Thames Path Stage 17 (Part 1): Oxford to Pinkhill Lock

Published 2 November 2016

Narrowboat near Osney Bridge, on the Thames Path.
Narrowboat moored up near Osney Bridge, Oxford

You can tell a lot about a city by the way it looks on a Sunday morning.

Well, perhaps “a lot” is overstating it a little. But you can tell something. You can get impression of the place by how clean the streets are, how many people are wandering around, and how many of those are walking slowly down the road with bedraggled hair and wearing an outfit that looks far less appropriate for 8am than it did at 10pm the night before.

Oxford came across rather positively. Even at 9am there were plenty of coffee shops open, with people happily queueing up for a caffeine fix. That branch of McDonalds that I’d managed to walk past about four times the night before, was open for business and doing a roaring trade and there were plenty of people walking the streets, admiring the architecture and waving maps around. The streets were clean, there were plenty of buses that all looked well patronised, and there was a branch of Pret a Manager open and willing to provide me with a decent sandwich for my lunch.

The city appeared to be glad to be awake, and happy to show off its finery to its visitors and I walked through the city centre with a spring in my step, taking in all that wonderful scenery that had so dark and depressing in the rain the night before.

The entrance to Oxford Castle.
Oxford Castle – now a home to a hotel and chain restaurants

Truth be told, I didn’t even need to walk through the centre; as my B&B was near Folly Bridge, I could just have leapt on the Thames Path there and then, and just followed it out of Oxford, thus missing out on the wet streets of commerce and trade, and instead re-acquainting myself with the river a bit sooner. But then I would not have seen the imposing buildings of Christ Church Cathedral, the remains of Oxford Castle (for many years a prison, but now housing a hotel and multiple chain restaurants), and the bus station. And we all love a good bus station. Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to buy that crayfish and avacado flatbread from Pret. It’s all about priorities.

It hadn’t stopped raining though, and it continued to hit me as I made towards the railway station, and then back to the Thames at Osney Bridge. I joined a tow path mostly filled with joggers and dog walkers, suddenly making me feel rather conspicuous and I shrank down into my waterproofs and tried to make myself as innocuous as you can when you’re carrying a 50 litre rucksack, wrapped in a bright silver rain cover.

Rowers on the Thames near Oxford
Rowing on the Thames

I hadn’t even gone a mile when a pub sign swung from a pole in front of me. Come visit the Perch, it said. The hamlet of Binsey is really not that far away. Go on, you won’t regret it!

Too earlier, I replied. Hardly likely to be open at 10am, I muttered. Besides, I have places to go to.

By now the joggers had given way to rowers, and the river with teaming with crews and their instructors, most of whom thankfully favoured shouting their instructions and comments from diesel powered catamarans, rather than cycling insanely down the river path.

Their shouts competed for attention with the road noise from the nearby by-pass, and it was only when I got to Godstow Lock that they died away; the lock providing a natural blockage in the attempts of rowers to go further upstream. Funnily enough, they were the last occupied boats I’d see on the water for the rest of the day, and indeed the rest of my trip.

Ruins of Godstow Abbey
The ruins of Godstow Abbey

Near the lock sat the ruins of Godstow Abbey. These consisted of a large walled compound, with just one a small building in one corner, now devoid of its roof and interior floors. The compound was substantial and must have housed multiple buildings in its time, but now they were long gone.

I peered at a sign attached to the wall, hoping it would provide some history of the site, but all it deemed worthy to impart was that the use of metal detectors was banned on the site. I had to resort to my guidebook to learn anything useful, namely that the abbey had been established in 1139, and housed a nunnery, and that the sole remaining building in front of me was the remnants of a 16th century chapel.

Inevitably the demise of the abbey was due to that Henry VIII fellow after he had his big falling out with the Catholic church, and after the abbey was dissolved, the buildings were converted into a manor house, before being badly damaged in the Civil War and then abandoned.

The Trout Inn at Wolvercote
One of many Trout Inns on the Thames Path, and another Morse hangout

On the other side of the river, I found Godstow’s second landmark: the 17th century pub, The Trout Inn, which was a favoured haunt of that Inspector Morse in the novels by Colin Dextor, and naturally featuring regularly in the following TV series as well. With its long riverside terrace, I could imagine why Morse would want to stop there awhile, but hey, it was still too early for such shenanigans. Besides, I really did have places to go…

I put my feet up for a while on a bench at King’s Lock, and then popped into the lock’s small, but informative, visitor centre, housed in a new eco-friendly building that had been built upon a set of foundations made out of old car tyres. I spent a few minutes reading the display and learning all about the history of the lock and the local area, before almost immediately forgetting it all as soon as I walked back out the door.

The rain had gone, leaving in its wake a series of wet fields for me to traipse through as I basked in the sunshine which now bathed the area with its delightful golden hue. The Thames Path kept a respectful enough distance from the river bank which I thoroughly appreciated, given how high the water levels were.

