Thames Path epilogue

I’m back in Canada and the little black cloud that followed me around Britain has somehow managed to make the 4500-mile journey as well. With the rain falling I thought this would be as good a time as any to post a follow-up on my Thames Path walk.

Although the weather and the footpath conditions were often grim I’ve tried my best not to let that colour my opinion of the walk itself. Overall I’m very glad I did it and given the time I had the Thames Path fit perfectly into my schedule. The walk can be comfortably completed in two weeks and without the need for any 20+ mile days. If you prefer flat terrain to fells then the Thames Path is an excellent choice as, with the exception of a few minor diversions, there are no climbs at all. Arranging accommodation and public transportation is relatively easy due to its close proximity to many major centres in the Thames valley. I was able to base myself in five locations (London, Windsor, Henley, Abingdon and Cricklade) and use buses or trains to commute to and from the path. In retrospect the only modification I would make is to stay one night each in Lechlade and Cricklade, although this was a moot point for me as I had no need to walk to the headwaters (they came to me).

What the Thames Path lacks is the variety of terrain and vistas that I prefer. As I mentioned in my previous post I really enjoyed the circular walk around Ross-on-Wye for that very reason. If I were to do it again I would take more time and spice it up by deviating from the river and connecting with other footpaths when possible. Having said that I can’t see myself doing the Thames Path again as there are just too many other great places to walk in Britain … although that’s not to say I wouldn’t start my next walk in Lechlade and make my way to the source before moving on.

If you are planning a Thames Path walk I would strongly recommend going in late summer or early fall when the danger of flooding is lower. I was happy with my decision to walk upstream from London and into progressively more tranquil surroundings, although I know that walking towards London seems to be more popular.

Last but not least, before returning to London I spent several days in Chester and it was here that I solved the mystery surrounding my great-grandfather Herbert Clifford! It took nearly 15 years to crack but I got there in the end. My only regret is that I ran out of time and could not determine exactly where on the Wirral peninsula he is buried. I will return there on my next trip and I might even incorporate that location into my next long walk. I will post my findings on my family history blog and will post a link to it from here as soon as I do.

Cheltenham & Ross-on-Wye

It’s been a week since I finished my Thames Path walk in Cricklade. Last Monday I made my way to Cheltenham by way of Cirencester, not an easy thing to do on a Bank Holiday weekend. The bus I was supposed to take to Cirencester did not exist, despite the schedule posted at the bus stop. When I called the bus company I was told there was no way to leave Cricklade today using public transportation. Fortunately a couple staying at the Vale Hotel kindly offered to give me a lift as they were passing through Cirencester on their way to Stow-on-the-Wold. After a short visit I caught a National Express bus to Cheltenham.

I stayed four nights in Cheltenham although two days were spent in the Gloucestershire Records Office in nearby Gloucester. On both days I was glued to microfiche readers and researching dusty old tomes requested from the archive’s vaults. It was a worthwhile exercise and the staff were very friendly and helpful. In the end I made a discovery that removed dozens of relatives from my tree, thereby eliminating the need to visit streets and churchyards in Cheltenham and Stow-on-the-Wold. Prior to my visit I had mistakenly linked my 4xgreat-grandfather, William Clifford, to parents whom I now believe to be incorrect. This is why it’s always risky using information gleaned from other peoples trees on Ancestry.com. It pays to do the research yourself.

During my stay in Cheltenham I also had the opportunity to meet up with Bill whom I met in Gloucester during my LEJOG in 2010. He and his wife Jennie very kindly invited me to dinner and I had a very enjoyable evening. A big Thank You to you both for being such wonderful hosts!

The weather had been very unsettled throughout my stay in Cheltenham and at times the rain was torrential. It didn’t last as long but if you were caught in one of the downpours you got drenched. Fortunately the weather forecast for Friday and the weekend was good and so I decided to make a detour to Minchinhampton on my way to Ross-on-Wye.

Minchinhampton is a beautiful village set atop of a very unusual plateau, a handful of miles southeast of Stroud. I think this village is one of the best kept secrets in the Cotswolds. It was also the birthplace of my 4xgreat-grandfather William and his siblings, and the final resting place of two of them, as well as his parents James and Mary Clifford.

