Thames Path: Lechlade to Newbridge

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In June 2021, after almost 18 months away, we finally managed to renew our acquaintance with the Thames Path.

Back in January 2020 we had completed the second leg, from Cricklade to Lechlade, though with a substantial diversion to avoid flooding.

On that occasion we were celebrating Tracy’s 50th. This time round we had nothing specific to celebrate, but we were reasonably confident of dry conditions, despite the unseasonably heavy rainfall that had preceded our trip.

According to the official National Trails Guide, this third leg includes some of the remotest stretches of the Thames and, at almost 17 miles, it is also (un)comfortably the longest.

We decided against walking it in a single day: even if we got the distance we would have been much too tired to enjoy the experience, or the great natural beauty surrounding us.

We opted instead for a break at Tadpole Bridge, arranging to have our bags transferred between stops by Walk the Thames.

They charged us a very reasonable £40 to ferry two small suitcases on two consecutive mornings. Both transfers were completed quickly and I received a confirmatory text as soon as the cases arrived at their destination.

We travelled down on Wednesday, leaving our GWR service at Swindon and taking a taxi from there to Cricklade. We walked on Thursday and Friday. On Saturday we travelled by taxi from Newbridge to Oxford, catching a train from there back to Paddington.

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Lechlade once more

In Lechlade we stayed this time at The New Inn Hotel which we reached by 13:00. We had been allocated Room 38, located in an annex opposite Reception. It was clean and comfortable, though we later discovered that three lights weren’t working and had to request fresh bulbs.

Eventually emerging into the warm sunlight, we made a return visit to Vera’s Kitchen, recalling the quality of the breakfast we enjoyed there in 2020.

Here we found a shady spot in the garden in which to eat some very tasty sandwiches and share a slice of apple and pear cake.

Afterwards we also took advantage of the Hotel’s garden, which stretches all the way down to the Thames, sitting on a bench close by Ha’penny Bridge to read and watch self-conscious tourists pedal their hired pleasure craft up and back again.

We decided against a tour of Lechlade, having reconnoitred thoroughly during our previous visit, though we did enjoy an early evening stroll back along the path at the edge of Riverside Park.

Later we dined at the Swan Inn, where we’d stayed last time, when its kitchen was out of action. I had chilli and chips followed by chocolate pudding and ice cream, while Tracy opted for hunter’s chicken and treacle sponge pudding.

Next morning we had just enough space left for full Englishes at the Hotel.

The New Inn offers takeaway sandwiches for walkers but we had decided to patronise Sourdough Revolution instead, only to discover that we couldn’t take away  sandwiches before lunchtime.

The same was true of the Lynwood and Co. Café over the road and even Vera’s Kitchen refused us, although they’d obliged some 18 months previously.

Given the many walkers passing through here, this struck us as a lamentable oversight and a missed business opportunity.

We had no option but to resort to pre-packed sandwiches from Londis.

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Lechlade to Tadpole Bridge

With sandwiches stowed we finally got under way, heading over Ha’penny Bridge to pick up the path on the far bank. The sky was thick with cloud as we strode through meadows towards St John’s Lock.

We paused to admire the spire of St Lawrence’s Church piercing the dull sky, a large narrow boat moored in the foreground.

‘Number One Deer’ said Tracy, spelling out the name.

‘No I Deer!’ I corrected with some hilarity.

We soon passed the first of the day’s pillboxes, squatting on the edge of the opposite bank. Fresh from my researches for the North Downs Way, I can say with some confidence that this is a type 22 shellproof design, hexagonal, part of the red section of the GHQ Stop Line.

A little further on we found an elderly lady indulging in a little wild swimming. It was her first time and she’d expected a more experienced friend who hadn’t turned up.

Unfortunately she’d removed her hearing aids so our conversation was rather stilted.

Then, passing through a kissing gate, we were upon St John’s Lock, which was deserted.

This is the first lock on the Thames, its name borrowed from a Thirteenth Century priory that once stood nearby.

We paused to admire Monti’s 1854 statue of Old Father Thames, once located at the source but shifted here in 1974 following vandalism.

The Lock was originally constructed in 1790, though rebuilt in 1905. It is one of the shallowest on the Thames, with a ‘fall’ of less than a metre.

Locks, bridges and pillboxes constitute the vast majority of the landmarks on this walk, so expect more about them below!

We passed below St John’s Bridge, which carries the A417 Lechlade Road, then over a small bridge across the tributary River Cole, and then over another across the Thames itself at the intriguingly-named Bloomers Hole.

The Thames begins to meander more severely from this point, often taking a long time to cover a relatively short distance ‘as the crow flies’.

Ahead of us, in the trees, we could see the squat stone tower of St Mary’s Church at Buscot, and soon we were passing the rear of the Old Parsonage, built in 1703, which is now a National Trust property.

We soon found ourselves at Buscot Lock, also built in 1790 and the smallest on the Thames. Here we paused a while to watch the keepers instructing a novice how to manoeuvre his boat through the lock.

