Abingdon to Osney Bridge, Oxford - Sunday 28th. April
Three weeks later things were definitely looking up. The weather was fine, with a good forecast, David's health was OK, and no-one had eaten Young John's specially selected smokey bacon crisps. Meeting Big John and Ben-the-Dog in Oxford, we had the predictable problem of finding somewhere to park. We would like to thank the aptly-named Payless DIY store on Botley Road who sponsored this trip by unwittingly allowing us to use their carpark all day.
We drove down to Abingdon (where there is never any trouble parking) and started with a pleasant stroll upstream from the bridge over the Rye Farm meadow to Abingdon lock. The fine morning was a welcome contrast to the wind and rain of our arrival in Abingdon earlier in the month, though one drawback of fine weather was immediately obvious - there were an awful lot of people around taking their Sunday constitutional.
There was a boat or two going through Abingdon lock, and I tried for the umpteenth time to explain the why's, wherefore's and workings of a lock to David. I think I succeeded, as he then wanted to know what would happen if both sets of gates were opened at once. It can't be done, I said. "But what if....", says the lad, gleefully imagining great tidal waves of Thames and Thames cruisers sweeping through Abingdon.
We crossed the lock and then stood awhile above the weir, where we watched two canoeists practising their white water skills in the flow from the weir, taking it in turns to get wet and capsize. Young John was due to do some canoeing on his forthcoming junior school outward bound-ish trip to Exmoor, but watching the 'experts' seemed to put him off a bit.
The path was signposted over a large wooden footbridge, which led alongside a ditch parallel with the river. Crossing this bridge we left all the Sunday trippers behind, and were then able to start some serious walking. The path crossed another small bridge leading us along a potentially dangerous track. To the left was a stagnant ditch full of dubious, brown, smelly stuff. On the other side was the Thames itself, barely restrained by an embankment, with the water level a good three feet above our path.
Boldly ignoring the danger, I pointed out to the lads the nearby course of the Abingdon branch railway line, which, though not long gone, had already been dug up and built over. It's a great pity that neither the great Dr. Beeching nor his successors were far-sighted enough to preserve these routes, for these disused railway tracks would have made some wonderful cross-country bridleways.
We rounded a large backwater off the river, and then regained our path along the river bank proper. To welcome us visitors to his river bank, a mallard came flying out of the field and threatened to deposit on David. "Hence the name 'duck'", said Young John. The field alongside the river was huge, and filled with a yellow-flowered plant, just starting to come into bloom. This was our first close encounter with the farmer's favourite cash crop, oil-seed rape. Fair enough, it's a glorious yellow colour from a distance, but it's also exceedingly smelly at close range at certain times, and I'm sure the pollen is responsible for a lot of early-season hay fever and asthma. Big John said that farmers were turning more to growing linseed, which, he promised, is a very pretty blue colour. As long as it doesn't make me sneeze or wheeze, I'm not too concerned about what delicate pastel shade it is.
On the opposite bank was a small weir which presumably was the entry to Swift Ditch, the original route of the river. I have to admire the monks of Abingdon who organised the diversion of the Thames's main flow to go much nearer to the town, for it's certainly quite an extra chunk of river they created. Further along on the opposite bank was another small weir which presumably was the entry to Swift Ditch, the original route of the river - or was it the first one, or both? Never mind, it was time for one of Big John's mint imperials. This same bag of sweets had been on all our walks, having travelled the length of the Ridgeway apparently without replenishment. Its age is uncertain, though it does bear a faded label which says, "Have these. I am going outside and may be some time". We made a determined effort at reducing its contents by taking two each.
Maybe it was the rustle of the bag that disturbed two herons. They took off and circled quietly near us. Then Big John made the mistake of thinking 'camera'. One of them departed after the manner of Concorde, and hid itself among crops on the far bank. The other one simply vanished (Beam me up, Scotty?), so we were still without a photograph of one of these grey, gangly collections of feathers.
We left the field of blossoming yellow via a gate set into a thick hedge, and entered an area of former sand and gravel workings which had been partly levelled and returned to nature. The far boundary was formed by the embankment of the Didcot - Oxford railway line, which crossed the river on an iron girder bridge very similar in design to the Appleford bridge so lovingly described on the last walk. As an hors d'oeuvres to this somewhat decrepit construction, there were the rusted remains of a car lying, inverted and unloved, just in front of the bridge. It's hard to say what sort of vehicle it had been in its previous incarnation, but it had disc brakes fitted to all four wheels, something normally only done with up-market cars. It's final resting place was an awful long way from any road - not a very fitting end to what was once someone's pride-and-joy.
