Eton and Windsor sit across the Thames from each other. Eton considers Windsor, undoubtedly thinking “Ah yes, that is what I shall be when I grow up.” The two towns almost ache with the kind of snobbish understatement that renders stereotypical the image of landed British gentry. Even the signs on the shops seem to smile that annoying little wry smile at you. “American, are you?” I don’t know how the signs can tell, but they can. They don’t mock my British friends, only me.
Needless to say, both towns are cute, pretty, “twee” as the British would say and are worth a visit. For that matter, the entire Thames valley, west of London, is worth an extended visit. In this part of England, the Thames itself is a charming little river, the kind of river that trees simply love to hang over, shedding leaves into its placid waters and providing shade for walkers. One does feel that if all were truly right in the world, those who strolled along the Thames near Eton would be wearing waistcoats or Victorian dresses, carrying shiny black walking sticks or frilly parasols as the case may be, but don’t let this stop you from enjoying the river’s banks even in sweats and sneakers.
Don’t let it stop you from staying there, either. In fact, one of my favorite hotels in the world is in the Thames valley—the Monkey Island Inn, in Dray, which sits all by itself on an island in the Thames, accessible only by footbridge. The English have a knack for making the impractical enjoyable.
But I digress. Our subject for the moment is not the river itself, nor its banks, but its inhabitants. Namely, its birds.
The Windsor Bridge was built in 1823, replacing an earlier wooden structure. At the time, it was a toll bridge (it cost sixpence to cart a corpse across it, for instance) but today one can walk across it freely, with or without a cadaver. One can no longer drive across it, because it’s a bit iffy, but one can walk across it, and it’s a good place to start observing the birds.
There are hordes of waterfowl living in the Thames near the Windsor Bridge. Preponderant among them are the swans. Swans are very large, beautiful, and exceedingly nasty creatures who float around like they own the world, bullying lesser birds such as ducks and gulls in order to come as close as they can to anyone who seems likely to want to give them something to eat. While you’re still up on the bridge they don’t deign to take notice of you, but once you go down to the riverbank, the fun begins.
I suggest the Windsor side. The Eton side does boast a better view (of Windsor and the castle), but the Windsor side has a nicer walking path. If you walk slowly looking at the birds, they will immediately assume that you’re going to give them some bread, and they’ll start gliding over to you. It takes them a while to realize that you’re not giving them anything to eat. Foolish birds.
I remember being a young child, and thinking that swans moved through the water propelled by some kind of magic, or a magnetic force. I was disappointed when I first saw their big gnarly feet paddling underneath the surface. It was as though they were cheating. The Thames is muddy enough, though, that the illusion can often hold, and the swans simply glide around, snapping out at the ducks. I’ll pause here to head off a potential avenue of complaint, for I can already imagine notes from irate British duck enthusiasts saying that these are not, in fact, ducks, they are really Speckled Russian Gribbens, or some equally obscure fowl. Cut me some slack, I know nothing about such things and anything that has wings and says “quack” is and will always be a duck to me.
I recently counted over forty swans in the Thames near the bridge, and countless ducks, speckled gribbens, whatever. I also noticed some very particular behavior, that should undoubtedly be researched by people interested in such things. Notably, I saw a swan water skiing. This is the truth. The thing flapped and ran along the water in that ridiculous way swans have of trying to take off, until it got a little air, then it flew in a wide, low circle, stuck out its legs, webbed fingers splayed, and went SWISH……on its feet along the water’s surface for a good ten meters, wings spread and neck craned. It looked like great fun, exactly the kind of thing I would do if I were a swan. I expected it to stop and say “dude, that was righteous,” but it didn’t. It just folded up its kit and bobbed around with a mischievous glint in its beady black eye. I waited a good fifteen minutes to see if it would do it again, but it had decided to engage in that favorite swan sport of being mean to other animals and so was distracted from extreme skiing.
Another good place to stay on a waterfowl observation outing is Christopher Wren’s house, which is now a hotel right near the bridge, on the Windsor side. It doesn’t have the outright charm of the Monkey Island Inn, but it’s not quite so isolated and I think it’s supposed to be haunted. Christopher Wren is a fun historical figure, because you’ve probably heard of him, yet have no idea what he did. I had a vague impression he had something to do with Winnie-the-Pooh, but it turns out he was an architect. Anyway, if you decide to check out the birds, you should probably bring some bread. For that matter, bring some extra and feed them for me, I owe them.