Thames Path: Oxford to Wallingford

Since we arrived in Oxford in the first week of August 2021, it has taken us just over a year to return to the Thames Path.

On this occasion we based ourselves in Abingdon, travelling out on Wednesday and returning on Saturday.

On the Thursday we walked the nine miles or so from Oxford to Abingdon; on the Friday we completed the thirteen miles from Abingdon to Wallingford.

Our outward journey was quiet and uneventful, everything running to time.

We left London Paddington on the 12:31 GWR departure to Bristol Temple Meads, arriving at Didcot Parkway at 13:11.

Directly outside the Station we picked up the X2 bus to Abingdon, via Milton Park, a huge Science and Technology Centre hosting some 250 companies which together employ 9,000 people.

All the buses hereabouts seem to go via Milton Park, probably because it subsidises these services. They are consequently reliable, but often follow circuitous routes.  

We reached Abingdon shortly after 14:00, an hour before we could access our hotel room, so we headed to the Town Square to find some lunch.

We lighted upon the Throwing Buns Café, right next to the County Hall Museum.  

There is a sign inside:

‘A longstanding tradition in Abingdon is for local dignitaries to throw buns from the roof of the County Hall to the crowds of people assembled in the market place below.

The first recorded bun throwing was in 1760 to mark the coronation of King George III and since then thirty occasions of royal marriages jubilees and national events have seen buns thrown in celebration.’

The friendly staff served us – not buns – but delicious baguettes. We had found our picnic lunch supplier for the next two days.

After lunch we turned the corner to the Crown and Thistle Hotel. I had completed an express check-in online, so we simply had to collect the keys.

We had booked a ‘Great Oakman Staycation’: essentially three nights B&B, plus an allowance of £25 per person towards dinner on the final night. It cost us £373 in all. The per diem room rate was less than £100 for Wednesday and Thursday nights, but £184 for Friday night.

The Crown and Thistle boasts of its 18 ‘boutique-style bedrooms’, but our standard double bedroom (Room 8) left something to be desired.

Though reasonably-sized, it was gloomy and looked out upon the kitchens below. We seemed to be located next to staff accommodation, so the cooks and waiters would congregate down there for occasional chats.

Almost immediately outside there was a generator, which made it too noisy to sleep with open windows. Air-conditioning was available inside, but that was also noisy, so the only option for a light sleeper was to keep the windows closed and the air-con off. But that made the room rather too warm and stuffy.

Still blissfully unaware of these problems, we unpacked swiftly and headed out for an orientation walk around Abingdon.

Abingdon

The town of Abingdon lies within the Vale of White Horse district of Oxfordshire. It has a population of something over 30,000. There was once a railway station here, but it closed in 1963

Abingdon formerly hosted the Morland Brewery, the original makers of Old Speckled Hen.

The Abbey was already thriving by the reign of King Alfred and, during the Middle Ages, Abingdon was a busy market town. It endured hard times after the Abbey’s dissolution in 1538 but, within a century, it had revived to become a worthy competitor to Reading.

The construction of canals and railways gave it some industrial significance in the early Nineteenth Century, though it was soon literally ‘sidelined’, perched on a branch line while its great rival Reading sat astride the mainline to London.

For a town of its size, it can boast relatively few famous residents, though a few alumni of Abingdon School have found fame.

Dorothy Richardson, the nearly-forgotten experimental novelist of the 1920s, was born here, but her family soon moved away.

We headed first down to the Thames, where we stopped for coffee and cake from Annie’s at the Boathouse. Here we watched a couple of paddle boarders ferrying their increasingly anxious and unwilling dogs up and down the River.

Afterwards we strolled around Abbey Gardens, enjoying Trendells Folly, a Nineteenth Century ruin, then walked through the Abbey Gateway, admiring the gargoyles, eventually sitting a while in the Town Square, in front of the County Hall, completed in 1682.

We decided to dine that night at Que Pasa, a tapas bar on the High Street. It was quiet, almost empty, but the food was good.

Thames Path: Oxford to Abingdon

Morning found me a little the worse for my poor night’s sleep, but I rallied somewhat after a full English and two cups of coffee.

Even so, we had already collected our picnic sandwiches from Throwing Buns before I realised I hadn’t changed into my walking shoes. Repairing quickly to our room, I rapidly changed my footwear and eventually made it – properly attired – to the bus stop.

Climbing aboard, I was momentarily thrown by the excessive politeness of the bus driver, who was ‘sirring’ and ‘madaming’ all and sundry, including me! Eventually I saw that he was being assessed.

We reached Oxford by 10:00. It was a dully, dreary morning, with rain in the air.

We began at Folly Bridge, where we had finished last time, so had a slightly shorter walk than the nine-and-a-quarter miles advertised in the Guide.

