This stretch of the river is about 26 miles long. Taking into account various diversions, we probably made it up to 30 at least, over three walks. As with previous walks in this series we completed them at different times, though not quite as initially planned. The first stretch, from Oxford to Abingdon followed the walk from Farmoor to Oxford, at the end of 2017. We did Oxford to Abingdon on 29 December. The plan was to walk from Abingdon to Dorchester on the 30th. However, after the flooding we encountered on the 29th we figured that it might be best to leave the walk to Dorchester to the summer. So we reconvened in August 2018, with the temperature in the 30s on both days: Abingdon to Dorchester on the 4th and Dorchester to Cholsey via Wallingford on the 5th.
While checking the Cicerone Thames Path guide and Peter Ackroyd’s Thames, Sacred River for interesting historical nuggets I was reminded that one story that brings together a number of the locations along this stretch of the river is that of St Frideswide (aka Frithuswith) a 7th century Saxon princess, who became a patron saint of Oxford. Legend has it that as a young woman she was being pursued by a Mercian prince called Algar, although was sworn to celibacy. With her sisters she fled to the sanctuary of the Thames near Oxford, where they met a youth who rowed them down river to Abingdon. Here she performed a miracle (as you do) before moving upstream to Binsey, where she constructed a chapel and established a healing well. She settled in Oxford where she established a monastery which, centuries later, became the foundation of Christ Church College. Her shrine remains in the cathedral of Christ Church to this day.
Oxford to Abingdon, 29 December 2017
The walk from Oxford to Abingdon was a little damp and, in parts, very muddy. At one point, just beyond Sandford, we encountered a stretch of path that was completely flooded – too much for the walking boots. We had no choice but to crawl through a barbed wire fence and make our way onto a nearby track. As we walked along a woman on horseback approached. This is trouble, I thought – we were obviously on private land. In fact she was very friendly and helpful and gave us directions for getting back to the river where it was passable. She finished by saying she hoped we didn’t bump into the farmer as he didn’t take kindly to people being on his land. A familiar tale. As it happened we saw no-one else and her instructions took us to where we needed to be, which was close to the Radley College boathouse.
This is where we concluded a diversion was needed.
Back to the river here, at Radley.
Abingdon has deep roots. There was an abbey there from the 7th century, which lasted until Henry VIII did his worst. The town’s name means Aebba’s Hill, Aebba being an Abbess in the early days of the monastery. The most celebrated historian of early England, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1151), was based at the abbey for a while. He is perhaps best known for his tales of King Arthur and Merlin, which have resonated through the ages. Ackroyd tells a story of how, after the monks rerouted the Thames so that it would flow past the foundation walls of the abbey, all passing barges containing herring were obliged to donate 100 of them to the monastery cooks!
We walked through the abbey grounds towards the centre of town. It was pretty gloomy and I didn’t feel inclined to take the camera out, having put it away as we clambered along muddy paths on the approach to Abingdon. There’s an attractive market square, dominated at one end by the rather grand (though compact) County Hall, which was built in the 17th century by Christopher Kemper, who was one of Wren’s masons at St Paul’s in London. We sat in a café and stared out at the rain, if I recall. It wasn’t really a moment for soaking in the history – there had been enough soaking that day.
We stayed a little out of the centre at a Premier Inn in the evening, but found a nice pub called the Brewery Tap which did very good food. Both were on Ock Street, so named after the nearby river which flows into the Thames at Abingdon. The Brewery Tap was a Tap House for the local Morland brewery, which was founded in 1711. Ah, Morlands! Or should that be aaaaagh!? Morlands was our house ale in University College beer cellar and it wasn’t very well-kept. But it was cheap – and sometimes even free, depending on who was running the bar. Many an hour of my youth was whiled away, you might say wasted, in those dingy surrounds, drinking that dodgy beer.
Abingdon to Dorchester, 4 August 2018
We got the weather right this time: if anything the worry was about it being too hot to walk for 8 or 9 miles each day. We stayed in Dorchester, at the White Hart Hotel. On this first day of the trip, having parked the car in Dorchester we took a taxi to Abingdon, and then walked back along the river to Dorchester. A peaceful walk, with pleasant scenery, though quite exposed under the sun.
We took a diversion to visit the church at Sutton Courtenay, named after the de Courtenay family, who were granted the land during Norman times – a familiar tale along the river. All Saints parish church has some illustrious characters buried in its grounds, including the newspaper magnate David Astor, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and the man we know as George Orwell.
The first of two cow shots in this blog! You could imagine Constable painting this scene. It was fascinating to watch them jostle for position – and let the little ones through.
Two perspectives of the bridge at Clifton Hampden. There’s another at the top of this blog.
Didcot power station looms.
This, I think, is taken from Little Wittenham bridge, near Dorchester. I have to do quite a bit of piecing together for these blogs! The Cicerone guide maps are invaluable.
We had Constable earlier, so how about Monet?
Dorchester is another Thames town with a bit of history, dating back to Roman times, when it was a garrison town. Its name means the city on the water. Peter Ackroyd describes it as one of the holiest places on the Thames, being the burial place of St Birinus, who founded a Saxon cathedral here. He is said to be the patron saint of the Thames. The Saxon church became the site for the abbey, which was established in the 12th century. Dorchester is situated at the confluence of the Thame and the Thames. In the debate about the relationship between Isis and the Thames, some think it is simply that the Thames is the Isis until it meets the Thame. Ackroyd dismisses this notion, but given that the Thames is called the Isis in Oxford, it has a certain logic for me.
Dorchester to Cholsey, 5 August 2018
The highlight of this walk was Jon going for a swim! I declined the opportunity and amused myself taking close-ups of thistles instead. Each to their own…
My alternative to swimming.
This is near Benson, I think. The following photo is at the lock in Benson. There was a major battle here in 775, between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. Mercia, led by Offa – he of the dyke – was victorious.
Wallingford then came into view.
We didn’t linger in Wallingford, which was near the end of the walk, but it is another town with a rich and ancient history. Its name reflects the fact that it was on the main road from a foreign land – Wales – to London. As a settlement it is as ancient as London. I think it’s also one of the places we moored for the evening on our infamous barge trip while at uni – see previous blog. Into the town for a few beers. Food too? Can’t remember. I don’t think we created quite as much mayhem as Cromwell did in 1646, when he crushed Royalist resistance and destroyed the castle after a long siege. It had survived multiple sieges in the past, but this time it fell. The soldiers who had defended the castle were decapitated and thrown in the river on Cromwell’s orders: “Let the river have them before they corrupt the land as the King corrupted England…”
The cleansing, healing power of the Thames… we began with the story of St Frideswide at Abingdon and Binsey; St Birinus baptised Saxon kings and princes in the waters at Dorchester and had a spring where sick cattle could be treated; Cromwell purged his enemies. Many powers have been attributed to the river over the centuries.
For me, serenity is one.
Cholsey is just beyond Wallingford. The town is not on the river, but a bit of a walk inland. We went up to the station to get a taxi back to Dorchester. As we waited we debated why we hadn’t asked the taxi to come down to the river – there was a road. We’d walked another mile or more for no good reason. Blame it on the heat!