The sound of road noise had been prevalent for most of the morning, but now became even more noticeable as I came to Swinford Bridge; the second of two toll bridges that the Thames Path encounters. Like its compatriot downstream at Whitchurch, Swinford Bridge is a survivor from the era when all bridges built across the Thames were privately built, and that were maintained by tolls collected by the operators. Like Whitchurch, Swinford Bridge had somehow escaped purchase by the local authority, and continues to be privately operated, and seems set to remain so. In 2009 the bridge was put up for sale by its then owners, and much to the dismay of many, Oxfordshire County Council refused to bid for it, declaring it did not have the financial capability to purchase it. And so it passed to new owners, for a mere pittance of £1.08m.

Swinford Bridge, with the River Thames flowing underneath.
Swinford Bridge – pay thy toll!

Given the tolls for the bridge come in at a mere 5p for a car (compared to the 60p charged downstream at Whitchurch), you may be wondering quite how the bridge came to sell for so much. Part of the answer is that the bridge comes with a small stone cottage, four acres of land and a 12-space car park. And another part may be that the bridge tolls enjoy a tax free status. Well, who really knows what appealed to the new owners the most?

But as I approached the bridge, I suddenly hit by a realisation that I was in debt. By five pence.

It was back in 2014, and one winter evening I picked up a hire car from Oxford. I was driving in the dark to a holiday cottage a few miles from the town of Witney, where I was due to meet up with some friends for a few days holiday.

With no knowledge of the local area, I was relying on a sat-nav to guide me; a sat-nav that completely failed to tell me that I would be driving straight towards a tollbridge. As the traffic crawled along towards the tollbooth, I hunted around the car in the darkness trying to find some cash, only to be hit with the realisation that my wallet wasn’t in my pocket as normal, but with my coat in the car’s boot.

With nowhere to pull over to, and the traffic moving slowly along, there was little I could do but declare to the man at the toll booth my predicament, who – with a roll of his eyes – waved me through.

Fair enough you may think. It’s a honest scenario, and it wasn’t really worth worrying about for five whole pence. But that’s not the problem. When I was unpacking the car later at the holiday cottage, I found that I’d actually put my coat and wallet on the back seat; that five pence had been in reachable distance all along.

Narrowboat and Swinford Bridge
Actually no toll is due for pedestrians

As I stared at the bridge, I couldn’t help but feel guilty. Was now the time to go and fess up to my misdemeanour? To walk up and pay what I should have done then, perhaps with a penny in interest? With a look of remorse I walked up to the road, and eyed the toll booth in the distance, debating whether to reach into my bag and retrieve my wallet.

It was then I took note of the substantial ]queue of traffic waiting to go through the toll both; cars, buses and lorries that were crawling through the toll barrier. And I realised that neither the person taking the tolls, or the people driving the vans and cars on the road would appreciate me arriving on foot, trying to make up for my past mistake, and I guiltily sloped back to the Thames Path and decided it would probably be most appreciated all round if I simply lived with the guilt. Besides, I strongly suspected the owners could afford it, what with that tax free status and everything.

Pedestrians cross Swinford Bridge for free, although the Thames Path walker need not worry anyway as the trail doesn’t cross the river, and merely passes under the bridge’s brown stone arches.

The bridge also appeared to mark a limit for day walkers from Oxford. Whilst I’d seen many people in walking boots and rucksacks prior to the bridge, once I’d passed under it, I didn’t see one other person out walking.

The rain had gone, but the winds were getting stronger. At one point I was hit by gusts so strong that I almost blown into the river; helped by the fact that I was walking a particularly muddy and narrow section of path at the time. A dunking in the Thames’s cold water would certainly not have been appreciated, but it was something that was I thankfully avoided; and which I celebrated by perching on a bench at the deserted Pinkhill Lock.

Pinkhill Lock gates and the lock keepers cottage.
Pinkhill Lock. It’s not pink and there’s no hill at it.

The lock’s named after the nearby Pinkhill Farm, although where the farm got its unusual name from is another question entirely. There was a hill nearby – Wytham Hill – that dominated the skyline as much as a 162m high summit can do, but it didn’t look particularly pink. More green and brown.

No doubt it was some corruption of an old language, just as King’s Lock was ultimately a modern version of Kingisweire, with ‘kin’ being an old world for cattle. But a large part of me preferred the idea though that Pinkhill Farm had been named by a local eccentric with a liking for irony and the colour pink.

Whatever the reason, it was a lovely spot to rest awhile and birds tweeted merrily whilst a trickle of water flowed through the tiny gap in the closed lock gate. I munched my sandwich, thinking it was near perfect, and I had to tear myself away from this peaceful, idyllic rural scene. Yes I’d been battered by rain, bashed by the wind, but this spot, right here, right now was lovely.

I couldn’t stay. No matter how much I wanted to. And my flatbread eaten, I hoisted my pack onto my back, took a deep breath and went out to see what the rest of the day would hold.

In part two, we continue on to Newbridge and have a pint or two.



29 June 2022 at 9:46 pm

Hi there,
Love your story – we are thinking of cycling this route to pink hill – do you think the route is ok for cyclists? We cycle all the time just past wolvercote and that’s fine, but haven’t ventured further. Obviously it will be a lot dryer this time hopefully! Thanks so muc

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

30 June 2022 at 9:33 am

Hello Sally. You’ll probably be okay, but do note that on the map the route here is designated as a public footpath not a bridleway so there’s no guarantees.

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