We passed the row of college boathouses on the opposite bank and a long line of houseboats on our side of the River. There were several runners and cyclists to avoid.

Soon we were alongside the deserted and rather bedraggled gardens of the Isis River Farmhouse, closing in on Iffley Lock.

This was first constructed in the 1630s, then rebuilt in the 1790s, but the current edition dates from 1927. It is overlooked by the squat tower of Iffley Church, partly hidden amongst the trees.

We stopped for a while on a bench to take in the tranquillity of the spot. Then it was on towards the Oxford bypass.

Passing beneath, we admired this impressive homage to Thames Water, and subsequently a couple of equally impressive waterside properties. Then we were on the approaches to Sandford Lock, following the path on to an island sandwiched between two strands of the Thames.

The original pound lock here was also built in the early 1630s, though replaced in 1836. The present lock was constructed in 1972, in a slightly different position.

Nearby, sits the Sandford Lasher, a large weir that has claimed many lives – most of them belonging to Oxford students who were swimming or boating in the vicinity. A small hydro-electric station is now powered by the weir.

Arriving alongside a beautiful vintage Broads cruiser called Sorrento Star, we crossed to the left bank to reach the Kings Arms, an enormous Chef and Brewer establishment, which served us coffee in their riverside garden.

By the time we resumed, it was almost midday. The next section was much quieter, largely featureless, until we passed the rather nondescript boathouses belonging to Radley College.

Pressing onwards for a short distance, we stopped in the shelter of two small riverside trees to eat our lunch, interrupted by the beautiful sight of a kingfisher in flight, the first and only that I’ve ever seen.

Reaching the vicinity of Radley Lakes, we noticed the pinnacle of the Carfax Conduit on the opposite bank and stopped to discuss it with a couple passing in the other direction.

We assumed it was a folly, but in fact it was originally part of a water supply system serving Oxford between 1610 and 1869. This elaborate conduit was replaced in 1797, however, and relocated to the gardens of Nuneham House, owned by the Earl Harcourt.

After a lengthy stretch through marshy land, we eventually arrived at Abingdon Weir, which we crossed before passing the Lock and entering the final stretch into Abingdon, past numerous boats moored along this stretch.

It was around 14:45. We headed immediately to Java, on the Town Square for celebratory coffee and cake, then back to the Hotel via Lewis Baker, the kind of hardware shop that stocks everything, but which has sadly disappeared from most high streets.

Arriving back in our room, the lack of sleep the previous night caught up with me, and indeed we both slept for a couple of hours.

On waking, we headed downstairs for a drink, before strolling to our choice of restaurant for the evening – an Italian called Limoncello. The food was ample and very tasty, though our starters took an eternity to arrive.

That night I was woken by fearful indigestion but, overall, managed a slightly better sleep.

Thames Path: Abingdon to Wallingford

This section is 13 ½ miles long, so close to our preferred maximum distance.

I was in reasonable shape to face it, though decided to forego the pleasures of a second full English, given the sensitivity of my digestive tracts.

It was a beautiful morning and we were under way by 09:00.

It’s always a pleasure to start straight from one’s door and today was no exception. We began by crossing Abingdon Bridge and continuing almost due south along the towpath, past the spire of St Helen’s Church and the Old Anchor Inn on the other side.

Passing several marinas, we executed a sudden turn to the East, where the path is directed alongside Culham Cut to Culham Lock, while the Thames itself bends at a more leisurely pace towards Sutton Courtenay, where Herbert Asquith once lived.

In 1809 work began on what was then the longest cut on the Thames, and this diversion – 1,300 metres long – was completed the following year, culminating in the new lock. The project cost £9,000.

In Three Men in a Boat (1889), Jerome K Jerome wrote:

‘From Clifton to Culham the river banks are flat, monotonous, and uninteresting, but, after you get through Culham Lock – the coldest and deepest lock on the river – the landscape improves.’

Unfortunately he was travelling in the opposite direction, to Oxford!

Culham itself is an ancient settlement, known to have existed in the early Ninth Century. Part of the manor house is Fifteenth Century. Culham Bridge featured in the Civil War, notably in 1645, when a Royalist force, was soundly defeated while trying to capture it.

Shortly after the lock the path is reunited with the River proper, which now begins a huge meander. The route passes under an extremely low railway bridge, carrying the track between Culham and Appleford. There are long stretches along the boundaries of huge fields.

Just north of Long Wittenham the route again follows a man-made cut, 800 metres long and culminating this time in Clifton Lock. It was completed in 1822, having been delayed, allegedly, by the lunacy of the landowner.

The lock-keeper here had developed a sideline as vendor of drinks and ice creams, and seemed to be doing a roaring trade.

The Guide waxes lyrical about the vista that opens up on the other side of Clifton Lock. Certainly, the red brick bridge at Clifton Hampden is attractive, built in Gothic revivalist style, a church spire rising aloft directly behind it.

