#3 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames

The Dreaming SpiresIMG_1220

Over there. Over the back. Over some of the 440 acres of the Port Meadow that have never been ploughed, vested to the burghers of Oxford by either King Alfred or William the Conqueror (contested: official guide book v. Wikipedia) for their help in sending the Danes packing around the turn of the first millennium, and subject to regular flooding. Still can’t see it? No? You might need to go back to Matthew Arnold (Line 19) for further advice. 

But dreaming spires or not, Oxford looked like a lot of fun, a place to go back to and spend more time.

If I say we wanted to do three things it will sound like we were organised. We are organised but within a very limited compass. However, when we were walking through town we had walked past some posters advertising a show of ‘Great British Drawing’ at the Ashmolean. That sounded attractive and we got enthusiastic. I tried to get tickets on the website and couldn’t pull it off. Our hosts thought it would possibly be booked out. Myrna wanted to chase down the groovy part of town to see what was offering in terms of fashion, and we both wanted a swim to use some different muscles.

Gown

After a brief tutorial on bus usage and a longer session locating a suitable pool, we set off in light rain walking past the Martyrs’ Memorial (Thomas Cranmer in flames; I should have paid more attention) and all sorts of other no doubt significant architecture. It was a grey Sunday morning with absolutely no one about and that included aspirants for viewing ‘Great British Drawing’. There were more people on the desk (four) than in the exhibition. This turned out to be more Great British than Great Drawing but it was interesting enough.

IMG_1233I include this especially for members of my family who will understand. It is the original. Any fule kno that. Seeing this was a highlight of my advancing years. Enuff said.

The museum itself more than made up for any inadequacy in the drawings. I was overwhelmed by the china, the collective noun for which may be ‘surfeit’,IMG_1234 but the Scandinavian runestone and Alfred’s Jewel definitely gripped me.

IMG_1238Wikipedia notes that the ‘Jewel’ is an Anglo-Saxon artefact made of enamel and quartz enclosed in gold (about as big as your thumb, a big thumb) that was discovered in 1693, and has been dated from the late 9th century. It was made in the reign of Alfred the Great and is inscribed ‘aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The jewel was once attached to a rod, probably of wood, at its base. After decades of scholarly discussion, it is now ‘generally accepted’ that the jewel’s function was to be the handle for a pointer stick for following words when reading a book (or whatever was to be read) suggesting that Alfred may have been literate. I like that idea.

Town

We walked off to Jericho looking for the groovy shops and they might have been there, but they may also have been disguised by the weather, the time and the day of the week. An inspection was conducted of several but the expert could find nothing that obtruded from the ruck.

IMG_1245We had a good cup of coffee and an outstanding banana split at a café nearby, and then with the very helpful assistance of these two splendid gals spent 40 minutes trying to raise a taxi. The drive through the northern suburbs to the Ferry Pool Leisure Centre was at least as interesting as the city centre. After getting a sworn declaration that a taxi would return to the pool for us in an hour, we joined the two other foreigners swimming laps.

Our B&B was very close to the Iffley Rd track where Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile. I was taken by that, but I had also noticed and puzzled over this church next door. IMG_1247Polkadottery? Poor quality petroglyphs? Stoney small pox? Fortuitous meteorite shower? I remained puzzled for several days until we had this all explained. But we had come across something indigenous which does not exist in our country. (For further discussion, see here.)

I was examining the church but heard crowd noises close at hand and thought I should investigate. I would have liked to have seen a game of rugby at Oxford. And so I did, Oxford versing Gloucester All Gold; but it wasn’t union, it was league — not the dullest game on earth but a promising candidate.
IMG_1251And what on earth was league doing this far south anyway? Surely there’s some barrage or gate near Nottingham or Leicester where the size of south-bound immigrants’ necks is measured, along with their propensity for running into brick walls.

I found myself standing next to the team manager’s wife — one son was providing radio commentary, the other was shooting the video — and we had a long conversation about the task of building a rugby league team in Oxford. They were from Leeds and each weekend drove down for the games. Being Australian, I was presumed to be an expert. Pas de problème. Unknown-1I had watched the most recent State of Origin, plus I’m a big fan of Billy Slater’s. End of story really. I was happy to oblige. Yet another instance of leaving England just that little bit better off than when we arrived.

IMG_1261Launched ourselves at the Magdalen Arms again and observed one of the great domestic non-competitive eatathons ever. I think the table of four next door consumed the entire menu. That’s what it looked like anyway. Our requirements were more modest and again most agreeably satisfied.

MidsomerIMG_1321

(Dorchester above) Midsomer is the county. Causton is the town. The ground is not covered in blood so much as corpses, because it’s the manner of death that matters more than the attendant gore. You may be impaled, for example, by a filigreed letter opener or trampled by a rabid badger. You may die by staring too fixedly at a photo of Tony Blair, or be throttled by a radio-controlled Barbie doll. It is, so to speak, murder.

