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

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 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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