THE THAMES PATH NATIONAL TRAIL SUPER CHALLENGE

… which sounds pretty impressive and was actually one of two dozen or so walks simultaneously run on the weekend of 13th/14th July under the 'Walk on Water' (WOW) banner in aid of disabled access to waterways and a school in Burkino Faso; about as diverse a couple of good causes as you could imagine. The Thames Path walk of "around 40 miles" was the second longest available, and as I had not done too much of the Thames Path it seemed a suitable (if not geographically convenient) choice.

The logistics needed a bit of thinking through; a 9am start in Reading inevitably meant going down on Friday night, but where to spend the night (given that I wasn't planning to walk with a tent on my back) ? Reading would be convenient for the start, but then I'd have to get back there from Wallingford after the Saturday walk (no station at Wallingford and car at Reading of course), and then return to Wallingford first thing Sunday morning for the second leg. Oxford was best for getting home on Sunday night, and easy enough for a Saturday early-morning train down to Reading, but not for getting to Wallingford on Sunday morning. Stopping at Wallingford would mean driving to Reading Saturday morning, leaving the car there, being ultra-handy for the Saturday end and Sunday start, but then having to get the train back to Reading on Sunday evening to pick the car up - a long homeward journey when I would probably least feel like it. However Wallingford looked to be the best of the three options, and so I ended up booking a cheap billet at the Dolphin in the town centre - a "yoof" pub with a boisterous clientele who lingered outside long in to the wee hours (not that they affected my sleep - out like a light each night, as soon as my head hit the pillow).

Saturday morning broke with bright blue sky and the short drive down to Reading was easy enough, as was finding the Environment Agency HQ, Kings Meadow House, which was the start of the walk, and the site of free car parking for the weekend. I was the first walker to arrive so sloped off up towards the station to grab a quick breakfast. By the time I had returned, a few more people had turned up and were busy signing in under the Walk on Water awning. A dozen or so walkers were lingering under Reading Bridge - the Nuttalls logo on some of their T-shirts bearing a startling resemblance to a banner draped over the bridge parapet above, so I guess this was a pre-walk photo opportunity ! Keen to get on, I had a quick look at Caversham Lock - about 100 yards away in the wrong direction - and then set off for Wallingford. The path here is well built, with brick paviors at first, then a lighter surfacing. Immediately beyond Reading Bridge you walk alongside an ultra-modern office building, then pass Caversham Boat Services by Fry’s Island. Pipers Island bar and restaurant if off to the right just before Caversham Bridge. Beyond here you start to leave Reading behind and the scenery improves with trees along north bank. "The river becomes very lovely from a little above Reading" (Jerome). Immediately after passing across the front of Reading rowing club, you are on the Thames-Side Promenade, though it is little more formal than what we have already walked, albeit in more pleasant surroundings and with a few benches scattered around.

Caversham church is visible behind the trees on the offbank, just before Reading canoe club, and the path then runs alongside the county showground, which seemed to be preparing itself for the forthcoming WOMAD music festival. There are quite a few moored craft along here, including a good number of narrowboats (which are generally more attractive to cruisers, to my eye at least). Moored craft were almost outnumbered by various canoes, skiffs and the like, possibly in preparation for the rowing festival upstream at Pangbourne the following weekend. After passing an ornate boathouse on the offbank (pictured), the path degenerates to perfectly acceptable towpath standard, though evidently no longer justifying the 'Promenade' tag, just before another boathouse, this time thatched. Things get much more rural now, with two little Islands (Appletree Eyot and Poplar Island) as you pass the Kentwood Deeps section of the river.

Passing through Tilehurst, the grassy path occasionally diverges slightly from the river, though not at Reading Marine Services where you walk right across their front yard, with nice views of the hills beyond the offbank. A few nettles cause trivial discomfort as the railway above passes through Tilehurst station, and the adjacent brick wall (almost definitely 'boundary' rather than 'supporting') continues through to a rusty sign for Beethoven's. The towing path originally changed sides here for a short distance via a couple of ferries; the ferries are gone, but the way ahead remains inaccessible (but for a few yards). Therefore, up a steep flight of steps then over the railway to the Roebuck Hotel (reverting to its alter ego after a brief spell as Beethoven's). Bearing right along the road to Purley, you pass a pill-box set in the wall (the first of many pillboxes, though this is the most intriguing setting), and then, at a Thames Path waymarker by the 40mph sign, drop down into a housing estate. The route through the estate is obvious enough, if not exactly idyllic water-side perambulation, and at a T-junction at end of Hazel Road, the route to the right down New Hill over a single-carriageway bridge over the railway, hints that we are shortly to return to the water. As the road sweeps right at the bottom of the hill, a left and quick right into Mapledurham Drive restores the pastoral setting; the drive is a rural cul-de-sac with a few houses but very nice and quiet.