I organized the walk so we could spend a night at Abingdon because I thought, mistakenly, that it was one of the prime sites for filming ‘Midsomer Murders’. But no. Wallingford is one base, and it was in the pub at Dorchester that we found the photos signed by Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby and his sidekick Detective Sergeant Jones.

In March 2011, the series’ producer, Brian True-May, was suspended by his company after telling the magazine Radio Times that the program did not have any non-white characters because the series was a ‘bastion of Englishness’. When challenged about the term ‘Englishness’ and whether that would exclude different ethnic minorities, True-May responded: ‘Well, it should do’, adding somewhat unnecessarily, ‘Maybe I’m not politically correct’.

Mr True-May crept out of his crease only just a little too far. He could have simply said, well that’s who lives where we make the series. Because I don’t know who lives in this little patch of southern Oxfordshire but very few of them appeared to have skin other than of a pinkish hue (and the vast majority seemed to drive very expensive cars). As the District Council says: ‘Although located less than an hour from London, Southern Oxfordshire is a proper rural retreat of village greens, country pubs and thatched roofs; the ideal spot to recharge batteries.’ Or to be murdered in some highly imaginative way by another Anglo-Saxon.

 Oxford to Abingdon — 15 km (-4)

It was the first day of summer when we got back on the Path, a day which was chilly, short (we began from well down the Iffley Road) and without incident. This is where we got back on. You can see the very well-trodden (and cycled, by rowing coaches) version of the Path running along the far side.IMG_1262

IMG_1272One VNH that in other circumstances I may have coveted. It is not a great photo because it doesn’t show how well the house was settled into its landscape. In addition I was trying to do something clever with the tree in the foreground  that absolutely did not come off. The property was beautifully maintained, and we watched the tribes at work on it. You want to see how trees should be pollarded? Like this.IMG_1291

It reminded us of walking from South Head back to the city in Sydney through some of the most expensive real estate on earth. Did we see any of the inhabitants? No we didn’t. On a daily basis the people enjoying the southern shore of Sydney harbor are cleaners, gardeners and tradespeople. Much the same thing seemed to be occurring here.

We came to a reach almost four km long, just a slight bend in it, which would be a rower’s heaven. Radley College’s sprawling boatsheds with their 11 follow boats moored to the landing were well located to take advantage of this. We’re walking through serious money here.

IMG_1266The tourist water buses went up and down empty, or near as dammit. If you are bothered to click on the pic above you will see one lonely soul. And geese, it was a day of geese. We found one spot where they had obviously been nesting, although the goslings were now well advanced. A semicircle 50m in diameter had been carved into the crop by foraging geese. Just bare earth was left. 

IMG_1286We got to Abingdon at lunchtime and tooled around its streets. The town has its stories: possibly the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the country with evidence of Iron Age humankind; bun-throwing from the roof of the C17th County Hall to celebrate big moments; a rather lovely bridge that meets on an island in the middle of the Thames; home of MG (Morris Garage) sports cars. But it mightn’t have been exactly at its best. We were waiting for a thunderstorm, this time with 80-100 mph winds, a good big one — and the town all looked a bit tired, old and, if you can look smelly, smelly. In the built environment it often doesn’t take much for the picturesque to slip on the more honest garb of decrepitude. The weather plays its part.

Our accommodation, the Kingfisher Barn (rated ★★★★) was an intriguing study in the second rate. Everything, through and through — just off. The reception, the cleaning, the furniture, the bathroom, the breakfast, the floor of the breakfast room, the works. Except for the car parking. You could readily find a car park there. And Myrna will correct me here. We had a swim in a small tepid pool that was pleasant enough.

To eat we walked the mile back into town to The Nag’s Head through biting sleet, the precursor of the storm, the receptionist driving in the same direction after work casually nudging us off the road onto the wet verge.

IMG_1294The Nag’s Head (at right, on the bridge) had good food, but the entertainment was watching a couple both breaking up and cementing their relationship at the same time.

While he spoke to her intently she would look wooden, occasionally yawning and stretching expansively. He would cry, she would hug and kiss him. He would turn away. She would plead. He would go and get another drink. She would draw him into her arms and they would cuddle. Then she would cross her arms and look away, turn back and speak to him solemnly, get up to go. He would grab her arm, she would pull away, and then return. She would look serious and try to be reasonable. Tears would well in his eyes.

Repeat four or five times. Foreplay for sure, but what would happen after that night was anybody’s guess. I want you to know I wasn’t staring.

And, folks, if you’re reading this, hope it all worked out. (June 1, Nag’s Head. Wild weather. Yeah I know. It was you? How about that, eh! Everything okay now? Yeah good.)

That night also we finished reading ‘Cymbeline’. What was he (Shakespeare) thinking?

In his critical reflection on the play Dr Johnson wrote: ‘To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.’ Correct weight Sam.

 Abingdon to Dorchester-on-Thames — 14 km

The predicted storm arrived. It was a night of violent weather and it rained all next morning. Just steadily. Nothing remarkable. My feet had been constantly wet for some days, but that was a function of long wet grass as much as rain.

