The Group of Four have been walking the Thames Path for some four years now, on and off, fitting in a section around Life. We’ve reached the penultimate (for us) part, about 11 miles of windy river, slow flowing now through landscapes left over from some of Constable’s trial canvases.
Strictly it’s not the penultimate if you are walking from Sea to Source because there are some thirty miles left. But one weekend in 2012, after the most god-awful wet spring we booked a couple of rooms at the White Hart in Cricklade with the idea of walking the Source back a couple of sections. We arrived late on Friday and sat down to dinner. About 9.30 a couple of women came in looking utterly shattered. They had walked from the Source that day, a twelve mile section into Cricklade. Well, waded rather than walked. It was 90% underwater, impossible to distinguish nascent river from path. So we made a quick recalculation and set off towards the Sea from Cricklade reaching Tadpole Bridge on the Sunday afternoon.
That, dear reader, meant yesterday we re-reached Tadpole Bridge coming out of Oxford and we have but the very last piece left to tick off. In a couple of weeks… In truth it will be nice to finish the right way round.
Yesterday was warm and sunny, a truly beau spring day. You would be hard pressed to find anywhere more fair that rural, agricultural England in such weather. Words like ‘dappled’ and ‘stippled’ and ‘susurrating’ were conjured up while wending and meandering through this landscape.
As with the last walk (post here) we began at Bablock Hythe, a convenient taxi ride out of Oxford Station. If you arrive in Oxford by train the functionality of the train station, with its dull repetitive retailers, supersized bike rack and taxi rank give you no idea of Oxford’s intense charm. Leaving it on the Eynsham Road is equally unprepossessing but soon enough you are skating across the countryside, entering what feels like a competition amongst the gods to see who can create the most intense green backdrop.
Bablock itself is a scabby scratch of chalets and stucco. It’s not difficult to turn your back and head off along the towpath. Almost at once you are in fields of sheep and buttercups, vying for attention. Geese, anxious new parents, corral their young as they nibble at the reeds, a kite swoops majestically overhead, indifferent raptor intent on other prey.
The first sign of man, one holiday chalet apart comes at Northmoor lock. Here a party of adults and children scampered. Their squeals and the rush of the weir turned birdsong away, reminding us that, even in this seeming isolation, the thrust and parry of life is but a hedgerow away.
As is often the case, around the fat meanders of this river, you are lost in nowhere one minute and surrounded by man the next. So it was at Newbridge with its parked boats and pub life nestled under grand willows shading the bank. We stopped to rehydrate and relax until the cooling sweat on our backs told us it was time to move.
Newbridge was built in around 1250. It was ‘new’ because Radcott bridge, further on toward the Source came first. The commissioners were Benedictine monks out of St Denis in Paris who were staying nearby. Why the urge to build a bridge is lost in time. A hermit was left to collect tolls, not an obviously hermitty pastime. The stone used – Taynton – is the same as was used 400 years later by Wren when he built St Paul’s.
The river, obviously seeks out the lowest flattest points. Just beyond Newbridge there is a small elevated piece of land, Harrowdown Hill. A little light woddland dots its slopes and in 1927 poet Wilfred Howe-Nurse wrote:
On Harrowdown the golden gorse now flames,
While rich meadows se with many flowers,
The cattle graze beside the silver Thames,
Or seek its shallows cool in sunny hours.
This idyll is rather rudely shattered when you realise this self same wood was the last resting place of Dr David Kelly, the WMD expert reviled in Select Committee having been disgracefully hung out to dry over the dodgy dossier and machinations of the Blair ‘War Crimes’ cabinet. The sad fact is he took his life for the old fashioned reason of shame. The shame should fall elsewhere.
Slightly more sombre we moved on. Around a long bend we stopped opposite a farm and small 19th century chapel. Shifford is a nothing place now, not even a hamlet. But it must have had some attraction and charm 1125 years ago as it was the first meeting spot of the English Parliament under King Alfred in 890. The meeting
with many bishops, learned men, proud earls and awful knights
has a place in history even if the venue does not.
Beyond we reached the Shifford Lock cut, a feat of engineering to cut off the twisting shallow Thames that impeded barge progress some 120 years ago. Here we ate some food, looked across the lock at the wooded wilderness that is the pride and joy of the BBOWT (Buckinghamshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife trust) and said a farewell. This is the last lock on the river that we will walk past. It is not the first but we have already walked that section. We will miss them for their charm, their connection to modern industrialised Britain and our innovative ancestors.
This land here is called Chimney-on-Thames. It has nothigto do with belching smoke but rather ‘Ceomma’s Island’ reflecting what was once a marshy area.
That marshiness can still be gauged by the banked causeway on which we now walked, once more follwoign twists and turns until, passing beneath yet another pylon we spied our end point.
I like pylons. They are intrusive into the landscape, cutting at vistas and views with a stiletto sharpness. But as they have been there since the 1930s, like white noise, we rarely really see them these days. If nothing else they remind you of the importance of investing in national infrastructure. When Parliament passed the legislation to commission a nation wide electrical grid it was a world first. It cost £3 billion back then, a truly staggeringly humongous amount of dosh. But the human benefits of power being distributed to the four corners of the nation are countless. I listened to an article on the news this week about a pilot project to bring superfast broadband to an isolated part of the country. It is a joint BT and Government project and, it seems, it has miscalculated the take up so the infrastructure cannot cope. Once upon a time we over engineered: Bazelgette and his sewers that we still use in London, the national grid. Why don’t we over engineer anymore? Haven’t we learnt form the benefits of the past?
We took tea at the Trout Inn while we waited for a cab. The cab fare seemed extortionate at £40 but we shrugged, where we should have complained. We didn’t want to break the spell on a glorious day with a petty fogging argument over the pricing structure of cab fares. Once again I would sleep well. My phone said 28,900 steps. My feet said: Too bloody right.
And here, a clip from the middle of nowhere, and yet still full of life:
This is well timed to fit with Restless Jo’s Monday Walks, here. Go check out some of the other delights.