Thames Path: Newbridge to Oxford

We returned to the Thames Path just two months after completing the Lechlade to Newbridge leg.

This time we based ourselves in Oxford, travelling there on Wednesday and back home on Saturday. We devoted Thursday to the Path and Friday to Oxford.

This leg, from Newbridge to Oxford, is 14 miles long. That’s close to our maximum preferred distance, so we were prepared for the possibility that we might have to complete it as part of our Oxford day.

But happily we ‘got the distance’, including an extra mile or so from the official end point to our accommodation.

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Day 1: Arrival

We travelled down via Paddington, greatly relieved that the threatened Tube strike had been averted, arriving in Oxford shortly after midday.

It took twenty minutes or so to walk from the Station, following a scenic route along Castle Hill Stream. We were staying at The Head of the River, a Fullers Pub with 20 bedrooms located on the Thames adjacent to Folly Bridge.

It was once a warehouse, part of St Aldate’s Yard, but was converted into a pub in 1977. The name alludes to an annual rowing competition between Oxford University college eights. The boats are placed in line and each crew strives to catch the boat in front. The fastest boat has first place at the ‘head of the river’.

I had booked a ‘comfy room’ (as opposed to a ‘cosy room’), costing £524 for three nights with breakfast, so not far short of £90 per person per night.

We had been allocated Room 19, located in an annex, up thirty-six steps. Fine for us but it wouldn’t suit anyone with mobility issues. We looked out on to the Thames but were also right next to the busy Abingdon Road which crosses Folly Bridge.

If this room was ‘comfy’, the ‘cosy’ rooms must be miniscule. There was little room for anything except the bed. We had a small wardrobe but very little cupboard space. There was secondary glazing on the windows but this had to be virtually closed before the blind could be lowered. The glass in the tiny shower-only bathroom wasn’t frosted, so that blind stayed down. On the plus side, the breakfast menu was varied and the cooked food surprisingly good.

We couldn’t access our room before 3pm, so began with a drink and some lunch on the very busy riverside terrace. The lunch menu consisted entirely of main meals so we had to settle for two shared starters. I also enjoyed a very pleasant pint of Dark Star’s Hophead.

After lunch we strolled along the Thames through Christ Church Meadows, checking out the college boathouses before watching the punts and pleasure craft navigate a crowded Cherwell.

Later, after unpacking, we headed out to explore the neighbourhood further.

There has been a stone bridge here since 1085, and that most probably replaced an older wooden structure. There used to be an octagonal tower on the north side which served as a gatehouse and was reputedly the home of Thirteenth Century philosopher, scholar and sometime alchemist Roger Bacon.

The gatehouse stood until 1797 and features in a watercolour by 12 year-old J.M.W. Turner (though he copied from an earlier engraving). A new bridge was completed in 1827, although the new toll house wasn’t constructed until 1844, shortly before tolls were abolished. We paused for afternoon coffee and muffins at the Paper Boat Cafe which now occupies the toll house.

This proved an inspired choice as the lady behind the counter very kindly offered to prepare baguettes for us next morning, so we could collect them before departing for Newbridge.

We also admired a house built in 1849 on the island adjacent to Folly Bridge by eccentric accountant Joseph Caudwell. In 1851 he shot and wounded a student who was trying to drag one of the cannons he had placed on his forecourt into the River. The cannons have disappeared but the house still sports a miscellany of statues, windows and balconies.

We dined this first evening at Pierre Victoire, a lovely independent French restaurant. I very much enjoyed my goat’s cheese soufflé, steak frites and tarte tatin.

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Day 2: Newbridge to Oxford

After our full English breakfasts we collected our baguettes and some water before picking up our taxi, arriving back at The Rose Revived by 09:45.

The Bridge looked much the same, glowing yellowish in the morning sunlight, but boats had changed places and there were more tepees on the opposite bank.

The official National Trail Guide waxes lyrical about this first section, which consists mostly of empty fields.

Just out of Newbridge we paused to float off some petals then, after passing Hart’s Weir Footbridge, the only landmark hereabouts, we stopped to talk to a lady dog walker who had recently retired to the area. She liked the idea of walking the Thames Path but felt her husband might be hard to convince!