We were back on the river bank weaving around a lot of damp patches, dams, small swamps, alternate bits of stream. IMG_1297Crowds of yellow irises growing with their feet in water poked their heads clear of the rushes and other tall water plants. Goldfinch_xSome gold finches appeared for us. We also ran into the first of many bridges for the extremely busy Oxford-London train line. This is a truly fabulous piece of early Victorian steel work, 170 years old and as good as the day it was opened.IMG_1298After a short leg south and a right angle the track took a slow curve right and then, lazily, most of a circle in the opposite direction to Day’s Lock staying on the pastoral rather than the settled bank. If you wish you can duck off to Sutton Courtenay (where Eric Blair/ George Orwell is buried), Appleford or Long Wittenham, but it is not until Clifton Hampden that you must encounter settlement.

IMG_1304This view is supposed to be one of the highlights of the walk. It could be. It may be better in autumn with a lot of leaf colour. Given my choice I’d have stopped the rain and brought the narrowboat up into the foreground, but you take what you can get. It was a lovely bridge. The bricks were a very desirable shade of red with just the right amount of blue in it.IMG_1305

But more to the point it was lunchtime and we had our fingers crossed that The Barley Mow might be able to oblige us. It had been a slightly miserable morning, and this was the The Barley Mow. IMG_1309Referred to very positively in Three Men in a Boat, thatched roof, built in 1352, the requisite number of beams on which you can brain yourself — the Ye Olde England works. We had a quiet reconnoitre because it was actually 11.40 rather than midday when it was due to open and no one seemed to be about. But one of the staff generously let us in and suddenly life looked better.

IMG_1313This was one of the great steak and ale pies ever. It began a steak and ale pie crawl through the pubs of the Home Counties, the products of which were often very good but never challenged the benchmark established here.

IMG_1315Suitably refreshed we moved on with the Wittenham Clumps mostly in view through the rain and mist. I had misread the guidebook and believed them to be the Queen Mother’s favourite part of England. I spent quite some time trying to work out why. Unknown-2In fact she had a painting of Paul Nash’s called ‘Wittenham Clumps’ (one of many possible options is at right) above her bed … and after two nights probably never noticed it again. Their more formal name is the Sinodun Hills. Dun = Fort; Seno = Old. That might make them more interesting. Maybe.

We got off the Path to spend the night in Dorchester at the George, a C15th coaching inn, ie with a substantial entry way in its frontage for coaches to pass through. There were nine right angle-ish turns and a complex set of stairs (not to mention a peculiar up-and-over) between the front door and our bedroom which among its very many attractions included no horizontal surfaces. A character property. We liked Dorchester.IMG_1326Dorchester-on-Thames to Goring — 20 km

 A very good breakfast at the George where, in a sunny conservatory, we discovered the 50 other people who had been staying there.

There hadn’t been a day, and wasn’t, when I didn’t think, whacko, this is going to be fun, let’s get on the track — but I felt especially bright and fit this morning. We’d slept well after watching ‘Skyfall’, Daniel Craig being James Bond. I hadn’t remembered how patriotic it was, a London Olympics Queen’s Jubilee year paean to Britain and things British.

IMG_1330This was a great day, diverse and intriguing. We left Dorchester past the dyke hills, remnants of an Iron Age fort, well pre-Roman, before Myrna felt in her pocket and decided she would take the key back while I watched a group of kites playing in the air currents.

IMG_1332The name of this house at Shillingford is Wisteria House. Are you able to tell me why? And yes, just the one plant.

And at the end of this stub of a road the Path goes a couple of hundred metres down IMG_1334this long lane. It’s always entertaining trying to imagine what’s on the other side of such a determined barrier. So you too don’t have to sneak up the drive, it was this.IMG_1339

But we’d scarcely got started when we arrived at Benson where we were delighted to join a rather select group of the bourgeoisie in an early brunch on a perfectly located deck next to the lock. Fellow walkers, plan to eat and drink here. To quote a departed friend who was proud of his rather faint Marxist tinge: ‘You can say what you like about the bourgeoisie, but by Christ they know how to live.’ And then it seemed a matter of minutes to Wallingford.

Wallingford was all that Abingdon hadn’t been. Myrna bought some sunglasses in a very grand Waitrose. I bought some lollies at the lolly shop, and the sandwiches were excellent. IMG_1350It doesn’t look like it above, but the square was busy. The streets really were South Oxfordshire.IMG_1348

We found the site where Oliver Cromwell’s cohorts had dilapidated a very ancient castle for taking the wrong side in the Civil War. Or perhaps because the building went into decline after the advent of the Black Death in 1349 and the stone was taken to Windsor to be used for the castle there. They both sound reasonable explanations. The open-work spire of St Peter’s was stylish and on the walk out of town we found another church both glamorous and staid with that odd stone again. ‘What is that stone!!’ I ask in my journal. It was everywhere.

