Marlow grew up at a crossing point on the Thames, and boasts the only suspension bridge upriver of London. It's a charming town in the upper echelons of the commuter belt, mixing a bit of ye olde worlde with tearooms and bespoke shops. From here you could walk west to Henley, which is the route I followed last time, or you could head east round the bend to Maidenhead, which is my choice on this occasion. Both walks are splendidly scenic, and popular, and nine miles in length. Plus, being riverside walks, it's relatively hard to get lost.
After a brief alleyway wiggle, the Thames Path breaks out onto Marlow's waterside beside a weir linked to a small island. It doesn't take long to leave the town behind - a huge dual carriageway bridge soon blots it out - to face the gloriously leafy slopes of Quarry Wood and Winter Hill. You'd need considerable wealth to be able to live in seclusion on the other side, and one particularly large home has castellated walls and tower to make the point.
Rather than any narrow footpath, the way ahead follows a shady avenue of trees, then opens out into broad riverside meadows where you can stroll at will. This is prime dogwalking territory, indeed I've rarely seen quite so high a proportion of strollers with hounds. These are proper pedigree dogs too, in one case even a corgi with a diamanté collar, and absolutely none of those staffies and bulldogs which plague less well-off parts of the country. One family group I pass is struggling to keep tabs on all four of their beasts (Terry!), who repeatedly career off in search of trees (Luna!), water (Jedi!) and fellow dogs (Bo!) before returning apologetically and then bounding off again.
Once an hour the train to Marlow passes by on the far side of the meadow, while on the river a succession of pleasurecraft glide through, their crews bedecked in panamas and floppy sunhats. Also out in force are the coxless fours, being shouted at by a man on a launch who's having a much easier time of it, plus a flurry of yachts grasping the opportunity for some messing about. These have set sail from the Upper Thames Sailing Club in Bourne End, past whose jolly clubhouse the path treads, and who are holding an Open Day on Sunday 23rd if you'd like to get a taste for the floating life. A medium 99 from the ice cream van up the embankment costs only £2.
Through Bourne End the Thames Path is held a few feet back from the water by a succession of private landing stages for the chalets shadowing the bank. It's like following an alleyway through a run of back gardens, with loss of privacy for residents the trade-off for easy access to their motorlaunch on the river. The railway bridge here has been exploited to add a footbridge alongside, allowing the Path to switch from Bucks to Berks, and along which flank it'll remain all the way to Maidenhead. A plaque commemorates "Callum Dunkin Winner of the Bourne End Rivet Challenge 2013", which sounds exciting, but was actually the prize in a young persons' Guess How Many Rivets Are in The Railway Bridge competition soon after it was refurbished.
On the opposite bank sits an isolated but popular waterside pub, and beyond that a large meadow called Cock Marsh, which is under the care of the National Trust. This too is a veritable dog-magnet, and one shallow inlet downstream is amok with swimming labradors and shaking spaniels, while their adoring owners collectively stand back and watch. Other eyes are on the motley collection of mansions opposite, each with boathouses and/or jetties, as the broad sweep of the Thames swings round towards Cookham.
The Thames splits into four here, which means a) you can't easily follow it, b) boats require careful navigation, c) walkers have to divert through the village. Don't worry, Cookham's pretty, or at least the riverside part away from the newer bit by the railway station is. Watch out for the half-timbered High Street, watch out for the Stanley Spencer Gallery, a tribute to Cookham's artistic son, and watch out for traffic on some of the bends because the main road's not especially pedestrian friendly. If you're making a break for Cliveden, and don't mind a lengthy additional hike, this road bridge is where to head off.
It takes the Thames Path some time to trail down Mill Lane before finally regaining the riverside opposite dramatic wooded cliffs. Cliveden's majestic house and gardens are somewhere up on the plateau, while picnicking visitors might be spread out across the lower lawn. But it's the trees that impress, steeply packed along a ridge that extends for over a mile along a marvellously isolated stretch of the Thames. In autumn it's utterly spectacular, I'm told, but spring's fresh shades of green are quietly magical too. For anyone with a motorboat, cruiser or launch, this is very much the place to be.
On the Berkshire bank all is flat with grumbly-looking cattle grazing an extensive meadow, until eventually the outskirts of Maidenhead kick in, richest residents first. Abruptly the path merges into pavement, and suddenly there are dozens of people again, many drawn to the spectacle of boats descending at Boulter's Lock (or the availability of ice cream alongside). The village of Taplow is somewhere behind the screen of trees, while Maidenhead becomes increasingly municipal as the A4 road bridge finally approaches. Walking in the opposite direction would probably reduce the sense of anti-climax, but don't let that put you off, because this has been one mighty fine stroll.
Travelling by train: Depart Paddington and change at Maidenhead for the train to Marlow, which runs hourly at weekends. Your return ticket will let you back into the station at Maidenhead, which is an annoying final hike from the river.