I visited Holy Trinity, the Anglican church, where William and his siblings were baptized and at least four Clifford’s are buried. Unfortunately there are no headstones, or record of where they are buried, but I know they are buried there somewhere. One of the church wardens saw me looking through the churchyard and offered to look up the names in their registers. Unfortunately they only go back to the late 19th century and my ancestors were buried in the early to mid-1800’s. At least they had a visit from another Clifford, even if it was over 150 years after the fact.

I walked to the outskirts of the village to a collection of buildings known as Forwood. The Clifford family worked on this estate in the 1830’s, when William’s father James was employed as a groom and a gardener. The buildings are now private homes but they still they bear their old names, such as ‘The Coach House’. The surrounding countryside was very beautiful and extremely hilly. If James wanted a pint in the Crown Inn he had a steep climb from Forwood to the Market Square (I both walked in his footsteps and sampled the ale from his local).

Unfortunately I only had a few hours to spend in Minchinhampton and so a return visit is definitely in the cards. I made my way to Gloucester by bus and train where I met up again with Bill. He offered to drive me to Ross-on-Wye, by way of the Forest of Dean. William Clifford’s wife Emily and all of his children were born in several villages in the Forest and we drove through a couple on our way. The highlight though was the visit to Symonds Yat. This famous view from here of the Wye Valley is even more stunning then the photos I had seen online, helped in no small part by the excellent weather! Thanks again to Bill for being such a super host. He and Jennie will have to visit Victoria so that I can show them around.

I spent the weekend in Ross-on-Wye, a beautiful Herefordshire market town. The excellent weather continued and I really enjoyed my visit. On Saturday I roamed around the town and enjoyed the town’s May Fayre celebrations. The streets were chock-a-block with residents enjoying food, music and shopping. I enjoyed poking around various book and antique shops and also took a short stroll over the bridge to the village of Wilton where I enjoyed a pint in a beer garden next to the river.

Today I set out on what ended up being an 18-20 mile walk around the Herefordshire countryside. I can say without doubt that this was the best walk of my trip, and it would remain so even if the weather and footpath conditions on the Thames Path had been better. I followed the Wye Valley Way up river from Ross to How Caple and then over quiet country lanes to the village of Hoarwithy where I enjoyed a pint at the New Harp Inn. I then followed the Herefordshire Trail back to Ross by way of King’s Caple. The variety of terrain and the wonderful views were top notch. This walk had it all: riverside meadows, forests of Bluebells, quiet country lanes, medieval churches, laid-back villages and pastures full of sheep and cattle. One of the nicest rambles I’ve ever done!

The photos I’ve included below are from today’s walk. I’ll post photos of Michinhampton later this week.

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Thames Path – Day 12

Day 12 – May 5 Newbridge to Lechlade
Weather: Sun and Cloud B&B: The Vale Hotel
Departed: 9:30 Arrived: 16:00 Distance Today: 18 mi / 29 km
Total Distance: 157.9 mi / 254 km Pint of the Day: Moles Ale

When I went to bed last night I had pretty much decided to end my aquatic adventure however I awoke to a fine November morning and decided to give it one more go.

I literally had to run to catch my 9am bus to Newbridge (the next wasn’t for another 2 hours) and fortunately I just made it. When I was dropped off I met three walkers going in the opposite direction and they indicated the water levels were dropping but that they were wading though thigh-deep water yesterday. I had no intention of following the Thames Path today but I checked it out nonetheless. As you’ll see in the first photo it was never really on.

My route had me parallel the river but stay away from it as much as possible. I started off with a short section of road and then I followed a bridle path for a couple of miles to the lovely village of Longworth. As I approached the village I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a fox at the edge of road but as I walked closer I realized it was a huge rabbit. A few minutes later I did spot my first boar of the trip, a blue one in fact.

By now the sun was out and it was promising to be one of the best days yet. The views from the ridge were excellent and after a short ramble I passed through the hamlet of Hinton Waldrist and then headed back down towards the river. The farmers were out shooting this morning although I’m not sure what they were taking aim at. The local postman stopped his vehicle and asked if I had seen a Jack Russell, apparently it was frightened by the gunshots and was AWOL (I know a Brent Russell but he’s never off his lead).