On this sumptuous day and at this point the river was glassy, wide — about 25-30 metres here — and straight-ish. Perfect again for rowing. No sooner had we got out of town than we fell on the enormous Oxford University Boat Club sheds. Sheds! We can’t say ‘sheds’. Boathouse. Boathouses. Boats houses. Enough to accommodate a great many Syrian refugees.

IMG_1354And mansions. We had stepped well up from VNHs. They started to appear across vast green swards, several confidently exposed to the hoi polloi.

The viaduct at Moulsford amazed me, a rail bridge crossing the river at an oblique angle built with not just four skew arches but with curved intradoses as well, and all from brick. I think Brunel must have sat at home thinking, hmm how much harder can I make it? What can I pull off next? There were chaps patching it up as we went past, but the first version is 177 years old. (An additional bridge was built in 1892 to provide four tracks. As previously noted this is a busy line and it will be your companion for the 70km of Oxford to Reading.) IMG_1357Skew arches are hard enough to design and build, but the additional curve in the intrados, the underside of the arch, everything has a name — well, I just can’t fathom how it would be built.

220px-IKBrunelChainsIsambard Kingdom Brunel begins to become a figure at this point of the walk. What do experts call him? ‘One of the most ingenious and prolific figures in engineering history.’ ‘One of the 19th century’s engineering giants.’ ‘One of the greatest figures of the Industrial Revolution, who changed the face of the English landscape with his groundbreaking designs and ingenious constructions.’ 

If you didn’t know, you might think he was American. His father was French but he was born in Portsmouth. His father taught him drawing from the age of four and by the time he was eight Isambard had a grip on the fundamentals of Euclidean geometry. During this time he also learned French and the basic principles of engineering. As an adult, after nearly perishing in his father’s preliminary efforts to build the first tunnel under the Thames, he took on the task of building the Great Western Railway with the visionary idea of being able to buy one ticket which would take you from London to New York, first via rail to Bristol and then across the Atlantic on the steel-hulled, propellor-driven steamships he would design. (We walk along the original from Didcot to Reading, but the branch line to Oxford and Hereford is also his work.)

What glorious heady days! This is what the profusions, effulgences and revelries of imperial life can do for you. Your aspirations begin from a higher platform with a much greater degree of confidence about success. (I might note that, while undoubtedly capable and popular, James Bond left very little behind him in the way of public infrastructure.)

At the viaduct you turn right off the river. I thought at the time and elsewhere (Shiplake for example) one reason for deviation from the river was money. In this case we had to make our way round a Prep School. We could hear a host of golden children behind a hedge but we couldn’t see them. It was sports day and suddenly we could see them, hundreds of them, the future of England and possibly some of the wealthier and more stable parts of the Middle East and the sub-continent, all in their whites.IMG_1359This was Moulsford Prep School. Shortly we passed Cranford House, another school, P-12 this time, the motto of which is Per salicem ad alta, ‘Through willow to the heights’. True. Possibly another more classical reference to the significance of cricket.

And so to Goring, a grassy open walk with The Chilterns modestly looming to the north, and across the bridge the very happy discovery of Pierrepont’s Café, so much better than handy. That stone. It was everywhere here.

#2 A Green and Pleasant Land: walking along the Thames


IMG_1042Match artist and song:

Cathy’s Clown. Lipstick on your Collar. Just Walkin’ in the Rain. Wanted Man. Crazy. Only You.

Johnnie Ray. Patsy Cline. The Platters. Connie Francis. Frankie Laine. The Everly Brothers.

You can get the answer from the links, but you’ve probably got them right already.

This was the soundtrack at the Kemble Tavern. We’d gone further back in time. To the real classics. ‘Twenty in the posse/ Ain’t never gonna get no rest …’ The collegial bonding cry of the Birchip Secondary College staff in 1972. Even if golden, these songs are olden.

IMG_1069But the baguettes were excellent, the rosé a treat and although the taxi came from Cirencester to take us a very short distance, and charged 10 quid to do so, our destination, the Thames Head Inn on a beautiful attempt at a summer’s day, dispelled any discolourations on the horizon.

To shake out the jams (or are they kicked out? Not knowing what the jams actually are it probably doesn’t matter), we went for a stroll over to the source, a kilometre or so away, read the inscription on the stone [‘The Conservation of the River Thames 1857- 1974/ This stone was placed here to mark the Source of the River Thames’], and chatted to two Yorkshiremen our age who were going as far as Reading this time, 153 km in a week.IMG_1060 That would be good going. Oppressively so. We hadn’t even started. Hadn’t even drunk our first pint of ale.

