Shillingford to Abingdon - Sunday 7th. April
David was obviously unimpressed by the idea of long-distance walking and appeared determined to avoid any more. We'd already had to postpone one attempt at this section when he had quite a nasty attack of asthma. Cunningly, he'd managed to have another one just 24 hours before the re-scheduled day - a relatively mild attack, certainly, but enough to make his participation dubious. And no, on the Sunday he wasn't fit enough to go. He seemed to contain his disappointment quite well. Young John also had a minor upset the day before - David had inadvertently eaten the smokey bacon crisps that Young John had chosen for his lunch!
The forecast for the day's walk was typically spring-like - blustery showers and strong winds. So, I packed cagoules and overtrousers, as well as a little food and a few mints, and a separate bag of spare shoes, socks and trousers for Young John. Anne graciously cancelled her plans for the day to baby-sit David, and also agreed to drive us to the start point. We picked up Big John and Ben-the-Dog from Abingdon just after 10.00am, and a mere fifteen minutes drive got us to the Shillingford Bridge Hotel. Things hadn't changed - this car park was still For Patrons Only.
"Is that everything then, dearest?" she said. Ben-the-Dog had made an early start on the bird watching but very swiftly retreated when the swan he was watching took violent and noisy objection to him. "Oh, yes...thankyou", said I, distracted by the kerfuffle. Off she drove, my carefully-packed bag of spare clothing disappearing back to Wantage along with a wife and cheerfully-waving younger son. If we did get wet, we were going to stay that way. Still, undaunted, we tromped gaily over Shillingford Bridge with no footpath yet.
We'd dispensed with our original less-than-helpful guidebook to the Thames Path, and had put our faith in the Ramblers Association guidebook. Experience was to show that this book was an accurate and generally easily-followed guide. It was invaluable on later stages, and rarely let us down. Big John had turned it into travellers' map form, so with Young John 'navigating', we went down a Private Road, and yes, there was a gate and footpath just where it should be. The weather forecast was turning out to be accurate, too - the first gusty shower of rain found us with only another 9.75 miles to go. Thankfully it was brief, but fun while it lasted. A short stroll through the back alleys and past the old farms of Shillingford village brought us out on to the main A423, notorious for its road traffic collisions. Luckily, after only 300 yards or so of very wary pavement walking, the guidebook directed us in to a field and down to the river proper, promising that on this section of the walk we would stay with the river the whole distance.
And, suddenly, the sun shone! This sudden burst of spring sunshine totally changed the day and lifted our spirits. Memories of the disappointing previous walk were still with us, but the combination of sun and a promise of 'no more roads' made us feel much more optimistic. And, for once, our optimism was justified - in retrospect this field marked the point where the pleasurable walking really started. Not that it was all easy...
The intermittent bright spells meant that, despite the river bank being essentially flat and easy walking country, there really was an ever-changing view. Time and again on this walk a change of light, or a change of perspective as we rounded a slight curve, made the whole river look different. With much of the Thames Valley being level and low lying, we could often see miles of wide open countryside. On the river itself, there were one or two great crested grebes and a pair of mallards to be seen, while the sky above was bright blue in parts, though with many a thick dark cloud bubbling up.
I explained to Young John how a storm produces its own local weather, and how the wind direction varies around a storm. Big John expressed a polite interest in what I was saying, so I gave him the whole explanation of the way the weather works in springtime. "I didn't know that", he said.
The river skirted around Dorchester, with the impressive Dorchester Abbey (and some less impressive council houses) lit by the bright sunlight, clearly visible to our right. Dorchester is an ancient town, dating back to Roman times and earlier, and was one of England's most important towns in its day. Big John said the Abbey is nice, though plain, and that the town is unspoilt by tourists.
We reached the point where the River Thame joins the River Thames. The River Thames is called (by those in the know) the Isis as it passes through Oxford. The best explanation I've heard for this is that ancient maps marked the river at London as the River Thamesis. OK so far? Now, the River Thame rises in Buckinghamshire and flows roughly south west to join the Thamesis at Dorchester. So, if the two rivers added together form the Thamesis, take away Thame and what have you got? The River Sis. Close enough, isn't it? Arguably, then, upstream from this point on, we were walking along the Isis footpath. Just a matter of labels? Wait and see.