I continued along a farm lane and then through a series of meadows. I had circled one spot on my map where I thought I could encounter problems on account of its proximity to the river. It was a stretch with a raised path between an irrigation canal and a small meadow directly next to the Thames. Sure enough a 10-foot section had become a small stream where the Thames now flowed into the canal. A welly-wearing couple walking their dog in the opposite direction told me it was dry ahead and so off came the socks and shoes one more time.

Once on the other side I had a good two mile walk along this raised path until I reached a road that led down to Tadpole Bridge. I chose to go up towards Buckland Marsh and then followed another bridle path for a couple of miles past several farms and cottages. It was then a mile or so along a deserted lane to the main road leading to Radcot. It was there that I stopped in at the Swaw Inn for a pint and to rest my weary feet.

After my break there was another short section on a busy road until I reached Langley Lane and a looooong 4+ mile stretch that paralleled the river all the way to Lechlade. The last 15 minutes were spent walking along a nice footpath but not before I paid a short visit to St. John’s Lock where I snapped a photo of Father Thames. This statue used to sit at Thames Head but was moved to the lock in 1974. St. John’s Lock marks the end/beginning of the navigable Thames.

I couldn’t find a room in Lechlade so I caught a bus to Swindon and then another to Cricklade.

Sunday update
I’ve decided to end my walk in Lechlade as the cost of a cab from Cricklade back to Lechlade is 20-25 GBP (there is no bus service on Sunday) and it hardly seems worthwhile considering the state of the path. Before I made my decision I did test the path and started walking back towards Lechlade. Initially I had to contend with some very waterlogged stiles but I managed to climb around these. Unfortunately 15 minutes out I encountered a flooded section and in the process of trying to get around it I slashed my hand on the ever present barbed wire. I used up the last of my bandages and retreated to Cricklade to lick my wounds and toast the end of my walk with a pint of Butcombe Bitter (at the highly recommended Red Lion Inn).

This is the end of my daily blog updates but I will post from time to time during the remainder of my visit and also provide some closing thoughts on my Thames Path walk.

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Thames Path – Day 11

Day 11 – May 4 Oxford to Newbridge
Weather: Cloudy B&B: Abbey Guest House
Departed: 9:45 Arrived: 14:45 Distance Today: 15 mi / 24 km
Total Distance: 139.9 mi / 225 km Pint of the Day: Morland Bitter

My improvised route began with a bus ride to the Oxford railway station from where I made my way to the Oxford canal. I felt this would be a dry option and indeed it was. The canal was lined with dozens of narrowboats, all of whom had their wood or coal stoves fired up on this chilly morning.

I spent about three-quarters of an hour following the canal to Wolvercote where I picked up the Oxford Greenbelt Way. While walking through Lower Wolvercote I passed a corner on which there was a playground and two pubs. This allows parents to drop their kids in the park and choose from one of two hostelries … or one each if it has come to that.

I crossed the Thames by a road bridge and followed the path for a minute or two and crossed under a motorway. At this point I could choose to continue along the Thames Path or branch overland along the Greenbelt Way. I knew the paths would merge a couple of miles up river so I decided to follow the latter inland. The first field I crossed was very soggy and the stile was under water but I managed to cross it without taking a bath. Unfortunately the middle of the next field was a mess and I could find no way around it. My only option was to return to the river or remove the socks and shoes. I chose the latter and followed a submerged footbridge (see photo) through the frigid water. I plodded on through the muck for another 100 meters until I reached a bridge where I could put my shoes back on.

The Greenway crossed several more fields before following the perimeter of the Wytham Great Wood. There were some nice views of the Thames Valley from the side of the hill before it descended and rejoined the Thames Path. Here I met a group of 14 students from a boarding school in New Hampshire who were also walking in the same direction. I chatted with a couple of them until they stopped for a break at Swinford Lock.

The path was good in places and almost impassable in others. After a couple of bush-whacking episodes I decided to follow a short but unpleasant stretch of road just before Pinkhill Lock. I rejoined the path and had high hopes that the next long stretch, which deviated away from the river, might prove more conducive to walking. Unfortunately almost immediately I encountered another huge body of water. In this case I followed a fence for some distance before hopping it and finding a way around the edge of the field. The ground was saturated and what should have been a pleasant amble through pastures was a long and tedious journey. I thought I had made it through the worst of it when I encountered another body of water that stretched across the entire field and into those adjacent. The field was full of sheep who watched me remove my socks and shoes for yet another dip. While I was using the last of my drinking water to wash the sheep shit off from between my toes it occurred to me that this was not a lot of fun.

