Goring to Shillingford - Sunday 24th. February
We four chaps and Ben-the-Dog met at the Shillingford Bridge Hotel, leaving one car in the hotel car park which is For Patrons Only. (I had a clear conscience - I had been a patron, in December 1979, and, incidentally, I enjoyed the trout!). Big John drove to Streatley where he crossed the River Thames to park in a most obscure car park hidden in a twist of Goring. We took a few photographs of each other, and then we took a few deep breaths before we set off. She-who-knows-best was right about me needing to get some exercise - I was beginning to get a bit short of breath after just the three hundred yards back across the Goring-Streatley bridge.
The footpath bypassed a very expensive hotel with jacuzzi and fitness room (how appropriate, I thought!) then wound gently past the church, through a field and over a short length of causeway into the riverside meadows.
The first views of the River Thames on an overcast but mild Sunday morning were very much as I'd imagined they'd be. The fields were of short, damp grass promising the hoped-for level walking. The ground was was quite firm underfoot, and yet, judging by the plague of soft brown spoil-heaps sprouting everywhere, evidently easy digging for a herd of moles.
The fields bordering the Thames are often separated by hedges or substantial fences, with passage provided by walker-friendly gates or stiles. These are generally maintained by the Thames Conservancy, and in this area at least, all of the gates and stiles were in very good repair, freshly painted in grey. Each gate or stile was numbered, with the numbers decreasing as we went upstream, though the numbering seemed to get more random the further we went. A lot of work had also been done on the Goring lock and weir just upstream of the road bridge, leaving it looking very spruce.
In this area, and for most of the river upstream, the footpath sensibly followed the flat route, with the water level generally just a few feet below us. In parts, the bank had crumbled away creating miniature bays, and there were numerous cattle watering places. There was no shortage of birdlife. There were mallards, of course, but there was also a heron, which landed behind a tree and refused to be photographed, and a goose or two, which Young John's spotters' book told us were Canada Geese. We also spotted a very skinny-necked mallard which turned out to be a Great Crested Grebe, the first one I'd ever seen, and yet just the first of several we were to see that day.
We were barely under way when we were accosted by two teenage girls who, having already mountained-biked their way past, returned to ask most politely, "Please, can we keep going and cross the river further up?" Their accents betrayed them as foreigners, but they displayed the usual foreigner's faultless English. In faultless yokel-speak we explained that we didn't know where the nearest crossing was, but they could certainly cross some seven miles about ("seven divide by five times eight equals... oh..." ) eleven kilometres onwards at Wallingford. "Eleven kilometres?!!?" "Yes". A pause - they looked at each other - "OK, thankyou". This was another thing that betrayed them as foreigners - a conversation! Had they been British, two teenage girls would have totally ignored us. These two departed enthusiastically on their bikes. We assumed they found what they wanted as we never saw them again.
The first serious puddle of the day showed how easy it is to waste a tenner. Wellies are not quite the approved footwear for serious walking, so I had lately bought David a pair of substantial trainers-cum-boots, certainly very comfortable, though unfortunately in gleaming white. David gaily inserted his new trendy white boots into the water. Were David's new bright white boots water resistant? NO! This was not David's day. There couldn't have been more leaks if it had been St. David's Day. Luckily for him we joined a tarmac road leading to Cleeve Lock, which gave his boots and feet a bit of a chance to dry.
The entrance gate to Cleeve lock itself seemed stuck, and, having struggled with it a while, we heard a voice. "Oi!", it said. We looked round to see who was being shouted at. "You two, you two chaps with the kids and dog!". Us? We looked up to see the lock-keeper looking despairingly at the sight of four apparently incompetent walkers trying to open the access gate to his lock. "It opens the other way!" Eyes averted, we slunk rapidly through his domain.
