Walking the Thames Path National Trail

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Day 4: Bablock Hythe to Oxford (10.5 miles)

The barmaid had told us that the temperature has been forecast to be a steady 15°C all night. She was horrendously wrong - this was the first of many incredibly cold nights we were to face on our journey. We emerged from the tent to see a thick mist surrounding but, knowing that we had a short walk ahead of us and wanting to make the most of Oxford, we were up and away by 8am on our now-standard breakfast of a banana and some peanuts.

As the horrendous holiday park had refused to give access over its riverside position to the Trail, the first part of our day was spent covering a large detour behind the park through a number of fields full of sheep. Meeting the river again, we walked on with dew-soaked feet.

Erratic meanders beyond Pinkhill Lock have eroded much of the tow path and this, combined with yet another landowner refusing to grant access, meant another diversion from the river and along the road before rejoining the river by the large shipyard of Oxford Cruisers. It was around this point that I realised that the mist was lifting, and bright sunlight was beginning to break through.

There are still a couple of toll-bridges left on the Thames, one of them at Swinford. passing the bridge and accompanying lock, the river skirts around the high Wytham Hill. It had begun to occur to us that barely anyone walked the whole the length of the Trail, certainly compared to Hadrian's Wall, but there were a few tell-tale places where the path had turned into eroded tram-lines from the constant onslaught of walkers' boots. This long, featureless drag round the base of the hill was one such place and, with so few landmarks to signal any progress on the map, we stopped for a mid-morning peanut break.

Had we continued for just 5 minutes longer, we'd have had the beautiful backdrop of the Oxford bypass bridge to enjoy while snacking. I guess that seeing the bridge was a mixed blessing - it signalled our approach to the day's resting place, but also the first real sign of urbanisation for three days.

Fortunately, the Thames only meets the outskirts of Oxford, and so our approach was not affected by too many ugly cityscapes. The site we did enjoy, though, was looking over the vast Port Meadow beyond the remains of Godstow Abbey, from where you could see the spires of Oxford shimmering in the sunlight.

By Fiddler's Island the path ducked into the shade of poplar trees, and we walked on by the shipyard that inspired the gypsians of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Then, without much warning, we stepped off a bridge into the terraced cottages of Jericho, signalling our arrival in the city of Oxford just before noon.

It had been a nightmare trying to find a camping spot near the city, so we had decided to sell out and stay in the Oxford Backpackers Hostel for the night, apparently neighboured by one of the tackiest nightclubs in the UK. How reassuring.

Now, Alice and I weren't really sure what to expect or think of Oxford. We both went to Cambridge and so a deep-seated distrust of the place has developed, despite a number of our friends having spent time at Oxford. For whatever reason. But at least Lewis Carroll wrote Alice in Wonderland here, and I was with Alice.

But Oxford was actually quite nice. We dumped out stuff in the hostel and headed out to explore. Wanting to give ourselves a headstart for the next day we began by heading back to where we had left the river, then walked around the edge of the city along the river to the next bridge. Fortunately, this was nice and close to a pub Alice had enjoyed when she went before with Roz, and so we headed there for a spot of lunch in the sunshine...although having taken an hour and a half for the food to arrive, it may have just as well been our dinner.

From here we explored Oxford properly. Heading into the city centre we investigated a couple of college grounds, before deciding that they weren't as nice as Cambridge. Plus, they were all over the place and had busy main roads running everywhere - Cambridge is much more tranquil!

Oen definite highlight of our city-spotting, though, was the Museum of the History of Science. Not only was it free, but it had a fascinating exhibition of blackboards. Now, this is not fascinating in itself, but these blackboards had been written on by a range of famous people (Einstein amongst them) and were there as demonstrations of modern intellectualism and culture. It was truly brilliant, if a little bizarre!

We broke for tea in a church tea-shop, and had a very pleasant time in the afternoon sun until we realised that the tables and chairs outside were placed on top of grave markers. Something about that repulsed me, and it may be to blame for us both feeling a bit ill later that evening (although it might just as well have been our bodies' shock at not doing as much exercise this day!)