We continued on through the pasture and past one of those fenced mini-jungles that an Englishperson might call a wood and found the remnants of the Severn canal which once connected the Thames with the Severn. An ambitious engineering marvel, this meant that you could transport stuff — anything you could put in a barge — from London to Bristol by water. But it ran through limestone and chalk country and springs kept creating leaks in its base. And then the trains came. Point finale.IMG_1045

A ramshackle barn with an extraordinary collection of farm equipment, and mud, cemented the notion that was forming that we were living in 1960s Punch cartoons. Norman Thelwell and his little girls with rotund ponies is a start, but not quite my memory of narrow lanes with hedgerows and taciturn farmers in beanies with a smoke on their lower lip driving tractors with the front shovel up, an MG going past driven by some nobs, often young, tweed cap, pipe, glamorous woman with a scarf, forcing them off the road or vice versa and some witticism passing. Mud, wellies, old sheds, more mud, tractors, cows, sheep across the road, sheep dogs, mud.

While sharp as a knife in my memory I can’t find any examples. But that’s where we were regardless.

I did find this.images

 The Source
IMG_1065
The Source to Cricklade — 20km

As we reconnoitered the night before I kept thinking of a 19th century note in a guidebook about just ramming your stick into the earth on the side of the hill where the source stone is located and, whoosh, you’ve activated a spring. There’s a tumble of rocks near the stone which might suggest a spring and from which water might flow after rain, but not when we were there. I think it’s likely that climate change might be playing a role just as it will be in the increasing incidence of floods, a once in 50-year phenomenon on the Thames except there have been three in the last decade with the 2007 floods the highest ever. According to the lock keeper it came half way up this window.IMG_1448

IMG_1055You can trace the possible course by following the cabbage-leaved weeds in this photo. Begin at the cow pat.

The First bridge: distance from source about 1km. Depending on your purview and range of interests, this bridge could carry the A433, Tetbury Road or the Fosse Way, the Roman road which went from Exeter near the coast of Devon to Lincoln, 300 km in something very close to a straight line.IMG_1078

As you can see from the other side of this bridge, the track leaves more definition than the river.IMG_1076

First puddle: 2 km from the source.

IMG_1084Just a puddle. It far more frequently looked more like this (far right).IMG_1083

First flow: 3.4 km from the source just near Parker’s Bridge. IMG_1085Invisible in the photo, the water glinted as it oozed through the gravel. Just a motion. Nothing more. I was more interested in the bustle in the hedgerows at the time. I wasn’t quite sure whether or not to be alarmed but soon realized it was just the spring clean for the May Queen. Ooo but it did make me wonder. [Drugs. Stay with me.]

First swan: Appeared as a mysterious white cloud in the distance across a park which encompassed Bittenham Springs’ private lake and event facility near Ewen. It was a swan, but not as we know them. Too big. BUT Bittenham Springs is a wedding venue, and as a matter of course — magical. ‘The perfect setting for our 145 guests and Welsh choir, in your amazing barn.’ ‘We had a tipi wedding there in August 2014, and it was the perfect setting for the relaxed, country-style theme.’

We went ooh ahh then and later that day when the swans (officially and actually Mute) were much closer on the river, and then we found families with goslings, and then over time they dropped beneath notice as the black-faced gulls, terns, cormorants, herons, finches and kites proved far more interesting.

IMG_1087This first sighting however corresponded with the appearance of the VNHs, the very nice houses. Here, the Thames is just a trough at their rear, a boundary. But that doesn’t diminish the polish on the Range Rover or the Bentley. They might be very snug these houses but they also seemed like they could be very lonely and not much used.

An interesting tendency emerged here. To name these houses one must choose the definite article and a very low key noun, sometimes with a temporal component (although really only ‘old’ or ‘new’; not, say, ‘eternal’ or ‘periodical’): The Beech, The Lodge, The Stables, The Mews, The Brow (?), The Orchard, The New Granary, The Old House (see? at right)IMG_1449, The Stick (made that one up); or an assemblage of low key noun plus ‘Cottage’: Elm Cottage, Hill Cottage, Rose Cottage, White Cottage; or that dual-play masterstroke, The Old Cottage. When the river grows, one can became more expansively riparian: River’s Edge, River Bank, River Cottage, The Rivulet. Anything. Anything at all. Just as long as you’ve rinsed out all colour. When you get to Staines you can put a sign up on your house saying ‘Iris’s Wet Dream’, and I regret not being able to share a photo of that with you. But not in Ewen. No ‘Sherlock’s Home’ or ‘The Tardis’ here.

After Somerford Keynes (a Norman family, the De Kaines?) you are walking between the lakes of the Cotswold Water Park. They’re tucked away mostly shielded from view by the naturally thick vegetation. But on the map these gravel pits filled with water, 150 of them, are quite dramatic. It’s wet wet wet round here.

IMG_1094The river wanders where it will through here in multiple channels (one can be seen at left), and the only time we were in dispute about direction was when I chose to follow the river rather than the track, ending up in Happy Land.Screen Shot 2015-08-25 at 3.31.56 pm True. (Click at right.) I got turned around pretty smartly and we ambled down Back Street (naming!) to Kent End (encore) and recovered the track before encountering a warning that I haven’t come across before, a dream warning. IMG_1095Fabulous. Made me want to leap in and, against all advice, struggle before someone threw me a rope.