We crossed the footbridge that spans the mouth of the River Thame, pausing in the middle to lean on the rail and contemplate the infinite. The River Thame brought to my mind memories of happy days working at the Gateway superstore (now taken over by Asda), sited in an out-of-the-way spot some miles outside Oxford at Wheatley. The site stands on the west bank of the Thame, and one of the strange benefits of the Gateway company buying such an obscure site was that, to the delight of many of the young lads we employed, we acquired the fishing rights to a quarter mile of River Thame bank.
South of us, forming the far bank were Little Wittenham Clumps, the highest points of the Sinodun Hills. The clumps are a pair of tree-tufted local beauty spots and viewpoints which none of us had climbed, in spite of the alleged breathtaking view from the top. I was more interested in another footbridge that was just visible in the distance. Though A.A. Milne set his 'Winnie the Pooh' stories in Sussex's Ashdown Forest, the footbridges at Day's lock have become the venue of the Annual World Poohsticks Championships. There was a sudden Whoosh! as a stony-faced walking enthusiast came striding up behind us in full regulation dress. We barely had time to say 'Good Morning' before he zapped past us. Still, he did us a favour, because he reached Day's lock well before us, thus risking the embarrassment of having to re-trace steps if the path over the lock and weir wasn't open to the public - we waited to see. The lock-keeper let him pass (though at that enthusiastic pace the speed merchant would have taken some stopping!) and so we ambled over, said 'Good Morning', and yes, the weir can be used by the public any time the lock is manned.
This was my first meeting with Lynn David. He is as Welsh as his name suggests, and gifted with that country's vocal skills. As befits the organiser of the Poohsticks Championships, he's very outgoing, full of tales, and had a comment or two about people who try to take boats on the river in strong cross winds. This arose from a pleasure craft hirer who had that morning been blown on to a mudflat just upstream of the lock. Lynn was not nasty, more pitying of novices who wouldn't take advice. By this time, Captain Birdseye had freed his craft from the mud, and brought it in to the lock, giving us a perfect demonstration of how to all but fall in using the 'horizontal bridge position' - two hands on the boat, two feet on the bank.
Lynn David bears some of the responsibility for this book - though he doesn't know it! It was like this. I took both lads to the Poohsticks Championships in January 1993, and spoke briefly to Lynn David then to arrange for a group of children from David's primary school to interview him for their school newspaper - as well as the Poohsticks Championship, Lynn had been awarded the B.E.M. in the 1993 New Year's Honours. February's interview turned out to be an all-afternoon fascinating one-man talk about the Thames, the Tourists and the Poohsticks. Somewhere along the way Lynn was talking about the glories of the Upper Thames - he has worked all the locks from St. John's at Lechlade down to this one. "It's a shame no one's written a book about the Upper Thames ", said he "it's the best bit of all".
We took a bit of a rest on the weir, allowing ourselves to be mesmerised by the violent rush of water below, then wriggled through gates and willows to join the meadows on the west bank of the Thames, heading northwards. Little Wittenham Clumps were now behind us, Dorchester Abbey was still visible on the far bank, and everyone's favourite landmark started to peep over the horizon to the west - Didcot Power Station!
The river meadows were very low lying, with mudflats some distance away in the Didcot direction that were still waterlogged from recent flooding. A pair of birds, too small and too rapid to be identified, flashed by and landed among the pools of water. We could hear a skylark or two, but as usual, I couldn't spot them. I watched the peewits/lapwings/plovers that were also gathered on the mudflats. I read somewhere that they are indifferent flyers. Don't believe it. They are amazing beasts in the air, with big broad wings, and an ability to reverse a turn very quickly. A favourite trick is to close the wings, roll inverted, and then fall inverted before recovering near the ground - courtship, or the love of flying? Also airborne was a light plane passing very slowly overhead. His slow progress westward, despite large earfuls of engine, indicated a very strong headwind of 30 to 40 knots, and a warning of very changeable weather still to come.
As we rounded the long leftward curve in the river, we lost sight of Dorchester, and saw instead the expensive, expansive gardens of Burcot sweeping down to the water. They looked very nice, but neither Big John nor me fancied the idea of owning and mowing a football pitch-sized lawn, nor could we afford to pay anyone else to do it. From a distance at least, these huge gardens appeared well-tended - either the owners have plenty of time on their hands, or plenty of money.
Talking of plenty of money, we watched one or two pleasure cruisers going upstream, not making much headway against wind and current. I enjoy cruising along a river, but actually owning a river cruiser has always struck me as a very poor investment - these expensive, over-equipped cruisers seem to spend most of their time tied up and ignored. Neither was Big John over-impressed. "I can't see the point", he said. "You cruise up the river, say to Lechlade, then you turn round and cruise back again...".
