Thames Path Stage 15: Cholsey to Culham

Published 15 April 2015

Snow covered boat moored on the River Thames near Cholsey

I hadn’t been expecting there to be snow. Indeed, rather rashly, I hadn’t even looked at the weather forecast before booking my train tickets for the journey back to Culham, and I’d gone to bed completely oblivious to it all. So when I woke up and threw open the curtains to find that there was a heavy blanket of snow all over London, I was a tad surprised. Still, I shrugged my shoulders, pulled on the hiking boots and set forth for the station.

As the train whisked me out of London, my mind naturally began to wonder how far the snow had spread, and how much of it I’d find when I finally arrived at Cholsey. The answer was “a fair amount.” Not massively deep, but plenty enough of it to slow progress.

The change in the weather had brought people out of their houses, and the Thames Path was chock-a-block with weekday strollers. Ahead of me, some parents were walking with their young daughter, and watching them I felt a sudden pang of guilt that I was out here when I could have been strolling through our local park with my own excited two year old.

A few weeks earlier we’d visited family in the north of England, and had headed out to the snow covered hills to give our son his first proper taste of wintry weather. As his grandparents crafted a snowman, Sam bounced around, clutching our hands tightly for security. It had been wonderful to watch, and he’d spoken of little else for days after, especially once the rain had come and had rinsed it all away. It occurred to me that I could have abandoned my plans and spent the day recreating that wonderful scene with him, yet instead I was wandering alone in deepest Oxfordshire. Mind you, on the other hand, I’d already forked out £40 on the train tickets; the requirement to travel before 9:30am on weekday requiring a substantial hit to my wallet. And when you’ve stumped up that much cash, you’re pretty much committed really. Sorry Sam, but that’s the way it is.

Snow covered bridge near Cholsey

On leaving Cholsey, the paths and fields had been criss-crossed with footprints in the snow. Now, a mile of so on, they’d mostly died out. Most people were clearly staying local. Pleasingly, that meant there was plenty of virgin snow to make my mark on, and as I did, the snow crunched and crackled.

Snow has a way of making everything look beautiful. Even the several concrete pillboxes, looked positively cheerful with their white covering. They’d been erected in World War II as part of a government contingency plan. Should the Germans ever manage to invade and seize control of the south of England, the government would hot-foot it out of the capital and race north. A new defensive line would be created using the Thames and the Ridgeway as natural barriers, with the pillboxes acting as lookout posts in a last ditch attempt to stave off Hitler. Who knows whether it would have stood any chance of success, but thankfully it was never necessary to find out.

I was soon at the outskirts of Wallingford, passing by the boathouses of both Oxford Brookes University and the Oxford University Boat Club; the latter’s sizeable and expensive looking buildings housing that university’s elite crews that complete in some sort of boat race on the Thames every year. It’s only a minor thing; not very well known at all. Someone should try and drum up some publicity for it or something.

Oxford University Boat Club boathouse, outside Wallingford

“Not bad, is it?” called a man, who walked passed as I paused to take a photograph.

It was hard to know whether he was talking about the architecture of the building I was snapping, or the bracing weather, although my reply of “not too bad at all” provided polite yet non-committal reply either way.

Wallingford seemed to be a pleasant little town, which I was able to explore thanks to the Thames Path heading away from the river for a short stretch. It appeared to consist mostly of small, independent shops of a pleasing mix, including a substantial hat hire business. Wallingford had such a large number of independent traders that I began to wonder if they’d managed to banish chain stores from the town entirely. It was a notion quickly dispelled when I turned a corner to find branches of Waitrose, Boots, Costa Coffee and Greggs all staring at me. Still, at least the town kept its chainstores all in one place.

After a wander through the town centre, fighting the urge to stop for a Flat White and a pasty, I returned to the Thames near Wallingford Bridge. It was there that sat two large rectangular metal temporary signs on the path. Their message was hidden by snow, but the fact they were there at all seemed ominous. I tentatively dusted off the snow, and prepared myself for the inevitable bad news.

Diversion signs at Wallingford, covered in snow

Benson Lock Closed.