This is what the river had become 18 km from its source, contiguous water but not a torrent.IMG_1102

 IMG_1105The photo above was taken just before arriving at North Meadow, a nature reserve which has on its day more than 80 percent of all snake’s head fritillary in the UK. This wasn’t that day but it was delightfully floral, a first experience of the ubiquity of buttercup, saxifrage, red clover and other English meadow flowers.

 And so to Cricklade.IMG_1108

First a coffee. When I asked the barista if I could take her photo, she said, ‘All you Australians on the Thames Path take my photo. And then you write a blog about it.’ Lord, it’s hard to be original.IMG_1110

 IMG_1111And we stayed in the White Hart. Could every pub in the world named the White Hart be reflective of the influence of Richard II’s personal emblem? Surely not.

The church below with a few odd bits (vide for example, the clock, and the agglomerative additions which are hard to see in my pic) is distinguished by being the oldest (1000+ years) continuously operating Christian church in England, at inception Catholic and then via Henry VIII’s fiat Anglican, and then after 1983, leased by Roman Catholics.IMG_1112

Rural Splendour

IMG_1116

Cricklade to Lechlade — 18km

It rained during the night and although doom was forecast we awoke to another beautiful day, a day of meadows, cow parsley and muscular cereal crops. In fact below is the story: crop, track, cow parsley, river.IMG_1119

I thought we might hustle along a bit to Lechlade to beat the promised storm, but we didn’t. Hustling was not an appropriate activity for this stretch of the still very modest river. We got to Castle Eaton at about exactly the right time for a cup of tea and a little bit of something to eat. The map indicated the presence of a pub there, but it was closed.

I stood grizzling in The St. Yes, ‘The Street’ is the name of the the main thoroughfare of Castle Eaton. That’s really pushing the naming principle. Really pushing it. The other streets in toto in Castle Eaton are: School Lane, Long Row, The Lawrels and Mill Lane. Good, but not as good as The Street. (In that street and elsewhere here, lots of VNHs.)

A gentleman came past and I asked him if he had any idea where we might get a cup of tea. Indeed he did. It was Thursday morning, therefore the post office/ town hall/ community centre. We were warmly welcomed and, tossing our pounds into the pot, greatly enjoyed the cup of tea, the biscuit and the conversation.IMG_1121

Castle Eaton had been hit by a crime wave, and it was the talk of the group. In the navy blue on the other side of the table is the Castle Eaton constabulary and she had several stories of malfeasance including, the big one, person or persons unknown dumping a wrecked caravan next to a bend in Blackford Lane. I didn’t know if I could help, but I willingly cast a forensic eye over the scene of the crime expressing my concern in a visually identifiable way. I can’t guarantee that the experience of the Path will always be quite that intense.IMG_1127IMG_1129When I said verdant countryside I meant it. Even the runoff from silage is a distinctive shade of green.

We met a few folk on the track this day and the received strategy was to hasten to Lechlade, have a pint and rush onwards to try to avoid the heavy storm due that night and the next day. There were places to stay at Kelmscott and Radcot further down the Path. But the day stayed beautiful with mild winds and long meandering open stretches, the very picture of fecundity — cow pats, nettles, crops, extraordinarily thick pasture, blackberries, cow parsley and wild rape in equal measure, hazel, chestnut, elder, linden, lilacs, hedgerows of hawthorn, pollarded trees.

Husbandry, that’s what I thought. Skillful. Endlessly experienced husbandry. And I wondered yet again just what on earth the English colonists must have thought when they arrived in Australia. It would be as though some horrible cosmic joke with an agricultural/ pastoral flavour had been played on them. The untended-ness of it all, the wildness, the lack of water, the unproductive soils, everything so unfamiliar and so utterly and completely unsympathetic. For those who could, there would have been every reason to pack up and go home.

This section of the Path has quite a long detour away from the river and 2km along the side of a reasonably busy road. One of our companions of the track was outraged by this in a very English way. A sharp letter was going to be shot off. IMG_1131But on the return to the river you pass the most unusual St John the Baptist Church at Inglesham. IMG_1133It was built very early in the 13 century and was going to be renovated and redecorated in 1880 when William Morris the Pre-Raphaelite stepped in and campaigned for its restoration as was. He won; and so we have box pews, a Jacobean pulpit, Anglo-Saxon carvings on one wall, medieval wall paintings on another and, from the Reformation, passages from the Bible etched elsewhere. It is unexpected and highly appealing.

First narrowboat: 36 km from the source, at the confluence with the River Coln and the Severn Canal. IMG_1136I’ve chosen to say narrowboat rather than barge. Canal barge might do, but I think of barges as having little infrastructure above their hull, and many if not most of the hundreds of narrowboats we saw were done up to the nines and enclosed.

