Walking the Thames

In 2019, I decided to walk the length of the Thames Path, gradually over several stages. This website takes you along that path interspersing photographs with text and other references. All the photographs from my journey along the Thames Path have been collated into a 15 minute video now on YouTube:

Walking the Thames Path, Stage 1. Source to Oxford.

History of the Path

The idea of a Thames Path had been around since the early 1930s as a way of joining up various towpaths that had fallen into disuse due to changes in transportation. In 1948 a proposal was put to Government, who agreed in 1949. It was some 30 years later that the River Thames Society and the Ramblers Association, worked together to produce a new proposal that was published in 1977. Some five years later the Countryside Commission undertook a feasibility study that declared the path was feasible. The Countryside Commission “ceased to exist in 1999 when it was merged with the Rural Development Commission to form the Countryside Agency This has in turn evolved into Natural England, partly by eventual merger with English Nature” (Wikipedia).

The path was declared a National Trail in 1987, and fully opened only in 1996. The path now extends from the source in Gloucestershire, to the Thames Barrier and onto the extension to Crayford Ness and Slade Green Railway station, a total of 188 miles.

In putting this site together I have used:

More information can be found from the following sources:

Stage 1 – Source to Oxford

Getting to The Thames

The Thames Path follows the River Thames from its source in rural Gloucestershire to beyond the Thames barrier – almost 200 miles in all. My plan is to do it all in 4-5 stages. The first stage, from Kemble to Oxford is around 50 miles and I started that on Tuesday 17th September, getting to Oxford on Friday 20th. I shall be staying in Kemble, Cricklade, Lechlade, Newbridge and Oxford. There is more information on the path in a similar blog by Keith Palling, who walked the path in 2007.

Kemble is a small town in Gloucestershire, and is the nearest settlement to the source of the Thames at Thames Head. Trains go to Kemble station, from Nottingham, change at Gloucester, takes about 3 hours. I am staying at the Thames Head Inn, and they helped me book a taxi from the station with A-B Taxi (01285 655 651).

i caught the 11.07 Nottingham-Gloucester, then 13.33 to Kemble. A somewhat overcast day. Train quite empty in spite of nearly every seat being reserved. Plenty of time to ponder what walking up to 16 miles a day will be like and whether I will have time to explore the surrounding landmarks, churches, bridges and pubs.

Arrive at Gloucester 12:24 on time and find myself amongst several others with disarmingly large rucksacks. Maybe this won’t be the solitary journey I had expected! As it happens, none get off at Kemble.

As we pull into Stroud, I am reminded of Laurie Lee who “walked out one midsummer morning” from Stroud and carried on to Andalusia! From here on, the scenery changes. Instead of fields stretching off in the distance, or industrial sites, there are now hills to the east. We pass through Chalford which looks a beautiful village, yellow stone small houses around a river.

Train pulls into Kemble spot on time. There’s a taxi waiting, “Is it Peter?” Lee, the driver, came to this area from Scunthorpe for a three month job as a chef and stayed 30 years. He became a forester and a builder, now loves driving around the Cotswolds countryside.

My room – Room 3. TV, ensuite, wifi, coffee – very nice

The barman sounds just like Henning Wehn, “But I was here first” he tells me. But having been here working 35 years, he and his wife now have to register to stay. What sort of country have we allowed racism to make us into.

The pub is on the busy A433 and is the closest inn to the source of the Thames, being about 1 Km away. Turn out of the pub, turn left for two minutes, and just before the railway bridge go left then over a stile and follow the path to the source.

The footpath from the A433

But that’s tomorrow’s challenge.

Day 1 – Source to Cricklade

The first leg of the Thames Path, from the source to Cricklade, is some 12 miles long. It took me around 6 hours, including stops for lunch at Ashton Keynes, and some exploring on the way.

After a very comfortable night’s sleep and good breakfast in the Thames Head, I left my suitcase and set off at 9:15. I had arranged for my bag to be moved by a company called …appropriately “Move My Bags”. (Cost £134 for four pick ups and drop offs between Kemble and Oxford).

Just 15 minutes from the Thames Head Inn, I reached the source….I am not sure what I was expecting. I had read that there was likely to be no water, which there wasn’t, but I was not expecting the total human isolation. There was no one around, just a herd of cattle, who didn’t seem in the slightest bit interested at the significance of the location.

