Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Travel Tuesday : The Thames Path, day 5, Oxford to Clifton Hampden

walked and originally written 5/10/2002

This weekend I had planned another 2-day stretch on the path. And because I was feeling a bit cocky, I decided to walk slightly farther than the suggested section in Sharp's book. Rather than walking the 12 miles from Oxford to Culham, I walked about 14 miles to Clifton Hampden. The next day I would walk from Clifton Hampden to Goring, where I could take a train home.

I made the mistake of calling a friend in Seattle for "a quick chat" which turned into a long chat... and I was still in bed on the phone at 6:30, when I was meant to be leaving the house.

So at 6:40 I literally ran down the stairs, out of the house, and to the Tube station. Needless to say, I missed the 7:00am train -- as well as the 7:03, arriving at the train station at 7:10.

I bought my ticket for the next train -- a 7:48 direct -- left me with half an hour to kill. Fortunately, I was at Paddington.

Paddington Station is one of the world's greatest railway stations. Designed by the great engineer  Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 19th century, when it was built it was the largest train shed roof in the world, with a main span (102' 6") and two smaller ones to the north (70') and south (68').

Paddington Station photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net)
It *still* feels grand. Brunel is honored in the station. In 2002 his statue was near the entrance to the Underground, though in 2014 he was moved between platform 8 and 9, facing toward the Directors Balcony on Platform 1. I suspect he's happier where he is now.

I love the ironwork on the screens at the ends of the train shed. Apparently Matthew Digby-Wyatt, Brunel's architect on the station project, designed those.

There's a lovely board room and royal waiting room which hosted Queen Victoria -- in the area under the arches on the right. The space is now the first class lounge.

Queen Victoria took her first train journey to the old Paddington station in 1842. She wrote in her journal on June 13, 1842:
It took us exactly 30 minutes going to Paddington; & the motion was very slight, & much easier than the carriage, also no dust or great heat - in fact, it as delightful and so quick.
Queen Victoria took her final train journey from Paddington station, too -- after her funeral in 1901 her coffin was loaded onto the royal train at Paddington and transported to Windsor where she is buried.

I can't think of Paddington without thinking of Frith's "The Railway Station" which clearly depicts a scene in Paddington Station. The artist and his family are the group in the left foreground, with his wife kissing their younger son goodbye while Frith and their older son stand behind. Another obvious set is the bridal party -- groom, bride, and two bridesmaids, their pale dresses lighting up the scene. And at the far right two Scotland Yard detectives (modeled in the painting by the artists John Brett and Benjamin Robert Haydon) arresting a ne'er do well.

Of course, the most famous association with Paddington is this lovely bear from Darkest Peru.

So I was happily (if geekily) amused for the half hour ... and went to my train when the platform was announced. Unfortunately, the train wasn't ready yet, so we gathered in little clumps near the doors. Every so often a new person would arrive, walk up to the door, and press the "OPEN" button. Of course, we had all done this ourselves with the same result -- the doors were still locked. So every time this happened, the rest of us would make tiny satisfied "hmphs" and exchange knowing glances.

Eventually we got on the train and soon were in Oxford.

As I left the train station in Oxford, I passed a sign near a bit of building work that said "FOOTPATH CLOSED". I laughed and hoped it wasn't an omen.

I should have known better. (cue ominous music!)

Once on the path (after I moment or two when I wasn't sure which direction I was headed) things started off well. I rejoined the path at Osney Bridge.

I soon passed a monument to Edgar George Wilson, who drowned saving two boys who were struggling in the river. on June 15, 1889.

Some 2000 people subscribed money for the memorial, and 200 people attended the unveiling ceremony on November 7, 1889.

A little farther along and the path climbs up to Folly Bridge and crosses it there. When I often stayed with friends in Oxford back in the late 1980s, I used to cross Folly Bridge to get between their house and the center of town. What I didn't know then was that the "Folly" isn't the Victorian building with statues in niches -- it was named after an older building that once stood on the north side of an earlier bridge. That building was known as Friar Bacon's Study, named after a 13th-century friar who used it as an observatory.

The roadway of the previous bridge actually used to go through Friar Bacon's Study -- you can see the archway at the left side of the building.

The "new" building still fits the bill, really.

Soon we were across the river from Christ Church Meadow, where I once tottered on high heels across the grass, trying not to sink in.

Farther along I passed several college boathouses, and was passed by 2s, 4s, and 8s all sculling up and down "Isis", as the Thames is called along this stretch. Eights Week -- the Oxford rowing festival -- was just around the corner and many anxious coaches were riding their bikes along the towpaths, shouting advice at the rowers.

It was a bit too early in the day (and the longish walk) to stop at the Isis Tavern ...

... so I continued to Iffley Lock

At Iffley Lock I watched a group of kayakers climb out of their boats, pick them up, carry them around the lock, and then climb back in to continue.

