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Following the Thames Path
Abingdon’s move to rename itself Abingdon-on-Thames has provoked opposition and mild hilarity, but to me it seems a splendid idea. In summer, the town’s riverside is packed with boaters and other holidaymakers from all over the world, but its attractions are easily overlooked by locals.
If you visit the town by car, you are faced with a long queue past industrial estates, or a tortuous one-way system and a horrifically ugly multi-storey car park. But the town puts on its best face to travellers who arrive on foot.
One of my favourite walks starts from the Lodge Hill bus stop, just outside the town, served by the X3 express service from Oxford.
A tree-lined avenue, offering wide views of the Vale of White Horse, leads walkers towards the independent school Radley College. Incredible as it may seem, the right of way takes you past the school’s grand buildings and through an archway built as a memorial to former students killed in action.
The route is part of England’s rich network of footpaths which grew up in the days when people had no choice but to walk across fields from their homes to work in big houses, or to church on Sunday.
Before it became the main school building, the 18th-century Mansion House, known as Radley Hall, was the private home of Sir John Stonhouse, who would have had a vast retinue of household staff and estate workers.
The footpath takes you past the Radley Oak, a tree said to have been rejected by ship builders during the Napoleonic Wars because it was misshapen, and out to Kennington Road through the main entrance of the college.
Most walkers now head for the Thames, taking the road opposite the college, past the church and the village shop — run as a community venture but closed on weekend afternoons. To reach the Thames Path, head for the railway station but cross the bridge to reach Lower Radley, passing Radley College Boathouse to reach the river.
Spare a thought for any walkers you see with large rucksacks. They are probably less than half-way on the 180-mile route to the sea from the river’s source in the hamlet of Ewen, near Kemble in Gloucestershire. This long-distance footpath was first conceived in the 1930s, but the idea was dropped because it needed ferry crossings which were falling into disuse, including one at Bablockhythe, near Cumnor. The route was finally opened in 1989, and is now walked by thousands each year.
Heather Brown, of the Choose Abingdon partnership, described the Thames as “one of the best-known English brand names with worldwide recognition” in the debate about the town’s name-change. And arriving at the river from Radley, you see it at its best. The wooded bank on the other side is interrupted by the landscaped grounds of Nuneham House, topped by a magnificent looking folly which is, in fact, the Carfax Conduit (pictured, left).
This once stood at the centre of Oxford to mark the crossroads of its piped water system. Since Nuneham House is not open to the public, this is the only place where you can see the conduit.
Turning downstream towards Abingdon, you pass under the steel structure of Black Bridge, built in 1929, along a once-scruffy area of gravel workings which is now a wildlife haven, a watery scene of reeds and bullrushes. Crossing the weir takes you to Abingdon Bridge. Before you leave the path to explore the town, walk underneath and look back at its 14 arches, originally built in medieval times with amazing skill.
It is really three linked bridges. The first, nearest the town, has arches of 15th-century origin spanning a backwater. Burford Bridge, a corruption of Beorough Ford Bridge, crosses the main Thames, and Maud Hales Bridge crosses the water meadows.
The Thames Path continues on a raised causeway which linked the first two bridges to Culham Bridge, which was replaced by a new bridge in the 1920s but remains almost in its original state.
Crossing the river by road takes you to Abingdon Market Place. Until 1973, the town was part of Berkshire and was once the county town. The former County Hall, a 17th-century building designed by Christopher Wren, has been turned into a museum (currently closed for repairs). It is expected to re-open in time for a bun-throwing ceremony to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee in June.
This ancient custom started at the Coronation of George III in 1760 and now commemorates various royal occasions. Because of the repair work, the Mayor and councillors will find it difficult to throw buns beyond the scaffolding and they are holding a competition later this month to find the town’s best thrower.
Unfortunately, County Hall, the medieval St Nicholas Church, Abbey Gateway, Guildhall and Abingdon’s other historic buildings are opposite the entrance to a rundown 1960s shopping precinct, but if it’s market day the square’s ugly side is well disguised by bustling stalls.
The Market Place area has several eating places, including my personal favourite, a small café called Throwing Buns. It is also almost next to one of Oxfordshire’s best outdoor shops, and therefore a favourite spot for a mid-walk break. From here, you can either catch the X3 from the bus stop just outside Outdoor Trading in High Street, or walk back to Radley through the archway via the Abbey Grounds.
The path from Abbey Grounds, which is part of Sustrans cycle trail no 5, follows the route of the former railway branch line to Abingdon towards Thrupp Lake, now a nature reserve managed by the Earth Trust.
This was saved from the dumping of fuel ash by RWE Npower, owner of Didcot Power Station, after several years of protest by campaigners who were at one point subjected to legal injunctions. Thanks to them, we can now enjoy this beautiful spot in spring, with a bird hide to spot waterfowl and herons.
The 35 bus from Radley, every 15 minutes, half-hourly on Sundays, will take you back to Oxford, or you can re-trace your steps through Radley College to catch the X3 or X13 from Lodge Hill (every ten minutes, 15 minutes on Sunday).
The Royal Bun Throwing Championships takes place on April 14 (2-4pm) at Abingdon Cricket Club, just a bun’s throw away from the medieval bridge.
Map: Explorer 170 * Maggie Hartford will lead a creative writing and nature walk on April 29 with poet and tutor Jenny Lewis. Places limited, call 01865 723941 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to book.