Oxford to Abingdon on the Thames Path

Friday, 28 June 2024

Last year I spent several days walking the first 50-plus miles – 90km – of the Thames Path, the 184 miles (294km) route along the River Thames from its source to the Thames Barrage, east of London. That walk took me from the source to the university town of Oxford.

▲ This time I took the train from Paddington Station in London to Oxford and continued downstream to Abingdon, not very far just a little more than 12 miles, 20km.

◄ You’re still in Oxford when you come to Folly Bridge, named after the tower that once stood there, built by Thomas Waltham – also known as Thomas Welcome – and known as Welcome’s Folly. His tower is long gone but the curious building beside the bridge, with its collection of alcoved statues, does indeed look like a bit of a folly.

This stretch of the riverside is home to numerous boats, many of them plated with solar panels and home to collections of bicycles. Many of them looking decidedly derelict and unloved as well, there are even a few that have sunk. Ducks and geese also feature including a couple of ducks with a little raft (or paddling) of seven ducklings.

I’m not far from the start of the walk when I arrive at the day’s most interesting pause, the Norman St Mary the Virgin church in Iffley which dates from 1160. It’s very interesting, but also – ridiculously – a little difficult to find! I leave the river at Iffley Lock and totally overshoot the unsignposted church and have to backtrack to find it.

▲ The church features a couple of very ornate doorway arches carved with fantastic beasts

◄ … and inside two ornate zig-zagged arches. It’s remarkable to think this has all survived for nearly 1000 years, but the most interesting story, although there’s not much to see of it, is the cell of the anchoress Annora. An anchoress was a little like a hermit nun, a woman who retreated to a solitary existence, often right by a church. The male equivalent was an anchorite, but there were far fewer of these – in the 12th to 13th centuries England had 92 anchoresses, but only 20 anchorites.

Annora’s father was a powerful baron who foolishly fell out with King John and his whole family suffered as a result. His wife Mathilda and his eldest son were starved to death in Windsor Castle and in 1232 Annora, who would have been 53, decided to become an anchoress. She had a cell built beside the church and retreated inside – she was actually walled in – for the remaining nine years or so of her life. Food, water and other supplies were passed in to her through a window, anchoresses had to have the means to support their solitary lives. There was no vow of silence, villagers could come by and converse with her through the window. Annora also had a window into the church so she could observe church services and other proceedings. Having a resident anchoress was quite an honour for a village like Iffley.

The cell is long gone, as is her entrance into the church, but the gravestone beside the church was probably Annora’s. Anchoresses were supposed to sleep beside their grave, as a constant reminder that they had retreated from the world for the rest of their lives.

Beyond Iffley the path passes assorted weirs and locks for passing boats.

▲ There’s the Kings Arms pub at Sandford Lock, then the Radley College boathouse and across the river there’s Nuneham House. Built from 1756 with a garden by Capability Brown, Lord Harcourt had the medieval Nuneham Courtenay village near the house removed to improve his view! Pumney Farm is imposing, but for a long stretch the walk is not terribly interesting. The path is separated from the river by a narrow fringe of vegetation, just enough to block all the views although in fact the river seems to be fairly tedious on this stretch even if you could see it. And away from the river it’s just tedious fields!

I leave the path at Abingdon and take a bus to Didcot Parkway, then a train back to London. My last visit to Abingdon was in 2017 at the conclusion of a much longer trip than today’s walk. Until 1980 MGs were manufactured in Abingdon and I drove a 1973 MGB from Bangkok to Abingdon, following the Silk Road for much of the four month trip.