I’ve written about the Thames Path in an earlier post, but I recently discovered an even better stretch of that river trail that starts at a beautiful medieval abbey. So of course you folks get to enjoy the view without having to do the footwork. Aren’t I nice to you? Like all my hikes so far, this is an easy day trip from Oxford or London.
Dorchester Abbey is in the little village of Dorchester-on-Thames, easily reachable by direct bus from Oxford, or from London via Oxford. The Abbey dates from 1140 and has some wonderful stained glass, rare frescoes, and medieval tombs. There’s also an interesting little museum and when I was there, someone had drawn a chalk labyrinth on the floor. Church labyrinths have enjoyed a revival recently. Following their meandering lines is very relaxing and a good aid to meditation.
The town itself is worth a wander for its many old houses and 16th century inn, still taking guests and serving meals and drinks.
A short walk southeast of town are some interesting features. First are the The Dyke Hills, a set of parallel embankments that look like a dyke but in fact are prehistoric defenses. Beyond that is a nature reserve and a massive chalk hill called Castle Hill, so called because in prehistoric times there was a fort here. If you huff it all the way to the top, you’ll be rewarded with a magnificent sweeping view of the surrounding countryside, only slightly spoiled by the nearby Didcot nuclear power station. Enter the copse of beech trees and be rewarded with an amazing rushing sound as the strong, steady wind rustles the leaves. Stop at the Poem Tree, where in 1844 and 1845 Joseph Tubbs carved a poem into the bark. It’s no longer legible, but there’s a transcription on a plaque at its base, and even a website inspired by his work.
From Castle Hill you can see Day’s Lock on the river. Walk to it and head out for a country ramble on the Thames Path. From the lock it’s a flat, easy seven miles to Abingdon, a historic town that is a ten-minute bus ride from Oxford.
One advantage to hiking the Thames Path is that it’s impossible to get lost. It may become a bit unclear in spots, but you never lose sight of it entirely and it never strays far from the river. A more complete description of this walk, with more pictures, can be seen here.
As you head out from Dorchester-on-Thames, you’ll pass by several little villages. The Didcot power station remains clearly visible for the first few miles. Try to ignore it. After a while you’ll cross Clifton Hampden bridge. Stop at the local pub, admire the thatched roof houses, and recharge the batteries.
Continuing on, you’ll pass through verdant, peaceful countryside, your only companions being the birds and the occasional river barge gliding down the river. Stop at Sutton Courtenay, where the Norman manor house dates to the 12th century. George Orwell is buried in the churchyard. I found this part of the hike to be a bit freaky. In the Late Middle Ages, Sutton Courtenay used to be much bigger than it is now, but for some reason most of the town was abandoned. You can still see the foundations of buildings and the faint traces of old roads. Nobody knows what happened. Did the Black Death wipe out the population? Did they get killed in some long-forgotten massacre? As I was passing by the abandoned part of town the clouds grew thick and a cold wind blew. I didn’t see any ghosts, but I felt like I was going to!
Barely two miles more and you’ll enter Abingdon, which I mentioned in my last post about the Thames Path. From there it’s an easy bus ride to Oxford, and then on to London. Enjoy!