At the end of the metalled road, you pass through Environment Agency (EA) gates, then as the road degenerates further, through a kissing gate to the right and across a field to Mapledurham Lock and its 1931 lock-keeper's cottage (pictured). There is plenty of nice flora round the cottage, and this is probably the most attractive of all the lock settings on the whole Reading-Oxford section. Above the lock, the path follows the edge of fields - something we were to get very used to - and there were a few anglers, the first since leaving Reading, though canoeing remained the predominant activity. "From Mapledurham up to Streatley it is glorious. A little above Mapledurham lock you pass Hardwick House where Charles I played bowls" (Jerome). Plush Berkshire countryside on the offside hides Hardwick House from prying eyes, while on the towpath side, the railway is now far off to the left - intercity trains passing silently through the flatlands. Less silent (but still a wonderful sight for all its noise) Concorde thundered over on its climb out of Heathrow as we enter the National Trust's Pangbourne Meadow, quite a hive of activity after the relative solitude of the last couple of hours.

Ahead is Whitchurch Bridge, which we need to cross as the Thames Path switches sides; walk through the Adventure Dolphin Centre carpark to get on to the pavement. Pangbourne itself is south of the river and gets missed unless you take a diversion - the "quaint little Swan Inn" (Jerome) and the George are doubtless worth a visit, as well as sites connected with Kenneth Graham (author of Wind in the Willows who spent his final years here) but I didn't feel like adding to the considerable mileage that this weekend already required of me. From the crown of Whitchurch Bridge you can see Whitchurch Lock and there is a nice view of the village as you drop down the other side to the toll booths (pedestrians don’t pay, though they used to).

The Ferryboat Inn is on the right (sadly closed as I passed through, or I might have taken a libation) and the Thames Path diverges off to the left just before the pub to take in the church, mill and village. Sadly I missed any sign to this effect and just trolled up the main street, oblivious. The Greyhound Inn is further up the street (after the Thames Path rejoins) and intriguingly includes a former cottage for the local ferryman; this begs the question as to whether the Ferryman Inn included a cottage for the local greyhound ? Sadly, this pub was also closed, so I continued through the narrows by Royal Oak Cottage and turned left (signposted Hartslock Bridleway and Thames Path) by the 40mph signs. At the end of a long track by Hartslock Farm, the path goes off to the right, down a flight of unwelcome steps and back up the other side, within the bounds of Coombe Park. After passing through woods you gradually drop down towards the riverside after a steep scarp through Hartslock Wood.

Emerging from the woods, you pass along the edge of a field with a nice half-timbered house to your right and the railway close in on the other side. A clearly marked permissive path takes you off to the left and over a brook, before properly rejoining the riverside near Gatehampton Ferry Cottage (marking the site of a former ferry over from Basildon). After passing through the Little Meadow nature reserve, another pillbox comes into view through an arch of Brunel's impressive Gatehampton Railway Bridge. Swinging right after this, the path crosses over entrances to disused boathouses on the approach to Goring Gap and there is a rather more genteel look to the scenery as Goring and Streatley beckon. The path goes over a millstream, then there is a solid tarmac path past on-line moorings. The Thames Path sign then takes you away from the river to cross Goring Bridge. Goring Mill (mentioned in the Doomsday Book, painted by JMW Turner, and the centre of Goring's swan-upping activities) and riverside tea-rooms are right by the bridge, while a bit further into Goring, the Miller of Mansfield hotel serves a number of real ales and decent food; the railway station is through the village to the right. "Goring is not nearly so pretty a little spot to stop at as Streatley, if you have your choice; but it is passing fair enough in its way, and is nearer the railway in case you want to slip off without paying your hotel bill" (Jerome).