We crossed over, braving the traffic, to stop at the Barley Mow for a coffee in the garden.

The pub is said to date back to the Fourteenth Century and it too features in Three Men in a Boat:

‘If you stay the night on land at Clifton, you cannot do better than put up at the “Barley Mow.” It is, without exception, I should say, the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river. It stands on the right of the bridge, quite away from the village. Its low-pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more once-upon-a-timeyfied.’

Dickens also mentioned the place.

We chatted to a couple who were waiting for their dog to be groomed before resuming our journey, now on this, the starboard side of the River.

Descending into a field, we next passed several bathing areas, some of them occupied by parties of paddlers. Crossing into subsequent fields, it was clear from the hoofmarks that these small beaches were the sole preserve of cows.

On the other bank we could see a number of handsome waterfront properties in the vicinity of Burcot. The poet John Masefield once lived hereabouts.

A small boat, crammed with posh mothers and children, puttered along beside us at approximately the same pace. This was problematic, as we both needed to answer ‘calls of nature’! Eventually they stopped and we found some cover under clumps of trees, only just before encountering a picnic party.

We admired the approaching Wittenham Clumps, but were thinking more about our lunch, having earmarked the lock and bridge near Little Wittenham as a likely location.

In Elizabethan times, the weir here was kept by a William Dunch. It is said that the Clumps became known for a while as ‘Mother Dunch’s Buttocks’. But this could refer to a different lady, since several subsequent Dunches were MPs for Wallingford.

The Clumps were important in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, as well as in the Bronze and Iron Ages.

A poem about them was carved on a nearby tree by one Joseph Tubbs.

It begins:

‘As up the hill with labr’ing steps we tread
Where the twin Clumps their sheltering branches spread
The summit gain’d, at ease reclining lay
and all around the wide spread scene survey
Point out each object and instructive tell
The various changes that the land befel.’

Unfortunately the tree has since died.

We were disappointed to find no benches at Day’s Lock, built in 1789. We crossed back to the port side of the River, over the weir.

Passing Little Wittenham Bridge, we eventually found a suitable lunch spot down on the muddy river bank, under the shelter of several small willow trees.

Resuming, we continued on past Little Wittenham Wood on the opposite bank, crossing the River Thame via a gated footbridge. The Thame’s source is somewhere above Aylesbury. Up to this point of confluence with the Thame, the Thames is sometimes known as the Isis, derived from Tamesis.

For some unknown reason, the path now diverts away from the River, beside the immensely busy A4074, which detracts severely from the charms of Shillingford.

Eventually one has to cross this nightmare to head down Wharf Road, back to the River. We rested awhile on the pleasant shaded bench. There is still no way through on the riverbank however, as Shillingford Court stands in the way.

It was built in 1898 by Frederick William Mortimer, tailor to Edward, Prince of Wales, who allegedly entertained Edward and Lillie Langtry here. The house, now split into several properties, comes with a river garden and mooring rights.

So the walker is directed along a narrow footpath behind the rear wall, which eventually emerges onto Court Drive, which joins the Wallingford Road. This takes one down to Shillingford Bridge, where one finally descends to the towpath once more.

Eventually, the path arrives at the large village of Benson. Apparently it lies in a ‘frost pocket’ and has recorded some exceptionally low night-time temperatures as a consequence.

The riverfront here is dominated by a collection of lodges and a large marina, serviced by the Waterfront Café.

We fought our way through the assembled multitude to purchase ice creams from a booth outside, which we carried into a small green space beyond.

Next the route heads down a lane called Preston Crowmarsh, taking a right turn to a footbridge back over the Thames and Benson Weir, beside Benson Lock.

Then there is a long riverside path into the market town of Wallingford, eventually emerging near Wallingford Bridge at the bottom of the High Street.

Considerably footsore, we reached the bus stop minutes after the departure of our target vehicle, so took refuge in Bean and Brew, where we enjoyed iced coffees while waiting for the next service.

From 1934, Agatha Christie resided at Winterbrook House near Wallingford, and the town features in several of her novels.

Otherwise Wallingford is best known for its ruined castle, largely destroyed by Cromwell in the 1650s but, prior to that, featuring prominently throughout our history since its construction in the Eleventh Century.

The Treaty of Wallingford, signed in 1153, ended a civil war between King Stephen and his cousin Matilda, who took refuge here in the 1140s. Half a millennium later, the Parliamentarians besieged the Castle during the official Civil War.

But we were far too tired to make an excursion. Eventually the bus arrived and we were transported slowly back to Abingdon, where we dozed until dinner.

On this, our third night, we ate in the Hotel, taking advantage of our £25 per person discounts. The food was good.

Next morning we caught another bus back to Didcot Parkway, and so back home. I looked forward, considerably, to rather quieter nights.

TD

September 2022

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