An accompanying woman, with lapdog, appeared completely uninterested. We doubted whether she would be much help!

There is an extremely detailed information board next to the lock relating the history of the Buscot Estate.

For three centuries it belonged to the Loveden family, but the 3,500 acres were sold in 1859 to Robert Tertius Campbell, who transformed it into a highly industrialised sugar beet farm and distillery.

He harvested some 10,000 to 12,000 tons per year, building a narrow gauge railway to transfer this crop to the distillery, opened in 1869 on the island adjacent to the Lock.

At first he was quite successful, but family fortunes rapidly took a turn for the worse.

Campbell’s eldest daughter, Florence, had originally married Alexander Ricardo, but they had separated before his premature death. Her second marriage, to barrister Charles Bravo, took place in December 1875, but that lasted only a few months since he died of suspected antimony poisoning in April 1876.

After a first inconclusive inquest which returned an open verdict, the second concluded that Bravo had been murdered, but no-one was charged with the crime, which remains unsolved to this day.

Florence died of alcohol poisoning just two years later and, given the weight of suspicion still loaded upon her, was buried in Buscot churchyard at midnight in an unmarked grave.

Meanwhile, Campbell’s business had suffered a series of financial setbacks and, within a decade, the distillery had closed. Two years after Campbell’s death in 1887 the Estate was sold by his trustees, much of the money going to settle his debts.

Forgoing the pleasures of Buscot Village and its teashop, we resumed our walk, soon passing the footbridge at Eaton Weir, where there is no longer a weir, and over another near Kelmscott.

The grass in the vicinity of Buscot had been mown quite recently, but was often knee-high thereafter, which occasionally made walking more difficult.

Forgoing the pleasures of Kelmscott, best known for Kelmscott Manor, long the home of William Morris, we continued on our way, past Eaton Hastings on the starboard bank.

A little further on we paused to chat to a fisherman whose equipment was suspended across the path. He told us it was worth thousands.

He said he was fishing for perch, getting in some much-needed practice before an upcoming competition. He added that his wife was with his mother-in-law who, though well into her 90s, ‘just wouldn’t die’.

His misogyny and ageism ringing in our ears, we passed through a rather scruffy boat park, soon arriving at Grafton Lock.

Here we stopped again to talk to a friendly keeper who told us about the different locks on this stretch of the Thames, the cottages attached to them and the keepers employed to care for them.

The lock gates at Grafton are placed between one bank and a small island, with a weir on the other side. The keeper told us that the island was a haven for wildlife, presently hosting a family of muntjac deer, while he had occasionally seen otters sporting in the Lock itself.

After the rural solitude we had experienced, Radcot seemed a bustling hive of activity, with dozens of boats moored in the vicinity of the busy pub, a site for motor caravans and several tepees.

The Thames divides here, river traffic passing close to the pub while a backwater to the south runs beneath Radcot Old Bridge.

This was already old when a battle took place here, in December 1387, between Richard II’s troops, commanded by his favourite, Robert De Vere, 9th Earl of Oxford, and an army led by the future Henry IV, Henry Bolingbroke, Earl of Derby.

De Vere’s force was routed and he barely escaped with his life, fleeing to the Continent where he died in exile, from injuries received during a wild boar hunt.

Thomas Love Peacock’s poem ‘The Genius of the Thames’ (1810) celebrates Radcot Bridge:

‘Thy copious waters hold their way

Tow’rds Radcote’s arches, old and grey,

Where triumphed erst the rebel host,

When hapless Richard’s hopes were lost.’

We continued some distance to the much quieter Radcot Lock where we had decided to break for lunch.

Unfortunately it was the first lock we’d found without a bench. We sat on the grass verge instead but, on departure, found two picnic benches almost dumped by the side of the path a little further on.

While relaxing over our lunch we were passed by two groups of students – one male, one female – from an international school in Oxford, undertaking an outward bound course.

We caught up with them as their leader was introducing them to Poohsticks on Old Man’s Bridge.

From here the path passes through numerous fields, mostly following the meandering river, but sometimes taking a well-earned shortcut to avoid the bends.

This section is, frankly, monotonous, though it concludes with Rushey Lock where one has to pass from one bank to the other across the lock gates.

Thereafter the route follows the Lock’s access road all the way to Tadpole Bridge. This is a comparative juvenile, dating from the end of the Eighteenth Century, and consists of a single arch.

There is very little at Tadpole Bridge apart from the Trout Inn, a gastropub with a handful of upmarket rooms.

We arrived at about 15:00 and went straight to the pub garden for a refreshing drink. I had a pint of Razor Back (Ringwood Brewery), comfortably the best beer I tasted on this trip.

Most of the Trout’s rooms look out upon a pleasant courtyard with seats outside, but ours – Room 4 – was inside, next to the kitchen.

It was rather gloomy, our window offering us the immediate prospect of a wooden fence at the rear of the property. But the fixtures and fittings were nice enough, including a fancy coffee machine, not to mention those white cotton dressing gowns that tend to feature in more expensively pretentious settings.