The Source of the Thames

Looking away from the source, along the path that leads to the Thames Barrier in a mere 184 miles, one can be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss is about, and just where the river might have flowed.

The Thames is here somewhere….

Indeed for the first 2 miles of the path there was no water in sight. After half a mile or so, the path of a once-river appeared, and the first bridge over the non-existent Thames as it went under the A433.

The first bridge over the Thames
The dry Thames

About half a mile further on at Parker’s Bridge, some water appeared – a poor excuse for a river but enough to give the impression that something was happening.

Parker’s Bridge

By Ewen, some water had appeared, at times trickling along, at other times a little bit more forceful, but still not yet the flowing Isis.

But there is something quite spiritual in following a dry river bed that you know will become significant in a day’s time at Lechlade. It may be insignificant now, but carries with it the future aspirations of a mighty waterway.

About a mile from Ewen, you pass Upper Mill Farm with its remnant of a water wheel on a mill race. Yet it is difficult to believe that the slow trickle of water was once so strong that it worked the mill. After crossing a plank footbridge, you pass Old Mill Farm, this time without any visible sign of the mill.

By Somerford Keynes, the water is freely flowing, reflecting the sunlight, and now too wide to step over. Having walked for five miles looking for water, the path crosses the B4696 just south of Somerford Keynes and one is faced with shock. A huge expanse of open water that is Neigh Bridge Country Park, part of the Cotswolds Water Park which around Ashton Keynes covers an area of some 20 square miles incorporating 150 lakes.

As you approach Ashton Keynes the River Thames feels strangely isolated; nothing more than a small stream, yet it cuts through a huge expanse of water with lakes either side. At Ashton Keynes, the flow is funnelled into a neat channel that runs through the village, splitting in two as it reaches the main road.

The infant Thames enters Ashford Keynes

Yet it is here the walk becomes rather dispiriting, as the path veers away from the Thames and you don’t meet it again for another 3 miles until you hit North Meadow just outside Cricklade. North Meadow is enormous space. A site of National Nature Reserve (NNR) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), it is 60 Acres and has been managed in the same controlled way for hundreds of years. Coming out of the meadow you leave the Thames and circle Cricklade in order to enter it at the north east top of the Main Street.

Cricklade is the first downstream town on the Thame, and was founded in the 9th century by the Anglo-Saxons, at the point where the Roman road Ermin Way crossed the River Thames. It was the home of a royal mint from 979 to 1100

Here the path passes the Red Lion, where I stayed for the night. When I arrived, my bag was waiting in my room.

Room 3, The Red Lion

Cricklade is one of those rural towns with a main street of shops and services, bounded by rows of cars. It has two churches (both closed when I arrived). St Sampson’s with an unusual four pointed spire, and St Mary’s, now the Catholic church.

St Sampson’s Church
St Mary’s Church on the main street
Jenners Hall

Jenners Hall was a school in 1650, became a workhouse in 1720 for a century then reverted to a school until 1959.

Built around 1490
Cricklade’s functioning telephone box

Feeling a bit stiff tonight, but dinner was lovely, bed really comfortable. Great breakfast – vegetarian full English, cereals, fruit juice, fruit, yogurt and coffee. They made me a packed lunch, dealt with my bag – which was already in my room at Lechlade when I arrived at 14:30. Now off on the second leg a 9:30.

Day 2 – Cricklade to Lechlade

Today’s leg of the journey was a leisurely 11 miles from Cricklade to Lechlade, where the river is fortified by several other tributaries – The Churn, The Key and The Ray, and becomes deep enough to be navigable.

From Cricklade, the first four miles follows the Thames past Eysey, and Water Eaton until you reach Castle Eaton. There is some beautiful scenery here and I got the feeling the river was striving to make itself recognised. At this point, it was still nothing spectacular, just a stream winding it’s way through the countryside.

Castle Eaton is a sleepy village with a church and a pub, The Red Lion which had been closed for some time. Though now it is under new management (Rhiannon and Mark) and is being refurbished.