Big John was impressed by the bird life. At one moment he stood transfixed, camera ready, drooling over the sight of three swans landing in formation on the water. Impressive birds they were, though their passing created a strange creaking noise as they flapped over our heads. They must be very marginal flying devices, with a very poor power-to-weight ratio and a very heavy airframe. And not easy to land either - we watched a youngster fail to lower his undercart in time and come to a very bumpy stop. Noticing that we were distracted, a heron teased us with a stately flypast, then just as Big John spotted him and swung his camera towards the beast, it switched on its afterburner, went into terrain-hugging mode and landed in the next field well out of camera range. Are all herons camera-shy?
We started to meet a handful of strolling persons dressed in Sunday best coming the other way. Now this comes as quite a shock when you're in boots and waterproofs - it's a bit of a jolt to find the real world still exists. It happened to me once on Exmoor, when I was 'leading' a party of cadets on a walk. Frankly, we were lost, believed ourselves to be miles from anywhere, and were simply heading south on the basis that this would eventually bring us to a main road. Coming around the rocks on the desolate, isolated stretch of moorland were two ladies in headscarves, tight skirts and high heels...
We were nearing Clifton Hampden, home of the famous Barley Mow pub, as mentioned in Jerome K. Jerome's 'Three Men in a Boat'. One of the great advantages of being a walker is the freedom to have a drink in a remote country pub without worrying about drink-drive laws. There was no chance of either big John or me driving for hours yet, so the pub promised to be the ideal place for lunch. Walking a little further round the bend of the Thames brought Clifton Hampden bridge into sight; a nicely proportioned pointy-arched brick bridge. Sensing the pub, I spotted the steps at the far side of the field leading up to the road, and turned away from the river bank to take a direct line across the field. Young and Big John followed. Unfortunately, also taking a direct line across the field, craftily hidden from view, was a deep and fast-flowing stream between us and the steps. We backtracked to the river bank to follow the proper path, crossing the stream by a thoughtfully-provide footbridge - sorry about the detour, chaps!
At last we reached the pub via the steps and a brisk dash along the road. Big John handed me some cash while he stayed outside with Young John and Ben-the-Dog. Young John would not be persuaded to mind the Ben for an hour while Big John and I went inside and warmed ourselves, so we were all four stuck with sitting outside. Sometimes these eleven-year-old chaps have no feelings.
Bearing in mind the advice of Jerome K. Jerome that, due to low beams and odd levels, this pub is not a place for tall heroines or drunken men, I made my way very carefully to the bar. It really is an old building, and there's no sign of the fire that destroyed the roof not so many years ago. But old pub or not, the prices are bang up-to-date - Young John's double orange juice didn't leave us much change out of a fiver.
If anyone remembers taking lunch at the Barley Mow on Sunday, 7th. April 1991, they may also remember the cabaret provided by three men and a dog. While the diners sat warm and snug at their tables in the pub, treating themselves to the roast beef and gravy that we could only smell, they were also treated to the sight of us sitting in the garden, dressed in our full Arctic gear of boots, cagoules and gloves, cheerfully ignoring a bitingly cold wind suddenly coming down from a threatening black cloud mass. Well insulated against the conditions, we supped orange juice, best bitter and Guinness, munched cheerfully on pies and sandwiches, and commented on the delightful pink blossom on the trees. A flock of twenty or more sparrows kept us amused (and bemused) in our turn by repeatedly leaping out of the hedge, pecking at nothing obvious on the ground, and then all dashing back to the hedge again.
Eating and drinking completed, Young John and Big John made their way to the toilets across the road. I took the tray of glasses back in to the bar, for a last warm, and for a last sniff at the roast beef. In doing so I banged my head on one of the low beams.
Then came the hard bit. Due to my advancing years and my bio-rhythms I find it difficult to get going again after a lunch-break - stiff legs, a full tum and an affinity for the siesta are not conducive to walking. So this time I'd tried consuming a relatively light lunch - just a pork pie and half a pint of Guinness - hoping that with an un-full tum I would go along a little easier. We crossed Clifton's narrow bridge, the two Johns leading, me trying my best to loosen up stiffened muscles, and all three of us hiding in the pedestrian slots from the traffic that whipped past. As he got down to the riverbank Young John, sharp-eyed as ever, spotted a kingfisher. He called out to me, forcing me to rush down a flight of steps to the riverbank just in time for me to see a little streak of blue departing upstream. That was the first kingfisher either of us had ever seen.
