By Chris & Rick Millikan
Chris & Rick Millikan
Of England’s thousands of footpaths, the Thames River Path seems perfect for our self-guided adventure, including four days in medieval Oxford.
We soon discover world-renowned Oxford University, established in the 13th century and now consisting of 38 distinguished colleges spread throughout town. Most are embellished with gargoyle spigots, dramatic quads with wisteria almost two centuries old. Just beyond the historic Botanic Gardens, Magdalen’s bell tower still proudly soars. Here, Cromwell’s Roundheads captured Charles I during the Civil War.
One of Europe’s oldest libraries, the university’s Bodleian contains 50,000 Latin manuscripts, 11,000 rare items like a marriage contract on papyrus from 600 BC, the first English Dictionary…and over five million books.
“Initially a Divinity School, teaching began here as early as 1096,” our guide says. “Five kings, twenty-five British prime ministers, prominent scientists, and famed writers studied in upstairs reading rooms.” Seating on hard benches, we learn oral examinations for all students were long held in this hallowed chamber. The Bodleian added circular 18th-century Radcliffe Camera next door, and today the library encompasses 40 buildings.
Christ Church College’s magnificent 12th-century cathedral serves all of Oxford; Tom Tower’s great bell tolls nightly at nine. Our afternoon visit reveals this college’s success in academia and fantasy. Here, the school’s mathematician Lewis Carroll created Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and scenes from Harry Potter movies were filmed. “Hogwarts” featured Christ Church’s Tom Quad, the 1,000-year-old cloisters and spectacular 16th-century staircase leading to the Great Hall.
Chris & Rick Millikan
The university’s museums have long provided both scholars and the public free access to world-renowned resources. Established in 1683, Britain’s first public museum originally housed Elias Ashmole’s donation of remarkable curiosities. Nowadays, the Ashmolean exhibits extensive collections such as wonderous antiquities from Egypt, Crete, Greece and Rome, plus internationally famed artwork. Pitt Rovers Museum offers huge arrays of archeological and anthropological artefacts. The museum of Science History presents early instruments of investigation. The Victorian-style Town Hall’s museum provides two small galleries focusing on Oxfords’ development since its 810 founding. In the modern gallery, we take four virtual bikes rides around town, reviewing sites seen on foot.
Oxford exudes English history along its winding streets. At the junction of four ancient roads, a 23-metre tower is all that remains of 13th-century St. Martin’s church. Climbing its 99 narrow steps, we gaze over Oxfords’ spires…and sight Saxon Tower dating to 1040. Strolling around Oxford Castle we discover the birthplace of King Richard and his brother King John and Martyr’s Memorial, recalling Catholic Queen Mary’s burning of three Anglican bishops in 1535.
Devoted Colin Dexter fans, we cross the street to check out Inspector Morse’s posh bar in the Randolph Hotel. A bus later takes us to another haunt, the 17th-century Trout Inn outside Oxford. Our server mentions the Trout was also a popular hangout for earlier writers like C.S. Lewis.
Shouldering daypacks stuffed with raingear, map, guidebook, snacks and water, we leave Oxford’s medieval splendour. For the next five days, our luggage will be transferred to pre-booked lodgings. Thames Path primarily follows towpaths used to pull barges laden with Cotswold wool, timber and stone. These working barges have been replaced with luxury barges that now traverse this waterway’s many locks. Of these, Sandford lock manages the river’s highest drop. Its roaring weir is nicknamed “the Lasher,” known for its treacherous undercurrents.
Chris & Rick Millikan
The riverside pathway skirts endless green pastures and flowery meadows. It tunnels through hedges and beneath gnarly oaks. Emerging, we tramp through farmlands, wildlife reserves and parks, sometimes spotting partridge, magpies and crested grebes. A local birder explains the flotillas of Canadian geese.
“We’ve had ‘em since the 1800s. Those and our muted swans’re molting, grounded ‘til new feathers grow. And those kits above us were endangered. Breedin’ programs save ‘em!”
Along the idyllic location of Wind in the Willows in Pangbourne’s water marches, wooden benches post brass plaques quoting Kenneth Grahame’s winsome observations of river life. On the shore opposite, Elizabethan-era Hardwick and Mapledurham manor houses claim to have inspired illustrations of Toad Hall. Only when the valley narrows into the Chilterns do we climb serious slopes. Our route occasionally loops inland through picturesque communities, and even along fields of scarlet and purple poppies.
Averaging 17 kilometres daily, our walks end at historic hotels, a farmhouse, a country home and rooms in 17th-century pubs. All provide hearty English breakfasts of bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans and toast. We enjoy many delicious meals in pub gardens. One stormy day we snuggle, muddy and wet, inside Little Wittenham’s Barley Mow. The publican consoles us, “You’re seein’ a month’s worth o’ rain today! But y’know…there’s really no bad weather in England, just bad clothes!”
Mostly, we’re drenched in history. At tiny Iffley we stumble upon a gem. Unlike other 12th-century churches we see, St. Mary’s remains intact, complete with original fine stonework and parables depicted in stained glass. England’s oldest continually settled town, Abingdon lies across its multi-arched 1422 bridge. There, we find St. Mary’s ruins. Once larger than Westminster Abbey, Henry VIII destroyed such influential Catholic monasteries in 1538.
An important Saxon town from the ninth century, sections of King Alfred’s earthen ramparts remain in Wallingford. A formidable castle was built here by Normans…and demolished by Oliver Cromwell. The timber-framed Town Hall and corn exchange recall its continuing importance. Wallingford’s museum recounts local history and highlights famed resident Agatha Christie, who often based her Miss Marple and Poirot mysteries in this area. We leave town beside St. Leonard’s, its oldest church.
Chris & Rick Millikan
Moulsford, Streatley and Whitchurch retain their ancient village charms. Voted South England’s most beautiful town, Goring maintains its wondrous Tudor splendour. From Shiplake, we catch a train into Reading’s historic centre where the 1700s brick Guildhall Museum showcases a Victorian-era, full-size replica of the Bayeux Tapestry. Forbury Gardens lies adjacent to another abbey’s ruins. Our next day’s jaunt ends with a quick train ride into Henley to check out its rowing culture and Royal Regatta before a late afternoon train whisks us to Windsor.
Perched above town for almost 1,000 years, Windsor Castle remains the world’s largest and oldest working castle. Although greatly altered since it was built by William the Conqueror in the 1070s, the original Curfew Tower looks like it did in 1227. Nowadays Windsor’s St. George’s bell tower chimes hymns…and still provides quick, private castle exits.
Inside castle walls, we enter gothic St. George’s and find the tombs of Henry VIII, his favourite wife Jane Seymour, Charles I, Edward VII and other notable monarchs. Under an array of banners a docent explains, “Knights of the Royal Garter meet in these choir stalls. These coats of arms above the stalls symbolize their backgrounds.” In the outer courtyard, we watch the ceremonial changing of the guard and listen to the regimental band belt out brassy tunes.
Queen Elizabeth II’s public apartments overflow with artful items. Queen Mary’s masterfully crafted Doll House, given as a gift in 1923, especially intrigues us. This miniature palace boasts early electric lighting, five bathrooms with running water and working elevators.
In town, we view Christopher Wren’s Guildhall and nearby, Crooked House Tea Rooms.
Across the Thames, Eton embraces the world’s most exclusive public school. Eton College has educated England’s leaders since 18-year-old Henry VI founded it in 1440.
From Oxford’s spires, through sublime countryside and historic towns to Windsor’s pageantry, exploring the Thames provides a worth-while undertaking.