I journeyed up from Nottingham on Monday 10th August 2020 and stayed at The Head of the River Hotel on Folly Bridge. The weather has turned into a seasonal heatwave with temperatures over 30° on most days. The only rain expected coming as a result of the heat. The journey was rather surreal with largely empty trains – with at most 10-15% capacity, arriving at the Head of the River at 2:15. This was the first place I had a room that provided me with a view of the river!
Olney Bridge to Folly Bridge
When I did the first section, I stopped at Olney Bridge, by the railway station, so this time I had to get back upstream for a mile to complete that stretch. Unlike most of the Source-Oxford section, on this stretch people were never far away, encountering first East Street which consists of a row of beautiful small cottages, and a pub, the Punter Inn.
Further on the path passes girder bridges, Osney Lock, the ice rink, a college residence (“alcohol free zone“?!), and the mainline railway bridge built in 1850.
Just by the railway bridge is a monument to the drowning of 21 year old Edgar Wilson, who in 1898 jumped in to save the lives of two young boys in difficulties, but lost his own in the process.
Housing is never far from view, with blocks of apartment as well as cottages as the path approaches Folly Bridge.
This is clearly a more affluent stretch of the river so far, perhaps illustrated by the castellated house on the southern end of the bridge next to the Folly restaurant. This now has acquired the title from the original folly the bridge was named after – a house in the form of an archway used as an observatory by 13th century friar Roger Bacon. It was pulled down in 1779.
After a very short trip to the local Tesco Express to get tomorrow’s lunch, it was time for bed….
The Head of the River pub was a warehouse in 1830, and was where Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) set out in 1862 with Alice Liddell on a rowing trip that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Whilst the bridge was built in 1827, sadly the folly to which it refers no longer exists.
Day 5 – Oxford to Abingdon
The vegetarian breakfast in the Head of the Thames was something to die for…
Today’s route begins at Folly Bridge and passes Sandford-on-Thames and Sandford Lock – the largest lock on the Thames, before working its way into Abingdon. After passing the busyness of Oxford, this section of the walk retains some of the isolation of the previous section, with long isolated quiet stretches of river.
It looked like being a very hot day, and very soon the bustle of Oxford is left behind as the river takes you from the town toward Christchurch Meadow. But the University and the privilege it represents keeps popping up with boathouses lining the opposite bank, and the new University College boat yard on our bank.
Surrounded by the meadow just before Iffley Lock is the Isis Farmhouse, a restaurant only reached by foot or boat. As can be seen, it was closed when I arrived – not the last closed pub I passed!
Very quickly, after a few footbridges crossing tributaries, you find yourself in Iffley Meadow, 80 acres of ancient water meadow. This sets the expectations for the rest of today’s walk. The Thames goes over three locks Today, Iffly Lock, Sanford Lock, and finally Abingdon Lock. Interestingly these were the first three locks built on the Thames though the first Abingdon Lock has been replaced by the current one.
Then one is into Iffley Lock, the very fIrst “pound lock” built on the Thames. Pound locks are those we are now used to seeing with two sluice gates either end that allow the water in the “pound” in between the two gates to be raised and lowered.
Between Iffley and Sandford locks the path passes a footbridge, the A423 Oxford bypass, and the main railway line before entering open water again.
Sanford Lock has the greatest fall of water on the Thames (2.68 m), and the river flow is adjusted by a weir called the ”Sandford Lasher” on which many have lost their lives. The mill that was built on the site has long gone, now replaced with flats which do retain some of the appearance of the old mill. The lock has its own pub, the Kings Arms (sadly closed when I passed)
After Sandford, the path became much more rural becoming a narrow track through the undergrowth. It is the perfect place to see a vast array of wild flowers, and wildlife. Bees, dragon flies, a huge heron and … a flock of 12 Red Kites.
Before Abingdon the river hides as the plants take over and then takes us along a literal back water – a short inlet where the river feels as if it had been still for centuries. Too small for river traffic It remains a verdant inlet, providing a wildlife haven. This heralds the approach into Abingdon, crossing the Abingdon Lock and the path leading to the Abingdon Bridge with the wonderful iconic church spire of St Mary’s in the distance.
The sign on the Weir of the Upper Thames Patrol is interesting. A bit Dad’s Army, but on a bigger scale.
Shortly after the lock, the half mile walk along the towpath you come to a classic Thames view – Abingdon Bridge and the spire of St Helen’s church.
Abingdon is claimed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in Britain. Indeed the local authority claim it is the oldest, and not without some bitterness, as they remind us to “bear in mind that the town has over a thousand years in Berkshire, then a handful of decades in Oxfordshire.“
I was staying in the Crown and Thistle, dating from 1605 it is named after the alliance between England and Scotland.
Just over the road is the old Gaol, built in 1811 but is now convereted into modern apartments.
Abingdon is an attractive town centered around the Marketplace, where toy will find St Nicholas’ Church, The Abbey Gardens, The County Hall and the beautifully old East St Helen’s Street leading down to St Helen’s’ Church.
Sunset over the Thames at Abingdon.