We passed Clifton lock, and then went along the straight Clifton cut that clips off the winding, un-navigable loop of the Thames at Long Wittenham, often used as moorings by large numbers of cruisers. A few hundred yards ahead of us an ominous dark mass seemed to be covering the footpath. From our position it looked as though a large herd of cows were blocking our way, though I tried to keep going without letting my fear of these beasts show. My bravery was rewarded, for as we got closer we saw an insubstantial fence just keeping a footpath clear along the bank. Good! - I didn't fancy mixing it with a load of dung-covered bovines. Ben-the-Dog was put on the lead as his sheepdoggy instinct is to herd any animals. The converse of this is that a herd of cows tends to gang up on him, and to move towards the danger. Big John tried to assure me that this ever-growing gang of cows was harmless, but I reckoned there was about 40 tons of harmlessness closing up against that fence, and if they didn't actually trample me, the pollution could well be terminal.
Sneaking past the cows, we came to the end of the cut where the natural line of the river bends sharply, the river level being controlled by a weir. Another heron stood in the water, framed by two of the weir supports. Was this one allergic to cameras? - you bet! one rustle of Big John's camera pocket, and the heron sneaked away, keeping low to avoid radar.
A small sandy beach had formed on the outside of the bend, with an awful lot of human debris washed up on it. All manner of human mess had found its way into the poor old Thames: bread trays, milk crates, and a good dozen traffic cones! Surprisingly, there was no supermarket shopping trolley - though perhaps I missed it. Young John cracked the Green child's joke of the day: 'What stick isn't bio-degradeable? Plastic!'. Plastic may be one of the most versatile of modern materials, but no-one seems to know how to get rid of it. Tree after tree all along the river had its piece of tattered plastic caught up in its lower branches - are there kids out there that believe plastic does grow on trees?
In a field further along our way there appeared to be a lot more white plastic scattered around - bird-scarers maybe? No, closer inspection showed the whiteness to be thirty-odd swans, roosting in the field. Bearing in mind Ben-the-Dog's earlier encounter with a swan, he went back on the lead and we drifted past very quietly. Luckily these swans were not aggressive. Wild life is all very well, but I prefer a good stout fence separating them from me.
Did I mention the wind? This stretch had us going directly into the wind, which was becoming distinctly strong and gusty at times. What with the headwind and a tum full of pie and Guinness, I'd reached the stage where a pleasant walk was becoming a bit of a grind. We had another rest, finding what shelter we could behind some skinny waterside bushes.
Young John said he had been getting chilled. It is unusual to hear any complaint from Young John. He enjoys walking, he enjoys being out for a day, and is not given to whinging, so I took this complaint about being chilled seriously, and gave him a pair of nylon overtrousers from my bag. These did a good job of keeping the wind off him all the way up to his armpits. He was surprised how much difference the extra layer made, though the extra wind resistance of these baggy trousers slowed him down even more.
The Thames path goes under Appleford railway bridge, built, I believe, as a replacement for I.K.Brunel's original wooden bridge. The present bridge is certainly not one of Brunel's artistic creations - it's probably the sort of iron girder bridge no-one would admit to designing. It's functional enough, a twin-track bow-arched construction, maybe just eight feet above the bank level, and made mainly of rivets held together by strips of iron. Big John said how one of his school pals had gone to work as a 'cherry chucker'. "What's a cherry chucker?", said Young John, so Big John had to explain about riveting, and the way that the red-hot rivets are thrown up from the furnace to the riveters. This particular collection of chucked cherries looked a little the worse for wear on close inspection, with some noticeable rust and flaking paint. Society in the past had cash enough to build railways and the necessary bridges; today we don't even seem to have the cash to keep this bridge in reasonable order.
Another quarter mile or so got us as near as we were going to get to the highlight of the day's walk - we passed by the cooling water intake for Didcot Power Station, with the chimney and the six cooling towers barely a mile away! No doubt about it, this concrete mass dominates the whole of the Upper Thames valley, and although in some ways its stark industrial shapes are totally out of character with the farmlands of the valley, I often think how flat and uninteresting the valley would be without this piece of sculpture sat in the middle.