Shortly afterwards we began to pass various riverside properties on the opposite bank, some fairly modest, others far grander.

We stopped for coffee at a suitable spot on the bank and, on resuming, could soon see Northmoor Lock ahead. Northmoor is the seventh Thames lock, built in 1896. The weir here is the last full-width paddle and rymer weir on the Thames.

Rymers are posts that can be fitted into a slotted beam lying on the river bed. The paddles are wooden boards with handles that can then be dropped between the rymers to create a barrier. This technology dates back to the Thirteenth Century.

There was once another weir just to the north of Northmoor called Ark’s Weir. The keeper, Thomas Ridge, was also a fisherman and publican whose daughter, Betty, served as barmaid. One day Oxford undergraduate William Flower, Viscount Ashbrook, came to fish nearby. He fell in love with Betty and, after ‘improving’ her, they married in Northmoor Church in 1766.

A little further on lies Bablock Hythe – a name far too beautiful for the ugly, yellow Ferryman Inn that now squats there on the riverfront. There was a rope ferry here as early as the Thirteenth Century, and it survived until the 1960s.

Laurence Binyon published a poem called Bablock Hythe in a 1909 collection. It begins:

‘In the time of wild roses
As up Thames we travelled
Where ‘mid water-weeds ravelled
The lily uncloses,

To his old shores the river
A new song was singing,
And young shoots were springing
On old roots for ever.’

Half a century earlier Matthew Arnold also mentioned it in The Scholar Gypsy (1853):

‘For most, I know, thou lov’st retired ground!

Thee at the ferry Oxford riders blithe,

Returning home on summer-nights, have met

Crossing the stripling Thames at Bab-lock-hithe,

Trailing in the cool stream thy fingers wet,

As the punt’s rope chops round;

And leaning backward in a pensive dream,

And fostering in thy lap a heap of flowers

Pluck’d in shy fields and distant Wychwood bowers,

And thine eyes resting on the moonlit stream.’

At this point there is an extensive detour away from the riverbank, initially skirting a  caravan site and mobile home estate before crossing several fields in the vicinity of Stanton Harcourt.

Here we came upon several birds of prey wheeling above us in the sky, then a picture of a peacock tied to a bush.

On the other side it said:

‘Believe you can and you’re halfway there!’

Arriving again beside the Thames, abreast of Farmoor Reservoir, we soon arrived at Pinkhill Lock. The first edition was built here in 1791, but the keeper’s cottage dates from 1932.

Deeming ourselves roughly ‘halfway there’, we stopped at a bench for lunch. Just as we did so it began to rain but, still savouring our Paper Boat baguettes, we had our first encounter of the day with the Rana Rose and her husband and wife crew.

They were based fairly close to home, on the Wey Navigation, but had been up to Lechlade and were now making their return journey.

Some three weeks into their trip they still seemed on admirable terms, though the wife complained she was never allowed to drive the boat through the locks, despite being able to manoeuvre combine harvesters.

We were to see them several times later on, eventually losing them on the run in to Oxford.

Concluding our lunch, we continued on our way, soon having to divert on to the B4044 Oxford Road, to get round a section where the towpath has eroded. Returning to the riverbank via the Oxford Cruisers boatyard, we passed the first of many narrowboats moored along this stretch.

A little further downstream Swinford Bridge carries the B4044 over the Thames. There was originally a ferry here, later a causeway. In 1764 John Wesley had grave difficulty crossing on horseback. In the following year Willoughby Bertie, 4th Earl of Abingdon (1740-1799) bought the ferry and the land on either side for £10,000.

Coincidentally King George III was that year undertaking a national tour and wished to cross in the Royal coach while travelling from Oxford to Cheltenham. The Earl attempted improvements to ease his journey but the coach got stuck and His Majesty got wet.  

Two years later the Swynford Bridge Act was passed, which enabled the owner to levy tolls, tax free. It also imposed heavy fines, payable to the owner, on those offering alternative means of crossing the Thames two miles in either direction.

