The incident of the curious dog on the Thames Path

A two-day family walk with an excitable pup. What could go wrong? We got our answer a couple of kilometres into the walk.

A golden retriever walks towards the camera along a boardwalk surrounded by greenery.

Having started at Pangbourne, we’d made our way out of the village to open ground beside the river. We thought Lula the dog deserved some time off the lead. And so we set her free to walk ahead of us. It was a decision we'd come to regret when we reached a section of boardwalk.

All was well at first – Lula trotted happily along the wooden slats. Then she spotted it: the thick, black mud below. It was some of the muddiest mud I've ever seen. And it was tempting. Too tempting. Oblivious to our commands, Lula flopped off the side of the boardwalk and disappeared up to her paw-pits. She wallowed. She frolicked. She sprawled. And then, eventually, she came back to us. A golden retriever no more, she was black from nose to tail and very, very excited.

A golden retriever, covered in black mud, sits in the long green grass.

Then the inevitable happened. Blobs of black mud rained down as Lula shook herself. G, aged nine, hid behind me and J as we tried to clip the filthy animal back on her lead without getting too dirty ourselves. Eventually, Lula was back on the lead and our minds turned to the hotel we'd booked in Reading that evening. We'd never be allowed in with a dog in this state. There was only one thing for it: she would have to go for a dip in the river.

So, as we walked on, we kept a lookout for places where a young dog in need of a bath could get down to the water. Several idyllic spots presented themselves and Lula washed herself off in shallow pools where the river had cut into the bank. They looked like the sorts of places where Ratty in Wind in the Willows might have launched his boat.

A large red brick house surrounded by woodland is visible across the river, a boat moored at the end of its garden.

Indeed, one of our stopping places was opposite a house said to be the inspiration for Toad Hall. It felt like we were leafing through the pages of Jerome K. Jerome or Kenneth Grahame as we walked. Toad Hall here, a skiff there – pleasure cruisers everywhere. It was reassuringly, comfortingly exactly like I imagined it would be. Very posh, but very pleasant. And even lovelier once the dog had enjoyed several dips in the river and returned to her usual, golden and largely mud-free, state.

Things changed a little as we approached the outskirts of Reading and the path threaded between river, road and railway. We’d gone from Wind in the Willows to sirens in the streets, from bulrushes to building sites. Lula seemed to be enjoying the urban smells and attention from passers by. But, like Ratty, I missed the riverbank.

Rusty steel cladding on a footbridge.

In the hotel that evening, I stayed with Lula – now resting up in her corner of the room – while G and J went for a swim. The pool was a bonus – we'd chosen the hotel for the price and the fact it took dogs. The view was another nice surprise. Our room was on the ninth floor and as I looked out across the town I could see where the river flowed on without us. We’d be reunited in the morning.

After breakfast, we checked out and started day two of the walk. We were aiming to reach Shiplake by mid-afternoon, from where we would catch the train back to Pangbourne. It was again a largely flat route – the most significant hill being one constructed near the centre of Reading. Forbury Hill, we learnt when we stumbled upon it as we navigated our way back to the path, was a Royalist defence in the Civil War.

A woman, child and dog sit beside the river in the long green grass a as a blue canal boat goes past.

Leaving the ghosts of Cavaliers and Roundheads behind to battle it out, we followed the Thames Path as it meandered beside the river. Rowers sculled past us, cutting their way easily downstream. And we too seemed to make easy progress. It wasn't long before we were eating our picnic at Sonning Lock.

We’d taken to stopping at locks to eat. They usually had benches, occasionally toilets and often something for us to watch. Sometimes it was swans. Sometimes it was boaters. And once it was a lock keeper's elderly Labrador, which took great delight in greeting people aboard passing boats. The lower water level meant that people often found themselves nose-to-nose with the old river dog.

A young boy in a blue cap walks a golden retriever on a bare soil path through a field.

Now, at Sonning Lock, our own dog sat watching us intently but obediently as we ate. She was rewarded with a dog biscuit when we'd finished our sandwiches. Then we packed up and headed on – crossing a bridge to the north bank of the Thames for the first time. A few fields later, we turned away from the river and headed for Shiplake station to start the long journey home.

This had been Lula's walk. She’d made it more difficult, more chaotic but above all more fun. Thanks Lula, we’ll take you on the next one.