With no other information to be seen, I grabbed my phone out of my pocket and sought information from the internet, quickly finding out that flooding the year before had damaged the bridge at the lock, and that the bridge would be closed for repair for six weeks. Fine, except for one issue. The article had been posted the previous year too. That six-week closure should have ended some time before, but I could find nothing to say the work had been extended. Plus the signs in front of me looked rather new.

I ran through the options in my mind. I could assume that someone had just left the signs there by mistake, and ignore their message, but if the bridge was closed, I’d be stuck on the wrong side of the lock facing a massive detour. Or I could simply heed the message and follow the diversion. It was a no brainer really, and looking around I spotted a laminated piece of paper attached to a lamppost which explained the diversion provide a couple of miles of road walking, past such sites as the offices of the local council, and a science park.

The fire ravaged council offices of South Oxfordshire and Vale of the White Horse councils

Thrilling stuff really, although there was a moment of mild excitement when I found that the council offices were those that I’d seen on the news recently after an arson attack. Nothing so interesting at the science park though, and the walk down the side of the A4074 was even less exciting, thanks to several lorries delighting in covering me with the spray of slushy snow as they zoomed past.

However at Benson Lock, I found I’d made the right choice as the bridge was still very firmly closed and fenced off. Newsletters had been posted up explaining that damage the floods had caused even greater than expected, and apologising for the lengthy delay in the repairs. Still, at least I’d not ended up on the wrong side of the bridge with nowhere to go.

There was a spring in my step as I walked up the river to the village of Shillingford. After all, it was nearly lunchtime and Shillingford was the perfect place to stop for some sustenance. Also, it was the only place for some miles where I could get some.

According to my guidebook, I had two options. One was the large hotel complex next to the river which I’d ruled that out as such hotels don’t always have particularly good food, and what they do have can be expensive. It was probably a rash and inaccurate assumption, but it was one I’d made, and instead I set my sights firmly on the Kingfisher, described in my guidebook simply as a “pub”.

With my stomach rumbling and the expectation of some hot food and a well served pint of freshly pulled real ale, I veritably hopped, skipped and jumped along the Thames Path, through a network of alleyways and paths that were Shillingford’s contribution to this mighty river trail. True, I had absolutely no idea whether the Kingfisher would be able to provide me with those things, but my guidebook hadn’t let me down so far. It was a pub in a rural village. How could it not? And then, there it was, and I pushed the bar expectantly only to find it firmly locked.

I peered through the dusty looking windows towards tables set out invitingly with crockery, but there was no sign of life at all inside. Given the state of the windows, I began to wonder if the place was even still in business. And then I spied a sign on the side of the building.

The Kingfisher, Shillingford

The Kingfisher Hotel.

My mind began to put two and two together, and come up with a dismaying theory. Perhaps this place wasn’t actually a pub at all. True, the word “freehouse” implied it was, but nothing was for sure. I pulled out my phone again and loaded up the Kingfisher’s website. “Dining for residents only at this time” it explained. There wasn’t even a mention on there of a public bar.

I was distraught. My stomach had been rumbling and gurgling for over an hour as it was, and the extent of the provisions I had brought with me was a solitary apple that I’d eaten some time earlier. This was infuriating. Shillingford offered nowhere else to eat unless I retraced my steps back to the hotel a quarter of a mile away and there was no guarantee of what I’d find there either. Besides, I couldn’t afford the time for the detour. My train home would be from Culham station whose train service can be politely described as “infrequent”. I had just enough time in my schedule to pop in to a pub for lunch, as long as it was reasonably close to the trail, otherwise I’d run the risk of missing the train.

There was simply nothing for it. Cold, hungry and utterly disappointed, I simply had to push on.

A busy main road just outside Shillingford

Shillingford smelled of manure. And I’m not just saying that to insult the place following its inability to provide me with food. It really did seem to smell of manure.

I had plenty of time to smell the manure as, for the second time for the day, I was busy walking down a main road. Traffic was speeding down in both directions in a flurry, and I suddenly felt a little sorry for Shillingford in its battle against road noise.

At least there was a pavement, meaning I could walk down in safety. After all, there’s nothing quite like walking in the road when there’s traffic hurtling down at top speeds. And certainly little to beat having to fling yourself into a nearby bush in panic thanks to the one car which stubbornly refuses to acknowledge you have a right to be on the road too.