First ordinary boat: a hundred metres further on.IMG_1137

Lechlade is the beginning of the Thames as a navigable entity, still not very wide — there’s a turning pool in front of the pub, The Riverside (good food, good accommodation, and yes, good name) — but perhaps 15 metres otherwise.IMG_1139Not having walked quite far enough, we mooched around Lechlade, a gratifyingly moochable town. The post office had post cards and even better was willing to send them elsewhere. Many of the buildings were of Cotswold stone, a dense limestone sometimes with a lovely golden hue. The buildings in the background might be of Oxfordshire stone, greyer, but perfectly able to set off their vines and wisteria.IMG_1140

Lechlade to Newbridge — 28 kmIMG_1161

 IMG_1142Our breakfast hosts at the Riverside.

As forecast, it had rained all night. The BBC Forecast was almost always right — to the half hour. It was chill and drippy as we breakfasted, but nothing of any consequence. We crossed back over the Halfpenny Bridge,IMG_1144 its name a remnant of tolling, and moved on into a longish day which included an appointment with a taxi at 5 on the dot at Newbridge, so not too much fooping around.

Goslings were the first distraction. Ooh ahh, aren’t they … etc until we realized that this stretch of the river was littered with new families of birds, not least being Mute Swans.IMG_1146First lock: St John’s at Lechlade, distance from the source 39 km. Look at these beams. Wouldn’t you like a swing on one of them?

IMG_1147First lock replete with Father Thames, Rafaelle Monti’s not entirely prepossessing statue (it’s the spade … lose the spade) which began its life in 1854 at Crystal Palace before being moved to the source and then in 1974 for reasons that someone will know — vandalism? loneliness? — to the lock.

We were walking along the edge or through the middle of huge meadows, and the river was beginning to emerge into waterway form.
IMG_1155The first moving boat, a narrow boat, 46 km from the source, and at about this point a simply wonderful row of trees began. Forty or fifty metres high, perhaps a kilometre long, statuesque but also particularly graceful. It was raining too hard at the time for me to take a picture, but a bit like this only better.IMG_1148The concrete structure in the study in yellow below is the first pillbox, one of several dozen you encounter on the Path. ‘Stopline Red’. I think the name would probably have been more daunting to Panzer divisions than the pillboxes themselves. I can imagine myself sitting in a tank saying, ‘Okay Ernst. There’s another one over there. Go on. My turn. You popped the last one.’IMG_1151I offer you a map of their location on the basis of which it might be assumed that they were designed to protect Swindon, nummer eins target of the Nazi juggernaut. It could have been one of those initiatives where it was important just to be seen to be doing something.Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 3.52.24 pm

But it was a day for birds, the swans hardly counted — lapwings, pheasants, ducks, geese, hawks, kites, chaffinches, gulls are just some we knew. The rain faded.

IMG_1175I squeezed half a cup of water out of my socks and tipped the other half out of my shoes — not so much the rain as the saturated long grass. We stopped and watched dazzled by a performance of either black-faced gulls (what were they doing so far from home?) or common terns, or both, in a protected lee near Shifford Cut. They were extraordinary. The natural meadows were drenched with colour and the crops were prize-winning. Rain is such a useful adjunct to agriculture.IMG_1188IMG_1178< This is the colour of Cotswold Stone and this > is what burgeoning pussy willow looks like.IMG_1176

I also discovered the sort of mud that makes it possible to make buildings out of cob. I have never encountered such sticky mud nor had more difficulty in getting it off my shoes as I later discovered on the very light green velvet carpet of our accommodation.

IMG_1194This had been an excellent day. We were waiting for the cab when it arrived to take us off to Rectory Farm in Northmoor a few km off the river where we stayed the night and met Carolyn and Ranald MacDonell who were staying in the same B&B. We ate together at the Red Lion and they were wonderful company.IMG_1196

 

 

 

 

 

 

Newbridge to Oxford — 23 km (+5)

IMG_1199

I felt very good when I got up. My body had caught up to the exercise and was quietly cheering. More it said. More.

The day provided a lovely start. Clear again, with that little rill of breeze you appreciate so much when you’re walking. The grass was sodden but we got to Bablock Hythe (hythe = ‘a landing place or small port’; lade, ‘a place for loading’) hardly noticing, hoping for some sustenance at the Ferryman Inn. It was closed and we began a bad-tempered detour.IMG_1204The generative cause was a caravan park/holiday cabins from memory, but actually something called a ‘chalet estate’ now I’ve checked, planted squarely on the bank of the river and you bloodywell don’t walk along the river, or park your car, or stop and look, or in any way make a nuisance of yourself in any way that the owners will define.

It was a jolt. It’s interesting how sensitive we had become to being taken away from the river’s company. Even by this early stage it had become a right.

I’d begun thinking quite fondly of it. The night before I had written in my journal: ‘It may be as much as 20m across now. Undemonstrative, phlegmatic, featureless. Is this an English river perhaps, a cultural mirror? No V-shaped valley, no rapids or cataracts, no gorges, no waterfalls, no stone in fact except at the locks where it has been imported. Intersects only with agricultural land and national park — to date. The Thames Valley is not a valley; it’s a plain. But for we walkers, a very sympathetic and forgiving one.’

