Thames Path Stage 18 (Part 1): Newbridge to Buckland

Published 16 November 2016

Bridleway sign near Newbridge, with three horses emblazoned on the finger post.
The Three Horses of Newbridge

Thanks to the works of musician, Sting, there are scores of people across the world who think that the English are incredibly fussy about their toast.

Actually I am incredibly fussy about toast, although unlike Quentin Crisp (the song being about this famous eccentric), I prefer my toast done on both sides, thank you very much. In fact I have never encountered a single person who demanded their toast to only be done on one side. Not one.

For me, good toast should be grilled, not shoved in a toaster. For starters it means you can choose your thickness, but also toast done in one of those machines rarely holds its heat, and the toasting elements tend to dry out the bread. No, the grill is the way to cook it, providing a bite that’s crunchy yet soft in the middle.

And as soon as your bread is toasted, it needs to be buttered so that the butter melts and oozes gently. Marge and low fat spreads must not be used. They taste terrible and melt dreadfully. As for toast racks, well they need to be banned. Why let your delicious hot toast go all dry and lifeless so quickly? It’s just not on.

With my exacting standards, it’s inevitable that the toast I eat when away from home, is rarely anything other than a disappointment. Not that I’ve never felt the urge to write a song about it. I wouldn’t subject anyone to that.

Newbridge, over the Thames
Newbridge. At Newbridge

Toast was on my mind as I sat looking out at the river eating my breakfast in the Rose Revived. Not because the toast was particularly bad, but more because it was a distraction from what was ahead of me. And boy, did I need the distraction. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to my day of walking to the village of Kelmscott (a few miles short of the bustling town of Lechlade) as it looked like I was going to get wet. Extremely wet.

Storm Imogen was “lashing” the UK, and whilst Oxfordshire wasn’t going to bear the brunt of her rage, the weather forecasts were offering strong winds, lots of rain and even the potential for hailstones. All things considered, it was far better to think about toast.

Now to be fair, the forecast also said there would be some sunny intervals too, and one arrived as I munched on a rather unsatisfying piece of cold, crispy bread. Suddenly the Thames was radiating excitedly under the sun’s bright glow; the river twinkling beautifully in the light. Then after a few minutes, it was gone, and the rain was falling once more. I had a strange feeling that I’d just seen a template for the day. Although as it happened, Imogen had different plans for me.

Flooding near the Maybridge pub, Newbridge - with a footpath and a gate subsumed under water.

From Newbridge, the Thames Path goes through the grounds of the Maybush pub, so on leaving the Rose Revived (in a rare rain-free period), I crossed the river and went to see what it looked like. And it wasn’t encouraging. There was little I could do but stare at the path and utter some immortal words of “oh crap.”

The path, and most of the surrounding land, was under water.

There was no way round it; the Thames Path was completely and utterly inaccessible. Off in the distance, I could see where the path emerged, all nice and clear some way beyond the field boundary, but without waders, there was no way to get to it.

With a sigh, I pulled out my map and desperately sought an alternative route. Thankfully after a good stare at them, I found one. If I took a path over some nearby fields, then joined “Common Lane” near the village of Longworth, and climbed over Harrowdean Hill, I’d be able to re-join the Thames Path in (hopefully) better conditions. I’d miss a mile of the proper route, but I could live with that.

Of course there was the possibility that I got there, I’d still find the path flooded and inaccessible. But I decided to ignore that thought. If ever was there a time to be optimistic, it was now. And with that bout of positive thinking, I set off on my new route. Once I’d worked out a backup plan to bypass the whole section up to Tenfoot Bridge, anyway. Not that I was going to need it. But still.

A field gate under high water spilled out from the River Thames.

I climbed the muddy slopes of Harrowdean Hill with some trepidation. The views from the top of this minor-sized mound weren’t amazing, but down on the other side I found the Thames Path waiting for me. Or at least, where it should have been. There was a gate to the path, but the bottom quarter of it was submerged under water. Of the path itself, there was no sign.

I stared glumly at the scene ahead of me, before retracing my steps for a mile, back to Common Lane.

Plan B required me to visit first the village of Longworth; easily accessible by following a series of farm tracks and roads. Next stop was a neighbouring village which went by the fantastic name of Hinton Waldrist, where the local vicar was similarly blessed with a brilliant moniker. Having church services presided over by someone named Talisker Tracey-Macleod, is almost enough to convert even this die-hard atheist.

Houses in the village of Longworth
Longworth – lovely village and not flooded

Both villages were sweet, quiet and attractive. All twee cottages and the occasional thatched roof. They also had the benefit of not being submerged under water. But whilst it was a pleasant detour, my feet were itching to return to the Thames. After all, that was what I was supposed to be here for. However, the view of the river from the neighbouring hamlet of Duxford, suggested I might not be returning to the river for a while.

From Duxford I could look down on the river, and survey the surrounding area. And most of it was under water. The river had burst its banks in spectacular fashion, spilling over into multiple fields over a wide area. A huge swathe of land was submerged. The chances of me getting even vaguely close to Tenfoot Bridge, appeared to be remote.

Flooded fields behind a row of trees and a large grassy field.
…glorious flood.

No fear. In my optimistic frame of mind, I’d already come up with a Plan C. Near Tenfoot Bridge was a bridleway that ran roughly parallel to the river. It was a bit close to it at first, but soon gained some distance from the water; enough so that hopefully it should be passable even if the Thames Path itself wasn’t. If I could manage to get onto it, it would take me to Tadpole Bridge about six miles upstream from Newbridge, where – with any luck – I’d arrive and find a more promising picture.