Whilst someone had thoughtfully provided a pavement, no one had bothered to consider the fact that the Thames Path walker also needed to cross the road itself when the trail finally left the traffic and headed off over a field. There were occasional gaps in the traffic in one direction, but these never coincided with the break in the traffic going in the other. With no traffic island in the middle, I had the option of going half way and standing hopelessly in the middle of the road until the next gap – not ideal for sure. Alternatively I could do what I did, and loiter on the pavement until that moment finally arose when there was just enough space in each direction to peg it over the tarmac and into safety.

It took about ten minutes but finally I that gap finally arrived, and I was soon moving fast over snow-covered fields. At least I was until I started hearing creaking noises under my feet. Suddenly it dawned on me that under the snow I was walking on, was a layer of ice. And goodness knows what was underneath that. More haste, less speed was certainly required.

Still hungry, I looked at my guidebook as I walked more gingerly, wondering what on earth I was going to do about lunch. I knew there wasn’t any shops anywhere, and little in the line of facilities. I’m not one for missing a meal. It makes me anxious and borders on the morose.

I was staring at the map with such a sense of foreboding that I almost missed it, but there it was. Right next to a fold in the map was a symbol, the Ordnance Survey symbol for a pub. I emitted a quiet yelp in celebration. Yes it was four miles away at Clifton Hampden, right next to the Thames Path. They’d be able to sell me food, even if it was just a packet of crisps. Given its location next to a river and near a village, surely it would do something more substantial. The guidebook even described it as “the most famous pub on the Thames.” By whom, it didn’t say, but right now I didn’t care. Shillingford had taught me not to get my hopes up too soon, but still there was a chance, and if I pushed myself, I would be there by two at the latest.

Little Wittenham Bridge, near Days Lock on the River Thames

I upped my pace; it’s amazing what the thought of a sandwich can do. By the time I arrived at Day’s Lock, I was positively racing along. Curiously it didn’t have a lock keepers cottage right next to it, but I was too obsessed by quashing my hunger to muse too much on that.

I raced crossed over a weir, the water dramatically rushing and gushing underneath, and then set off down the edge of snow-covered fields. The fields featured more bird prints than human ones, and for good measure a pair of herons stood high above on a tree branch, before majestically flying off just as I whipped my camera out.

But mostly this was all just a distraction from the true pursuit of food. I took to checking my map every few paces to chart my progress, using every fence, footbridge and stile to work out how much further I had to go. Then, at long last, cars could be seen up ahead. The road bridge near the pub couldn’t be far away. Food, warmth, sustenance and sucker would be mine!

I was finally going to be heading in doors. And on this cold day, that felt good, so very good indeed.

To be honest, I had a feeling I knew what the Barley Mow would be like when I’d initially read about it in the guidebook. For amongst the facts that the pub was thatched, was built in 1352 and that it was – inevitably – mentioned that Jerome K. Jerome book, was a simple statement.

“The doors are low too. ‘Duck or grouse’ as the sign over the entrance says.”

Duck or grouse. It’s a rather nonsensical phrase if there ever was one. Is it supposed to be funny? If so, why? Yet it features in many pubs, especially those owned by one particular pub chain. I’d been in enough Chef and Brewer pubs to know that they loved nothing more than plastering those three words its pubs in as many places as possible. I suspected that in at least one of their pubs, they’d even gone as far as installing some very low and distinctly fake ceiling beams, purely so that they’d have somewhere to write ‘Duck or Grouse’.

Barley Mow pub, near Clifton Hampden

Sure enough, as I turned the corner I found a pub plastered with turquoise branding that didn’t exactly seem to be particularly sympathetic to the fact that this was a historic building with a thatched roof. Oh yes. It was a Chef and Brewer alright. On the other hand, the fact that the Chef and Brewer are a chain focussed on dining, meant that there was a high probability that I’d be able to get some food at the Barley Mow.

The pub seemed to have undergone some refurbishment since my guidebook had been written. Of the Duck or Grouse signs, there was no trace, but the general interior décor did at least seem to match the olde-worlde pub vibe, even in the piped music didn’t that infiltrated the building, didn’t. Customers couldn’t even escape it outdoors, thanks to the installation of outdoor speakers, which were busy playing some terrible musak to the birds that were the only creatures not inside getting warm.