Dinner was also taken in the garden, which stretches down to the Thames. I had cheese soufflé with chicory, followed by chicken, ham hock and leek pie with spring greens and mash, concluding with stewed ginger and rhubarb pudding. It was all very tasty.

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Tadpole Bridge to Newbridge

Next morning our equally tasty full English breakfast was served at around 09:00. The waitress very kindly filled our thermos flasks with coffee, and our water bottles too.

This we had expected, since bed and breakfast here cost almost three times more than we had paid at The New Inn Hotel.

We started out an hour later, pausing awhile on the riverbank to allow Tracy to float off some petals in memory of her dear departed. I had some petals for Kate too, from her 50th birthday rose in my garden.

Soon we were entering the Chimney Meadows Nature Reserve managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trusts.

‘Chimney’ is most probably derived from ‘Ceomma’s Island’.

Closing in on yet another pillbox, we heard a haunting, trilling call and watched as a largeish bird with a long curved beak alighted on its roof. A curlew we guessed – a guess later confirmed, courtesy of the photo I whatsapped to an expert twitcher friend.

There are estimated to be 68,000 pairs breeding in the UK, up to a quarter of the global population, but numbers have declined significantly in the last 30 years and a Curlew Recovery Programme is underway.

Close to Tenfoot Bridge we came upon the Thames Observation Platform, a beautifully constructed wooden hide financed largely through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development.

Here we paused for coffee, while trying and failing to spot more rare birds.

Passing the chimneys of Chimney, no more than a hamlet sited a field or two back from the River, the path follows Shifford Lock Cut, a man-made channel constructed in 1898 to accommodate Shifford Lock.

The authentic river bends south to Duxford then back north again just beyond Shifford Weir.

The path crosses a footbridge just beyond the weir and begins to circumnavigate an enormous field. The grass was again knee-length, but eventually gave way to closer cut meadows.

Here we came upon two or three gaggles of geese forming picturesque gatherings at the water’s edge.

The Thames makes one final bend northwards before straightening for the run-in to Newbridge. The path runs alongside, initially through a wooded section before entering fields close to Newbridge Farm.

Newbridge’s  new bridge was probably constructed in the Thirteenth Century, in roughly the same period as those at Radcot and Lechlade. It was possibly the work of  monks from Deerhurst Priory in Gloucestershire.

There are six arches over the river and six more in a short causeway on the southern side, but a description from 1692 suggests there were once lengthy causeways on both sides, with a total of 51 arches in a structure well over 700 yards long.

There was also a battle of sorts here, in 1644, during the English Civil War. William Waller, a Parliamentarian general, was defeated by Royalist Dragoons while attempting to cross to surround Oxford where King Charles was sheltering.

Spot the Typos!

Traffic today is often heavy and noisy, though lorries are forbidden. One wonders whether plans for an alternative crossing, first mooted in 2007, will soon need revisiting.

There is, conveniently, a pub on either side of the bridge. We were staying in The Rose Revived, on the far side, but decided to stop first at The Maybush for a spot of lunch.

The Maybush claims to have been here since the Seventeenth Century, but other sources place it a century later. It is prone to flooding so has recently had a system of drains and ‘underground sump pumps’ fitted.

We people-watched while enjoying a leisurely lunch, then transferred over the road.

There is a legend that Oliver Cromwell once stopped on this side for a drink, ordering an extra pint in which to place the wilting rose in his buttonhole. This doesn’t sound quite in keeping with what we know of Cromwell’s nature.

Moreover, the pub was called The Fayre Inn at that time and for some time afterwards, later becoming The Rose and then The Rose and Crown before its current, more fanciful name was introduced.

Chef Raymond Blanc was once a waiter here in the 70s, eventually marrying the owner’s daughter. Today it is a tied house.

Our room was on the corner, one window facing the Bridge, the other the River. We hauled our cases upstairs and, after a short rest, went down to sit in the garden. Here we used the Greene King app to order ourselves a gin and tonic each.

A while later, strolling just beyond the pub garden, we came upon a man seated on a narrowboat, who explained how he made a living selling crayfish to local pubs and restaurants.

He’d wanted to escape the rat race, he said. He could make perhaps £200-300 per week from selling the crayfish he caught in traps on this stretch of river. He offered us a few to take home, but we didn’t fancy packing them in our suitcases!

Whereas our native, white-clawed crayfish is a small, docile protected species, the invasive signal crayfish is much larger, more aggressive, and eats the white-clawed variety. It also carries a plague that is deadly to its native cousin.

Signal crayfish may be trapped and sold by those obtaining an Environment Agency license. Traps must be designed so as not to harm water voles or otters.

A little while later we dined in the garden, looking out upon the Thames and the yellowish bridge as the sun sank slowly and dusk gathered.

It had been a beautiful walk.

We will return shortly for the next leg, from Newbridge to Oxford.

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TD

July 2021

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