Goring Bridge was built in 1923 to mimic the original wooden structure, though you need to be on the bridge to appreciate exactly what this means; let's say its not just "up one side and down the other". Prior to the original bridge a ford used to be here, linking the Ridgeway and Icknield Way. Goring Lock is just above the bridge, and once you've crossed over, look for a well-hidden sign beyond the Swan at Streatley hotel - the path goes to St Mary's Church thence down to the river. You emerge onto a grassy plain above the lock cut. The path crosses a high bridge over an arm to private moorings, and then it’s a short stroll to Cleeve Lock with its rise of only about 70 cm. The way is then along more field edges, passing the renowned (and expensive) Ye Olde Leatherne Bottel pub/ restaurant on the far bank and the adjacent sailing club. "The river is not extraordinarily interesting between Streatley and Wallingford. From Cleeve you get a stretch of six and a half miles without a lock. I believe this is the longest uninterrupted stretch anywhere above Teddington" (Jerome).After a short section along the edge of a wood there's a short section of hard surfacing approaching the almost as renowned (and almost as expensive) Beetle & Wedge Hotel, which featured in HG Wells’ Mr Polly; he wrote it while staying here. There are good views over to South Stoke, which you used to be able to reach via the Moulsford ferry; the ferry is no more, so time for another detour.

Go through the first bit of alfresco restaurant, then turn left through the car park to Ferry Lane. Turn right onto the main road and the route follows the pavement for the best part of a mile passing Moulsford Grange and the Old Bakery Restaurant (there is a short section of road with no pavement so take care). As you enter Cholsey; turn right at the crossroads (the station is up to the left), and walk down Papist Way past the Fair Mile Hospital to a slipway, once the site of the Littlestoke Ferry. The first section from here is through a nature reserve, then more field edges. After the obligatory pillbox, it's a scrappy path past Brookes University rowing club. There's a boathouse on the off bank (possibly part of Carmel College) just before the modern Winterbrook Bridge, which carries the Wallingford bypass, a sure sign you're almost at the end. The path narrows and improves again with fencing on the left and well cut grass, the point of improvement is approximately the site of Wallingford Lock, which was removed in 1883 and the towpath changed sides here via a ferry. Now there isn't even a ferry of course, so yet another deviation from the river.

Follow the roadway away from river for a short distance, then turn right into a far from obvious ginnel at the end of a section of green fencing - the path bridges a ditch then passes St Leonards Church and joins Thames Street. Turn right and at the end of the street, right again to reach Wallingford Bridge. If you bear left after the Town Arms (a slightly rough Ushers pub) and then right, round the far side of the more modern drinking establishment (so poor, I didn't bother remembering the name) you're back on the Thames Path by moorings. The sight of the EA boat Seven Springs (pictured), which had also made the trip up from Reading and was our "signing-off" point, was a welcome sight, though I actually felt surprisingly good. It was with more than a modicum of satisfaction that I learned I was "first home", though this was tempered by the news that today had actually been rather less than half of the total mileage (approx 18 miles) and tomorrow promised something in the region of 23 to 24 miles !

After a quiet evening at the Royal pub/restaurant (a trendy 'yoof' bar but good restaurant that seems to appeal to a wide cross-section) and a good sleep, I made my way back to the Seven Springs on a morning that promised even more glorious weather than we had had the day before. Surprise, surprise I was first there again, so I hung around to chat to the boat crew, to see if anyone else was going to make it through to Day Two. After twenty minutes or so, six of the Nuttall's crew appeared, signed in and strode off up the towpath - five minutes later with no-one else in sight, I decided to follow them. Its not long before you leave the moored boats, and the remains of Wallingford Castle, behind and hot rural Berkshire very quickly. Nettles, slightly worn boathouses and signs of eroded banks give a rather more "used" look to the surroundings than those encountered as we left Reading – there is little sign of Preston Crowmarsh on the far side.