Didcot Power Station can be seen for miles. Come west down the M40 from London through the deep chalk cutting above Stokenchurch and there it is. Approach along the A40 east from Gloucester and, before you get to Burford, gosh, there it is again. Come up many of the routes leading north over the Berkshire Downs and it's like a lighthouse welcoming you home. The power station's size is deceptive: I know the chimney is over 600 feet high, the cooling towers are in excess of 300 feet tall, but on such a flat vale there's nothing to compare them with. I went in to one of the cooling towers on the last Open Day there. It was just a thin concrete shell, over three hundred feet of it, floor area enough for a football pitch or two, and a totally disorienting view up through the hole at the top.
The wind had continued to gust, and we suffered a heavy shower or two, which made walking both hard and miserable. It was made more miserable by Big John, drawing on hidden reserves of strength, having the cheek to get ahead of us and then turn to take a photo of Young John and me battling mightily with the wind and rain. The walking was made harder still by an unexpected slope upwards on the approach to Culham, where the path rises to quite a height above the river, one of the few places on the whole 85 miles where this was the case.
A field on our bank had signs warning us to 'Keep Out - Rifle Range', which was much more effective than 'No Trespassers'! There was also a cottage, long disused, or maybe it was the arch of a bridge, even longer disused, and bricked up to form a dwelling - we really couldn't tell. At last the Culham cut appeared, then the two Culham bridges, and we crossed the road to flop into weary repose on a sheltered seat just upstream of Culham lock.
Ribena for Young John, water-and-whiskey for Big John and me, and all three of us were relieved to be sheltered from the wind for a spell. Having recovered a little we had strength enough to take in charm of the very neatly-kept lock. On the opposite bank was a mark for the flood levels of 1947, and an even higher mark for the flood of 1800-and-something. I was unimpressed - I reckoned it was a mere four feet above the current water level at the top of the lock. I told the tale of the River Avon at my old home town of Evesham being eleven feet above normal in the summer of 1968, so high that we couldn't cross the river to get to school. That's what I call a flood.
I tried to encourage Young John by telling him it was only another two miles to the finish. Culham cut, the second significant cut in this area, is tree-lined on the southern bank, which gave a little shelter from the wind, and we opted for the direct and sheltered route along the cut rather than sticking purist-fashion to the longer riverside route via Sutton Courteney. Even so, the cut took us on a long wide sweep round Culham village, and not until we rejoined the river proper and turned northwards did we finally get the wind on our backs. Young John, usually so full of go, was starting to flag badly, looking unusually pale and un-chirpy for him. It had been a wise decision to leave David at home - he really would have been pushed to cope with the wind.
The riverside path to the west of Culham goes through some youngish willows, and was rather marshy near the water's edge. Some parts of this long distance path are going to erode very quickly once it becomes popular, and I can imagine traffic jams of people in some of these narrow bits. The path then threatened to join the boring and fast A415 into Abingdon, but luckily turned across a large wooden footbridge over Swift Ditch. This was the original course of the Thames in days of yore until the the monks of Abingdon decided to divert the river nearer to their dwelling. The river's main flow now passes the town: Swift Ditch merely takes any overflow.
The footbridge gave us an excellent view of a disused stone bridge also crossing Swift Ditch, the purpose of which totally escaped me as it both starts and ends in a field. Unusually for us, we didn't linger long in the middle of this footbridge - the wind was causing it to sway too much for my comfort.
The footbridge also gave us access to the series of level meadows that leads in to Abingdon. The new marina, then un-occupied, was of a decent size, but Big John was critical of the architecture of the adjoining new houses on the opposite bank. Maybe someone had tried to create a feeling that the houses had been there a long time, and that their individual design and deliberate uneven roofline had occurred naturally. We thought it just looked tatty. Further upstream, Big John saw the old alms houses near St. Helen's church and found that this ancient row of homes was much more pleasing to his eye.
We finally staggered into Abingdon's riverside park. On the far bank I pointed out the iron bridge with the name of the Wilts. and Berks. Canal Co. on it, and also the recess in the far bank that shows where the canal once joined the Thames. As a treat for completing such a demanding walk, we allowed ourselves the delight of deviating a few yards from the river bank and going direct to the car park. I was glad Big John was driving us home - I don't think I could have driven at that moment. Young John was shattered, and fell asleep in the back of the car.
I took one last look back at the Thames Valley as Big John drove up towards the Downs on the A34. The whole day's walk, and more, could be seen in one glance, from downstream of Wallingford, around Wittenham Clumps, past the power station and on and beyond the spire of St. Helen's church at Abingdon. What one glance couldn't show was the detail and the variety of the Thames riverbank. Despite being knackered (again!), despite the wind and the rain, this was much more like it! Things were looking up.