From Castle Eaton the path diverges away from the river for four miles and it is only in sight briefly at Blackford Farm. These four miles take you through farmland with corn “as high as an elephants eye”.

At 2o miles from source, just before Upper Inglesham, the path has been rerouted away from the A361, and now follows the Thames into Lechlade. At Upper Inglesham, the first boat appears, and by Lechlade the river has widened to become Navigable.

At Lechlade, we have a river worthy of the name. Wide, deep, freely flowing,and a string of boats pepper the north bank up to the Ha’penny Bridge.

The Ha’Penny Bridge
The Ha’penny Bridge from The Riverside Inn
The Thames from The Riverside Inn, upstream from Lechlade

I chose to stay in The Old Swan Inn which has very comfortable rooms, but the Riverside is Larger and much better positioned actually on the river.

Day 3 – Lechlade to Newbridge

Day three is the longest day so far – over 16 miles – starting with a tunnel under the Ha’penny bridge, and a farewell to Lechlade…

The Toll House on Ha’penny Bridge
A view back toward Lechlade and St Lawrence Church.

One feature of this part of the journey are the pillboxes scattered along the path. Most are now derelict, decaying concrete sheds. But in 1940 they formed a line of defences along the Thames as an attempt to keep the Germans from sailing up the Thames and reaching the Midlands. They were never used.

This section of the river contains a number of locks, managed and staffed by the Environment Agency. There are 11 locks between Lechlade and Oxford including: St Johns, Buscott, Grafton, Radcot, Rushey, Shifford. More information on all locks is on the Visit Thames website.

The first lock you encounter is St John’s Lock, built in 1790, and now the first lock on the Thames, and home to the statue of Old Father Thames, keeping watch over the vessels and walkers passing by. Built in 1851 to sit in the grounds of the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace in London, he was bought by one of three Thames Conservators and sat beside the Thames Head spring at the source from 1958 until 1974 when he was moved to St John’s Lock.

One of the first footbridges over this stretch of the Thames is called Bloomers Hole Footbridge: “This was installed in 2000 to carry the Thames Path across the Thames. It is built of steel encased in wood to make it look like a timber structure.”

One strange feature you see many times in this stretch of the river, are bridges which appear to come from and go to, nowhere in particular. These footbridges stand on the site of old flash-weirs, taken up around 1870. When the weirs were removed, rights of way claimed by local communities, would have gone with them. These were preserved by building a number of incongruous footbridges.

About a mile after St John’s, is the second lock, Buscot Lock.

Buscot Lock

Buscot Lock is the smallest of the 45 locks on the Thames. The manual beam-equipped pound lock was built in 1790, today it looks just as it did more than 200 years ago. Before the lock was built, there was a flash weir, where boats would ‘run the rapid’ downstream. When the lock was built the weir was owned by E Loveden of Buscot Park, who was a very strong champion of Thames navigation. The lock keeper’s cottage was built in 1791 and features a fish house. The old weir was renewed by Lord Faringdon of Buscot Park in 1909, and was replaced by the new cut and weir in 1979. It is a lovely weir pool which is now a National Trust picnic area and otters, kites and kingfishers can be spotted.

https://www.visitthames.co.uk/about-the-river/river-thames-locks/buscot-lock

Buscott itself is on the south side of the river. The Church, St Mary’s, dates from 1200. Nearby is Buscot Park, administered by the National Trust. This was previously owned by Lord Farringdon, who would host Fabian Society meetings.

From Buscot, the river meanders some 4 miles through beautiful pastoral scenery through to Grafton Lock. Two miles from Buscot is a turnoff to Kelmscott, where you can find Kelmscott Manor – where William Morris lived for 25 years. Sadly it was closed for refurbishment.

When Morris first saw the Manor in 1871, he was delighted by this ‘loveliest haunt of ancient peace’; he signed a joint lease for the property with his friend and colleague Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite artist.

https://www.sal.org.uk/kelmscott-manor/

The third lock is Grafton Lock, built in 1896.

A short distance after Grafton Lock, the river divides . The left hand branch going under a footbridge up to A4095…

…and the right hand branch goes under the rather narrow Radcot Bridge.