Benson Lock is the first of the day, resplendent in early morning sunshine, with another pillbox not far away. The route of the Thames Path is across the lock tailgates and then over the weir (pictured) and millstream to emerge onto a minor road. Bear left, parallel to the river, and follow the road right up to the end (ignoring a footpath sign on the left which looks like it might be promising - it isn't) where it joins a more major road; the Path is signed down to the left. This takes you through Swancraft Marina with its café (popular with a horde of athletic-looking cyclists on this occasion) and if you keep to the lower path, below the camping sites, you reach a stile leading out into open fields. There's an intriguing wharf-type construction on the far bank in the area of Rush Court, with elegant steps down to the water, about which I haven't been able to find any information - anyone got any ideas ? Shillingford Bridge is now coming into view, with a high scarp on the offside, with up-market prefab housing looking down on more up-market prefabs and moorings; the last bit of path to the bridge here is a bit overgrown. Shillingford Bridge is very similar in style to Wallingford, and is actually the precise halfway point between Reading and Oxford. The Shillingford Bridge Hotel on the far side, used to be the Swan. Our route followed the path away from the river, across the road, then down the drive opposite Ferry House, and it was here that I eventually caught up with the walkers from Nuttall's. Deep in conversation, we all managed to miss the disguised gate just before High Trees on right, but we clearly weren't the first, as signs further on told us to turn round.

A narrow ginnel (what do you call them in Berkshire; twittens ?) takes you across the front of Shillingford Court. Then sharp left by a barn to emerge onto Wharf Road. Then right past Wisteria Cottage to the Kingfisher public house, and left along a main road. This is not the best bit but it only lasts for a few hundred yards - keep your eyes peeled for a waymarker on the left-hand side, through the hedge and down to the river, just upstream of the site of Keen Edge Ferry. Its all quite attractive, following the edge of fields for quite a while with the Sinodun Hill beyond the far bank, until Didcot power station hoves into view to spoil the scene. A glut of anglers, including quite a few fishing off moored boats, suggested a particularly rich vein just below the wooden footbridge over the River Thame, which is navigable by small boats up to Dorchester. Arguably the Thames above here is called the Isis. By this time, Tony from the Nuttall's Five had made a bid for freedom, and when the others decided to have a break in a small copse near Wittenham Clumps, I decided to also take my leave. The path skirts the edge of an arable field round a sharp right-hander to Little Wittenham Bridge (home of the Pooh Sticks championships) (pictured) and Day’s Lock. I was quite surprised that you could not see anything of Dorchester from here (maybe you can in the winter when the trees are leaf-less) and it really does seem to be in the middle of nowhere."Dorchester stands half a mile from the river … leave the river at Day's lock and take a walk across the fields. Dorchester is a delightfully peaceful old place, nestling in stillness and silence and drowsiness." (Jerome)


Passing under the bridge, you need to walk on past the lock, then through the second gate, over the headgates and weir, and on to a rough path on the other side. The path is a little indistinct through the trees and along the edge of a few fields. A few neat lawns opposite, as Didcot reappears to the left, indicate as much as you are going to see of Burcot, then the river swings round to the left towards Clifton Hampden "a wonderfully pretty village, old fashioned, peaceful, and dainty with flowers, the river scenery is rich and beautiful" (Jerome). Here you need to cross the solid brick bridge (pictured), built by Gilbert Scott in 1864, with views over to the church. If you want a drink then visit the Barley Mow before crossing the bridge, "without exception, I should say, the quaintest and most old-world inn up the river" (Jerome) and apparently a haunt of Oliver Cromwell, or the Plough is in the village on the north side.

 

I had caught up with Tony by now, and we were tempted by the thought of a pint, but with 20 minutes till opening time, we decided to wait until Culham. You rejoin the path immediately after crossing the bridge, and soon enter Clifton Cut; the weir stream is navigable for half a mile or so down to Long Wittenham. Walk past Clifton Lock and past the bridge that leads over the Cut to the lock island. It's quite hard-going from here,"from Clifton to Culham, the river banks are flat, monotonous and uninteresting" (Jerome) with thigh-high nettles in places and an uneven surface, passing Appleford Church on the far bank, under Appleford Railway Bridge and on to the first bridge at Culham. Sutton Bridge is off to the left over the old river, but the Path leads on to Culham Cut and Culham Lock. Seven Springs passed us here and we were given instructions on a diversion we had to take in Abingdon, of which more later.