All was well until I went under the railway bridge. There, at the gate, were three bright yellow signs. FOOTBRIDGE CLOSED AT FIDDLER'S ELBOW", "PLEASE FOLLOW SIGNS FOR DIVERSION", and, finally, "DIVERSION".

This was curious. Was there really a diversion? Was the footbridge still closed? Would there be signs leading me back to the path?

According to my map (see above), Fiddler's Elbow was a ways down the rider. But I didn't want to end up doubling back, so against my gut I decided to follow the diversion. "These signs look new", I said to myself. "I'm sure there will be signs."

The path I was now on was a handsome new bridleway running alongside a railway line. Kennington was across the railway. I walked on, confidently at first, but with a growing worry that I had been foolish. A line of high-level electricity towers, helpfully marked on my map, helped me to track the distance. And I walked and I walked. At one point a newish path split off towards the river, but as it was slightly upstream of Fiddler's Elbow -- and had no signage at all -- I didn't take it.

I kept trudging along, growing increasingly frustrated. Finally, seeing a small footback through the grass, I took it, coming out just below Sandford Lasher and its sad little obelisk on the weir serving as both a memorial to two of the people who have drowned here -- and as a warning to future bathers.

Sandford Lock is the deepest lock on the thames, with an average fall of 8 feet -- so you can imagine how swift the currents are near the weir.

A bit more bushwacking along a narrow path, including crossing a small tributary on a log and trudging ankle-deep in mud, and I finally rejoined the main path just downstream of Sandford lock -- I had been on the "wrong" side of the river for over a mile.

Further along I found myself on the emptiest path I'd been on in a long time. No boats, no walkers, nothing.

It wasn't till I approached the Radley College boat house that two joggers passed me, but the, nothing.

Near Nuneham Courtenay the river looked fat and sluggish, while fields of rape in full flower stretched away.

Narrow path like this, near Nuneham Courtenay, was always nice.

Eventually I passed Nuneham House, an 18th-century house with gardens landscaped by Capability Brown for Lord Harcourt.

Soon I saw the upstream entrance of Swift Ditch -- which was once probably the main navigation channel of the Thames until the monks of Abingdon dug a channel and built a lock centuries ago.
Just downstream of Swift Ditch the path does a funny double fold to skirt a backwater. And that's where I discovered some hand-painted signs for the "Jolly Boys AC" and "PRIVATE FISHING".

Something about these signs made me think of the Little Rascals -- except the "S" in "FISHING" was the right way around. As I skirted their private fishing area I caught glimpses of some of the "jolly boys" -- most of them well into their 40s or 50s, frankly, but clearly very jolly. As my friend Gene later explained, alcohol + fishing = jolly.

A few hundred yards later I crossed Abingdon Weir.

At the end of the weir I had to squeeze past some barricades, because apparently the path I had come on was closed.  I read the signs relating to the way I had just come, and was a little surprised to see one saying "FOOTPATH CLOSED 8 MAY - 10 OCTOBER 2002." As it was the 10th of May, I found this a little alarming, and tried to think if I'd seen any other signs in the area. Clearly the diversion at Fiddler's Elbow wasn't related -- too far up the river, and the signage was totally different. I has also run into more people on the path in the past two miles than I had seen all day... so clearly no one else was heeding signs either.

Suddenly the spire of St. Helens came into view -- my first glimpse of Abingdon!

I decided to take a long break in Abingdon to wander around.

I went to the beautiful Abingdon Museum, housed in the old County Hall. Pevsner called it "the grandest town hall in England", and one should never dispute with Pevsner.

The museum was really interesting in that way local museums often are. A taxidermied otter? Yep, caught nearby. Radiohead CDs? Of course, the band formed here. Victorian baked goods? Ummm, yeeeessss?

Apparently -- and according to a little flyer I picked up in the museum -- to celebrate national events "The Corporation of Abingdon, now Abingdon Town Council throw fruit buns from the roof of the County Hall building to crowds of people waiting in the market place below. This custom of bun throwing seems to be unique to Abingdon."

Here's the view from the roof of the County Hall:

The first recorded bun throwing was for the Coronation of King George III in 1760, but was also celebrated at many other events, including the 1810 Golden Jubilee of King George III, the 1837 Coronation of Queen Victoria, the end of the Crimean War in 1856, Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee in 1887, Queen Elizabeth II's coronation of 1953, the Queen Mother's 80th birthday in 1980, and the 50th anniversary of VE day in 1995, the royal wedding of Wills and Kate in 2011, the 2012 Jubilee, and more.

While I didn't take a picture of it as it was in storage, the earliest bun in the collection is from the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria. What I love is that it's still so popular. Here's a picture from the 2012 bun throwing from the Abingdon blog:

It was much quieter on my visit.

I spotted my next stop -- St. Helen's church -- from roof.

The church is beautiful inside and out. I didn't take any pictures inside, but there's an amazing 360-degree image of the Lady Chapel online.

