An affluent town on the Middle Thames, Marlow was an important crossing on the river as early as the 13th century when the Knights Templar built the first bridge.
The town has a prestigious rowing club (founded 1871), and one of its members is the Marlow-born Steve Redgrave, the most decorated male rower in Olympic history.
There’s a statue in his honour in the riverside Higginson Park, while Redgrave is the president of the town’s annual regatta, taking place on the Thames in June.
In the 19th century William Tierney Clark designed a ceremonious bridge for Marlow, which became a model for Clark’s Chain Bridge in Budapest.
Marlow has boutiques and local shops on the High Street, Spittal Street and West Street, and features the only pub to have earned two Michelin stars, the Hand and Flowers.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Marlow:
1. Marlow Bridge
Marlow has been a crossing point on the Thames since at least 1227. As traffic increased in the 19th century the town needed a new bridge to replace the old wooden one, and the civil engineer William Tierney Clark was hired to build it.
He produced one of the most handsome crossings on the Thames.
Balanced by two triumphal arches and with cables and railings painted white, the Marlow Bridge (1832) is one of four suspension bridges designed by Clark.
Two have been lost, but the two survivors are this and the Chain Bridge over the Danube in Budapest.
If you’ve seen that monument, which opened in 1849, you’ll know that the template came from the smaller version in Marlow.
2. Thames Path
The 184-mile trail next to the Thames passes through the riverside graveyard of All Saints’ Church in Marlow.
You’re promised delightful scenery whether you head upriver towards Henley or down to Maidenhead.
Walking west there are meadows with wildflowers and grazing livestock, river islands, churches (Bisham Church is lovely over the water), locks and weirs.
Over the water you’ll get a clear view to beautiful mansions like Greenlands and Cliveden.
The 18th-century Hambleden Mill and its accompanying lock are a joy, while within seconds of leaving Marlow you can look back and admire the church spire, bridge and yachts moored on the north bank.
3. Chiltern Hills
Immediately north of Marlow the countryside becomes hilly as you enter the Chilterns, a 46-mile escarpment running diagonally from Oxfordshire to Bedfordshire.
At Marlow you don’t need a car to enter this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty as there are two circular walks beginning right in the town and beckoning you into this landscape of rolling hills and beech forest.
For a day out you could make the short drive to West Wycombe Park, a splendid Natural Trust estate in rambling scenery owned by the18th-century rake Sir Francis Dashwood who excavated caves from West Wycombe Hill for the notorious Hellfire Club.
There’s an exquisite Tudor country house close by at Greys Court, while Hughenden was the home of Benjamin Disraeli, one of the UK’s most influential prime ministers.
4. Higginson Park
Marlow’s main outdoor space is a spread of lawn beside the river, clustered with mature trees.
Higginson Park is awarded a Green Flag every year, and even though you’ll enter from Marlow’s High Street the park is bordered to the west by nothing but open countryside.
You can idle in summer watching a cricket match, or pause by the river where you may spot a kingfisher.
Contemplating the water in front of the exquisite Court Garden House (1785) is a statue of Steve Redgrave.
There are lots of facilities in these 23 acres, like a children’s playground, skate park, the Shelley Theatre, named for former resident Percy Bysshe Shelley, and a leisure centre with pool, gym and tennis courts.
5. Marlow Lock
Watching the river traffic at Marlow Lock you might be surprised to learn that there used to be fights here between millers and navigators, squabbling over the shallow draught.
This is thought to have been the site of a flash lock in the 14th century, while the Weir behind was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. The first pound lock that would have resembled the lock today was built in 1825, after being shifted downstream from a less advantageous position.
As we see it now, the lock is coming up for its centenary, having last been rebuilt in 1927. The poet Percy Bysshe Shelley spent much of his time in Marlow on a Thames skiff just up from the lock, and wrote one of his most famous works, The Revolt of Islam in the town in 1817.
6. Marlow Common
There’s a peaceful slice of the Chilterns at this local nature reserve on Marlow’s left flank.
Shaded by beeches, century-old oaks and silver birches, the woods on Marlow Common are a habitat for species like the green tortrix moth.
And these in turn supports a variety of bird species like nuthatches, treecreepers and lesser spotted woodpeckers.
Up to the 20th century Marlow Common was exploited for its clay to make bricks.
This left the forest floor with long, deep gullies that were adapted as a training ground for trench warfare in the First World War.
7. All Saints’ Church
At the end of the High Street, All Saints’ Church is a picture perfect partner to the Marlow Bridge.
Despite its Perpendicular Gothic lines the church is entirely a 19th-century creation, constructed after the tower of the old church collapsed in 1831. All Saints’ is a sizeable parish church, built from Bath stone and with a 50-metre spire.
The initial rebuilt took place in the 1830s, but the building was reworked entirely in the 1870s and 80s by John Oldrid Scott, the son of master restorer George Gilbert Scott.
You can see his work in the exterior flushwork (dainty limestone and flint patterns). Scott also designed the striking reredos, carved from marble and with tiled scenes from the crucifixion.
