Upstream of Goring, the public transport links that helped me walk the Thames Path on an out-and-back basis from home become first fewer and then non-existent. Time to get out the tent! First, a couple of days from Goring to Oxford; then, a longer stretch to take me to the source.
24 June 2014: Goring to Clifton Hampden, 15 miles. The power of the nation.
Two contrasting rationales on this stage: Wallingford and Benson. Wallingford was one of the ‘burgh towns’ of Alfred the Great, a network of fortified towns which helped bolster the fledgling English nation against the Viking invader. The towns weren’t chosen on a whim: Wallingford was a key strategic site, the lowest point at which the Thames could be forded (don’t try it now) and close to the ancient Icknield Way trackway. Alfred’s strategic genius is a major reason why it has been possible to retain the idea of the English nation-state throughout the centuries.
In the skies above Wallingford you will see a very different manifestation of the power of the modern nation-state. RAF Benson is just a mile from Benson Lock on the path, a front line support helicopter base that describes itself as “committed to operations and supporting operations throughout the world [and] home to two thirds of the RAF’s support helicopter force.”
There’s a brief road stretch at Moulsford, principally to avoid a prep school it seems. At Wallingford, I had to take a road diversion because of the closure of Benson Lock – it’s always worth checking the official Thames Path news just in case of anything similar. There’s more road work at Shillingford, but Day’s Lock is a lovely place, with the last of the Berkshire Downs, Wittenham Clump, beyond. Even if you’re not staying at Clifton Hampden, it’s worth a detour, either for the historic Barley Mow pub, or just the useful walker-friendly village shop.
25 June 2014: Clifton Hampden to Oxford, 15 miles. Power generation.
The Thames had some direct role in power generation though its flow powering water mills, but relatively little compared to its length: Mapledurham, on the Reading-to-Goring stage, is the example most recently passed. But close to hand are other examples.
Away to the south the cooling towers of the two Didcot power stations are apparent. Didcot A burned gas and oil, and closed in 2013 following environmental protests; demolition work in 2016 led to tragedy when three were killed in the collapse of its former boiler house. Didcot B burns natural gas, and is still in operation. Out of sight nearby is the UK’s largest solar farm.
But look to the north, just before crossing the railway for the first time, for the white buildings of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. This houses the Joint European Torus, with which scientists try to solve the challenges presented in harnessing fusion power. If they succeed, then sometime this century we will enjoy clean, safe and plentiful energy from the same source as the sun: worth every penny of research money.
The first mile out of Clifton Hampden is amongst the prettiest so far. Abingdon, approached by its flood meadows, is one of the major towns on the route, with a pub in the middle of the river. The way out of town is a bit scruffy, but things improve below Radley, and Sandford has another popular riverside pub. Oxford creeps in almost impercetibly, the by-pass one warning, the college boat houses another, before the Osney bridge, the closest the path gets to the centre of the city.
14 June 2017: Oxford to Shifford Lock, 16 miles. The power of the sun.
There have always been days like this in southern England: temperatures nudging 30C, little wind, barely a cloud. It’s just that now there are so many more of them. At present, climate fluctuations as a whole are not so far out of the normal range that they have created changes to the landscape. The upper Thames reaches I was following remain a shimmer of verdant green, the flood meadows remain in readiness for the winter floods, should they come, the flora from lowly grass to tall waving willow still picking up their vital waters from the groundwaters below.
What landscape changes that are in course – the near-total loss of the elm, and soon that of the ash – are the result of trade conducted either in ignorance or, more recently, because no-one can bother to regulate trade, or to honour the feeble regulations that there might be. But water-stress, of flash flood at any time of year on the one hand, or drought caused either by the failure of winter rains or by a succession of heat wave summers on the other, could change all that in decades to come. A parched trickle of water running through a dry and brown landscape? If we do not get to grips with carbon production, that could be the fate of the mighty Thames.
A single day of heat didn’t do me any good. A bit late starting out due to a train delay, I pushed out the pace to try and reach my lunch stop at Bablock Hythe before food stopped at 2. I was five minutes late, but they found some fish and chips for me. Probably the last thing that would help with hydration, but the thought was kind. By the time I reached my campsite – an idyllic spot in an orchard by the lock – I realised I had a little touch of sunstroke. Nothing that water couldn’t remedy, but a warning all the same.
Away from Oxford, the river takes a long lazy loop around Wytham Hill, before a lengthy and dusty diversion after crossing the river at Pinkhill lock. It’s a frustration: a right-of-way exists on the east bank, all the way to Bablock Hythe, where it crosses the river – by means of a ferry that no longer exists. From Bablock Hythe though, the river is close by for every inch. Newbridge would have been a better lunch stop, even if later; there are two pubs here, at least one of which serves food all afternoon.