Sadly neither of us were in the mood to join in with whatever party had been organised at the hostel - (oh! thsoe crazy Australian backpackers and their drinking games!) so headed to bed early(ish). This was, after all, our first night on a decent mattress in reasonable temperatures after the previous night's shocking cold, and we had some serious sleep to catch up on!
posted by Scotty at 10:00 PM 2 comments

Monday, August 01, 2005

Day 3: Radcot to Bablock Hythe (13.5 miles)

This was probably my favourite day of the whole walk, which is a shame in hindsight as we still had another 12 days to go! We were packed and away by 9am, leaving behind a couple in a tepee who were having a blazing argument about the husband's behaviour in the pub the night before. Alice nipped over to the Swan and got us a cup of coffee each, which in addition to a banana gave us some sort of super-energy kick and had me commenting on how great I felt and how beautiful everything was throughout much of the morning.

We also invented a new game to play: Tow Path Tennis. The idea is that the person who is in to serve scores a point if the next boat to pass you on the river is named after a person, but the other person scores if it isn't. This way both people are actively involved in the game at all times, and as a game is won and service switches, so you have to hope that no longer are the boats named things like "Sweet Marie" or "Lillian" but abstract stuff such as "Aquacadabra" or "Shove it Gently".

Our morning stretch saw us passing through some beautiful countryside, with only a few boats tootling past - making Tow Path Tennis quite easy to remember. We were walking in the shadow of a heron that was out searching for his breakfast, and the lock keepers were friendly as we passed them in their well-tended gardens. The tree-lined stretch up to Chimney Meadows was a particular highlight as the sun was shining, but wasn't yet high enough to be fully throwing its heat onto us.

Shifford Lock Cut, as well as being the site for lunch that day, was also the curious location of my first shopping list find of the holiday. There, lying abandoned on the bridge over the cut, was a folded piece of paper: a shopping list! What a curious place to find another list for the Compendium!

As we continued our walk after lunch, we passed through a field where a large group of people were clearing up from some kind of event over the weekend. There were large patches of grass that seemed to have housed marquees, and a few refreshment stalls were still doing business. We amused ourselves for a while that maybe this had been the site of the Lost Vagueness Summer Spectacular, but on getting home we found that it was too early (and completely the wrong county). We still don't know what had been going on there...

About a mile away from Newbridge we met possibly the worst patch of the path: stinging nettle alley. This was at least 1/4 mile of head-high stinging nettles and thistles on both sides of the path, each side leaning in to try and attack you. No description can really do this stretch justice: you simply have to picture us walking through a field of stinging nettles to have any idea of what it was like.

We emerged to the sight of The Maybush pub (0 runs: bowled out) at Newbridge, where we stopped for a drink and to refill our water bottles. Continuing on we spent a few minutes at Northmoor Lock to take some photos of the pretty narrowboats heading downstream, and soon found ourselves (at only 4pm) outside our accommodation for the night: The Ferryman Inn at Bablock Hythe (2 runs).

According to the guidebook we had, Bablock Hythe is probably the most famous ferry crossing of the whole river - despite the fact that neither of us had heard of it. It also said that the landlord of the pub also offers a ferry service to the other bank of the river, but judging by the reception we were given on walking into this scary pub I wouldn't want to trust him on that.

It was as if we had walked into a saloon and all the locals stared at the new kids in town. To be fair, we may have been best to ditch our packs before going inside to ask about camping, but the icy gaze and general rudeness thrown by the bucketload in our direction from the woman behind the bar suggests that we'd still have been unwelcome even if we'd been wearing top hat and tails.

The woman grunted and moaned as I told her how I'd phoned a couple of weeks previously to book a camping spot, but had been told simply to turn up on the day as there'd be plenty of space. As she grudgingly went to find the landlord to "check wiv 'im", the other drinkers in the bar had their go with us.

"Camping then?"
"I hope you're tent's not white! We don't like white tents here."
The other drinkers gaffawed into their pints of mild.
"Erm...no. It's not white."
"We don't like blacks either."