The rail bridge itself was brightened by a little graffiti, things like 'Sharon Loves Tony True', and a very artistic but totally unreadable word. There was nothing offensive, but alas, neither was there anything of wit. If we're going to suffer from graffiti artists, it would be nice to have some humour or even an original thought. I've always liked "A Happy Xmas To All Our Readers" (toilet in Doncaster, 1969), and the thoughts of the supermarket waste disposal operator in Evesham, 1973, "Are you trapped in that Bright Moment when you learnt your Doom?".
We passed under the rail bridge, leaving the gravel workings behind to find much improved scenery with proper riverside meadows on our side, and the steep, wooded bank of Nuneham Park on the far side. We talked briefly about having the cash to buy such a large estate for ourselves. David would cut down the trees and sell the wood, then build a huge water slide from top to river. Dreams of untold riches were interrupted by nearby woofing. On the other side of a fence Windsor the dog was a 'good boy, yes a good boy', for barking at us passing strangers, and a 'good boy' for rolling over. Windsor's parents own a big house facing on to the Thames, a Range Rover and another expensive car whose label I couldn't make out. If Windsor the dog had any sense, he'd continue to be 'a good boy'.
Nuneham Park's woods gave way to Nuneham Park's lawns. Near the bottom of the lawn there was a dead dinosaur that had had its front legs cut off. David didn't believe me. Young John didn't believe me. I persisted in my opinion that it was a dinosaur. I didn't care if it was the same shape and size as a dead tree. I was firmly convinced that Nuneham Park had a recently-dead dinosaur lying on its lawn. If the estate owners had realised it, they could have made a fortune from gate entrance fees to see it. (And this was in the pre-Jurassic Park days. Think what the interest would be now!) It occurred to me that the pink and posh boat house at the foot of the lawn would be the ideal building for displaying the dinosaur to the public - such a shame they were letting it rot.
A rowing enthusiast, racing himself up and down the river in a scull, warned us of our approach to Radley College boathouse. There were some unoccupied benches at the far end of the landing stage: the nearer ones were occupied by Radley Mums and Radley Dads enjoying a picnic. Attracted by the eloquent vocals emitted by one Mum, I wandered closer to hear what she was saying. Served me right! She was simply enquiring who might like another sandwich. Once again, I'd been fooled by an upper class accent which was making the most mundane enquiry seem like the most profound thought. It must be my peasant upbringing and my inbred respect for the ruling classes that makes me confuse accent with intellect. Actually, I find that those who speak in a posh accent can be just as thick as the rest of us, but with their expensive education and richer vocabulary they can express their lack of knowledge in a much more fluent way.
It really was a beautiful day. There was bright, hazy sunshine, a few cumulus tops breaking through an inversion, and a light, refreshingly cool breeze from the north east. Occasionally this wind strengthened or stopped - a good sign of thermal activity. We borrowed one of the empty benches at the upstream end of the landing stage which gave us a most pleasant view back down the river. I could have happily sat here in the sun all day. Young John took the chance to consult his spotters' guide to the world. He'd seen a couple of Peacock butterflies, some Orange-tips, and a brown Green Fritillary, but we couldn't find anything resembling the black and dangly flying insects which had appeared in occasional swarms. I was having trouble with my camera which had decided to re-wind itself after just a few shots. After a bit of fiddling I sorted it out, but some of the film was been exposed, and whatever photographic gems were on it have been lost forever.
As we set off again, something bright, yellow and dangerous caught my eye. Not more oilseed rape, but David who had stripped off his trousers to expose his violent yellow beach shorts. They are so bright that oil-seed rape pales in comparison, and their glow lit up the scenery for miles around.
The next well-lit mile or so up to Sandford was typical Thames scenery, with meadows either side, occasional bushes and trees, and views of the railway and Kennington to the west and the traffic of the A423 far away to the east. Young John thought he'd seen another kingfisher, but it turned out to be a blue plastic bag in a tree. He did better in spotting two birds, a crow and a kestrel, having a lengthy aerial dispute over some matter, which, after many swoops and twists and turns, the crow appeared to win, as the kestrel dived away for cover.