Abingdon duly opened his bridge in 1769 but it failed to net the anticipated revenue and he ultimately died bankrupt thirty years later. The Bridge is no longer in the hands of his descendant and last sold in 2009 fetching just over £1m with associated buildings and land.

The present owners – who prefer to remain anonymous – take 5p per car, 10p per caravan and 40p per truck with four or more axles. Fortunately, tolls for pedestrians were abolished in 1835.

Oxfordshire Council estimates that 10,000 vehicles cross daily and annual income was thought to be some £190,000 in 2009. In March 2021 the road over the bridge was closed for repairs and the cost – estimated at £45,000 – passed on to the owners.

Just round the bend we found Eynsham Lock. The original lock and weir were owned by nearby Eynsham Abbey, a Benedictine monastery founded in 1005 which did not survive the Dissolution. The present lock was built in 1928.

We paused for a coffee, taken in light drizzle, just as Rana Rose passed through.

I puzzled over a sign saying no ‘elsans or rubbish’ could be landed. It turns out that ‘Elsan’ was a brand of portable toilet derived from the initials of the manufacturer, one E L Jackson, who registered the trademark in 1924.

The subsequent stretch is largely devoid of significant features. The Guide remarks the confluence of the Thames and the Evenlode, named after the Cotswold village where it rises.

Sadly, we missed it. But we did find, tied to a metal fencepost, a window hanging designed by Grace Williams (aged 10) to raise money for NHS Charities Together.

Arriving at Kings Lock, we were disappointed to find a sign informing us that it was still five miles to Oxford.

But our spirits were raised as we came upon Godstow Bridge, followed in rapid succession by the garden of the Trout Inn at Wolvercote and the ruins of Godstow Abbey.

The Thames divides at Godstow, passing round a small island. On one side lies The Trout, dating from the Seventeenth Century, which and most probably evolved from the Abbey’s guest house. It had a walk-on part in Chapter 1 of Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. We were quite taken by the stone lion patrolling the riverbank.

The ruins of the Abbey lie just off the towpath, adjacent to Godstow Lock. It was founded in the Twelfth Century by Edith of Winchester, the widow of Sir William Launcelene.

Half a century later, Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund Clifford, was buried here in a tomb paid for by the King.

Rosamund has spawned many legends which have, in turn, inspired numerous poets, artists and musicians, but facts are few and far between.

The Abbey was another victim of the Dissolution, the buildings later forming the basis of Godstow House, owned initially by Henry VIII’s physician George Owen (1499-1558).

We very much enjoyed this open plaque nearby.

Finally, arriving at the flood plain of Port Meadow, we began to see the odd dreaming spire ahead. Passing the reach known as Black Jack’s Hole – which has a sorry reputation for suicides, drownings and boating accidents – we arrived at the hamlet of Binsey.

Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote Binsey Poplars in 1879, about the felling of a row of trees nearby:

‘My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,

 Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,

 All felled, felled, are all felled;

    Of a fresh and following folded rank

                Not spared, not one

                That dandled a sandalled

    Shadow that swam or sank

On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.’

Heading into Oxford, close to Bossom’s Boatyard, we spotted this heron posing in front of a field of cows.

Increasingly footsore, we found ourselves at low-slung Osney Bridge which marks the end of this leg, but managed to continue a largely unremarkable mile or so through urban riverside to Folly Bridge.

Eventually recovering from our exertions, we made our way that evening to The Coconut Tree, curious to sample its exotic combination of ‘cocotails and Sri Lankan street food’.

Our ‘cocotails’ arrived promptly but, unfortunately, our street food managed to get lost somewhere. Eventually we lost patience, only to be told that the kitchen had closed so we were restricted to items that could be reheated.

They were out of stir fried chickpeas. A little while later some girls behind us had acquired some chickpeas which had emerged, unclaimed, from the kitchen.

We were only charged half our bill. But a notice above the urinal told me that, from Mondays to Wednesdays all first-timers may enjoy 50% off. It was a Thursday however.

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Day 3: Oxford circular walk

Our invisibility was sustained overnight as next morning’s breakfast also went astray.

The Guide conveniently provides a 6 mile circular walk round Oxford which we duly followed, beginning once more in Christ Church Meadow.