I can't exactly remember, as things got a bit foggy there, but I'm sure we must both have simply looked at the man with our mouths wide open. How could someone in the 21st century be such a racist twat? The answer soon came: Mr Facism and his family were staying in the "holiday park" next door, evidently a breeding ground for the right wing. Fortunately the miserable barmaid soon returned and said we could pitch our tents. We gladly left the company of the merry crowd in the pub and spent a few hours talking in hushed tones about how unbelievably backwards this whole experience was.

Unfortunately the only place for food that night was there in The Ferryman Inn. On the other hand the National Front had left, along with the barmaid from hell, and had been replaced by some much more appealing people. As we made idle chit-chat with the new barmaid about what we were doing, where we had come from, and where we were going (Oxford) she told us how she was living in the holiday park next door for the season - she'd moved down in April. It was scary, though, that she hadn't heard of Oxford - the largest town in the area and only 10 miles down the river. A backwater pub indeed.

posted by Scotty at 10:00 PM 0 comments

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Day 2: Castle Eaton to Radcot (13 miles)

By day two we had already lost track of the days of the week - it was hard to believe it was Sunday as we were packing up the tent at 8.30am. I was also thinking that maybe my legs hadn't benefited as much from the walk to and from The Red Lion the previous night as I initially thought.

It didn't take too long to walk off the stiffness, and we were in high spirits as we headed back through Castle Eaton and on to a bridleway towards Upper Inglesham. Indeed, this part of the walk was truly delightful as the wildlife was just beginning to stir. Everything was so, so serene...until we had to walk 1.5 miles along the grass verge at the side of the incredibly busy and frighteningly fast A361 main road! It emerges in the book that although there is a recognised route along the Thames (which is referred to as the Thames Path) there are some areas where the National Trust hasn't yet gained permission from landowners to put the path over there land and therefore follow the river. I suspect that this section is one such "temporary route" designed to bypass whatever farmer's field we're not allowed to walk on.

We were soon able to turn off the main road, though, and get back to the river near Inglesham, the outline of a medieval village still glaringly evident in the fields we crossed.

The day before we set off on the walk, I stupidly gave myself a blister on the ball of my left foot by wearing a pair of old trainers and rubbish socks around town. Despite draining it at least once a day, it was still causing me grief - and thanks to the strange gait I had developed in order to avoid being in too much pain from this blister, about 6 miles into day two I found a lovely new blister forming on my heal - directly opposite the first one!

More needles, lighters and plasters were therefore used on a bench just before Lechlade as we sat and watched the first boats of the river tootling along to this pretty town. I say pretty. We didn't see much of it, save for the riverside pubs and the local Londis where we bought our lunch that day, but it seemed pretty enough.

Lunch itself was eaten on a bench at the first lock on the river - St John's Lock about 1/2 mile outside Lechlade. I have always been fascinated by the simple yet incredibly effective technology in locks, and even after seeing dozens of them down the Thames I'm still in awe at them. The lock keeper at St John's Lock was selling off a few books for charity, but I didn't have the guts to carry the 1975 Dr Who annual all the way back home with me. As if to apologise for its evilness, though, the Thames yielded a further two locks for me to marvel at before we arrived at the beautiful Radcot Bridge where we camped in the garden of the village pub, The Swan Hotel (2 runs).

I was sad to see that Greene King had got its claws into what muct have once been a perfect country pub. Pine floors, terracotta paint and chrome had turned the pub into something out of a horror movie, but at its heart it was still run by people who loved the things a village pub should be: friendly and with good beer and food. The landlady even made us some sandwiches (which were wrapped in tin foil!) for the next day's lunch. You can't beat that.

Our approach to Radcot had given us our first insight into the strange world of fishing. It's a sport I really don't understand, nor do I desire to, but the hundreds of fishermen (and women) along the path had so much equipment it must be one hell of a hobby. I was fortunate, however, in gaining an insight into the life of a hobby fisherman whilst at the bar.
"Hello" (said a man with a strong West Country accent who smelled faintly of

"You drinkin' 'ere?"
I looked at the pint in my hand and slowly nodded.
"Where you stayin'?"
"Oh, we're camping in the field."
"Same 'ere. I've been 'ere a week."
"Oh...really? You fishing?"
"Aye, fishin'."
How did I guess?
"I help out our local butcher and delivered some meat up 'ere and though it would be good for a spot o' fishin'."
"Is it good fishing then?"
"Oh yes, good fishin'"
"Mmm. Erm...Caught anything interesting?"
"Nope. But it's good fishin' 'ere."