I finally made it to a minor road and had worked out a paved route that would take me all the way to Newbridge. Along the way I passed through Northmoor and stopped into the Red Lion for a well-deserved pint. I was the only patron and so I had the roaring fire all to myself. The family who ran it was having their lunch and the pub dog lay at their feet. I felt much better (and warmer) after my visit to the Red Lion and it was only a half hour walk along a quiet country lane to my destination for the day: Newbridge.

Newbridge is a tiny little place on the edge of the Thames and the only bus stop is conveniently situated outside the Rose Revived pub. I had over half an hour to wait for the bus so I popped inside for a pint of Rose Royce Ale. It was definitely a two-pint day. Actually it was a two and half pint day.

I’m only three days away from the head of the Thames but I’m no longer sure I will be able to continue the walk. When the bus crossed the Thames at Newbridge I couldn’t see anything resembling a foot path in what appeared to be a river as twice as wide as it should be. The problem is that not only is the Thames Path inaccessible in many places but many of the fields that exist within the wide flood plain are also in pretty rough shape. There is no real-time information on conditions in regards to walking and public transportation options in this area are limited, especially on the weekend. I have a route worked out but I may or may not attempt it. Tune in tomorrow to find out what happened.

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Thames Path (the dry bits) – Day 10

Day 10 – May 3 Abingdon to Oxford
Weather: Cloudy and cool B&B: Abbey Guest House
Departed: 12:45 Arrived: 15:00 Distance Today: 7 mi / 11.25 km
Total Distance: 124.9 mi / 201 km Pint of the Day: Morland Bitter

I had breakfast this morning with a group of Italians who were attempting to walk part of the Thames Path but in the opposite direction. I spoke to their leader who told me that the path was walkable from Sandford Lock to Oxford but not between Sandford Lock and Abingdon.

Before I could head out on the trail I had an appointment with a dentist in the town. He fit a temporary cap and shaped it such that it should stay in place until I get home. It’s taken a few hours to get used to my new bite but later in the day the tooth did stand up to the rigours of my ‘Pint of the Day’ research. Patched up (again) I was now ready to tackle another leg of my journey up the Thames.

From my b&b in northern Abingdon I weaved my way through the suburbs in the general direction of Radley. I followed a cycle path for a short distance before reaching Whites Lane which would take me through the village and into the countryside that separates Radley from Kennington. Before reaching the latter I veered off over a field and under the railway tracks towards Sanford Lock. The road to the lock was completely flooded (see the first photo) but the raised walkway posed no problems.

I was hoping the information I received at breakfast was still accurate and indeed it was. There was lots of mud about and in places the river was very near the edge of the bank, but for the most part it was the best walking conditions I’ve experienced for several days.

I’ve been to Oxford on a couple of previous visits but I still spent an hour or two wandering around the streets. It was however ridiculously cool for the 3rd of May and many people were sporting Woolly hats and gloves. I stopped into the tourist information centre in the hopes that I could get some idea of what the river was like upstream but all they could tell me was that it was so high that all tour boats have stopped running.

I’ve pieced together an alternate route for tomorrow and hopefully it will work out as planned. The weather appears to be improving over the next few days so hopefully things are looking up.

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Thames Path (sort of) – Day 9

Day 9 – May 2 Wallingford to Abingdon
Weather: Cloudy and misty B&B: Abbey Guest House
Departed: 9:45 Arrived: 15:00 Distance Today: 15 mi / 24 km
Total Distance: 117.9 mi / 189.7 km Pint of the Day: Morland Bitter

Despite a drying trend the Thames Path is flooded in so many places that it has become obvious I won’t be able to complete the walk as intended. I’ll let the photos tell most of the story but in brief…

I tried to access the Thames Path on several occasions throughout the day but the situation became progressively worse as I moved upstream. I walked from Wallingford to Shillingford by road and rejoined the path as it wove its way through the village and to a main A-road.

The next access point was completely flooded and so I took a minor road into the pretty town of Dorchester where I stopped for coffee and planned my next moves.