Passing Merton College, we noticed a plaque commemorating James Sadler’s successful ascent in a ‘fire balloon’ on 4 October 1784.

Sadler, an adventurous Oxford pastry chef, was the first Englishman to ascend in a balloon and this was his very first ascent. He reached about 3,600 feet, landing six miles away.

He was also a chemist and inventor though, as a largely self-taught working man, was beneath the notice of the University.

A little further on, having admired several impressive buildings, we found ourselves on New College Lane, penetrating St Helen’s Passage (sorry!) where we discovered The Turf Tavern.

Once called Hell’s Passage, there is a plaque commemorating the birth of Jane Burden, a lowly stableman’s daughter who later modelled for Rossetti and married William Morris.

The Tavern itself has a resident ghost, claims any number of famous drinkers and is reputedly where Bill Clinton failed to inhale the cannabis he smoked in the 60s.

Returning to the High Street, we stopped for refreshment at The Grand Café which, according to Pepys, was the location of the first English coffee house. The Grand itself was opened in 1997.

After several twists and turns we arrived in Headington Hill Park. A bloke coming towards us nearly fell off his bicycle, which made him very cross.

Continuing past the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, we found ourselves following Mesopotamia Walk, so called because it bifurcates the Cherwell. (Mesopotamia is derived from the Ancient Greek for ‘between rivers’.)

We rested on a bench dedicated to ‘H N Spalding (1877-1953) a lover of Parson’s Pleasure’. We speculated what that might be!

Spalding was actually a married civil servant and orientalist. Parson’s Pleasure turns out to be comparatively innocuous: a section of the Cherwell fenced off for nude male bathing.

But I enjoyed the anecdote relating to august literary critic Maurice Bowra (1898-1971). He was allegedly one of a party of dons enjoying a spot of nude sunbathing here when a punt passed by carrying a female undergraduate. Everyone except Bowra hastily covered their genitalia, but Bowra covered his head saying:

‘I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford, I, at least, am known by my face.’

Continuing on through University Parks, we left the banks of the Cherwell, strolling past Lady Margaret Hall and eventually emerging close to Wycliffe Hall.

Proceeding westwards, we soon found ourselves beside the Oxford Canal, lined with scores of narrow boats. It is some 78 miles long, travelling to Hawkesbury in the Midlands, and was completed in 1790.

In this vicinity it runs parallel with Castle Mill Stream but ends abruptly, close to Hythe Bridge. From here though, it is but a short walk past the Castle, back to the central shopping area.

We tried to buy lunch at the Story Museum Café but, unaccountably, they had nothing to eat, so we headed instead to nearby George and Danver where we enjoyed bagels and ice cream.

While I queued for bagels, Tracy identified the Leader of Kingston Council travelling incognito with her sister and, seeing her clutching a Thames Path Guide, exchanged notes.

Later that afternoon, we dropped in for coffee at the Christ Church Longhorn Café and read our books in the shadow of more dreaming spires – for her The Moonstone for me To the Lighthouse (again).

I liked Woolf’s gossipy recollections after lecturing here in 1927, contained in a letter to sister Vanessa Bell:

‘Then I went to Oxford to speak to the youth of both sexes on poetry and fiction. They are young; they are callow; they know nothing about either—They sit on the floor and ask innocent questions about Joyce—They are years behind the Cambridge young, it seemed to me; Quentin and Julian could knock them into mud pies. But they have their charm—There was a man called Martin (I think) an adorer and disciple of Roger’s, who was the most intelligent. We went on to somebodies rooms, and there they sat on the floor, and said what a master they thought Roger Fry; and were Bell and Grant able to make a living by decorations; and was Tom Eliot happy with his wife.’ 

Our final evening meal was taken at Al-Andalus, a tapas bar right next to Pierre Victoire on Little Clarendon Street.

Here we got talking to a family who were staycationing in Oxford but missed Minorca. Somehow the conversation shifted on to Majorca and we were told of a secret, special place known only to the locals that we really must visit.

I recall having this same conversation on two or three occasions previously.

Unfortunately I can never remember the name of the place.

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TD

September 2021

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