In the distance was evidence of our approach to Oxford - not the 'dreaming spires', but a view of three of Oxford's four tower blocks. Luckily, these were soon lost to sight as we neared the buildings that had been sited near Sandford lock. Some 'New Age' travellers had also sited themselves near to Sandford Lock, so that we had to pass close by their front doors. I'm in at least two minds about these people - in small groups they are harmless enough, but the bigger group that, for instance, settled on Enstone airfield in the north of the county cost the farmer an estimated £10,000 in lost stock and general damage.
It was time for lunch and Sandford lock was as good a place as any. We had turkey and ham rolls, chicken and bacon pie, and scotch eggs. And..... water-and-whiskey, courtesy of Big John. It was a lovely day for a meal in the fresh air. Young John pointed out a glider just to the north. I watched the pilot feel his way round a thermal, straighten and turn again trying to centralise in the core. After two or three shifts, he found the centre, and circled round and round, gaining noticeably on each orbit.
I also watched the earthbound Sunday strollers around the lock - not one of them saw the glider. However, one chap, although missing the sublime above his heads, certainly saw the ridiculous floating on the water. "That must be a fast boat", says the sage, "look at that big white vinyl bench at the back!" He was right. I watched this same boat pass us by earlier, making a lot of noise and wash but not much progress. It was equipped with enough dials to satisfy any engine freak, including a speedo calibrated to 60 knots, and a depth-measuring sonar device. On the Thames, I ask you! This boat also had one bit which baffled all four of us. The Captain's throne rested on a glass fibre hump the size of a good size footstool. Here's the puzzle. This hump was fitted with a window, the window was curtained, the curtain was drawn tight across. What was it?
Another boat provided us with the lunchtime cabaret. A small two-berth cruiser, which had better remain nameless (Emily) was brought upstream into the open lock. Presumably it was going on up to Oxford. But no, Cap'n Haddock turned the boat round to face the way they came. Meanwhile, Britannia was posing out of a forward hatch, though lacking a trident, she had a long boathook in her hand. Were they going to tie up? No, they swept round in another full circle, again ending up pointing downstream. Britannia continued to hold her pose wonderfully, without in any way contributing to Cap'n Haddock's manoeuvres. Occasionally they got near to the lock wall - but there was no move to berth the boat. They came to a halt almost in the middle of the lock, Britannia still posing, giving us not the slightest clue of their intentions. Not until we got up to go, some twenty minutes later, did they finally tie the boat up - still in the lock, still facing the way they came.
Rested and refreshed, though baffled, we climbed up past the lock. What did we see? the Kings Arms, that's what we did see, and being full, we did pass it by, only slightly frustrated at missing out. Sandford lock and its surrounds were certainly popular with the local strollers, pubbers and picnickers and there was many a boat moored just upstream of the lock. There were also three all-but-rotted half-submerged hulks which I took to be college barges, long disused. History they may be, but terribly tatty they were. They should either be restored or removed. David, having thankfully felt cold and replaced his jogging trousers over those yellow shorts, was tempted to see how deep the mud was going through a gateway. "Oh!", he said.
Big John allowed us to cut a bend in the path, deviating from the river for a few hundred yards. (This was a rare treat - up to now we had followed the exact line of the Thames as closely as possible.) Finally, we left the tourists behind (for a while, at least), as we neared yet another arched and riveted railway bridge. This one carries the branch line that used to go to Thame and beyond, now only serving Rover's Cowley Works and football hooligans. Crossing another footbridge over the broad Hinksey stream brought us into a short stretch of damp, willow-lined footpath before we reached the 'Gateway to Oxford' - the uninspiring concrete bridge carrying the Oxford Ring Road.
A New Age traveller would seem to have given up the travelling life, and had built quite a substantial tarpaulined camp under the bridge, clear of the main footpath. Best of luck, mate - there was a permanent rumble from the traffic passing overhead. The path continued up to Iffley lock, with open fields on our side of the Thames and Iffley village just visible on the other. The lock had a very well-kept garden, and also had a flight of rollers with a neat little see-saw affair for lightweight boats to be pulled by heavyweight owners between the high and low levels of the water, so by-passing the lock. There was also a pub, convenient for those that had worked up a thirst manhandling their craft.
