So far, I’ve reached Oxford, just a couple of stages from Goring. I’m continuing my power-themed Thames Path notes.
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; its large cooling tower is due to be demolished in July 2014. 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.