In this third part of the Thames journey we travel downstream from Newbridge to the river’s second city, Oxford – a place dear to my heart, having spent three years there, at university. This stretch of the river runs for 13 ½ miles, according to my Thames path guide. We covered it in two separate walks, nearly a year and a half apart. My two diary entries for these walks suggest something more like 15 miles in all, but that may be accounted for by a diversion to a village called Stanton Harcourt – see below. The pivotal point was near another village, Farmoor.
Newbridge to Farmoor
We walked this stretch on 25 April 2019, the first of three days of walking, which were the last of the journey – see A Thames Journey 2 for the other two. We walked upstream from Farmoor to Newbridge, which wasn’t far from where we were staying, in Longworth. It’s not a spectacular part of the river, but the walk was pleasant enough. We did have to come off the towpath for a while, and slightly overshot the diversion so that we ended up in Stanton Harcourt. It’s an attractive Oxfordshire village, which takes its name from a 12th century owner, Robert de Harcourt. There’s an impressive church and a prehistoric stone circle – a henge – called the Devil’s Quoits. We didn’t see any of this, as we were focused on getting back to the river. To that end, we found ourselves in Bablock Hythe caravan park, where there was a social club that served as a pub for passers-by. It was one of the rare occasions when I lowered the average age when I went in to buy the drinks!
Newbridge is a small village which is notable for having the second oldest bridge on the Thames – some say the oldest, as Radcot’s is not on the main river. It dates from 1250 and was built by Benedictine monks from St Denis in Paris, who were living in nearby Northmoor. It has pubs on both sides of the river by the bridge: the Rose Revived on the towpath side and the Maybush on the other. We stopped at the Rose Revived and sat outside – it was rather cold, so we didn’t hang around. I’d been there once before, during one of my recent annual reunions with Uni friends – we’ve been staying in a house in a place called Ducklington, near Whitney and the River Windrush, which joins the Thames at Newbridge. An evocative name – the famous ship was named after this humble river and then gave its name to a generation of West Indian immigrants to the UK in the post-war decades. I should say re-named – it was originally a German passenger ship and did service for Germany during the Second World War. It was captured by the British at Kiel in May 1945, and became one of the “Empire” ships which were all named after English rivers.
A few photos of this stretch – as if we were walking backwards!
Farmoor to Oxford
We did this one on 28 December 2017. It was meant to be the first of three walks, taking us down to Dorchester. We abandoned day three as the towpath was waterlogged – more of that in blog 4.
This was a really lovely walk: big skies over a flat surrounding landscape that had succumbed to the rains and was flooded in many areas. That included where we started, which really felt in the middle of nowhere, though it is close to Farmoor village and the large reservoir.
We came upon Swinford Bridge. This has an interesting history. It was and still is a toll bridge. It was constructed in 1769. There had previously been a ferry in the same location. That was bought out by the Earl of Abingdon in 1765, and the Swinford Bridge Act was passed by Parliament in 1767 which allowed the Earl to collect a toll of 5d (old pennies = 2.5p) free of tax. The earl must have had friends in high places. Plus ca change – the mates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings have recently been awarded a massive contract to conduct public opinion research on covid 19 with no formal competition. Anyway, the toll was doubled to 5p in 1994 – outrageous! – and is, I believe, still being collected, leading to delays that must really annoy the local people. I guess the Act would have to be repealed for things to change. The same Act says that if the bridge falls down, the ferry has to be restored. That’s helpful.
We passed Godstow – the place of God – and the ruins of the abbey, as well as the Trout Inn, a place I’ve visited many times in the past. Very popular, especially in the summer. And then it was along the river by Port Meadow, a vast expanse to the west of Oxford. Apparently it’s an area of 342 acres and was given to the city by William the Conqueror. It has never been ploughed or built on. Parts of it flood in winter – and it was winter! It’s a haven for wildlife too. I found it serenely beautiful, although this was a time when I didn’t have a pair of proper walking boots, and my feet got very wet!
This part of the world also brings to mind Philip Pullman’s brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, and in particular the first book, Northern Lights. It’s where Lyra plays and does childish battle with local children, including the Gyptians who spend time on the nearby Oxford canal each year. They, of course, become her allies in the fight against the evil daemon-paring Gobblers. It’s an engrossing story and was superbly serialised by the BBC last year. Can’t wait for the next instalment, which will be based on The Subtle Knife.