Upstream of the lock there were several large flocks of Canada geese. They are very skillful fliers for such big birds. Unlike your average sparrow, large birds cannot reach flying speed instantly, and I found it fascinating to watch them accelerate as they took off, and accelerate more as they built up to cruising speed. Canada geese have a well-deserved reputation for being noisy birds - or perhaps its just that flying off the Thames needs a lot of instructions from the bird traffic controllers. Other birds were trying to get in on the act too, though the sound of a skylark singing falls much more kindly on the ear than the honking of geese. The lark's song, together with a large quantity of rooks cawing in the trees on the opposite bank, was another link with our previous expedition. To me, the combination of skylark song and rook calls is the typical sound of the Ridgeway.
After two miles or so of fields and geese the footpath came to an end, there being no right of way through a series of private riverside properties at Moulsford and beyond. The path terminated in the courtyard of the 'Beetle and Wedge' which is like a lot of riverside pubs, with its moorings and terrace, and consisting of a number of scattered buildings. We bumped into a young chef carrying a plate of fresh-fried bubble-and-squeak. The smell wafting from this plate was just the thing to get the taste buds started and the brain fantasising, especially after a couple of miles walking on a grey morning like this. But this was no time for a rest - the pub wasn't even open yet, dammit! - and so we regretfully kept going up a lane to join the main A329 through Moulsford.
This is where doubt and disillusion started to creep in. As far as I was concerned, I'd already had enough exercise for one day - a couple of miles of tolerable country walking and seeing a little wildlife is more than enough excitement for a pre-lunch Sunday stroll. Unfit as I was, my muscles were already beginning to complain, and I wasn't keen on the idea of many miles still to go. The guidebook we had chosen, which I wouldn't recommend to anybody, would have us believe that the track back down to the river was within a mile of the 'Beetle and Wedge'. So, we were faced with at least a mile of walking alongside a narrow and fast main road. 'Within a mile', it said. Don't believe it. We couldn't find it. We walked a good two miles and more along the roadside footpath before we finally came to a way back down to the Thames. The track that most nearly matched the guidebook's description showed evidence that an irate landowner had already suffered from too many previous walkers along the side of his field. A whole string of notices confronted us: 'Private', 'No Entry', 'No Access to River', 'Our Fido Will Bite You and Tear You into a Thousand Pieces'. We took the hint.
This really was a gloomy two miles. Somewhere along the Moulsford main street we must have passed the house that had been the scene of a recent IRA. bomb attempt. Beyond the village we plodded past the defunct garage and pub 'available for development', past some depressingly untended, overgrown allotments - on and on we went. We passed the Fairmile Hospital. 'There is no Accident or Casualty service at this Hospital'. Well, there wouldn't be at a mental hospital, would there? Is it just tact that prevents the Authority from labelling it for what it is? There had been plenty of evidence along the roadside of those who perhaps should be committed to the Fairmile - it would almost be possible to start a spares dealership with the bits and pieces of broken car scattered along the verges.
Despite the gloom and despondency, two miles from Goring became three miles and eventually four miles - a lot of distance for a normally-sessile object like me. David, never an enthusiastic walker at the best of times, started to struggle a bit - and made a point of letting us know. 'My legs hurt.' 'Can we have a rest?' 'Is it time for dinner?' Like David's, my legs were really starting to complain, too, though I didn't dare say so. I envied Big John's steady, slow, long stride - he never seemed to tire. Young John, luckily for him, has a great deal of stamina. Maybe his legs hurt just as much as mine, but he was enjoying the walk, and was forever finding something of interest to see.
We detoured slightly into a lay-by, just as a car pulled up. Could we direct him to the Shillingford Bridge Hotel? "Shush!", I said, pointing to David. "If he hears you I shall have a mutiny on my hands". Very quietly, I sketched him a silent map, keeping an eye on David to make sure he didn't find out what was going on. I was unusually kind to the driver, hoping he would still be at the hotel to buy us a drink when (or if) we arrived.
The detour into the layby was fortunate, for leading off it was a track that we could use to get back to the Thames. But first I had to give in to the mutterings from the most junior child and let him take a breather. Let's be honest - it suited me to take a break, too. Perching on an old gate in the shelter of a hedge, looking at the field in front of me and trying to ignore the grey and depressing layby and traffic behind me, I was of the opinion that, so far, this walk had been a disappointment.