I walked along the “Dyke Hills” and crossed a footbridge into the tiny hamlet of Little Wittenham. I then followed a long stretch of quiet road to Long Wittenham where I joined a busy road to Clifton Hampden. This village had some wonderfully picturesque buildings.

I crossed another busy road and then followed footpaths and a long concrete track around the perimeter of a huge government Science and Engineering complex that was surrounded by tall fences and CCTV cameras … Nothing secret going on in there. I reckon if I could obtain footage from all the CCTV cameras I’ve walked by I would have an excellent, if not artsy, video account of my Thames Path walk.

The last mile or two were along the main road into Abingdon which had a sidewalk/pavement the whole way. It was a further mile from the centre of town to my excellent b&b.

I was enjoying an excellent meal, one of the best so far, when the cap on my front tooth shattered. The last couple of days haven’t been stellar. I have an appointment with a dentist this morning and then hope to cobble together some form of walk into Oxford. I haven’t figured out my route after this although reports from up river are not promising.

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Thames Path – Day 8

Day 8 – May 1 Pangbourne to Wallingford
Weather: Cloudy with sun & showers B&B: Alushta Guest House
Departed: 11:40 Arrived: 16:45 Distance Today: 11.3 mi / 18.2 km
Total Distance: 102.9 mi / 165.6 km Pint of the Day: Sharp’s Doom Bar

I delayed my start until late morning as the rain was supposed to taper off by midday and sure enough when I left Pangbourne station it had more or less stopped. I crossed the vintage toll bridge into Whitchurch-upon-Thames, one of the prettiest villages so far.

The Thames looked high after last nights rain so I wasn’t sure what to expect today. The first part of the walk followed a road and then a lane as it climbed up a hill and along the side of the valley. I was more than happy for a change in scenery and the opportunity to avoid the mucky paths alongside the river. I was less happy with a navigation error that cost me three-quarters of an hour and added another couple of miles to my walk (not included in the total listed above). I second-guessed myself and ended up traipsing up and down the same road twice only to discover that my original route was correct.

It was while following a bridle path through the woods that I stumbled upon the first of a handful of WWII pillboxes. They were constructed as a last line of defense against an expected German invasion. Only one of them was sealed up but I wasn’t about to crawl inside the narrow opening, half covered by wet leaves and debris. But I have included photos of several of them.

Eventually I returned to the river and the footpath was pretty muddy in places. The downside to being back in cattle country was the quagmire that their hooves churn up in the corner of many fields. The one pictured in the photo I’ve included was tricky to navigate but I managed to cross using logs and small bits of wood strategically placed in the mire. The only shower of the afternoon hit just as I reached a railway bridge and lasted no more than 20 minutes.

The last stretch into Goring was right along the river and I almost made it all the way to the bridge but was turned back by a section that had merged with Thames. I had spotted another path 5 minutes earlier so I backtracked and followed it to a quiet road which led into town (Goring is another fine looking town). I crossed the bridge into Streatley and walked through a churchyard and into a meadow submerged under water. There was no alternative and so off came the shoes and socks, fortunately for the only time today.

The Thames Path followed the river for a couple of miles before veering into Moulsford and following a road for the better part of the mile. The path returned to the river where I crossed under a pair of impressive railway viaducts, at least they were impressive to walk under. The last 4 miles stuck to the river the entire way and the quality of the footpath varied from good to poor.

The sun made an appearance on several occasions and so did Dylan the Dickhead Dog. Apparently Dylan had an issue with my backpack and so he did his best to bite my ass until the apologetic owner leashed him up. The last thing I needed was to have to go looking for a tetanus shot! Ironically 15 minutes later I slipped in the mud and cut my arm on some rusty barbed wire. I patched myself up and when I met another dog walker I asked him if there was a clinic near by. Amazingly I was only a five minute walk away from the Wallingford surgery/hospital and so I was able to check out the NHS for the first time. I was even more amazed when I was able to walk into their first-aid unit and see someone immediately. He had a look at it and told me that I didn’t need a tetanus shot for rusty barbed wire (it’s an old wives tale). We chatted about walking for about 10 minutes and then he gave me a couple of deluxe NHS bandages and I was on my way.

I caught a bus from Wallingford’s market square that took me directly to Henley. Wallingford is a beautiful old town with some fantastic architecture. I might get a bit of time to explore when I return here tomorrow.

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