You could, if you fancied, spend all day in Windsor alone. There's the Castle, and the town museum, and boat trips on the river, and far more shops than any town of this size truly deserves. I arrived just in time to see the Changing of the Guard, or at least to watch a phalanx of bandsmen in bearskins marching off into the distance pursued by tourists. But instead I slipped off to the river, to descend the steps beside the bridge across to Eton. It only takes a minute to pass the last bar and restaurant, and then there's a peaceful stroll ahead hemmed in between the Thames and the railway. The turrets of Eton College are sporadically visible, as the first meander curves round to enter Home Park. Queen Victoria donated this parcel of land to the people of Windsor in 1851 for their recreation, and until recently it was the location of the Royal Windsor Horse Show. Midweek in March it's rather quieter, blessed with pink-blossomed trees along the edge of the road, and the castle rising proud from the rock behind. [photo]
The majority of Home Park, however, remains very much under royal control. These walled-off acres form the Queen's back garden, and a mighty whopping back garden she has too. The Thames Path is forced to cross the river to avoid this Crown Estate, but the walk along Sumptermead Ait does provide an extremely clear view across to the exclusive fields and farmland beyond. Various buildings can be seen dotted around, from cute Thamesside cottages to taller brick lodges, each seemingly preserved for the few afternoons a year when the monarch and her family fancy playing at being farmers. A forced deviation through Datchet village follows. You don't live here unless you've got a cool million to spare, although there is a major catch. The flight path into Heathrow passes directly overhead, especially along Southlea Road, which must be hell when there's a garden party to attend. Onward over Albert Bridge...
Diversion → Windsor Farm Shop: It's not just any farm shop, this, it's the Queen's farm shop. Produce from the royal vegetable patch, along with various Fortnum-type comestibles, are sold here in a mini-supermarket just outside the castle grounds in Old Windsor. There are plenty of biscuits and jams and sauces, but also organic fruit and veg to pick, plus some rather tasty-looking local loaves. Carnivores will enjoy the meat-based products, from a full (and probably overstaffed) butchers at the rear of the shop, to paper-packaged pies culled from the Sandringham herd. I succumbed to a "small pork pie", which was considerably larger and cheaper than the designer pastries you get at certain trendy London street markets, and a non-manufactured chocolate brownie. I resisted the shelves of Diamond Jubilee souvenirs, tacked on near the till, but did walk away with two crown-branded condiments which'll save up nicely as Christmas presents. Alas HM doesn't serve behind the counter, and alas, I doubt I'll ever be in the area again.
The path avoids Old Windsor proper, and the meander at Ham Island which now hides a sewage works. Instead, welcome to the world of very rich people who like messing around on boats. The shorelines of Sunnymeads and Wraysbury are lined with hundreds and hundreds of "houses that back down to the water", where residents can nip down their lawn into a cruiser moored up by the banks. By the looks of the midweek crowd, and the sight of much bronzed wrinkled flesh, this is a favoured retirement spot. It's very nearly in Surrey, which is reached round a wooded corner at Runnymede House...
Diversion → Runnymede: The Thames Path hogs the riverside of this most famous meadow, but it would be a shame not to wander off towards the hillside and enjoy some of the history of the place. Somewhere here, 797 years ago, King John was forced to add his seal to Magna Carta [note to self: come back in 2015 and write about Runnymede properly]. There's no major English commemoration of the event, unless you count a National Trust teashop, but there is a UFO-style memorial on the slopes of Coopers Hill paid for by the American Bar Association. More intriguing is the acre of American soil to the east, donated to the US by the Queen following the assassination of John F Kennedy. His memorial is a sculpted cuboid of Portland Stone, reached by climbing 50 granite steps from the valley below [photo]. I had the full acre all to myself for a few glorious minutes, and sat on the Seats of Contemplation gazing out across the Thames towards, ah, Heathrow Terminal 5. [note to self: come back in 2015 and write about Runnymede properly]
The eastern edge of Runnymede has a larger car park, and (from what I saw) considerable appeal to the "drive to the river, walk ten feet out of your car and sprawl on the grass" crowd. Here the smart houses begin again, no two the same, and no one eminently affordable. Look closely and you'll see most are on stilts, or at least with back door raised up above towpath level, for fear of the flooding which besets this residential idyll during occasional wet winters. At Hythe End a large weir crosses the river so boats are funnelled through a deep lock, which is charming at one end and a bit hotel-corporate at the other [photo]. And then the M25 intrudes, roaring overhead on a twin bridge - one half of which was here before and the other half of which was added to allow passage for motorway and non-motorway traffic.
The final mile is along increasingly ordinary riverside, because this stretch got the light industry and the water treatment works. One bunch of fortunate locals get to live on a tiny triangular island, linked to the northern bank by a tiny bridge. And the bigger bridge ahead. That's your welcome to Staines, or as the town now wishes to be known, Staines-on-Thames. The new name immediately makes me think of oil slicks, which can't be ideal, whereas the only things I saw on the water were a few kayaks and some rather charming swans. Following the Thames means avoiding the centre of town, all the shops and the bus station, which is probably for the best. But unless you fancy a long walk to the next sniff of civilisation at Weybridge, best break here and head for a train out.