Well, it’s been a while. In the 19 months since I last did a stretch of my off-again, still off-again project to walk the entire Thames Path national trail, Robin moved to Cumbria which made it much harder to arrange walking days than when he used to live in my spare room1Fun fact – at our current average pace of 7 miles per year it’s going to take us about 18 more years to walk the remaining 122 miles.. On the other hand he has a fabulous new home in between two different sets of mountains and a work life balance that is the stuff of dreams so I guess I forgive him.
Possibly I was less motivated than I might have been to try and set a date for this walk, because this really was my home stretch. From Oxford down to Kennington is a piece of the path that I know really well, having cycled along it on different commutes at different times in our lives, from Kennington up to North Oxford when I worked at NAG, and from Kidlington down to Nominet during the period in my life when I kept managing to get jobs near places I used to live and/or moving to homes near where I used to work.
Nevertheless, I’m a completionist and I didn’t feel like I could skip out on the Oxford leg just because I had been up and down it literally hundreds of times, so on 5th November 2022 Robin and I finally set out once more, cadging a lift from JTA back to the Perch in Binsey where we left off in April last year.
We arrived at around 10am on a grey Saturday in late Autumn to find the pub rather unsurprisingly shut, which was unfortunate because the route back to the riverbank leads through the garden. We managed to find another route across a track to get to the river, whereupon Robin (who is even more of a completionist than me) insisted that we walk back up to the riverside entrance in order to resume from exactly where we ended last time.
The last stretch of the path before Oxford is actually delightful, slightly wild and surprisingly quiet when we were there – if you didn’t know you were about to arrive into a city you wouldn’t guess.
But arrive we did, popping out suddenly from behind some houses onto the side of Botley Road, somewhere I had been past with the kids on the bus only a few weeks earlier.
Oxford wears its rich and lengthy history like a cloak of indifference, choosing to ignore all parts of the modern world that don’t suit its purposes (like bike lanes of proper width, the dimensions of modern cars and the need for electricity in buildings), and it was therefore somewhat in character that we found the official route across the road blocked by that concrete barrier in the image above and had to divert up the road a bit to get round it. Oxford was here long before the concept of national trails, the barrier suggests, and will be here long after the makers of footpath signs are all consigned to dust.
We made our way back down onto the path on the other side of the road and I resigned myself to a slightly dull sojourn around the edge of my home town.
But then something strange happened. I’m not sure whether it’s because I hadn’t been down this path in a little while – I now live out in West Oxfordshire and work in London so my commute involves zero Thames Path, and when I’m in Oxford it’s usually with the kids going to museums etc. Or maybe it was because I was trying to see the city in the context of the wider journey down the river. Or maybe just because I was looking for things I could write about when I got home. But whatever the cause, I started seeing things I hadn’t seen before, appreciating my home in ways I haven’t in quite some time. Familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least a kind of stifling familiarity that sucks the joy out of things, but on this walk I managed to put aside the familiarity and see Oxford in all its quirky glory, the ways in which old and new combine to make something endlessly fascinating and undoubtedly beautiful.
Folly Island, in the middle of the river on the South side of the city, is home to this crazy long narrow house covered in statues.
Also on Folly Island is a small restaurant with a terrace by the river, which I had always wanted to visit but never got around to going. Robin and I popped in and had coffee. It was really lovely inside, and the terrace was nice. Their main business is clearly catered boat trips in small craft, which look pretty great. Some other time. After Folly Bridge the path crosses Abingdon Road, the main route out of Oxford to the South, and hits one of the most dangerous stretches of the whole trail.
A small triangle of land in the crook of the Thames and Cherwell rivers just below Folly Bridge is called “Boathouse Island”, this is because it is crammed with college boathouses. The huge one which belongs to the University itself is also on this stretch, sitting alone on the other side of the river. This part of the river, between Folly Bridge and Iffley Lock, is where the various rowing teams from the colleges all come to practice, and this is what makes it dangerous. Each team is generally accompanied by a shouty person on a bicycle, watching the rowers and yelling things at them (I don’t understand rowing but my understanding is that the shouting is constructive rather than abusive). The rower-watching bicyclists are usually completely focused on their rower-watching and as a mere pedestrian (or, as it might be, commuter on a bicycle of your own) you are expected to get out of the way. I’ve had multiple near misses in dark or foggy conditions along this stretch. Today the wobbly shouty cyclists seemed to be mostly working with beginners and were therefore moving quite slowly, and we made it through unscathed.
After that we felt we deserved another break though so we stopped into the Isis Farmhouse, one of Oxford’s most quirky pubs – it’s inaccessible by road and decorated in what could best be described as “boho grandma chic”, all mis-matched furniture and weird knick knacks. It also keeps extremely erratic hours, so that one never quite knows whether it will be open or serving food at any given time. On this occasion we found it open and enjoyed tea and cake before carrying on.
Almost immediately after the Isis we reached Iffley Lock. This is an extremely pretty spot with a charming little lock keepers cottage and a covered path over the sluice giving it an almost Tolkienesque air, but I didn’t think to take a picture because of the having seen it hundreds of times before thing so here’s one I found on Wikipedia.
We found a bench under a tree that was only a bit damp (it had been raining most of the morning) and ate our sandwiches by the lock, then set off again. We passed under the southern ring road soon after this, finally leaving the last traces of Oxford behind. At this point the tarmac cycleway diverts from the Thames Path, turning inland towards Kennington, and we found ourselves walking across grass again as we traversed the edge of the flood plain which (so far) remains undeveloped. Kennington itself is hidden behind a rise at this point so apart from the large, graceful houses on the East bank this area feels quite empty, in a way that reminded me of some of the stretches of the upper Thames we had walked along before. Another 20 minutes or so of gentle strolling brought us to Sandford Lock, another familiar landmark – the pub there, the Kings Arms, was a frequent choice for meals out with my colleagues when I worked at Nominet, as well as the nearest decent pub when we lived in Kennington. I had been looking forward to getting past this point – I’ve literally never been further South along the this part of the path than the edge of the lock grounds – but when Robin and I consulted the map and looked at where the next options would be for pickup points we concluded that the most sensible thing to do was call it a day and ring for a lift home.
|Locations||Binsey -> Sandford-on-Thames|
|Cumulative Distance||57 miles|