I was swiftly shown to a table in the dining area, decked out with a roaring fire that, whilst looking like it was a proper log fire, was most likely electric. The pub was a sizeable place, divided into many small areas. Despite this, the staff had seen fit to cluster the few customers they had, all in the same room together, as if they were worried everyone would be lonely otherwise.

I perused the insanely large menu, idly considering a blow out meal in compensation for the earlier trauma of Shillingford, before idly settling instead on something that would turn out to be one of the cheapest things on the menu.

As I sat warming up, the other diners slowly began to depart, leaving the entire pub to two members of bar staff, the unseen kitchen staff, and myself. I wondered if the pub was always this quiet on a weekday, or if the Barley Mow had fallen out of favour with its customers. Perhaps some of the locals were boycotting it since the ‘Duck or Grouse’ signs had been removed. Or maybe it was merely just a case that there wasn’t enough passing trade. But as I pondered, I mused how often I’d been in a rural village pub and been the only customer. It had been extremely rare.

Now alone, I watched the bar staff from the corner of my eye. One had collapsed on a sofa with an iPad, whilst the other stood at the end of the bar with her head face down on the counter. Clearly this was an exciting shift for them both. The moment I headed to the bar to pay my bill seemed to be the most exciting thing that had happened to either of them for ages. Now they’d be able to take some money, then whip out the spray bottle and cloth in order to clean my table ready for the next customer. It would give them something to talk about if nothing else.

As I walked to the door I idly pondered giving them even more excitement by abruptly changing my mind and ordering another pint. But I really had to get on my way. There was a train I needed to catch, and Culham station has perhaps the worst service of any station on the whole of the Thames Path. If I missed the 16:01 I’d be stuck waiting there until 17:17 for the next one. Given I was a mere mile and a half away from the station, and it wasn’t yet three o’clock, I had plenty of time to get there and catch my train, but if I lingered there was a chance I wouldn’t.

Back outside, I checked the map in my guidebook. It was a trifle unclear due to the map spanning two pages over the middle of the book, but it looked simple enough. Cross the bridge near the Barley Mow and walk down the Thames a short way until arriving at another bridge, and then follow the road up to the station. Simple, I thought, and followed the path next to the Thames rather absent-mindedly until I suddenly found myself standing next to a weir.

Clifton Hampden Lock on the River Thames

Something kicked in. A weir? This wasn’t on my map.

I stood for a moment, baffled and looked at the map. There was Clifton Lock. I’d passed that a few minutes earlier, but how had that happened without me having gone over the second road bridge?

It took a moment but finally it dawned on me. There weren’t two bridges at all. It was simply the same bridge. Whilst the map looked like it flowed over both pages, it didn’t actually. The maps on each page were separate, with some overlap, but placed next to each other on the two pages. And if you didn’t realise that, you might just think there were two bridges, not one. A schoolboy error in no mistaken terms, and I’d just made it, going a mile further down the Thames than I’d intended.

In despair I looked at my watch. Getting my train would be tight, but by fortune, there was also a signpost, pointing off over some fields in the vague direction of Clifton Hampden. And according to the map, it would take me to the main road, down which I could walk along to the station. It wasn’t amazingly direct, but if I pushed myself, I’d make it.

I stormed off, idly noticing that most of the snow had now melted as I strode. The path joined a muddy farm track, full of potholes, and then all of a sudden I was standing on the main road. Cars and lorries zoomed by as my aching legs propelled me along to Culham Station, which sat a short way off the main road. I arrived out of breath and not particularly in the mood for climbing the station’s footbridge with a sigh of relief. I’d made it, and for good measure had ten minutes to spare.

Original station buildings of Culham railway station

The station was busier than I’d expected given its location. Sited in the middle of nowhere, nearly two miles from the village from which it takes its name, Culham station is now mostly kept alive by the neighbouring science park, and the occasional visitor to the station pub. I wished I had time for a pint now. Maybe I would have been able to do so if I hadn’t been so daft to not ask why there would be two road bridges right next to each other in a tiny Oxfordshire village. Or, indeed if I’d paid enough attention to realise that I’d walked for a mile when my map reading had said the bridge was metres away.

On the other hand though, I’d made it in time for my train. I wouldn’t have to hang around for an hour for the next one. And that was something.

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