the stream he claimed the Backwater as his own and called it after Hennerton House which had been named in 1817 from Hennerton Lane. It thus became "The Hennerton Backwater"
2003: Thames-side beauty spot restored
The Environment Agency has been working in partnership with local riverside residents from the Hennerton Backwater Association (HBA) to restore a former beauty spot and improve navigation for canoeists and small boat users. The area is a one and a half mile loop backwater of the Thames, between Wargrave and Henley-on-Thames.
The restoration and river navigation project was completed early July with an investment of £8,200 by the agency, and over 1,000 volunteer man-hours by local residents, over four winters. Navigation has been restored through a combination of stabilising river-banks and clearing over-grown trees.
The Agency formally set up partnership with HBA in April 2003 to ensure better management of river-bed levels and improve navigation for the backwater - a haven for wildlife and a popular and picturesque spot for canoeing, boating, and with local residents. The project followed extensive work that dedicated members of the HBA carried out themselves, with 1,000+ man-hours that entailed clearing dozens of over-hanging and submerged trees.
> Agency ecologists met with HBA members to discuss the best methods to remove increasing silt in the backwater to ensure the river area was once again navigable, following its gradual demise since the late-1990s. It was agreed the most beneficial method was to strategically plant 100 metres of hazel faggots and coir fibre rolls to narrow the channel, which would increase the speed of the river. This would remove built-up silt on the river-bed, enabling it to return to its natural gravel, with the coir rolls planted with indigenous species to attract butterflies and insects, providing a greatly increased spawning habitat.
Peter Collins, Agency flood defence officer said: "Hennerton Backwater is a beautiful, tranquil area, ideal for small boats, punts, canoes and kayaks which had become virtually impassable in the late 90s. Local residents have done a great deal of physical, hard work to clear the backwater of tree debris on a year-by-year basis. The Agency was pleased to form the partnership with the HBA, which aims to maintain a clear channel, both width and depth, using a sustainable, no maintenance method. The project has ensured the cleared area is navigable for boat users now and into the future."
Philip Meadowcroft, secretary of HBA commented: "Members and friends of the HBA have a common interest in preserving the beauty, nature and heritage of the backwater. The Environment Agency has been approving and encouraging in the results we have achieved so far. The partnership is a very positive one and we greatly value the close ties that have developed with Agency staff."
1889: A S Krausse, A Pictorial History of the Thames -
The lower end [of Hennerton Backwater], beneath the heights of Park Place is, however hardly
discernable when coming up stream, and needs looking for, especially in summer, when the river is
in this part well covered with rushes. ...
The backwater in question is even prettier than Patrick Stream, and has in its time been the subject of even more marked struggles on the subject of right of way. This little stream runs through land owned by Mr. Rhodes, in whose family it has been for very many years. The owner has at various times placed obstructions in the water such as to render access difficult to boats, but the question is, for the present at least, settled, and it is now possible to exercise the undoubted public right of navigation.
Hennerton Backwater is a little over a mile in length, and is spanned by two bridges, which add an additional charm to the rusticity of the scene.
1881: George Leslie -
The end of this reach is very lovely, the mainstream, with some backwaters and islands
trending away to the right by Bolney Court;
whilst, on the left, the stream narrows up to the entrance of a very
interesting backwater of about a mile and a quarter's length, reaching quite up
to Wargrave. At this end, where it
leaves the main river, on the right-hand side, in the sluggish water and mud-bank,
grow lofty plumes of reeds and reed-mace, seven or eight feet high, of quite a
tropical character, through which one would not be surprised to see the mother
of Moses or Pharaohs daughter appear.
It is generally sheltered and calm here, and to see this place in its
perfection, a fine evening at the end of September should be chosen, when the
colouring of the weeds and banks in the warm sunlight is as
fine as anything ever done by Turner and Nature combined.
You need not mind the notice-boards about private waters &c., if you wish to explore this stream. These boards are generally put up at backwaters; but as long as the stream is navigable and no landing is attempted, the right of way cannot be disputed.
1885: The Upper Thames, Harpers New Monthly Magazine -
At a bend of the river about half a mile [above] Marsh Lock there is a bit of back-water
and a great bank of rushes, where surely Mr. Millais got his inspiration for Chill October.
