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English Country Walks: Hiking along the Thames near Oxford
Spring has sprung, and while I have a reputation as a museum junkie, I love to be outside too. Over the next few months I'll be bringing you lots of guides to hiking in England, which in good weather has the most beautiful countryside in the world.
Today I'll tell you about an easy, scenic, seven-mile hike from historic Oxford along the Thames to the little town of Abingdon. It forms part of the Thames Path, a 184 mile (294 km) National Trail from the source of the river in the Cotswolds all the way to the Thames Barrier near Greenwich. You can find a description of the Oxford-Abingdon section of the route here, but it actually runs backwards from Abingdon to Oxford. My route starts from the more popular town. The trail is flat and you're never far from civilization, but be sure to bring a bit of food, water, and sunscreen as you would on any hike.
The hike starts from Folly Bridge in Oxford, site of the popular Head of the River Pub, pictured on the right. From there you simply head south on west side of the river. Don't worry if you don't know which way is west, it's the only side with a trail! There's a wide gravel path that's in the process of being paved. River barges and university rowing teams share the water with ducks and swans. It's a peaceful walk, although at this point you'll be sharing it with a fair number of people unless you go out very early in the morning. Bring a camera, because it's very photogenic.
The first major landmark is The Isis, a pub with a big garden overlooking the river two miles south of Folly Bridge. The part of the Thames that flows through Oxford is actually called the Isis by locals, so the pub is named after the river.
Next comes Iffley lock, where you can watch canal boats being raised and lowered in the lock before continuing their journey. I suggest taking a side trip by crossing over the lock and going into Iffley village just a couple of minutes away. There you can see one of the best preserved Norman churches in England. A yew tree in the churchyard may be the sole survivor of a pagan grove that was destroyed when Christianity came to this land. I've written about this church and tree in more detail here.
Once you've seen the church, cross back over to the Thames Path and continue heading south. You'll pass through a less-than-scenic bit for the next mile or so as you go under a railway bridge and several huge electric pylons. Once you put those behind you you'll have fine views the rest of the way, with the river on your left and forest and farmers' fields on your right.
Next stop is Sandford-on-Thames, a little town with a lock and a nice pub by the river. One of the best parts about hiking in England is there's usually a pub nearby. Take advantage of this, but don't forget to drink water too! This village was founded by the Romans, owned by the Templars in the Middle Ages, and now is just a sleepy little place by the river. Watch out on Christmas Eve, though, because locals whisper that a headless horseman leads a phantasmal coach and four through the fields nearby.
Now you'll pass through a long stretch of countryside with few houses. Your only companions will be ducks, swans, and the occasional boat. The path narrows, but remains clear. There's really no way to get lost on this hike.
Finally you pass another lock and come to Abingdon, a town packed with history. The town is actually built atop an Iron Age fort that is no longer visible. When the Romans came in the first century AD, they used the river extensively, but Abingdon didn't come into its own until the foundation of Abingdon Abbey in the 7th century. It remained a major center of worship until 1538, when Henry VIII disbanded it and most other religious houses in England.
Needless to say, there are plenty of things to see here. The bridge you cross over to get to town dates to 1416. The old Abbey Gardens are a great place for a picnic, but only bits and pieces of the abbey remain. For historic architecture check out the church of St. Nicolas (c. 1170). The church of St. Helens dates to about 70 years earlier. St. Helens is a huge place and claims to be the second widest church in England. Who measures these things?
Being such an old town, Abingdon has developed some odd customs. On special occasions city officials throw buns off the roof of the old County Hall to the crowds below. Several buns have been preserved in the Abingdon Museum, in case you're into old preserved buns. They also have a series of old-time festivals, including electing a fake Mayor. This year the "election" will take place on June 13 and be accompanied by folk dancing, music, and a large amount of drinking at Abingdon's many great pubs. I'll be reporting on it, so I hope to see you there!
If you felt you've done enough walking for one day, there are plenty of buses back to Oxford, or you can turn this seven-mile hike into a fourteen-mile one and walk on back, filling up at the pubs along the way, of course.