Not much farther on is Culham Lock Cut Footbridge (with Sutton Courtenay just over the river to the left) and here we took the marked path right through to the Lion public house in Culham village. After a couple of beers and a spot of lunch, Tony decided to make contact with the Nuttall's rearguard on his mobile. The first call found three of them on a "short cut" that would bypass Culham and Abingdon, and put them a fair bit ahead of us - we were assured however that Martin and Steve had planned to keep to the official route, and were therefore probably somewhere behind us (or maybe even in front by now). There followed the "comedy mobile phone call" slot -

Tony; Hi Steve, we're in a pub in Culham, the …. er... Lion. Where are you ?
Steve; We've just arrived at a pub.
Tony; Which one ?
Steve; Er … the Lion ! Where are you ?
Tony; In the beer garden
Steve (peering round the corner, barely ten yards away); Oh yeah.
We had another drink (well, we had to wait for Steve and Martin to have their lunch) and discussed tactics on the diversion with another customer who knew the area well. To avoid backtracking to the Lock Cut footbridge we took the road north from the Lion, hoping to rejoin the Thames Path at Old Abingdon Bridge. The bridge spans Swift Ditch, which was the original course of the river navigation bypassing Abingdon, and the track over the bridge, built in 1416 and the site of a civil war skirmish in 1645, degenerates to a path along the Ditch; while this looks an interesting prospect, it was a diversion that we did not feel like adding to our repertoire on this particular occasion. So we found ourselves a field away from the Thames Path and no means of access between. The two 'correct' alternatives were to keep on the road into Abingdon and rejoin at "new" Abingdon Bridge, or go all the way back to Culham Cut. Neither was particularly appealing, so ….

There is also a newish footbridge taking the Thames Path over Swift Ditch, which offers a good view of Old Abingdon Bridge, albeit obscured somewhat by summer foliage. We were now approaching Abingdon, and the number of people out on the path increased as we past the junction with the Wilts & Berks Canal, the 1824 Wilts & Berks bridge over the River Ock (for a short while the course of the canal in Abingdon), and the attractive-looking Old Anchor Inn. The path is more solid passing St Helens Church (pictured) and the cricket ground to Abingdon Bridge (the original bridge dates back to 1422) where there were swarms of people out on the grass. The Nags Head is over the bridge on the imaginatively titled Nags Head Island (pictured). "Abingdon is a typical country town of the smaller order - quiet, eminently respectable, clean, and desperately dull" (Jerome).

This is where our official advice had been to cross the river, and thence to follow the river through the town on the north side, rather than follow the Thames Path on the south bank. Since there was seemingly a crossing point over Abingdon Lock in the distance, the south-bank path looked relatively trouble-free, and there were absolutely no signs warning of problems ahead, we ignored the advice. On the far bank the Lido and Abbey Meadow were very popular spots, situated on an island between the River and Abbey Stream, they clearly attract the sun-worshippers. Thence we arrived at Abingdon Lock to find that we could not cross over. The Path is now on the north bank and we are on the south. We are tired, with 14 miles under our belt and a good ten yet to do. We did not want to return to Abingdon Bridge. With only a hint of what might befall us we snaffle a few ice creams and plough on up the south bank.

For a while its good stuff; you pass the site of a ferry upstream of Abbey Stream, and then come to an EA interpretation board, marking the site of the first Thames pound lock, Swift Ditch Lock (pictured), at the north end of Swift Ditch. In the early 1600's, goods had to be transhipped between Oxford and Burcot to bypass dangerous weirs; then three pound locks - at Iffley, Sandford and Swift Ditch - were built. Swift Ditch was the main navigation channel for 150 years with a navigable weir halfway long and wides for passing. In 1790, navigation switched to the current Abingdon course, built by monks from Abingdon Abbey. The lock was substantially destroyed when converted to a weir in 1967 and weir-keepers cottage disappeared at much the same time.

From here there is quite a rough path through to the Nuneham Railway Bridge, which is the main line. The footpath heads away from the river and it’s a convoluted route back to the Thames if you follow it. There is no pedestrian route across the railway bridge, though our friend in the Lion at Culham had told us that he had crossed it many times in the past. It looked like a jungle, and a prohibited jungle at that - why had we not heeded the official advice at Abingdon Bridge ? Cue more dots …………….