Radcot Bridge is often claimed as the “oldest bridge on the Thames”, having been built, with pointed arches of Taynton stone, around 1200. The Cistercian monks of St Mary at Cîteaux in Normandy were granted land for the purpose by King John. Much of the structure was broken down during the battle which took place here in 1387 between Henry Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and troops loyal to Richard II, although it was reconstructed in 1393. The bridge was again severely damaged during the Wars of the Roses, and was largely rebuilt as it appears today, with a flattened centre arch.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radcot_Bridge

Just on the left of the Radcot Bridge, is the Swan Hotel, one of the first pubs on the river. In fact, given the re-opening of The Red Lion, in Castle Eaton, it is currently the third after The Riverside in Lechlade.

Radcot Lock (and here) was built in 1972 and is about a mile further on from Radcot bridge.

Old Man’s Bridge is situated on the river above Rushey Lock, a short way downstream of Radcot Lock. It is another example of as right of way passage built on the demolition of the lock weirs.

There was formerly a weir known as Old Man’s Weir, or alternatively Harper’s Weir, which had a footpath across it. This was an important crossing because it linked several towns. The weir had disappeared by 1868 but the bridge was still standing then as there were complaints about its poor state of repair. The weir piles were then removed and a new footbridge built. This bridge was also called the “High” bridge. By 1894 this “steep trestle with five openings had become unsafe and the present bridge was built.

From Old Man’s Bridge The river meanders and twists, until a mile on from Old Man’s Bridge is Rushey Lock, (and here) with the frog-like topiary bush. The lock was built in stone in 1790 by the Thames Navigation Commission. Rushey lock was reported as in a bad state of deterioration in 1857 and the weir also in 1871, repairs being needed on both occasions. The lock keeper’s house with a pyramidical roof was built in 1894, replacing an older one, and the lock was rebuilt in 1898. It takes its name from the rushes that used to grow nearby, the lock house was a guest house “ providing a peaceful retreat for famous names such as Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn“.

About a mile on from Rushey Lock is Tadpole Bridge. Originally a toll bridge, it was first called Tadpoll Bridge. The bridge dates from the late 18th century, the earliest reference to it being in 1784. It is built of stone, and consists of one large arch carrying traffic along the B4449 Buckland Road.

Right by the Tadpole Bridge is the fourth pub on the Thames, The Trout. This is now a gastropub serving good food, with a riverside terrace.

Shortly after the Tadpole Bridge, through a few meadows, comes Chimney Meadow National Nature Reserve, at 620 acres it is one of the largest areas of unimproved meadowland in England. There is no chimney, as the word derives from Ceomma’s Island.

A leaflet on Chimney Meadows is available to download from the Cotswold Wildlife Trust, and more information from the Oxfordshire Cotswold website.

About halfway through the meadows is Tenfoot Bridge, built in 1869 on the site of another flash weir, removed in 1870

At one quiet spot, there was a rustling in a bush, which turned out to be a badger gorging on raspberries.

Around Shifford Cut, there are two more bridges, the last of which leads onto the path into Newbridge.

By 4pm, after some 17 miles, the Thames reaches Newbridge, and the stop for day 3. New Bridge is a 13th-century bridge carrying the Abingdon–Witney road (now the A415) over the River Thames.

Newbridge
Newbridge
River Thames looking upriver from Newbridge.

The stop today was at The Rose Revived, The name going back to Oliver Cromwell and some story about a rose that …revived. Really comfortable room, good food. Very popular riverside terrace.

The bridge dates from the 13th century and is built in the same way as Radcot Bridge, which is slightly older. They were built by monks on the orders of King John in order to improve communications between the wool towns in the south of England and the Cotswold farms, and was named “New Bridge” as it was the youngest out of the three bridges built at the time (the third being the Lechlade bridge, replaced in the 19th century). It was originally much longer than it is now, with 51 arches and being 726 yards (664 m) long, compared with the current 12 arches.

(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newbridge,_River_Thames)

Day 4 – Newbridge to Oxford

Today’s final leg of this first stage of the Thames Path was 14 miles from The Rose Revived at Newbridge to Oxford Railway Station. It starts with the isolation and wide open spaces of the Oxfordshire countryside and finishes with the hustle and bustle of Oxford itself.

The weather was – yet again – glorious. It was signalled by a mist rolling down the Thames as I got up.