8. Marlow Museum
The town’s museum can be visited free of charge on Wednesday and weekend afternoons in the summer.
Opened in 2009 and lovingly curated by volunteers, the museum has some absorbing items in its permanent collection, like a drum captured from the Russians by General Higginson in the Crimean War, and Marlow’s old town stocks (a restraint for punishment). Take a peek at the periodic exhibitions, shining a light on local trades like lacemaking and brewing, covering natural history or profiling of important local figures like Steve Redgrave and Percy Bysshe Shelley.
9. Boat Trips
As we’ve seen countryside between Marlow and Windsor is uncommonly pretty, taking in country houses, quaint old locks and historic bridges.
From July to September the boat company, Salter’s Steamers schedules a regular service from Marlow to Windsor on Mondays.
You’ll float past the historic wharf at Spade Oak, the wooded grounds of Cliveden, the cute Ray Mill Island, an extraordinary railway bridge in Maidenhead designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and the majestic pavilions of the Monkey Island Estate.
There are also services upriver to Henley on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, taking in picturesque villages and yet more lavish stately homes at Temple Medmenham and Bisham Abbey.
The 18th-century folly built by James Wyatt on Temple Island marks the starting line for races in the Henley Regatta.
10. Water Activities
The Middle Thames is lined with lakes used by watersports clubs for sailing, rowing, canoeing, windsurfing and paddleboarding.
Many of these clubs are members only but there are plenty that welcome guests and hire out equipment.
At Westhorpe Lake, right on Marlow’s eastern fringe is Marlow Open Water Swim.
All day Saturday and on weekday evenings you’ll be able to swim in the wild, provided you sign a waiver first.
If you don’t have any gear you can hire a wetsuit, cap and goggles for your session.
And if open water swimming sounds a little strenuous, the centre also rents out stand-up paddleboards.
Only five miles down the Thames, Cliveden is a National Trust estate around a 19th-century Italianate mansion.
That house is high over the river, atop two stately terraces, one hemmed by a 17th-century balustrade bought from Rome’s Borghese Gardens.
The house is now a luxury hotel, but you can pop in for 30-minute tours to hear about illustrious residents or visitors like Nancy Astor (the UK’s first woman MP), Winston Churchill and Charlie Chaplin.
Much of your time will be spent in the sumptuous grounds, discovering one of Europe’s largest parterres and an Italian-style long garden enriched with topiary.
There’s a giant yew tree maze with more than 1,000 trees, an elegant Japanese-themed water garden and deep woodland on cliffs over the Thames, hiding a sweet flint folly from the mid-19th century.
Around a loop in the Thames, Cookham is a well-to-do Middle Thames settlement that has had some illustrious residents.
Guglielmo Marconi lived in the village in 1897 and conducted experiments in a house now marked with a blue plaque.
One of England’s most cherished 20th century painters, Stanley Spencer was born in the village in 1891, studied nearby in Maidenhead and died in Cliveden.
After he passed away in 1959 a gallery to his career was set up in the very chapel where he had worshipped as a child.
The Stanley Spencer Gallery has a reserve of more than 100 paintings, which it displays in season exhibitions.
Check the website as the gallery organises regular talks and a walking tour along paths that Spencer walked to visit his local patrons.
13. Marlow Town Regatta and Festival
Only founded in 2000, Marlow’s annual regatta takes place in June, two weeks before the more famous festival at Henley a couple of miles up the Thames.
Aptly, the president of the event is Steve Redgrave.
Rowing events take place on the Saturday, with Marlow’s handsome bridge in the background.
The regatta is a ticketed fundraising event, with racing in three divisions beginning at 08:00, 11:00 and 15:00. And as the regatta is a chance for people to dress up, there’s a strict dress code from 11:00 to 18:00 on the Saturday, although this is relaxed in the evening when there’s live music.
The Sunday is a town festival, with dragon boating, a cake competition, trade and craft stalls, a dog show and all manner of family entertainment.
14. Rebellion Beer
We’ll talk about the Michelin-starred Hand and Flowers next, and this is one of a few establishments in Marlow that pour beers brewed at the town’s own microbrewery, Rebellion.
The stock in the brewery shop changes according to the time of year, but you can buy bottles, barrels and kegs of Rebellion’s IPA, blonde and red beers, and discover what seasonal brews are on offer.
On the first Tuesday of the month there’s an “Open Night” at the brewery when for a small price you can visit to try all of Rebellion’s beers, tuck into some barbecue grub and listen to insightful talks by brewers.
Marlow is the proud home of the very first pub to be awarded two Michelin stars.
The Hand and Flowers is run by the celebrity chef Tom Kerridge and his wife Beth Cullen-Kerridge.
They opened this gastropub in 2005 and it had a Michelin star within a year, and then a second by 2012. Despite the two Michelin stars you won’t have much trouble booking a table during the week for lunch or dinner.
Fridays and weekends are trickier and are booked up months in advance.
The menu is seasonal, but on Sundays you can order old-school roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes and a red wine sauce.