We came into Oxford on a route from the west that I don’t think I ever walked in my time as a student there. Still, there were lots of things I didn’t do when I was a student – like truly appreciate the beauty and history of the city. I’ve been slowly making up for it over the last forty years though.
Our walk for the day ended at Folly Bridge, where the Abingdon Road, heading south out of the city centre, crosses the river. It’s also the location for the Head of the River pub. Now, that’s part of Oxford I did know something about! This may be the original Oxen-ford. The current bridge dates from 1825-7; architect Ebenezer Perry. The first stone bridge dates from around 1085, erected by one Robert d’Oilli. There are still the remains of a wooden bridge in the river, from the time of Saxon King Ethelred of Wessex, Alfred the Great’s predecessor. Alfred is one of many people said to have founded the University (and possibly even my college). Others include the renowned Theobald of Etampes in the 11th century. We will never really know.
So, yes, Oxford. A place of many fond memories. I was at university there, at University College, from October 1977 to June 1980. The era of punk and new wave, and the slow collapse of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. The 1979 general election, which gave us Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, was my first as a voter. Suffice to say, her party didn’t get my vote. I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, mainly for the economics, but a practical, political economics, not the really theoretical stuff. I never thought of economics as a science – and my later professional experience vindicated that.
My college was on the High Street. Here are a couple of photos from a blog that I wrote way back in 2012.
The river didn’t play a huge part in my Oxford life. I drank quite often at the Head of the River, and, like many of my contemporaries, spent much of Eights Week – the summer boat race season – drinking pints of Pimms at the college boathouse. I did once trying rowing myself, in the second year. There was a competition called Rowing On, a prelude to Eights Week proper. It was a qualifying competition – a few of the eights got through to the main event – but for most of us it was just a bit of fun. Or more accurately, a bit of torture – it was the hardest physical exercise I think I’ve ever done. When you row, you use just about every muscle in your body. You also have to go flat out and have to get your feathering technique right – basically the angle at which the blade enters the water – otherwise you catch a crab, and bring the whole boat to a halt. It is the ultimate team sport – one person makes a mistake and the whole team is stuffed. There is no way back – not in Rowing On or Eights Week, where once the boat that starts behind you catches you and bumps you, you are out. Finished. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desperate not to make a mistake as I rowed for the Football Eight in Rowing On. We knew we had no chance of qualifying for Eights Week, as we were novices; but we really wanted to beat our college rugby and hockey equivalents. And we did! The hockey team were just in front of us – and someone caught a crab. Bad luck guys!
My other main encounter with the river as a student was on a barge. This was bizarre. Six of us hired a barge in Oxford just before the start of the third year. Actually one of our mates, Andy, organised it all then decided not to come. Good call! The man at the barge place gave us about five minutes of instructions and off we went. A load of 19 year olds in charge of a barge for a week: what could possibly go wrong? We went up river for a day then turned back, and over the course of the week went as far downstream as Henley – or was it Reading? We moored near towns and villages where we could go to a pub in the evening for a few beers. And it all went very well! No accidents, no crushing smaller craft in the locks (which was always a risk). The thing I remember best now is the pleasure of taking my turn steering the barge. It was very simple – there was an accelerator/ brake and a rudder. We weren’t going very fast. It was just so lovely, so peaceful, standing there, gentling guiding the vessel and taking in the scenery. That feeling of being on the water, at one with nature. Liberating.
A moment I always remember was when one of our number threw a fag packet into the river. Another of the crew rightly took exception and insisted that we reversed the barge and fished the packet out of the river, even if the offender had to go into the river to do it. I don’t think he did, but we did retrieve it. The person who insisted on fishing out the packet – another Andy – was a geographer and went on to work for the Environment Agency. Good for him!
And that’s my riverine Oxford. A couple of punting debacles on the Cherwell too, but the Thames – or Isis – was mainly just there, a brooding presence, the quiet essence of the city. I crossed it regularly – at Folly Bridge – as I walked down the Abingdon Road two or three times a week to our college sports ground to play football and, in the summer, the occasional game of cricket. But that’s another story…