15 June 2017: Shifford Lock to Castle Eaton, 21 miles (20 on path). The power of trade.
Approaching Newbridge the day before, I was sure I could see, some way ahead, a fellow walker, kitted out a bit like me and making purposeful stride. Today, as I walked through the tangled undergrowth of the Chimney Meadows national nature reserve, I caught up with him. He was no walker, but a casual worker for the local wildlife trust, surveying the river for water voles. The burrow he was looking at now seemed unoccupied, he said: disturbed, in all likelihood, by the motor-boat moored adjacent, despite the ‘no mooring signs’.
The water vole is Britain’s fastest-declining mammal, and human disturbance and habitat loss are both part of the cause. Perhaps though more important still is competition from, and worse still predation by, the American mink. One of my colleague’s proudest moments, he told me, was to have personally eradicated (by air rifle to the head) the last known mink of the nearby tributary the Windrush. (He explained that he would prefer to carry a shotgun, but in these febrile times that was impractical due to the fright it would cause.)
The question, of course, is what the American mink is doing in the Thames in the first place. And the answer is equally plain – it was introduced by trade, for its fur. Such is the mammal’s ingenuity that it sometimes escapes from farms, in enough numbers that breeding pairs establish, and from that moment on the days of the local water vole population are numbered. (Sometimes, activists deliberately release mink, as a protest against their farming. They would do better for local ecology if they gassed them instead.)
The Thames has been a trading river ever since human settlement. It’s still motor-navigable upstream as far as Lechlade, today’s tea stop, and human-powered craft can venture further still, though on today’s evidence, they’d have a tough time with reeds. There is little goods traffic on the non-tidal Thames, and London’s main port has long since relocated from the city centre and east end way out to Tilbury and beyond. I was though surprised, in autumn 2017, to find out on the Silk River project just how much trade still flourishes at places like Purfleet.
I was surprised how overgrown the path now sometimes was, especially at the above-mentioned Chimney Gardens. So were a party of Australians I met at my lunch stop of Radcot, walking downstream – you’ll welcome the towpath at Oxford, I told them!
Kelmscott, where William Morris had his country manor (quite essential for a certain type of Victorian socialist!), was a possible tea-time stop, but the village is just off route and on a long day I didn’t fancy making a break to find everything closed. At Buscot, there is a great line of poplar trees, and the village is of interest to the industrial archaeologist.
After Lechlade-on-Thames, the river is soon lost for a while, and indeed, there’s a grotesque mile along the A361: shame on the landowner who has obstructed Thames access. The Thames Path website recommends this section be taken by taxi or (vestigial) bus service – what advertisement is this for a National Trail!
Overall, there is only a short stretch east of Hannington Bridge where the Thames can be seen at all, until the village of Castle Eaton is reached. Here the pub garden has the Thames as its boundary, as indeed did my camp site just outside the village. A fine watercourse it might still be, but a very different thing to the great river of the capital.
16 June 2017: Castle Eaton to the source, 18 miles (17 on path). The power of office.
In my life, I’ve served as a front-bench councillor in a major local authority, and the chair of trustees of an international aid charity. I like to think standards in public life in this country are generally very high; I’ve met many dedicated people who work tirelessly and for relatively little financial reward, even at the highest levels; whereas I’ve not witnessed – and I don’t think I’m being naïve here – instances of routine corruption and the feathering of one’s own nest.
That’s not to say these never happen. One significant example took place during the late 2000s, concerning the affairs of the Cotswold Water Park, a charity charged with the leisure development of the former gravel pits which surround the Thames west of Cricklade, through which the Thames Path runs.
The charity’s then chief executive, Dennis Grant, was close with the senior members of Cotswold District Council. Over three years, he tipped £660k of its money to his bank account, and planning processes. One wonders if his closeness to those members, and the trustees of the charity, enabled this to go on for so long. (It has to be said that investigations into them showed no wrong-doing, but that the council should make changes to its complaints system and its policy for disposal of property. Humm.)
There is a flip side to all of this. One does see the interests of the rich and powerful represented daily in most of our national press, run by and for the interests of expatriates, tax avoiders and worse. But without a campaigning magazine that would not let this story go – Private Eye – the Cotswold Water Park scandal might never have led to conviction. (To be fair, some of the local press did their best, as did an opposition councillor Esmond Jenkins. Cotswold Council later had Cllr Jenkins taken before the Standards Board for his trouble.) So the power of office (notably, Ian Hislop as they Eye’s editor) can be put to good use as well as bad.
The Thames still runs strongly to Cricklade, the last town on the river. Soon after, the Thames Path enters the Cotswold Water Park, with the village of Ashton Keynes – my lunch stop – in the middle of it.
The lakeside vistas are very different to anything before on the Path. But on leaving the Park, the Thames is but a stream, albeit through some very attractive countryside to the last village on the Path, Ewen. The famous honeyed Cotswold stone is strongly in evidence now.
From Ewen, there are only two miles to go. After a warm and dry early summer, the Thames was no more than a ribbon of damp ground, and not a single drop came from the spring at Thames Head. Alas, an anti-climax; a source without a river. I made my way the short mile to the Thames Head pub, where I’d booked one of the most expensive tent pitches in southern England.