Looking downstream
Looking upstream
Looking back to The Rose Revived
As the sun rises…..

The path today hugged the river – apart from a 2 mile diversion around Babcock Hythe seemingly to avoid a caravan park. This made the stretch after the diversion in particular quite convoluted, as the river wound back and forth. It was possible to take some short cuts avoiding the bends, but this defeated the object for me.

The stretch was characterised by open meadows, bridges and locks. Indeed just after setting off you encounter a huge field managed by Natural England in order to encourage ground nesting birds. It is in this field that another one of the Thames strange “right of way” bridges appears; there are several between Lechlade and Oxford.

Hart’s Weir footbridge

The first today was Hart’s Weir footbridge, built in 1879 on the site of a weir that was removed a year later. Like all the others this was built in order to preserve ancient river crossings when many of the flood weirs were removed in this area.

This stretch also has five locks managed by the Environment Agency, and yet again are all beautifully looked after. Northmoor, Pinkhill, Eynsham, Kings and Godstow Locks. Each have their own automatic weir to control the water flow along the Thames. More information on each lock can be found from the Visit Thames website.

Northmoor Lock
Pinkhill Lock
Pinkhill Lock
Eynsham Lock With Swinford Toll Bridge in distance

About three miles from Newbridge you come to Babcock Hythe and its pub The Ferryman.

You might be forgiven for asking where the ferry is. There is no ferry, and so no ferryman. Whilst the Romans’ built a ford, and there was a ferry for 1000 year, it is no more.

Just before Eynsham Lock is Swinford Toll Bridge, one of two local private toll bridges, with its own Act of Parliament. This was built by the Earl of Abingdon in 1770, and while pedestrian can cross for free, the traffic backs up as drivers search frantically for that 5p piece to pay the toll.

The next three miles and things begin to change as Eynsford Lock give way to Wytham Great Wood. This is a 600 acre woodland given to Oxford University in the 1940s. The wood comes right down to the waters edge and is a delight especially after so many miles of meadow.

Wytham Great Wood

After leaving the wood you are placed again in pastoral beauty as you pass the River Evenlode, one of the tributaries of the Thames. and work your way to the penultimate lock on this section – King’s Lock.

Two swans a flying…
King’s Lock

Half a mile further on and we reach 50 miles from the source and a further bridge – this time the A34 Oxford Bypass,

The Oxford Bypass

At this point it is tempting to think you are nearly there, but you are still three miles from Osney Bridge. Just beyond the flyover is the final lock on this stage – Godstow lock, and just beyond, the ruins of Godstow Abbey. (See here). This was apparently built around 1100 but was dissolved by Henry VIII.

“The abbey itself was given to Henry VIII’s physician, George Owen. Owen tore down the abbey church and built a mansion called Godstow House from the abbey ruins. In 1645 Godstow House was badly damaged in the Civil War, and stone from the site was robbed for local buildings. The site passed to the Earl of Abingdon in 1702, and stayed in part of the Abingdon estates until 1902. In 1924 it was given to Oxford University in trust for the nation.”

https://www.britainexpress.com/cities/oxford/godstow-abbey.htm
Godstow Lock

The final lock before Oxford is Godstow Lock built in 1790.

Passing Godstow Abbey the far bank becomes a wide open meadow – Port Meadow. This common grazing land was given to the people of Oxford by William the Conqueror for their help in defending against marauding Danes. It has remained untouched since.

As Port Meadow comes to an end, the path enters Bossoms Boatyard and crosses the Rainbow Bridge also called Medley Bridge.

Medley (Rainbow) Bridge
Going over the Rainbow Bridge

This takes us onto Fiddlers Island, a delightful strip of land with the Thames on the right and an area of wetland on the left, at the end of which is a small bridge over the Oxford Canal. This final part leads along a row of cottages, and eventually onto the Osney Bridge.

Bridge over the Oxford canal
Osney Bridge

As you step off Osney Bridge, you enter now a different world. Having spent four days in peace and virtual isolation, you became surrounded by … people and traffic. My final stop, Royal Oxford Hotel, comfortable enough, and just over the road from the Railway Station, but felt that it had seen better days. Iconic building in a prime spot. Dinner tonight was in the Banana Tree, at 63 George Street. So good, I went back for lunch on saturday.

