Dorchester to Abingdon - February 5th and September 21st
This section starts at Day’s Lock near Dorchester where the path crosses the weir to the south bank of the river and continues by the riverside to the chocolate box village of Clifton Hampden. It crosses the road bridge here and then continues on the north bank to Clifton Lock, where it follows a cut in the river, that all river traffic uses. In a similar way, after Culham Lock, the path follows another cut that all river traffic uses. After the Culham Cut, the path follows the riverside the rest of the way to Abingdon Lock, where this walk finishes.
This section is meant to be about 9 miles.
I first did this walk early in February, on a day that promised a lot weather-wise but after a bright start the weather very soon turned to grey skies. Of all the walks I did along the Thames, I think I found this the least satisfying. So, before the fine weather we had in the middle of September came to an end, I decided to do the walk again, to see if it would be any more enjoyable.
Knowing that buses only ran to Dorchester on Mondays and Wednesdays, I chose a Monday for my walk. The bus I needed to catch was the 11:50 service from Wallingford Market Place. I couldn’t afford to miss this as the next bus wouldn’t be until early on Wednesday! So, I left home in plenty of time to allow for any traffic holdups. I drove to Wallingford without any traffic delays and parked in a public car park. I bought a sandwich for my lunch and then waited for my bus. A mini-bus turned up right on time and took me and the other pensioners to Dorchester!
I made my way through the village and along the footpaths to get back to Day’s Lock, which is where the previous walk ended. The footpath passed Dyke Hills, which are the remnants of an Iron Age hill fort that stretched from the Thame to the Thames and protected the village that was behind it. At Day’s Lock I crossed the lock gates as well as the footbridge over the weir to get to the south bank of the river. The path then carried on alongside the river through wide open, tranquil countryside. The only sounds were those of whistling kites flying overhead. Absolute bliss!
After about a mile I passed through a field of grazing cows, who weren’t in the slightest bothered about me. Carrying on, house envy kicked in once more as I passed a number of large houses with even larger gardens on the opposite bank of the river at Burcot. Clifton Hampden Bridge came up next. As with nearly all bridges across the Thames, this one is Grade II listed. It was built in 1867 and unusually for road bridges I’d so far come across, it’s built from red bricks. It was a toll bridge until 1946, when Oxfordshire and Berkshire councils bought it from the private owner. The Thames Path crossed the bridge here and continued along the north bank of the river. However, having crossed the bridge I spent a few minutes investigating Clifton Hampden. It’s a really pretty village with a number of thatched cottages and an impressive church.
Back on the path, Clifton Lock came up next. Very pleasant spot to sit on a bench and eat my lunch. The lock sends river traffic along the cut, whilst the weir was built across the old navigation. The Thames Path followed the cut for about half a mile, before it rejoined the old navigation. The next couple of miles were pleasant enough, walking mainly along the edges of wide, flat, open fields, only broken by the railway bridge that carries GWR trains between Oxford and Reading. Looking across the river towards Didcot, I missed seeing the cooling towers of Didcot Power Station, the last 3 of which were demolished in August 2019. I always found them quite attractive as I drove down the A34 but then I didn’t have to live in the shadow of them and the power station itself!
A cut similar to that at Clifton Lock came up next, with the old navigation going off to the left again. The Thames Path continued along the cut and Sutton Bridge carrying road traffic across the cut and the old navigation came up next. The bridge over the cut is actually an extension of Sutton Bridge and was built in 1809. As ever, the whole bridge is Grade II listed. At the time of my walk in September, repairs were being carried out to the bridge abutments by divers, resulting in the closure of the river during Monday to Friday working hours. This led to a quite a queue of boats waiting to pass through Culham Lock, just beyond the bridge.
Just beyond the lock I caught up with a fellow walker (I do tend to walk quite fast!). As is customary, I said ‘Hello’ to him as I was about to overtake him and he responded accordingly. I also said what a beautiful day it was and that triggered the opening of the floodgates! He told me all sorts of things about how badly lockdown had affected him mentally, not helped by having to work from home and not being able to see his GP girlfriend who lived in Sweden. He described a number of physical ailments that had developed, one of which was really bad toothache which almost resulted in the removal of a tooth. He had been bottling everything up but had at last realised that he needed some help. He was in fact waiting for a call from a counsellor. As someone who’s struggled at times with anxiety, I was quite happy to listen to everything he wanted to say and was able to offer some advice and encouragement from my own experiences. I know that the brain can play dreadful tricks on you – such as the toothache he had and I told him this. Harping back to the first walk I did post-lockdown from Tilehurst to Sonning, I told him that I thought GPs should prescribe walks like this to patients with anxiety issues resulting from lockdown. Anyway, after about 10 minutes, we wished each other well and he thanked me for listening to him and my advice. He told me what a really nice person I was! He loved my smile he said, as that cheered him up. That made my day – actually ‘No!’ – that made my week!!
Halfway along Culham Cut I came to a wooden footbridge over the cut but the signs clearly told me to carry on past it, which I did. This footpath crosses to the first of 3 islands and the weir between the cut and the old navigation. The footpath emerges in the village of Sutton Courtenay.
At the end of the cut, it took a 90 degree turn to the right as it rejoined the main river. For the next half mile, the path continued with its rural feel until it reached a wooden bridge that I had to cross. The water I was crossing looked like a backwater of the Thames. This is commonly known as Swift Ditch and was formerly the main navigation channel, emerging almost a mile beyond Abingdon Bridge into the river. Consequently, the land bordered by the river and Swift Ditch is technically an island and is called Andersey Island. From the wooden bridge I could see Culham Old Bridge, a Grade II listed structure dating back to 1416 that used to cross Swift Ditch. A new bridge was built in 1928 and since then the old bridge goes nowhere! The old bridge is now a listed ancient monument. From the wooden bridge onwards, houses of Abingdon started to line the opposite bank, whilst the side I was on (Andersey Island) remained very much rural; it is in fact a natural flood plain. The spire of St Helen’s Church is a landmark of Abingdon and as I walked further, this came into view. The informal meadowland on my side became more formalised manmade parkland – Hales and Hayes Meadow. With numerous boats and narrowboats moored on the banks, the bridge across the river coming up, Abingdon looked really picturesque in the sunshine.
Abingdon Bridge is actually 2 bridges, linked by Nag’s Head Island in the middle of the river. Abingdon Bridge is the northern part towards the town and crosses the backwater and mill stream. The southern part is technically called Burford Bridge and crosses the main navigation channel. Both were built in the 1450s and rebuilt in 1927. Naturally, they are Grade II listed.
I carried on through one of the arches of Burford Bridge to Abingdon Lock where I ended this section of the path. I crossed the weir to get to the north bank of the river and then walked to the bus stop I needed for the bus back to Wallingford where my car was. By this time, it was about 16:30. The bus was quite busy and for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic started, I felt a little uneasy on public transport, even though everyone was wearing a face covering. Up until then all the trains and buses I’d been on had plenty of room on them. I vowed that with the 'second wave' upon us, this was to be the end of using public transport for walks like this for the foreseeable future!
As I said at the start, I found this walk to be the least satisfying when I first did it in February. Having looked back on the same walk in September, acting as a Good Samaritan and spending more time in Dorchester, Clifton Hampden and Abingdon, I concluded this was an excellent walk!