I tramped along muddy paths along the sides of damp farm fields, desperately hoping it would work out. But the signs though were not good. The fields were waterlogged and the closer I got to the bridleway, the more water the fields appeared to contain. Still, at least it was passable, and soon I was within meters of my bridleway prize. It was there, visible in the distance; clearly usable and very water-free. All I had to do was get to it by making my way through a patch of mud soup in the corner of a field, and I’d be there.

Suddenly I was a man with a purpose. I strode along the field edge making sure to put my feet down in places where the water wasn’t too deep. This worked well for a while, until one fateful moment where I misjudged it all and found foot sinking down into a space where there was absolutely nothing but cold, oh so very cold water, which quickly made its way over the top of my boots, and down inside.

Flooded field at Duxford
There’s nothing quite like it…

Cursing loudly, I battled on to the edge of the field, thinking that whilst I may be wet now, at least I’d soon be on that nice piece of Terra Firma that was the bridleway. My torment was soon to be over! A sodden boot was a sacrifice worth making for this greater glory! And with that in mind, I positively and enthusiastically slurped by way towards the bridleway.

It wasn’t to be. The hedge at the edge of the field had prevented me from seeing the last bit of path that I needed to cross to get to the bridleway, but now it was visible. And it wasn’t good news. Between the hedge and the bridleway was a ditch well over a metre wide and absolutely full of very fast flowing, and very cold looking water. Yes, the bridleway itself was very usable, but only if I could somehow cross this cold, brown, sludgy monster.

In a moment of recklessness – or desperation, take your pick – I decided to go for it; to make a desperate attempt to ford this ditch. One of my feet was already soaking wet, what difference would it make? I could cross if I tried hard enough.

So I tried. I put a foot down into the ditch, and milliseconds later started desperately pulling it back up again. The water, it turned out, was at least knee high, and thanks to that my boots were rapidly filling up with water. Desperately grabbing hold of a tree for stability, I yanked myself out as quick as I could, and collapsed on a rare bit of dry land.

There was no way round it. Plan A had failed, plan B was a write-off and plan C had turned out to be a basket case. I needed a plan D. And the way things were going, plans E, F, G and H as well. There was just one problem. I didn’t have any of them, and had absolutely no idea what to do next.

Flooding in the distance, seen at Duxford
…for soothing the blood.

What was abundantly clear was that being near the river wasn’t going to work; at least not for a while. Even a parallel route that was a respectable distance from the river proper, had proved to be a complete non-starter. It would clearly be some time before it would be worth risking going near it again.

With absolutely no idea what to do, I sought advice from my mobile phone. Google would be able to tell me what to do, I reasoned. But it turned out that Google thought the best thing to do was go home, have a nice warm bath, and give up on the whole wretched idea.

In many respects that really was the most sensible thing to do.

But just in case, an alternative option was proffered. I could head to a main road some distance to the north, and follow it for a while, before taking another to Tadpole Bridge, near where the bridleway would have taken me. All I had to do was get to the road in the first place.

My Ordnance Survey maps showed a path, or at least a farm track, that went roughly in the right direction. But it wasn’t signposted anywhere, and I spent a long time wandering around muddy fields, hopelessly going round in circles as I desperately tried to find it. After about twenty minutes I decided it never existed in the first place, gave the whole thing up as a bad job, and decided to follow a set of tractor tyre markings that lead up a hill instead. I had no idea where they would take me to, but it was a better idea than standing around in a field for another hour, getting more and more frustrated.

As a plan, it turned out to be a good one. The tyre marks led me a field next to a cluster of houses. And the houses had a driveway to the main road. Naturally the driveway had a large sign saying it was “Private” and had “no public right of way” but, that was at the other end so I couldn’t see it. Even if I had seen it, I would have ignored it. I was in no mood for playing mister nice guy and obeying the rules, especially given Mother Nature had done her finest work in preventing me from following the legal right of way in the first place.

So I’m sorry if you owned that land, but I didn’t care. If a farmer had come out with a shotgun and demanded I get “orf” his land, well I don’t think I could have been held responsible for my actions. It’s just as well that no one did do that; perhaps because they recognised that remonstrating with a bedraggled hiker with a wild look in his eyes, really wasn’t going to be the best use of their time.

A-road with Services sign
Ginsters pasties ahoy!

The end of the driveway deposited me next to a bus stop on the side of the A420; a busy road running between Bristol and Oxford. After quickly ascertaining that the next bus would take me nowhere particularly useful and wouldn’t be turning up for a while, I hunched up my shoulders and reluctantly began to walk down the grassy verge. A sign nearby promised a that there were ‘Services’ half a mile away, and I set off with the vague hope that I’d find something there to cheer me up. What I found was a BP petrol station and a former Little Chef, that had been re-branded as “Awesome Diner”, although its offer of gourmet burgers had obviously been just too awesome as it was now boarded up and derelict.

With little to detain me, I walked in the rain feeling utterly miserable as cars and lorries raced past me, occasionally hitting me a good dose of spray from the surface of the road.

By the time I found a bus shelter on the edge of the village of Buckland, I was an emotional wreck. As I huddled in the shelter, I felt like crying. Little had gone right all day. The wind had been battering me, the rain was making me drenched and I wasn’t anywhere near where I was actually supposed to be.

All I could do was hope, desperately hope, that the afternoon would be just a little better.

Former Little Chef at Buckland - now all boarded up and derelict.
Once a Little Chef, later an Awesome Diner, and now a mess

Will things get back on track? Will it ever stop raining? Will I have a pasty? Watch out for the thrilling conclusion…

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