 I stopped in for a little break at the Nag's head, as it's very difficult to pass an open riverside pub on a nice day.

Then back across the bridge and onto the path, where you can see the Nag's Head across the river.

Heading downriver and passing St. Helen's again.

Continuing downriver, with the houses on the outskirts of Abingdon across the river.

Lovely and calm -- and completely alone -- I arrived at Culham Lock.


In Culham I took a detour off the path to All Saints' Church in Sutton Courtenay. Why? Well, it's the burial site of Prime Minister Asquith.

But the real reason I stopped was to see Eric Arthur Blair's grave in the same churchyard:

Not familiar with him? Perhaps by his pen name, George Orwell. I have a note -- I'm afraid I didn't keep the source -- that says this:
A few weeks before his death he instructed his friend David Astor to find a place to bury his remains. He didn't want t to be just any convenient cemetery. No, he insisted that he wanted to be laid to rest in an English country churchyard.  
Astor found a spot beside the Thames near the pretty village of Sutton Courtenay, and there the body remains to this day . The 13th-century church tower is magnificent, and the grounds seem a perfect resting place for a man who loved the simpler pace of 1910. The only other famous grave in the cemetery is that of the man who was Prime Minister when Blair was a boy - Herbert Asquith.  
You can't miss Asquith's imposing tomb, but you could easily overlook Orwell's grave. Contrary to the end, Blir wanted to be buried under his own name, without any reference to his more famous self. It was the final way of separating the man from the writer. In Blair, we have the person whose life belonged only to himself. It is the author who now belongs to the world.

Sutton Courtenay was a lovely little diversion -- I loved these sweet little houses.

But soon I was back on the path and continuing along toward Clifton Hampden. I took a glance back to Sutton Bridge:

A little farther along I could see modernity rearing its ugly head -- Didcot Power Station.

I just read that "Didcot A" the coal-burning station stopped generating energy in 2013, and was dismantled between 2014 and 2019. "Didcot B", a gas-burning station appears to still be in operation.

My side of the river was wooded and rural, though I could glimpse the fat spire of Appleford Church across the river.

It's interesting to think that the church spire outlived these power station towers!

Not long after I had my first glimpse of Clifton Hampden in the distance.

Soon I came to Clifton Hampden Bridge, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Gilbert Scott is one of my two favorite Victorian architects; he also designed St. Pancras hotel and railway station, the Albert Memorial, and of course the red phone boxes. (FWIW, the other is Alfred Waterhouse...) I love that this bridge isn't dissimilar to the New Bridge built 400 years prior.

I crossed the lovely bridge and went to my almost destination for the day -- the Barley Mow. I had been excited about visiting this storied pub for weeks and weeks.

The 650-year old pub has changed a bit... but not that much.

Really, the main difference apart from the paint job is that the road in front is now paved!

Jerome K. Jerome describes the Barley Mow in Three Men and a Boat:

If you stay the night on land at Clifton, you cannot do better than put up at the "Barley Mow." It is, without exception, I should say, the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river. It stands on the right of the bridge, quite away from the village. Its low-pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows give it quite a story-book appearance, while inside it is even still more once-upon-a-timeyfied.
"Once-upon-a-timeyfied" is the perfect description. I entered the pub, heeding the sign above the door: "DUCK OR GROUSE". There are indeed low ceilings, though at a mere 5'7" I didn't need to stoop very often. 

I went into nice, big garden with my pint. A little boy playing on a picnic table (while his parents sat chatting nearby) slipped and fell between the table and the bench, smacking himself on the pavement below. The poor thing stopped for a second, probably surprised, and then started to shriek. After a few moments (while a small terrier at a nearby table cowered as if to say "I didn't do it!") he calmed down sufficiently to say "Uh-oh, Boom!" over and over.

There were ten guys at the next table -- all fresh from a boat frip. One of them was still wearing a pair of inflatable water wings, another a bright orange life fest. They were talking about 80s pop and trying to remember the name of Bow Wow Wow's 1980 album. (I considered telling them, but didn't.)

I moved inside to eat as the wind was picking up. I discovered that, actually, yes, the ceilings are low -- so low that when I stood up, my head brushed against the ceiling.

In Dickens Dictionary of the Thames, he described the Barley Mow as "a queer panelled room, more like the cabin of a ship than the coffee-room of an inn, and is of so low a pitch as to still further favour the illusion. But although the house is primitive, and the entertainment unpretending, it is a capital little inn of its class, and may be recommended to boating men."

Sadly, the Barley Mow no longer offers lodging... so for the evening I walked back across the bridge and along the road to Burcot, where I stayed at the Dinckley Court B&B, a nice house on the river.

Dinkley Court has now been turned into more of an events site/self-catering lodging, where you can rent the entire house for parties or vacations. I stayed in a nice little room (and would have a fine breakfast the next morning for £49.

Up next: Clifton Hampden to Goring Lock

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