Once clear of the railway bridge on the 'Thames Path side' the heavy tree growth subsides only a bit, and it’s a pleasant run in to the outskirts of Radley. There is a particularly nice (read expensive- looking) house right by the water's edge, just after a boathouse, and then there is Nuneham House on the far bank and up the hill - built in 1756, Lord Harcourt moved an entire village away to give Capability Brown full rein in its surrounding estate ! Once through the boathouse of Radley College (access to the station if so required), there follows a long section through to Sandford. After so many hours on the move, and with the sun at its peak, we found this extremely hard-going, promising ourselves a drink at the pub at Sandford Lock to goad us on. Having got to within a hundred yards of the lock, we found that we had to divert to a nearby cyclepath to get round a blockage at Fiddlers Elbow. Loathe to add even 200 yards to a our torture (even for a beer) we decided to have something non-alcoholic from our knapsacks, and to postpone the beer until the Isis at Iffley Lock.

Sandford Lock itself is the deepest on the river, and together with the adjacent weir, known as the Sandford Lasher "a very good place to drown yourself in" (Jerome), stands in front of substantial mill buildings and looked very popular. After the best part of a mile on the cycleway, we rejoined the Path through meadows owned by Oxford Preservation Trust. Passing under Kennington Railway Bridge then over a long footbridge spanning Hinksey Stream, the next tree-lined section is very cool and tranquil - it reminded me of a wide Mon & Brec, albeit with a current. After Isis Bridge, Iffley Lock is another popular spot for gongoozling. There is a separate channel and "inclined plane with rollers for boats" (Oarsman’s and Angler’s Map) which bypasses the lock, though none of the literature in my possession goes into any detail about why it was built - maybe for college skiffs to ease portage round the lock ? There is an ornate footbridge over this channel above the incline (pictured). The old pound lock was on the east side of the lock and weir, up towards the church, and again we do not feel like a detour.

The Isis Tavern is just beyond, and we had what we felt was an extremely well-earned pint of Morrells - though the tetchy bar staff seemed to have had a particularly long and busy afternoon ! Then there is a well-used solid path up the west bank beside Iffley Meadows, under the nondescript Donnington Bridge and towards Oxford city centre. There are a few bridges in front of boathouses, though the majority of boathouses are on the offbank, just before Christ Church Meadow. As you approach Folly Bridge, the river splits, both courses being navigable - off to the right, beyond the northernmost "arm" and Salter’s Boatyard, the Head of the River pub seemed to be doing good business. The path follows the southern arm; the original folly after which the bridge was named has gone, but the successor building on the other side (reached after having to cross the road) is certainly moderately wacky. There are nice views back down the other arm towards the pub, then after passing under the wide railway bridge, it is tranquil through a shallow tree-lined section until you finally arrive at Osney Lock.


 

There was initial shock (I might even go as far as saying mild horror) at seeing the Seven Springs with its cover on and no-one close by, but right by the lock, there was our signer-off, Paul, with an endless supply of Lucozade drinks, and an old mill looking down somewhat sternly at the proceedings. It was almost 7 o'clock, ten hours since we had left Wallingford. Tony's wife was on hand to transport him and Martin away - Steve and I were at the mercy of Virgin Trains or someone of that ilk. After a few photos to prove "we dunnit" we continued up the path, past the Watermans Arms (reputed for its pies apparently) to Osney Bridge, rebuilt in 1888. If you are continuing up the Thames Path you need to change sides here anyway, necessitating a crossing of the busy A420 road, but we headed a few hundred yards further east, under the railway, and collapsed onto a Reading-bound train as it pulled out of Oxford station.
 

Andy Screen

Reference: The Thames Path National Trail Guide (Sharp)
                     Walks along the Thames Path (Hatts)
                     Ordnance Survey Guide to the River Thames (Nicholson)
                     A User’s Guide to the River Thames (Environment Agency)
                     Three Men in a Boat (Jerome)

Maps:         Thames; the river and the path (GEOprojects)
                    OS Landranger 164 (Oxford) and 175 (Reading)
                    The Oarsman’s and Anglers Map of the River Thames 1893 (Old House Books)

Websites:   www.visitthames.co.uk
                  www.nationaltrails.gov.uk

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