Thames Path Stage 16: Culham to Oxford

Published 22 April 2015

The River Thames near Oxford’s Folly Bridge

As the 0901 train pulled into Culham station, I wondered how many of the train’s occupants would alight and head towards the nearby science park that is, pretty much, the only reason Culham railway station exists to serve. But only a handful of people alighted. Perhaps everyone started work earlier out here. Or drove. Yes, that was probably more likely.

I had been in two minds about returning to Culham in February. I was beginning to tire of fighting my way along muddy tow paths, and a part of me really wanted to park the whole endeavour until the good weather had arrived, and the sides of the Thames had managed to dry out a little. Especially so given the recent – and now melted – snow would add some extra moisture to the ground.

On the other hand I was just days away from starting a new job, and once I did, the opportunities to go out for a walk would be dramatically reduced. They’d also have to take place on Sundays due to various recurring family commitments on the other day of the weekend. And in that, Culham posed a problem. Not a single stops at its quiet platforms on the Sabbath. And you looked at it like that, a mud-fuelled trek in February was pretty much guaranteed.

The day I’d picked for the walk, wasn’t the best either. The weather was dull and dreary, bordering on miserable. And as I wandered down the road and through the fields towards the banks of the Thames, I had a distinct feeling that this wasn’t going to be the finest section of the Thames Path I’d walk, even if it did end in the majestic City of Oxford.

The church at Appleford and Didcott Power Station

The sight that greeted me when I made it back to the river, didn’t do much to shake that feeling. The sight of ploughed up fields, with a backdrop of the concrete towers of Didcott Power Station, was hardly going to inspire poetry or a painting. Maybe if the snow had remained, it would be different. Snow, after all, has the ability to make even the most mundane of sights, look amazing. But it had gone as quickly as it had arrived. A dreary looking Thames it would have to be.

First point of order for the day was to walk to the village of Culham, which sits a few miles from the station, next to a bridge crossing the Thames. But besides the bridge, Culham village seemed to distinctly uninterested in the Thames. The houses all sat some way away, like the place had had turned its back on the river, like it was only incidental in its life. Perhaps it was.

Further along, the town of Abingdon had a far more noticeable riverside presence, although notably the town was restricted to just one side of the Thames. Few buildings had been built across the water, like there was some strange magic boundary that prevented Abingdon from spilling over. It wasn’t for want of a road connection – the town had a very nice bridge crossing the water – but for whatever reason, the river acted as a barrier for development.

Buildings and a church at Abingdon, with the River Thames in front of them.

Abingdon, seen on the opposite side of the River Thames.

Abingdon looked like it would be a pleasant place to explore, especially for the purposes of a pub-crawl. Several fine looking hostelries sat on the riverside, and I could see several streets of old looking buildings, and many enchanting looking alleyways. A definite place to idle around for an hour or two, if only I had that much time to spare.

The Thames Path doesn’t enter the town, remaining instead on the opposite river bank until Abingdon Lock just on the northern outskirts, where it crosses over the busy weir, allowing the walker to get down and dirty with muddy tracks in some woodland next to a side channel of the river. No doubt attractive in the summer when the trees are covered in leaves, but with them plain and barren, it all looked a little grim.

My hypothesis about this being a summer beauty spot was, however, severely challenged by the picnic bench I now passed. This clearly was a popular spot, but it wasn’t one that was treated particularly well.

Vandalised picnic bench on the outskirts of Abingdon

Vandalised picnic bench on the outskirts of Abingdon

One of the tables looked like someone had tried to set it alight, and the other gave every impression of having been attacked with an axe. Two metal oil drums held hundreds of empty beer cans and broken bottles, and scores more lay strewn on the ground. The place was filthy, and whoever used the place to booze at, clearly couldn’t give a shit. It could potentially have been a lovely spot, but the land had been sacrificed and the slobs and morons had obviously taken over.

I could see some council meeting discussing moving the benches – or what was left of them – in a vain attempt to quell anti-social behaviour, but I had a feeling it would do little good. Abbingdon clearly had some people who simply didn’t care.

Every now and then, the rumble of trains could be heard thundering along the mainline to Oxford. On occasions the river and the railway would meet as the latter crossed the former on elaborate bridges, before disappearing off into the distance. A train can, after all, take a far more direct route to Oxford than following a meandering river.

The woods on the opposite river bank gave way momentarily for Nuneham House, a large manor house built in 1756 in the Palladian style for the first Earl Harcout. The house was built on the site of an ancient village, whose occupants were relocated a mile up the road purely so the Earl could build a grand landscaped park around his new property. These days it’s owned by Oxford University and is leased to the an Indian movement called the Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University, and now Nuneham House hosts a retreat centre where people can go on courses about, yes you guessed it, spirituality.