Day 5 – In Oxford

No stop-over in Oxford is complete without a trip round some of the colleges and a stop at Blackwells. So after breakfast I took a 3-4 hour walk around.

The Tom Tower of Christ Church College, looking from Pembroke Street, is one of the largest of Oxford’s colleges, and uniquely it is the only one that is a Cathedral Church.

Founded in 1546 by King Henry VIII, it is one of the larger colleges of the University of Oxford with 629 students in 2016. It is also the second wealthiest college (after St John’s) with an endowment of £550.3m as of 2018. Christ Church has a number of architecturally significant buildings including Tom Tower (designed by Sir Christopher Wren), Tom Quad (the largest quadrangle in Oxford), and the Great Dining Hall which was also the seat of the parliament assembled by King Charles I during the English Civil War.

Wikipedia

The Thames (Isis) flows through Oxford under the Folly Bridge.

Magdalen College from the High Street “was founded in 1458 by William of Waynflete. Today, it is one of the wealthiest colleges, with a financial endowment of £273.2 million as of 2018” (Wikipedia).

The Examination Schools of the University of Oxford are located at 75–81 High Street.

The building was designed by Sir Thomas Jackson (1835–1924). The designs for the building were prepared in 1876 and it was completed in 1882. The Examination Schools building is Grade II listed. The main purpose of the Schools is for the organisation and administration of the university examinations. Many of the final and other examinations for the University’s students take place in the building.

Wikipedia

The Radcliffe Camera is arguably one of the most recognised of Oxford’s buildngs.

The Radcliffe Camera was designed by James Gibbs in neo-classical style and built in 1737–49 The library’s construction and maintenance was funded from the estate of John Radcliffe, a notable doctor, who left £40,000 upon his death in 1714. According to the terms of his will, construction only began in 1737. The library’s opening was delayed until 13 April 1749.

The Bodleian Library is on Catte Street, and is the main building of the collection of 28 libraries that serve the University of Oxford itself. As of the 2016–17 year, the libraries collectively hold almost 13 million printed items, as well as numerous other objects and artefacts.

With over 12 million items it is the second-largest library in Britain after the British Library. Under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003 it is one of six legal deposit libraries for works published in the United Kingdom, and under Irish law it is entitled to request a copy of each book published in the Republic of Ireland

Wikipedia

The Bridge of Sighs, or Hertford Bridge, joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane. Its distinctive design makes it a city landmark, and on a very busy September Saturday afternoon, getting this shot with hardly any people in, took a lot of patience!

The Turf Tavern is a popular Oxford pub located at the end of a narrow winding alley, St Helens Passage (originally Hell’s passage), between Holywell Street and New College Lane, near the Bridge of Sighs. Running along one side of the pub is one of the remaining sections of the old city wall. It was also frequently featured in episodes of Inspector Morse. “The Turf Tavern is also where future Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke set a Guinness World Record for consuming a yard glass of ale in 11 seconds in 1963” (Wikipedia)

I have actually forgotten where this is now ….

Mansfield College is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford. The college was founded in Birmingham in 1838 as a college for Nonconformist students. It moved to Oxford in 1886 and was renamed Mansfield College after George Mansfield and his sister Elizabeth. In 1995 a Royal Charter was awarded giving the institution full college status. The college grounds are located on Mansfield Road, near the centre of Oxford.

Mansfield College, Oxford

Bath Place is between 55 and 56 Holywell Street.

All the houses in Bath Place (including the Bath Place Hotel and the Turf Tavern) are now owned by Merton College. All seven houses in Bath Place are Grade II listed. Different world isn’t it!

It is easy to overlook the significant events that took place inside some of these building. Here in the Sir William Dunn School of Pathology, penicillin was first isolated.

Finally, right opposite Blackwells on Broad Street is The Sheldonian.

The Sheldonian Theatre was built from 1664 to 1669 after a design by Christopher Wren. The building is named after Gilbert Sheldon, chancellor of the University at the time and the project’s main financial backer. It is used for music concerts, lectures and University ceremonies.

And that was it. Off to Blackwells…

Stage 2 – Oxford to Henley