Our boatman knows the way round the island that occupies the very centre of the river, and we shoot along by the lawn of a fine old residence, and beneath branches of oak and beech and straggling willow, and through great beds of water-lilies ...
1889: Jerome K Jerome has been reading Leslie! He says -
We went up the backwater to Wargrave. It is a short cut, leading out of the right-hand bank about half a mile above Marsh Lock, and is well worth taking, being a pretty, shady little piece of stream, besides saving nearly half a mile of distance. Of course, its entrance is studded with posts and chains, and surrounded with notice boards, menacing all kinds of torture, imprisonment, and death to everyone who dares set scull upon its waters - I wonder some of these riparian boors don't claim the air of the river and threaten everyone with forty shillings fine who breathes it - but the posts and chains a little skill will easily avoid; and as for the boards, you might, if you have five minutes to spare, and there is nobody about, take one or two of them down and throw them into the river.
1891: And Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell have also read Leslie, The Stream of Pleasure -
We explored ... the many near back-waters, with that indifference to the sign
"Private Water" which Mr Leslie in "Our River" recommends.
Indeed, no one seems to heed it. I have heard men read aloud "Private Water", and add at once "Oh, that's all right. Come on!"
[ The law is that there is a right of navigation wherever Thames Water flows - and this is Thames water. ]
Hennerton backwater, below Wargrave, is another of the delightful side-streams that are plentiful here, and is now, after a good deal of litigation, pronounced free. The wooded road between Wargrave and Henley skirts it, and is carried over a lovely valley in the grounds of Park Place by a very fine arch of forty-three feet span, built of gigantic rough stones.
1910: Under the willows, A backwater near Wargrave
1881: George Leslie continues -
The little stream narrows as it passes an orchard on the left, and then, with a
bend, a private boat-house and bathing-place are reached;
about this part, if in a rowing boat,
look out carefully for some sunk fencing beneath the water, which cannot be
seen when you are sitting down, and against which you may come with a nasty
jerk if going fast. When punting, you
are almost sure to see the obstruction, and also the passway through it, quite
Immediately beyond this place, the stream runs beneath a pretty bridge, and then comes out into the meadows of Wargrave Marsh;
1887: Johnson's Bridge, Henry Taunt -
Hennerton Bridge, Henry Taunt, 1887
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT05102
1889: A S Krausse, A Pictorial History of the Thames, Hennerton Bridge -
Hennerton Bridge, 1889
1901: Johnson's Bridge -
Hennerton Water Bridge, 1901
1999: Johnson's Bridge -
Johnson's Bridge, 1999
1889: Here Jerome K Jerome has one of his comic interludes -
up the backwater, we got out and lunched; and it was during this lunch that
George and I received rather a trying shock.
Harris received a shock, too; but I do not think Harris's shock could
have been anything like so bad as the shock that
George and I had over the business.
You see, it was in this way: we were sitting in a meadow, about ten yards from the water's edge, and we had just settled down comfortably to feed. Harris had the beefsteak pie between his knees, and was carving it, and George and I were waiting with our plates ready.
"Have you got a spoon there?" says Harris;
"I want a spoon to help the gravy with."
The hamper was close behind us, and George and I both turned round to reach one out. We were not five seconds getting it. When we looked round again, Harris and the pie were gone! It was a wide, open field. There was not a tree or a bit of hedge for hundreds of yards. He could not have tumbled into the river, because we were on the water side of him, and he would have had to climb over us to do it. George and I gazed all about. Then we gazed at each other.
"Has he been snatched up to heaven?" I queried.
"They'd hardly have taken the pie too," said George.
There seemed weight in this objection, and we discarded the heavenly theory.
"I suppose the truth of the matter is," suggested George, descending to the commonplace and practicable,
"that there has been an earthquake."
And then he added, with a touch of sadness in his voice:
"I wish he hadn't been carving that pie."
With a sigh, we turned our eyes once more towards the spot where Harris and the pie had last been seen on earth; and there, as our blood froze in our veins and our hair stood up on end, we saw Harris's head - and nothing but his head - sticking bolt upright among the tall grass, the face very red, and bearing upon it an expression of great indignation! George was the first to recover.