The next mile or so to Oxford city centre was something of a nightmare. Our peaceful Thames Path was suddenly more like a pedestrians M25 and a cyclists M25 all rolled into one. In addition to us four and a dog out for a peaceful ramble, there were tens, possibly hundreds, of locals out for a Sunday stroll. (Many of them had brought their dogs, one of which was most anxious to mate with Ben. Ben has a sensible attitude to gay dogs of doubtful pedigree, and sat firmly upon his tail). There were Oxford cyclists just passing through and keen mountain bike cyclists just racing through. Most dangerous of all were the rowing coaches, wobbling up and down on all manner of bikes ancient and modern, megaphones in hand, yelling encouragement and abuse at their crews who were trying to learn the difficult art of rowing a racing eight. Not only had we picked one of the nicest days of the year so far which had brought all the crowds out, it would also seem that most Oxford colleges had their boats out, training for whatever rowing contest was next.
I never realised there was such an art to rowing. The coach really seems to be superfluous - the bike and megaphone are just toys to keep him amused. It's the cox, seated in the boat and the only one able to see where they're going, who really wields the power. The rudder strings in his hand are just a token of his office, for steering a craft full of eight beefy lads or lasses cannot be done with the minuscule rudder, but requires carefully applied power from one or more of the paddles. The cox demands, and gets, instant, blind obedience from his crew, who seem to be there just to provide the muscle. And for all the high technology applied to boat and paddle design, a rowing eight is not an efficient means of transport. Once under way, even a craft propelled by an experienced crew produces just four horsepower and progresses in a series of stops and starts with the craft all but halting each time the paddles re-enter the water.
I hadn't explored this bit of Oxford before, and the rowing coaches, the crowds and the cycles made our progress anything but a pleasure. It was all shove and bustle, with no chance of a gentle greeting from a fellow walker. Beyond the blue-painted Donnington Bridge the far bank was covered with huge, ornate boathouses, leaving the River Cherwell to wriggle its way into the Thames as best it could. Our bank was plagued with yet more surging, thronging pedestrians and cyclists. This stretch of the Path could be nice: frankly, that day it was a nightmare. Give me peace and quiet on my riverside walk.
On we struggled through the masses, finally reaching Folly Bridge, the nearest we would get to Oxford's centre. The visitor to Oxford would probably miss the access to the Thames from Folly Bridge - there were no signposts, and the access paths to the river from either side looked like they both led to abandoned boat yards. On balance, despite the risk that imaginative signs such as 'Thames Barrier - 125 miles' and 'Thameshead - 50 miles' might well increase the number of people using the riverside, both Big John and I found it disappointing that such a major tourist centre as Oxford has no indication that a long-distance path runs right through its heart (but then, I often feel that Oxford has no heart!)
It was a warm day, weariness was beginning to show, and so, generous that I am, I dumped the lads with Big John, and took a small diversion in search of an ice cream. Sunday trading problems or not, the lady in the shop on the bridge was pleased to sell me four strawberry splits, and being a warm day, I had to rush a bit to catch the others up before the lollies melted away. David took this chance to exercise his wit. "No thanks, Dad", he says, as I came pounding up, "I'll save mine till later."
West of Folly Bridge we were instantly clear of the massed hordes. There were still a few locals walking their dogs, but we were getting quite a different view of Oxford from the one the tourists get. We passed under an ornate footbridge, then round the back of the ice rink with its ridiculous external cable supports (I swear I'm going to attack it with my junior hacksaw one day), and under another railway bridge which barely gave me enough headroom.
The path eventually brought us to Osney Island, with the newer Osney Mead industrial estate on our left, and older factory buildings of unknown age and purpose on the opposite bank. We passed Osney lock, where there is an unusually clear map of the immediate area, including all the various waterways around this little piece of Oxford. The final stretch up to the Botley Road bridge is bordered by one of the delightful streets of Osney Town which had some parking spaces on it! So, that's where we should have parked!
And finally we climbed out on to Oxford's Botley Road. Even though it was Sunday, with only light traffic, the noise of car after car was deafening after the (relative!) peace of most of the last ten miles. The final half mile along warm tarmac pavements came hard on our tired feet, made all the harder by knowing that we could have parked so much closer to the Thames.
On reflection, this had been a marvellous day for a walk, especially without the headwind we had last time. Young John was much less tired, David had done well with only occasional grumbles, and my legs were still working, just.
One final thought. On the long two-mile stretch through riverside Oxford, in addition to a total lack of signs, there was not one mobile ice cream and canned drink seller to be seen. I'd had to search for a shop myself. Nothing like discouraging the tourist, is there?