A boathouse near Nuneham Courtenay

Besides Nuneham House though, there were few buildings around; just the occasional two-storey boathouse dotted along the river, but little more. Most of the boathouses were similar in style. The ground floor would contain a large undercover space for boats to be moored – the river equivalent of a garage or car-port – with some rooms upstairs.

I’d seen plenty of them on the river, especially since passing through Reading. Some were in ruins, others simply boarded up for the duration. Others were clearly attached to nearby houses, whilst a final group sat isolated and alone. I passed a few that looked like they may be someone’s weekend retreat, and even a couple which gave the impression of year round occupation. But most stood quiet and alone; the gates which allowing boats access to the river, firmly bolted shut.

The clubs and schools naturally had larger facilities. I passed Radley College’s now, attached to the nearby boarding school. Their facilities were perhaps not quite as glamorous as those of Eton’s, which I’d passed many miles down stream, but they were grand non-the-less. Did they really need these facilities? Had my (state) secondary school been near a major river and had owned rowing boats, they would just have shoved the boats in garage somewhere, and driven them out on a trailer when needed. Still, if you’re paying £11,000 a term to Radley College, you probably want to know that the money’s being spent on something, and an insanely grand building next to the Thames certainly fits that bill.

Kings Arms pub, Sandford-on-Thames

A mile and a half on from the Radley College boathouse brought me to the edge of the village of Sandford-on-Thames, and next to the lock sat the riverside pub, which offered the opportunity to both escape the rain that was now falling, and provide me with something to eat and drink. The sprawling and low-ceilinged Kings Arms was yet another branch of the ever-present Chef and Brewer chain, although the Kings Arms proved to be distinctly busier than the last branch I’d been in whilst walking the Thames Path. Waiting staff bustled around busily, running between the tables with plates and glasses, whilst a steady stream of people arrived, ordered, ate, drank, paid and left.

From my table, I stared out of the window watching the rain coming down, a sight which hardly encouraged me to leave, although the pub’s musak of dodgy cover versions of popular hits of various decades, did a far better job of it.

Maybe it was the two pints of lunchtime ale kicking in, but as I walked along the Thames Path in the afternoon, I began to feel a little more disposed to this stretch of the Thames. Mentally anyway. My feet were feeling far less keen. The previous evening, I’d slipped on the staircase at home and had fallen down the stairs. It was only a couple, but enough of to give me a bit of a bump and I awoke the following morning with one of my little toes feeling distinctly sore.

I’d been cautious about it all day, but now the toe was delighting in giving me some serious gyp, and I wearily plodded on, doing my best to walk through the intermittent pain. When, back at home and many hours later, I did finally take my walking boots off, I found an insanely large blood blister staring back at me in return; a lovely reward for my dedication to the Thames Path.

Large stone with a plaque on it declaring it to be owned by the ‘Oxford Heritage Trust’

The outskirts of Oxford were now approaching. The city is the last major settlement on the Thames. Further up the river from there, is mostly villages and small towns. Oxford would be the last major hurrah; the final set of bright lights for the Thames. Although it was quickly clear that whilst it was big, the one thing Oxford wasn’t going to be, was be the best maintained place on the river.

The Thames Path around Oxford was absolutely covered in graffiti.

It was everywhere; the underside of every road bridge, the plastic cover of every life-raft case, the bins, the signs, and even the wooden benches. If there was some space someone could scrawl on with permanent marker, or spray on with some paint, you could bet they had, and in copious quantities too. And they’d been doing it for years. Under one road-bridge, one person had made their substantially sized mark and, if the date they left for all to see was anything to go by, it had been there since 1967. Nearly fifty years and no one had bothered to try removing it. I simply couldn’t believe how scruffy the riverbank looked. It was like no one in the city seemed to give a damn that the place looked a complete and utter mess.

In this respect, Oxford was by far the worst looking place on the whole walk. Many people think London is a scruffy city – and let’s be fair, at times it is – but not one section of the Thames Path in the most run-down part of the capital it went through, had come remotely close to the mess I was seeing now.

Why, I wondered. This is Oxford. One of the major centres of learning in the whole of the UK (or at least, it likes to think so.) Tourists flock from across the world to walk down its hallowed streets. Could they not afford to send someone out to do some cleaning materials every now and then? Or get someone to do some monitoring on the graffiti artists and slap them with an ASBO or two? Clearly not. It made me despair.

Mind you, there were clearly some issues with the intelligence population of Oxford. For whilst the local council hadn’t bothered to do any tidying up of vandalism, they had felt it necessary to erect multiple signs warning that the tow path shouldn’t be used when flooded. Really? They needed signs informing the population not to use footpaths which are completely under water? Well if you have to say that, really you have no chance at all.

