Thames Path: An evening in Oxford

Published 26 October 2016

Folly Bridg and the Thames at Oxford
Folly Bridge in Oxford. In the daytime. So you can see it.

I’d wanted to visit Oxford for a long time. Properly, that is. Not just spend a few minutes pottering around the railway station, but to explore its hallowed streets, admire its charming architecture and breathe in the academic air that fills the town.

Of course I’d lived in London for many years, and Oxford was only a short hop, skip and jump away. But in all the time in the capital, I never did find the time to pay the place a visit. There was always something else to do, and I never went.

I could have gone whilst I was at sixth form college too, but didn’t. Those of us expected to obtain reasonable grades in our A-Level exams were encouraged to visit the Oxbridge duo and to apply for our position. I didn’t. I always consider myself too smart to have gone to Oxford University. And by too smart, I actually mean clever enough to realise that if I applied, the changes of me getting in were pretty low. And really, who wanted to be bothered with the faff of entrance exams when there were more important things to do, like visit the pub and play computer games. So whilst some of my friends and contemporaries went off to visit Oxford and Cambridge, I stayed home instead.

Finally though, I had an excuse to visit; a reason to hop on the train out of London, get off and explore Britain’s historic city of learning. And it was the Thames Path that gave it to me.

Up until this point, I’d been able to walk the entire of the Thames Path in day hikes, setting off from home early in the morning and arriving home mid-evening. There had been an abundance of railway stations on the route, allowing me to speed between the Thames and home with relative ease. But upstream of Oxford, the ability to do that was at an end, for the section to the source of the river is a public transport wasteland. With no trains, and few useful buses (for someone trying to get home to London anyway), there was no other option than doing all four days of hiking in one block.

But finding the four days required, as well some time to spend mooching around Oxford, proved to be strangely difficult. Most of my time out of work had been taken up with a combination of family holidays, and research for a planned future house move. Instead of walking along fine riverside scenery, I’d instead been traipsing up and down suburban roads thinking about housing. So by the time I did return to Oxford, almost a year had passed since my last walk on the Thames Path.

For good measure, that only free time I’d found was in February; a far from ideal time to be heading out for a walk, but it was either that or nothing for several months, so I grasped it firmly for all it was worth.

Narrow Oxford lane in the dark
Dimly lit Oxford on a rainy night

I’d hoped to spend a day Oxford, doing all the tourist stuff. Museums, pubs, galleries, all that. But that wasn’t to be and instead of spending an afternoon strolling through colleges and streets, I spent part of the day drilling a substantial hole through the wall of my house in order to add a vent, so that the boiler would meet building regulations when we came to sell it. By the time I did get to Oxford it was early evening and the sun had set, meaning I’d be exploring the place in the dark. Well, at least Oxford has street lights.

Bigger problem though was that it was raining. Heavily. I’d got pretty drenched just walking from the railway station to my B&B, and I hovered around inside my bedroom for as long as I could until hunger pangs forced me to leave it.

With rain bouncing off my hood up, I kept my head down and did walked quickly towards the city centre, trying to look out for tourist stuff whilst simultaneously assessing every pub and eatery for the possibilities of them being a) worthy of visit, and b) likely to have a spot for a lone diner on a busy Saturday night.

Helpfully my B&B was not far from the centre, and the main road took me right past Christ Church, the Oxford college that at the same time, manages to be a cathedral too. Founded in 1546, it’s not Oxford’s oldest college by any means, but it is up there as one of the richest, with assets totalling over £400m. The college-church links mean that the cathedral’s dean is also the head of the college, and that the Cathedral operates as the college chapel; a unique situation in the Church of England. Thirteen of the UK’s Prime Minsters were educated here, including Eden and Gladstone. It’s buildings, and the attached cathedral, are apparently rather impressive, however I was too late to go on a tour, and a parade of buses parked up on the road prevented anyone getting a good view of the buildings.

I next found myself on one of Oxford’s main shopping streets, which, at 7pm, was still bustling with Saturday shoppers, and those just starting their night out.

Bicycles in Oxford
I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike…

Following Bowden’s Law #2 of city centres (“There will never be anywhere decent to eat and drink on the same street as branches of Primark and Next”), I peered down every alleyway or side street until I found somewhere that looked like it might offer something more of interest than two branches of Pret a Manger, and an extremely busy branch of McDonalds. Or beggars. Oxford appeared to have plenty of those, huddling in the doorways of closed shops and trying to shelter from the weather. Here we are, one of the wealthiest nations in the world, and yet we still manage to have huge quantities of people homeless and sleeping rough. There’s something not right there.

