Abingdon to Oxford along the Thames Tow Path
“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. Simply messing”.
So said the Water Rat in Kenneth Grahame’s classic book – The Wind in the Willows.
Well I’d like to add to that. Walking beside a beautiful river is a worthwhile thing to do, too. Particularly when it is the river Thames – the river referred to in the Wind in the Willows – more precisely the stretch of the Thames that runs between Abingdon and Oxford. Walking from Abingdon to Oxford takes in some of the most beautiful countryside in the world (yes world!), and you even pass Toad Hall on the way!
There are many links between Abingdon and Oxford (e.g. men from Abingdon founded Pembroke College, Oxford University; Charles l stayed in the one and kept popping into the other!). But the most obvious and the oldest link is, of course, the river Thames.
Now if you’re in a rush, this walk is not for you. Timings are approximate and are based on my walking abilities – that is, those of someone in their very late 40’s (as in 60 something!). If you keep walking and don’t stop at all (you will want to stop), the whole walk will take about 3.5 hours. I’ve done the walk many times and it is the route the ancient and modern Abingdon Drama Club (“In 3D since 1944) take on their Annual Thames Walk. Even though it is 8.5 miles long it is a fairly easy walk to do. Being next to the river, it is flat and there are a couple of good pubs strategically located on the way. More of them later.
If for any reason you need to stop and get back to Abingdon and/or its dreaming spire e.g. “come back, pet, you’ve won the lottery and I need to help you spend it!”, that sort of thing – then there are a few “peel off” points along the way e.g. Radley and Sandford Lock. I’ll talk about them as we go. If you’re staying in Oxford and want to walk to stunning Abingdon-on-Thames (the oldest town in the country!), then reverse everything that follows. Yllaretil ton. Not literally. You know what I mean.
Here we go. Ready? Right, starting from the Pointy Thing (The Abingdon Needle!) at the end of Abbey Close, next to the car park, after the wall, before the footbridge, really, you WILL recognise it, it’s very pointy and it’s a thing, – we proceed along the Abbey Stream towards the Thames and Oxford. (To get your bearings, as Abingdon is south with a tiny dash of east of Oxford, we will be walking due north with the tiniest hint of west).
Walk over the foot bridge, turn left past the toilet block (water park and the tennis courts on your right) and walk along the path with the Abbey Stream on your left – (man made by Abingdon Abbey monks under Abbott St Ethelwold between 953 and 963 – that’s just before and just after 10am to you!). The stream runs from Abingdon Lock back to the Thames at Abingdon Bridge (the bridge is said to have been commissioned by Henry V a year after the battle of Agincourt!). It was used by the monks for transport, drainage and power! – they had a stream driven mill wheel.
Golf course on the right, you walk past a green metal footbridge on your left, and just before the lock and weir (you’ll see and hear them!), you will come to a wooden footbridge on your left. Cross this bridge, the path turns to the left and then to the right. At the “Barton Fields” sign take the right fork following the signs for “Thames Path”.
Through hedgerows and woods with glimpses of enclosed pools, (where the kingfishers and dragonflies live), for the next 20 minutes and then the lovely river Thames appears on your right. It will stay there all the way to Oxford. The only sounds you hear now are those of the river meandering in the opposite direction on its way to London, the various birds – ducks, swans, geese, grebes etc chatting to each other and of course, the sound of the boats – most of them have engines but some have oars. I said oars! We’re in rowing club land now.
“All along the backwater
Through the rushes tall
Ducks are a-dabbling
Up tails all”
(The Wind in the Willows)
Lots of boats use the river in the summer, not so many in the winter. Most of them “pleasure craft”. “Messing about in boats”, indeed. But there is also a scheduled service between Abingdon and Oxford operated by the good people at Salters.
About 2 miles from the start we pass the first building since Abingdon. It is on your left and is Pumney Farm. A pretty house stands there now. Just after the next left turn in the river look over to your right and up on the hill on the opposite bank is…. Toad Hall! I swear it! Well it looks like it to me – go with me here. It is actually Nuneham House.
Just over half a mile further on we come to Lower Radley. This is the first of my stops. There’s bench seating here facing the river so it’s a good spot for a sit and a think (or just a sit) and for a drink of water and a nibble on your cheese sandwich (other sandwiches are available). Now, I promised you some peel off points. This is one of them. If you walk up the road through Lower Radley to Radley (about half a mile) you can catch the 35 bus back to Abingdon or onto Oxford.
Onward, onward along the great river Thames, you are in the heart of Oxfordshire walking from one of our prettiest towns (with the dreaming spire) to one of our prettiest cities (with the dreaming spires). Next stop, just over 2 hours after we began, is Sandford Lock and our first pub! We approach through a car park. Turn right across the footbridge (we’re now on an island in the Thames) and cross over the lock (back off the island and onto the opposite bank of the Thames), to the Kings Arms. Say hello to the lock keepers on your way. They’re all good lads and lasses. Good food and ale at the Kings Arms, but they are very busy in the summer so be prepared for a little wait. Lots of bird life here. I like to spend some time at this very pretty lock just watching the boats come in and watching them go back out again. Otis Redding would have loved it!
Sandford Lock is another peel off point. Go back to the car park and turn right up Sandford Lane. Walk up to The Lane in Kennington and again you can catch the 35 bus to Abingdon or Oxford.
Back over the lock from the Kings Arms (and onto the island again), turn right and continue north up the Thames. After about half a mile we cross another bridge and we’re off the island and back onto the left bank of the Thames. Another mile (we go under a main road bridge) and we reach Iffley Lock. Very pretty indeed.
Half a mile further up the river and we come to the lovely Isis pub. Huge garden, good food and ales here. You can only get to this pub by walking or by boat! I like that. Eat your heart out car owners! (or park up at Donnington Bridge and walk back to the pub). The pub isn’t open all year round so best to check before you set off. It is open all summer, though.
Shortly after setting off from the Isis the noise level increases as we approach the hustle and bustle of Oxford. We go under another main road bridge and you notice the river traffic increasing. University boat-house territory now.
About a mile and a half after the Isis we come to Folly Bridge in Oxford and the end of our journey. Ta da! Over the bridge and Oxford city centre is straight ahead.
Take your time with the walk. Enjoy the views and the fresh air. There’s a regular bus service between Abingdon and Oxford (Numbers 35, X2, X3, X13 and 31), so no matter which direction you walk you can easily return to your start point.
“Look here! If you’ve really nothing else on hand, supposing we drop down the river together, and have a day of it?” The Water Rat.