This conversation left me even more confused than before about the merits of fishing. If not catching anything is the sign of good fishing, why do they need all the equipment: like rods and hooks and stuff?
posted by Scotty at 10:00 PM 0 comments

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Day 1: The Source to Castle Eaton (16.5 miles)

We woke early. We had to. We needed to get from South West London to the middle of rural Gloucestershire early enough to allow us to do nearly 17 miles to our first campsite.

From Kemble station it was meant to be a short walk to the source of the Thames, and as we were going to walk the rest of the river we thought it would be daft not to start at the beginning. Thus inspired, we took off at a fair pace along a path towards the source. I think it's fair to say that I wasn't in the best of moods when it emerged that, despite Alice being a geography graduate, she took us in completely the wrong direction at a certain interchange of gates and thus added nearly a mile-long detour!

However, we eventually arrived at the source and were able to begin our long walk back to London.

The first day was overcast, with the odd rain shower, but this wasn't too much of a problem as we were covering such a relatively long distance with full packs - and without having done much walking since we did Hadrian's Wall! We were indeed rather sweaty.

It wasn't until at least 5 miles into the walk that we saw so much as a glimpse of the river. The worst drought since the 1970s had taken a massive toll on the usually swollen river, and its bed was dry.

This first day was a bit of an oddity compared to the rest of the walk. The barely-visible river was disappointing, but the walk too was not the most interesting. The villages we passed were hardly "picturesque" and there were some sections of the path, such as a stretch through fields behind Eysey, that were silly in the extreme due to the path leading straight through the middle of fields of crops! This was, in hindsight, nothing compared to what we were to experience later, but as our first day's walk it was certainly a testing one!

Alice did, however, propose an interesting game to play en-route: Thames Path Test Match Pub Cricket. We were introduced to the game of Pub Cricket by some friends, but an extended version of it over nearly 2 weeks was a great idea. The game is simple: one person goes in "to bat". If you pass a pub whose name features something with legs (such as "The Bull") you score the number of runs indicated by the number of legs in the pubs name (in the case of The Bull it would be 4). If the pub name does not have any legs, you are out and the next person goes in "to bat", scoring runs in the same way.

We camped that night at the Second Chance Caravan Park in Castle Eaton. In fact, it was about 1/2 mile outside the village of Castle Eaton, so we had an enjoyable(?) stroll to and from the pub for our dinner that night. As I ordered my food at The Red Lion (an easy 4 runs), Alice had a chat with two people at the bar. It took quite some time for them to realise the full extent of what we were doing:

"You're walking the whole path?"
"Yep - from here to London."
"Where are you staying?"
"We're camping just up the road."
"Oh, right. So how did you get your stuff here?"
"We carried it."
"No, I mean where have you left your car?"
"In London. We took the train to the source of the river and walked to here."
"Carrying all your stuff?"
"Including a tent?"
"F*****g hell. That must weigh a ton!"
"It does. Thanks for reminding us."
We ate well. The pub also had its own beer, which was a lovely pint. I think we also benefited from the return 1/2 mile walk to the campsite as it gave our leg muscles an opportunity to stretch out.
posted by Scotty at 10:00 PM 0 comments

For two weeks from the end of July, Alice and I cast off the constraints of modern living. We packed a tent and some sleeping bags into our packs, filled our water bottles, and buckled our boots ready for a 184-mile walk along the Thames Path National Trail.

Starting at the source of the river near Kemble in Gloucestershire, we followed the river's twists and turns until we reached the Thames Barrier at the river's estuary.

This blog is a record of our walk.

Previous Days
  • Day 4: Bablock Hythe to Oxford (10.5 miles)
  • Day 3: Radcot to Bablock Hythe (13.5 miles)
  • Day 2: Castle Eaton to Radcot (13 miles)
  • Day 1: The Source to Castle Eaton (16.5 miles)
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