Having breathered, we set off down the track which ran along the edge of a field. At the bottom we wriggled through the spiky bushes, carefully edged round a deep pond without slipping in, and, at last, found our way over a bank and another field back to the Thames. Surely it was time for lunch?
We found ourselves a sheltered spot near the river and perched as best we could. One of the pleasures of walking is to be away from all the daily hassle - in my case to be away from cars and telephones. A light lunch in my pocket makes me feel completely independent of the routine haste of the world, and a simple ham roll, bag of crisps and a swig of water made an excellent snack. Now, had Big John brought his water-and-whiskey refresher? Yes he had! Good lad! This hip flask had appeared without fail at critical moments on our Ridgeway trip. A small swig is remarkably refreshing, though Young John doesn't like it. David doesn't like it either, but he keeps working on it.
Being near the river (possibly combined with the enlivening effects of the whiskey) made the day feel less gloomy, and I started to take an interest in our surroundings. We discussed why there should still be concrete pill boxes along the bank. Dating back to the summer of 1940, they were built as a second line of defence against a possible invasion by Hitler's chaps, forming what was known as the GHQ. Line. Today they don't seem to be used by anyone for anything - is it just too much trouble to remove them, or are they seen as a monument to the Home Front? In this area there are pillboxes on both sides of the river - perhaps the Home Guard didn't know if it was coming or going.
Across the river was another pair of Great Crested Grebes, diving under for fish, presumably, and then surfacing again some distance away. They were lovely to watch, but I don't see how such a skinny fowl can justify being called a 'Great' anything. If there is a Lesser Crested Grebe it must be a very insignificant beast. And scattered around us we had the Fishermen, clearly identified by labels on their clothing and gear as Timothy Trout, or 'Chubby' Smith, after the style of Hell's Angels. These chaps were the remnants of a fishing contest - and don't they take it seriously! The effort that goes in to these contests is beyond me. Most of the fisher persons we passed were kitted out with many a rod, plus nets, baskets and boxes full of gear, necessitating a large off-road trolley to transport it all. It strikes me as out of all proportion to the fish they might catch - most of which go back into the water anyway.
I inspected David's soggy, useless, off-white boots and saturated socks, and his feet. Despite the soaking, and the eczema he suffered from then, there was no sign of cracking, nor of sores. So, considerate Daddy that I am, I dried his feet, put a good dollop of Vaseline on them, wrung out and replaced his socks, and got the indescribable pleasure of re-lacing his soggy, muddy boots for him. I took one more well-deserved swig of water-and-whiskey; then refreshed and feeling more optimistic, we were off.
The path, narrow at this point, led through the riverside woods which bordered a good mile of broad, straight river. Young John, gangly child that he can be at times, stumbled on an uneven footbridge crossing a tiny tributary, and so we other three drew lots to see who should ask him if he 'enjoyed the trip'. I won!
We left the woods behind and entered a series of more open meadows, one of which appeared to contain an aeroplane parked at its far side. On closer inspection we discovered that the field doubled as a grass airstrip, marked at one end with a windsock. The aeroplane was a single-engined high-wing Cessna something, but what model it might have been I can't say. Despite having flown several variants, I really can't tell a 150 from a 152 from a 172. I also had my doubts about getting any light aircraft airborne from this short length of airstrip - I'm certain the Grob motorglider that I normally fly would struggle to take off safely from it. I also wondered about a private owner operating so close to RAF Benson, home of the Queens Flight - I wondered if the Queen knew about this strip?
On the approach to Wallingford the path cut across a number of back gardens. Some owners had fenced off our path; some, having more faith in human nature, had merely marked the footpath and had put us on trust not to stray into their private parts. Then, with the road bridge at Wallingford in sight, the riverside path came to an end in a large boatyard, looking rather forlorn and unloved on a grey winter's afternoon, with little bits and pieces of boatmongery scattered around. A number of boats were for sale, but they were frighteningly expensive. £5000 barely buys you a small, tatty 2-berth cruiser - and the outboard engine will be extra.