Eventually a side street did provide promise; a small, inconspicuous looking thing that was lined with restaurants and pubs; all of which appeared to be bursting with enthusiastic looking groups of students, and with little space for a 38 year old male out by himself. There was one place at the end of the road which looked promising and with an interesting looking menu displayed in the door, but on closer inspection it was just closing up and everyone inside was heading home.

I wandered on aimlessly, passing by a branch of Wetherspoons that I filed under the category of ‘if desperate’, and then walked some more. With no real idea where I was going, I suddenly found myself deep into the heart of Oxford’s educational territory; all low-rise terrace buildings and full bike racks.

The exterior of the White Horse pub, Oxford
The White Horse – one for Morse fans for sure

As I did I stumbled upon a small pub called the White Horse, and did a double-take when I peered inside and spotted at least one empty table. Not long after was supping a pint and dripping copious amounts of water on the pub’s stone floor.

By chance, I’d stumbled on one of Oxford’s more historic pubs, based in 16th century building. It was also a purveyor of proper pie, i.e. not a casserole topped with puff pastry. No, the pie that was presented to me (having ordered it, naturally) was definitely not one of those. It was a substantial wedge of a bigger pie, with thick, delicious pastry on top and bottom. Divine.

It was only after I had returned to the bar for another ale and on my way back, that I found the White Horse’s main claim to fame. Stuff the pub’s age and sense of history, no the fact that John Thaw had once been there was far more important! It turned out that I’d been sat under a photograph of the actor, best known for his role as Inspector Morse, and hadn’t realised it. In the 1980s the pub had been one of several in Oxford to feature in Inspector Morse, and it had also featured in episodes of Morse spin-off Lewis, and scenes from the prequel, Endeavour, were also filmed in the pub. Above the bar I spotted a still from Endeavour where a young Inspector Morse was seen drinking. And in a subtle nod, in the background behind this young Morse, was the very photo of Thaw that I was sitting under.

Slice of pie at the White Horse pub
Proper pie

An idea sprang into my head. It was a nasty, damp evening. How else was I to spend it other than spending the evening doing a giant Morse themed pub crawl. Just one problem. I didn’t know any others. Perhaps I could read Colin Dextor’s Morse novels in random pubs? Ah, but I didn’t have any on my trusty Kindle. Still, the thought of more beer was an appealing one, and after draining my pint, I set out to explore Oxford a little more under the guise of finding another pint.

The rain had eased a little, I wandered some more through the streets lined with colleges and university departments, lined with bicycles and few people out and about other than the odd person dashing out of brightly lit doorways. My Thames Path guide book detailed a walking tour around the city, allowing you to see the famous colleges and that weird bridge thing that Oxford’s so proud about, but in the rain I’d felt little compulsion to follow it. Instead, I walked wherever I felt like going, until I found I’d gone full circle and was back at Oxford’s commercial centre.

That branch of McDonalds didn’t look any more appealing than it had when I’d passed earlier, so instead I darted down a side street where I spotted the curiously named ‘Three Goats Head’ pub just as the heavens opened once more. It was clearly an omen and I ran to the bar and ordered another ale before retreating to a quiet corner to read my book.

Three Goats Head pub in Oxford
The Three Goats Head in Oxford

It was an old fashioned place, full of mirrors and wood panelling, although without any visible photographs of John Thaw. Well, you can’t have it all, and it was dry. And by the time I’d finished my pint, the rain had stopped too. And now that it had, it was time to do something watery. Well, the rain hadn’t been enough.

It was time to take a look at the Thames, and I knew just the place to do that. Near my B&B, which in itself was conveniently close to the Thames Path, sat a large pub called the Head of the River. Located near Folly bridge, and with amble outdoor seating, the pub must be a Mecca for tourists on a sunny day, but I found the place was half empty; the price charged for a pint of the bar tender’s finest ale may well explain that. Still that meant there were plenty of seats available, with several overlooking the river.

Pint in hand, I looked out at the Thames, flowing happily in the darkness outside. In the gloom it was hard really to actually see anything. Still, I knew it was there, and the Thames Path alongside side it. And the following morning I’d be properly re-united with it. And despite the weather, I was rather looking forward to it.

The exterior of the Head of the River pub, Oxford
The Head of the River sits, funnily enough, next to the river

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