IMG_1205So down a road and turn right onto a long straight track through the paddocks which might be parts of Payne’s Farm, Pimm Farm and Tawney’s Farm and, lo and behold, this had turned modestly sour too. Thin pasture, the sheep were badly cared for, the fences needed attention. Even the pollarding (at left) was well back into the ordinary range. This was interesting. Different.

Then in another couple of kilometres and back on the river just to keep us alert but not alarmed, we came to Swinford Farm which welcomed us, invited our interest and explained itself and its plans on several large information boards. It looked to be a model farm.

The river here piles endless small meanders on top of one very large meander round Wytham Hill. Last night on my TV in North Melbourne Inspector Morse insisted (infallibly as usual) that he would find bodies in Wytham Wood. They put the dogs to work in this open and logged forest with no ground cover, and I’m very sorry to have to say that wasn’t the Wytham Wood that we saw. Even though this section of the Path is very airy and open, it was another of those English mini-junglesWytham Wood with Swinford Farm sheep.IMG_1211Depending where you start or finish, this section also has six or seven locks and there’s a lot of opportunity to watch riparian boating skills, lock management and rope tricks. This lock was near a camping ground and a small crowd had gathered to watch these two youngsters get their way through, or/ and maybe to see if they could get a push on the beams.IMG_1203

IMG_1208Further downstream this chap just parked in the lock and got off to have a cup of tea, only to be harassed by a kayaker who wanted to use the lock rather than port his very modest vessel 20 metres using the available facilities tailored for precisely this purpose. There’s no pleasing some people!

Although, I’m casting about here, maybe the guy from the Environment Agency could have moored his boat past the lock where there was provision for precisely this eventuality and he could have walked the 20 metres back. Later I spent a very interesting 10 minutes talking to the lock keeper at King’s Lock who had turned his avocation into a passionate study of just this sort of thing.

I think if, as a student of human behavior, you spent much time at all at a mid-Thames lock in summer, you’d see a lot to interest you.

People had begun appearing. It was a Saturday afternoon after all, very pleasant out and we were well within range of the cyclists and walkers of Oxford. After the Ferryman Inn had disappointed us we planned to lunch at The Trout Inn, just a long torp from Oxford really, arrived and unsuccessfully wrestled with the available circumstances. You know. Arrived late-ish, hadn’t booked anything, sat in the wrong place, stumbled into a room being prepared for a wedding, waitress for food but drinks from the bar not the other way round, collapsing chairs and, let me remember: lamb patties, a salad and something else. Bar snacks to make it easier. And this was the worst food we ate in two months. The salad had lettuce you could see through where the mould hadn’t interfered with its transparency. The tomatoes and the cucumber had long passed into another world achieving that fungal sheen produced by long association with dressing. Etc. In The Trout’s defence, they were very busy, we had arrived late, they were getting ready for a big wedding. Pah! No defence. IMG_1218Then the bloke in the black on the left told Myrna he didn’t like her cap. Myrna’s cap! (at left)IMG_1132 But that was quite agreeable. He was a Tigers fan from Traralgon.

We were also getting tired, and I think it might have been something of a shock to be back in the urbs. It was only three km and we’d be there, and that would be enough for the time being. 88 km, that’s a pretty good go. A rest day tomorrow.

Oxford looked fantastic, really interesting. Food, books, buildings, lots of VNHs, people. These folk in the square for example.IMG_1226He was, inter alia, knocking out a version of Amazing Grace. (I showed my Londoner friends this pic and they felt that it was unlikely that he could be English.) But we were too tired to tackle any of it really. You know that feeling. Looking at something wonderful, all your favourites — and you just can’t any more. Can’t anything. Too tired.

Furthermore, our place of rest was not in this bit of Oxford. We asked directions and where we were going was too far away to generate a useful response. We were already well past the measured distance but we still had another four km to go, and your feet do get heavier on tarmac and concrete at this time of the day. Get a bus? Don’t know how to pay. Don’t know where to get off. Get a cab? No hailing cabs in Oxford. No ranks. Phone bookings only (and as we discovered the next day very bloody lucky if you can pull that off). So we walked.

Another B&B. My heart sank. I wanted the anonymity and ease of a hotel room. Ah well. It seemed a nice one. A tiger mum who would do laundry, a very amiable Englishman and their charming 14 yo daughter who wrote love songs — and it was just fine. We wanted a swimming pool. After struggling with their amazement, they found one for us. And they recommended the Magdalen Arms for dinner.

IMG_1261That worked very well as I wanted to watch the FA Cup in company. A rubbish game. Arsenal 4 – Aston Villa 0. Hardly in doubt from the kickoff. Only me and one other bloke were interested. So we just ate the feast that the Magdalen Arms provided, and collapsed into the arms of Morpheus.

 It’s long way to go yet.