"Speak!" he cried,
"and tell us whether you are alive or dead - and where is the rest of you?"
"Oh, don't be a stupid ass!" said Harris's head.
"I believe you did it on purpose."
"Did what?" exclaimed George and I.
"Why, put me to sit here - darn silly trick! Here, catch hold of the pie."
And out of the middle of the earth, as it seemed to us, rose the pie - very much mixed up and damaged; and, after it, scrambled Harris - tumbled, grubby, and wet. He had been sitting, without knowing it, on the very verge of a small gully, the long grass hiding it from view; and in leaning a little back he had shot over, pie and all. He said he had never felt so surprised in all his life, as when he first felt himself going, without being able to conjecture in the slightest what had happened. He thought at first that the end of the world had come. Harris believes to this day that George and I planned it all beforehand. Thus does unjust suspicion follow even the most blameless for, as the poet says,
"Who shall escape calumny?"
1881: But back to George Leslie -
here [ Hennerton Backwater ] winds about with many a twist, at one place having a small island in its centre.
[ The said island has now almost lost its Left bank channel and with it any claim to be an island. ]
Weeds of every sort grow in great beauty, and many shy birds frequent the spot; the kingfisher may often be seen darting along, and here I once saw some long-tailed tomtits, which had a nest up in a willow stump. A heron is very likely to be disturbed by your boat, and go off with its great flapping wings.
[ You will find a series of large houses on the Left bank and fields on the Right bank. The traffic noise only serves to highlight the peace of the river here. ]
Hennerton Backwater, 1999
1891: The Stream of Pleasure, Joseph and Elizabeth Robins Pennell -
In Bolney back-water the trees meet above your head, and in the water below, with here
and there a glimpse beyond the willows of lovely poplars and old farmhouses and
"wide meadows which the sunshine fills".
Reeds and lilies and long trailing water plants in places choke the stream, so that sculls are put away for the paddle. May and sweetbrier, with the bloom all gone now in mid-August, trail over the banks. Flowering blackberries festoon the bridges, where you must lie low as you float under the arch.
The stillness is broken only by the plashing of your paddle and the twittering of birds; the dragon-fly comes to dream on the water, blue kingfishers fly from shore to shore, and the water-rat swims across the track of your boat.
The solitude is seldom disturbed, except perhaps by a boy in a dinghy, by the one-armed ferryman of Wargrave in a punt coaching a beginner, or by a canoe silently stealing along.
A few years ago (1980s) we camped in Mrs Brown's field (a water meadow full of rabbits). She was a gracious lady and we returned with our small family and then a youth group on several occasions. But alas, she died, and her house was demolished and that was that.
The stream swings round to the right under a private footbridge linking two parts of the one garden and then left under another footbridge, until ahead of you is a very low bridge.
Fiddler's Bridge, Willow Lane
1881: George Leslie -
To return to our backwater, which goes wandering on, very much in the style of my
writing, until you begin to think it will never come to an end, save that as
the water is running you know it must come from somewhere;
Eventually at length a very low bridge is reached, to pass under which it will be necessary to lie down in your boat, the tiny arched bridge is so low that one has to lie full length in a boat in order to pass under it. This is called Fiddler's bridge, though no local tradition keeps alive the origin of the name.
Local tradition actually now associates the name with Fiddler's Farm
1999: Fiddler's Bridge -
Fiddlers Bridge, Willow Lane, Wargrave
At this point you now find yourself in a
marina. Boats moored on both sides of
the stream. Sometimes
almost blocking access from the bridge.
You have right of way wherever Thames water flows
and it certainly flows through Hennerton Backwater.
1881: George Leslie -
and then the stream widens, and on the right-hand side there runs an outlet into the main. It is best, however, to continue straight on
Modern footbridge from Left bank to island -
1881: George Leslie -
... past a funny little cottage on the left, which when first I knew it seemed inhabited only by cats; three beautiful white ones were generally to be seen basking in the sun.
And so we rejoin the main stream a little below The George and Dragon.