Rowers on the Thames near Oxford.  That’s the Thames.  Not the Isis.  The Thames.

You may not know this but Oxford is a vaguely famous for rowing. It’s a bit of a secret. They really don’t like anyone to know. Now that the rain was in force, this secret army of people were suddenly filling the waterway. And with them came – and oh what joy – the rowing coaches on their bikes cycling down the tow paths, shouting out to the crews on the crews in the river whilst simultaneously paying scant attention to other people trying to walk along.

I spent my own university years in Durham, another rowing town, and in the summer the banks of the River Wear would be utter carnage as coaches on bikes came hurtling round blind corners, looking everywhere but where they were going, and requiring anyone on foot to throw themselves into the bushes – or perhaps the river itself – in order to avoid major injury. In short, such people can be a right menace to society, and I clearly wasn’t the only one to think so. Several properties on the riverbank had curt signs displayed “reminding” anyone who bothered to read them, of selected sections of the Oxford University Rowing Clubs rule book, such as the prohibited use of loudhailers, although some of the coaches clearly didn’t need them to make themselves heard. Was there a section in there on not maiming Thames Path walkers, I wondered as I stepped off the pavement to escape another manic cyclist? I hadn’t read the rules, but I rather hoped there was, and I promised myself I’d look it up lest I need to remind someone in a hurry in the future; probably minutes after dusting myself down from my place on the floor.

Boat houses belonging to the colleges of Oxford University

Most of the university college boathouses were on the opposite side of the river, each marked only cryptically by the college emblem, which meant absolutely nothing to me. The Isis Farmhouse pub on my side of the river, was far more obvious in its role in life. The pub’s name is a reminder that not everyone believes the River Thames starts near the village of Kemble in Gloucestershire. For some the Thames starts near Dorchester-upon-Thames (a short way on from Shillingford where I’d failed to get lunch on my previous walk) at the point when the Thames is joined by the River Thame. The idea was that the Isis and the Thame joined to create the Thame-isis, from which the ancient name of Tamesis was derived; a spelling which eventually gave way to Thames over the many years. “The theory was especially popular in the Victorian era, but even to this day the Ordnance Survey doggedly marks the river as the “Thames or Isis”. But whilst there are some which still firmly hold on to this – especially those in Oxford – for most the Isis name no longer holds sway. Many scholars now believe that the Isis name was merely a contraction of Tamesis. And that’ll do for me. There will be none of that Isis stuff here, thank you.

Slowly but surely I came to Oxford proper, with its towers and spires becoming visible in the distance. They’re sights that the trail does its best to avoid, as the Thames Path follows the river as it flows through the west of the city. Instead of historical highlights, all I got to see was clusters of flats and houses, and lots of pedestrian bridges.

Isis House on Folly Bridge

Oxford had long been a place I’d wanted to visit for a good look around, however I didn’t really have time to potter, and nor would an hour or so probably do it justice. I had to head back home in London, and time was pressing on. Soon I was stood on Osney Bridge, the place where I would turn off and walk the short distance to the train station.

I took a slightly wistful look back, and bade the Thames farewell. I knew it would now be some time before I’d be back. The final fifty-odd miles to the source head through a public transport wasteland, and baring some organisational miracle, I’d need to do that stretch in one go over four days. I had absolutely no idea when I’d be able to spare the time, which in some respects, was hugely frustrating. Almost two years after starting off on the whole 180 mile long endeavour, I was now both so close to finishing it, but also so far. When would I be back? Only time would tell.


Liliane Coogan

31 May 2016 at 11:36 am

When are you doing your next walk?
I’m catching up with you.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

1 June 2016 at 10:19 pm

I’m afraid I got to the source a few weeks ago Liliane!

Roger Brill

8 July 2016 at 10:25 pm

I reached Folly Bridge a few weeks back and like you I’m wondering how to complete the remaining fifty-odd miles to the source without camping. I’m interested to know how you did it and in how many stages.

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

10 July 2016 at 9:32 pm

Hi Roger – my plan was to do four stages. Oxford to Newbridge, Newbridge to Kelmscott, Kelmscott to Cricklade and then Cricklade to the source – staying in pubs each night. You can do Lechlade instead of Kelmscott.

I got to the source in February. Although it’s going to take a little while before I have the story on the site. Afraid it won’t be until the autumn for personal reasons!

Richard Cousins

12 August 2016 at 6:11 pm

Yesterday I walked from Benson marina to Oxford. Left at 7.15 arrived 3.15! It’s 20 mins by car but not as pretty. Had aching feet at end but not bad for a 67 year old. Next time not as far in one day!

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