We followed the footpath leading us away from the Thames and out in to the back alleys of Wallingford. Big John said that he finds Wallingford an unspoilt town that has not been 'messed about too much in the middle'. That's probably because, until the very recent opening of the relief road, the traffic was so often solidly jammed up that no developer would have had elbow room to swing a sledge hammer.
We didn't seem to have the inclination to stroll around this unspoilt town, but merely trudged onward along the streets to the long, single track bridge over the Thames. Halfway across Young John and David found some seats set into the stonework, and demanded another break to give them a chance to work at the remains of their rations. Big John and I had a Kit-Kat and a committee meeting. The guidebook said the route now followed the left bank 'if Benson lock is open'. But, if it wasn't, then it would have meant a two-mile walk there to find out, and a two-mile walk back to Wallingford again to cross the Thames over this very same road bridge if it wasn't. We were in no mood for taking chances. The light was already fading, the weather was turning chilly, and neither of us fancied risking an extra hour's struggle. We settled for the boring road route running parallel to the right bank.
Having followed the line of the old Oxford road past the large Institute of Hydrology with its long beech hedge all brown and autumny, even in February, the suggested route was through Preston Gifford, where we assumed we would rejoin the river bank. Annoyingly, having passed a number of cottages with optimistic names like 'Ferry Cottage' and 'Waterside' and 'Private Access' we found ourselves almost back on the Oxford road again three quarters of a mile later! Still, Benson lock was at hand, and we were very pleased to find we had made the correct choice back at Wallingford - there had been no river crossing available at the lock.
We were, at last, able to get back to the river bank, and after 'one last rest' on a tempting bench under a tree, I dragged both flagging lads to their feet, and jollied them along for the final stretch, promising soft, jolly green meadows and no more hard roads. But nothing in life is ever simple, is it? Not far into the meadows David's sweet little voice called to me. "Dad, I think my flask has fallen out".
I didn't swear, I didn't yell. Despite my tired and aching legs, I simply bowed to the inevitable and retraced the path back towards Benson lock. A quarter mile back in a previous field, lying just a yard to the rear of an uncaring fisherman and fortunately just clear of a cowpat, was a bright blue object, oblivious to all the pain and agony it had caused me. I picked it up without disturbing either fisherman or cowpat, and struggled to join the others who had wandered quietly onwards. Catching them up was not easy - although they had gone but slowly, my legs were stuck in low gear and simply refused to go faster than a plod. Finally overhauling them, I handed David his flask saying Nothing, very, very loudly.
At last, there came the point where we we could make out Shillingford Bridge, giving us perhaps half a mile to go, and so putting a little heart back in to us. The far bank was quite steep and heavily wooded, and another heron took its chance to play hide and seek with us in and out of the woods, before disguising itself as a tree where Big John still couldn't get a photo of it.
We tripped and slipped gaily along the tree-lined muddy final few hundred yards to the bridge, thinking all our troubles were over. But, the bridge didn't have a footpath, so crossing it turned out to be the most dangerous stretch of the entire day's walk, with a lot of traffic very close to our elbows. Muddily, wearily, stiffly we plodded into the hotel car park. There was no sign of the chap who I'd so carefully directed to this hotel some hours before. In any case, much as we could have used a drink, I doubted if this 'For Patrons Only' hotel would want our patronage dressed as we were in our muddy walking gear.
Big John laughingly pointed out the start of the next section of the Thames Path just across the river. That could wait. This first stretch had been a good ten miles long, taken well over five hours, and we had walked as many miles of roads as we had riverside meadows. As an introduction to what we hoped was going to be a wonderful series of walks, the combination of indifferent weather and some tedious diversions had made the Goring - Shillingford stretch of the Thames a most disappointing event.
And as for getting fit, I don't think it did much for me at all. I was simply knackered. It was nice to find out that Big John was knackered too.