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.

In India, the Focus is on Mid-Market Hotels

A combination of growing demand from business travelers and a souring economy have led hotel developer Accor to focus on mid-range hotels in the world’s largest countries. So far in India, the formula seems to be a good one. As the country grows economically, more people will be traveling there for business purposes. Smaller businesses or independent entrepreneurs who don’t want to spring for a 5-star room have few options. Accor’s budget brand, Ibis, has already opened one location in Gurgaon. The company also has two Novotels in Hyderabad. These hotels are focused on providing solid service with a few extras, but nothing in terms of the over-the-top luxury seen at a 4 or 5-star. The strategy is to be attractive both to domestic and international business travelers.

Currently, over half of Accor’s India bookings come directly from corporate buyers seeking bulk rates. However, the mid-range prices and services could be attractive to independent travelers seeking an economical alternative to India’s current hotel options.

Talking travel with Sacred Places of Goddess author Karen Tate

When I headed to the West Hollywood Book Fair last September, I didn’t know which writers I would meet or what to expect. The scope of offerings was impressive, and one book in particular caught my eye. Sacred Places of the Goddesses: 101 Destinations pulled me in for a chat with the author, Karen Tate.

Tate, who lives with her husband, Roy in one of my most favorite towns, Venice, California, is a world traveler, tour guide and an expert on goddesses. She knows exactly where to see their traces and influences.

Her book–part travel guide, part spiritual guide and part chronicle of history, includes each section of the world. [See earlier post review.]

Since we chatted in the shade of her display booth, Tate has been busy launching her weekly Internet radio show “Voices of the Sacred Feminine” and promoting her new book, Walking an Ancient Path.

We talked on the phone last fall, and I’ve kept up with her various activities ever since. As a person with a lens focused on travel and spirituality, Tate offers a unique perspective about how one can experience the world.

You started out on your travels searching out places of the divine feminine after age 30. How do you think this may have influenced your traveling experiences?

It totally influenced my travel 120%. I began to have a very focused and single minded passion and ambition to visit the sacred sites of Goddess around the world, including the museums that house all her artifacts. . .The prominent place Goddess once held in the world cannot be denied when one sees her presence throughout history through the lens of sacred travel and the museums.

When visiting a site considered sacred, how can people enhance their own understanding of its significance and ability to feel its power? Are there techniques you use?

This is very subjective as we all “receive” awareness, guidance and understanding differently. Some people are visual, others are kinesthetic or auditory.

I encourage people to use what has worked for them. However, I think it is important to know a bit about the site and the deity that draws you to the site so there is some foundation – but it’s very important to give equal attention to the left (academic) and right (intuitive) brain.

After you are armed with some knowledge, then you have to open your senses and try to feel, hear, sense what comes to you. It’s important to sink in to the space and be present and there, a part of the site as much as possible.

Quiet contemplation works for some. Walking meditation for others. Sometimes I recommend to travelers if they’re about to visit a special site the next day, take a ritual bath the night before, eat light, don’t let yourself be distracted and above all, ask the Divine Source, by whatever name you identify that essence, what it is you should learn from the site. Then listen and don’t judge the reply.

Finally, if you receive nothing profound. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Sometimes your epiphany might arrive in a dream or days or weeks afterward the journey.

Of all the places you’ve traveled which gave you the “Wow!” feeling the most? The kind of feeling that makes your heart beat faster-or where you want to sit down to soak in the aura.

I was very moved by Ireland and Turkey – which was a surprise because I’ve always had an affinity for Isis and Egypt. Being in the countryside of Ireland, among the green meadows and standing stones, I felt as if I were one with Nature and totally inspired to revel in her majesty, dance among the stones, and feel the magic of the land.

In Turkey, particularly in Aphrodiasias, sacred to the Goddess Aphrodite, I was in awe as I stood in the valley, her temple before me, the snow-capped mountains on either side of me, and I truly felt embraced in the loving arms of the Mother.

I still get the feeling of hair standing on end on my arms and neck thinking about that awareness of her essence that I sense when I was there. It was truly remarkable and it’s these glimpses that we get that make the travel worthwhile and can be catalysts for transformation in our lives.

When you travel, what techniques do you use or questions do you ask in order to better understand how people see the world and their sense of themselves? Is there a commonality that strikes you?

I definitely have an open mind when I travel. And I encourage Americans to do the same. We can go to other countries and realize that these people are part of our human family. They may look different, sound different, do things differently but they are all a microcosm of the macrocosm.

We all are. We begin to see them as people – instead of being “other”. We see their value and what diversity they add to the world. I think it appropriately mellows out American hubris. And I always encourage those I take along on my travels to consider themselves Ambassadors of their country, spirituality, or gender. And smile and laugh a lot. Those are always great ice breakers.

Ever since you’ve started your travels, talking, and writing about the divine, how has people’s interest in the subject changed and why do you think this is?

I think there is a resurgent interest in the Divine Feminine, Sacred Feminine, Feminine Consciousness, Goddess — by whatever name you want to call her or her essence and ideals. Books and films such as The DaVinci Code sparked dialog helping people realize there is more to history than they originally believed.

If someone is going to a country such as India that is filled with so many sites considered divine, how would you suggest choosing between them? What criterion do you use?

I always tell people to look inside and see what they hope to achieve from the journey. You have to take the time to research destinations ahead of time so that you know what will fit into your itinerary and so that you’ll you see the places that will be most meaningful to you. I’d research itineraries for six months or more. Don’t leave the planning until when you get there.

Make sure the museums are open on the day you’re there. Leave yourself time to be at the sites you feel most called to visit. Spend as much quiet time in these locales as you can.

Is there a particular treasure you’ve picked up along your travels that has particular meaning for you? What is it, and how did you come to get it?

I’m a collector of Goddess imagery and my most significant and precious statue is that of Aphrodite from Aphrodiasias in Turkey. Her image is not the typical image we see of Aphrodite that reflects the work of the artist Botticelli, naked and emerging from a shell.

Instead we see a more authentic image of Aphrodite, with Anatolian flavor, where she’s wearing a crown that reflects the walls of the city as a symbol of her being protector of the people.

Her torso is filled with images of animals, symbolic of her being Mistress of the Animals. This image shows the full power and majesty of Aphrodite, rather than her much more shallow personae as just a goddess of love and beauty. [the photo is an example, not Tate’s.]

Since spirituality is one of the themes of your life, how do you stay focused and grounded when you travel?

You have to strike a balance between taking care of the mundane and linear issues, like getting from points A to B, and then be able to shift gears and put on your receptive and intuitive hat when you arrive at a sacred place.

I guess it’s not unlike how we have to live our lives – always trying to avoid chaos by balancing the left and right brain, the masculine and feminine aspect of ourselves, embracing the ideals of Goddess and God.

If someone could only go to three sites of the Divine Feminine, which three sites would you recommend?

This is very personal depending on ones ancestry, their spiritual calling and their personal interests.

If I could rephrase the sentence and say of all the places I’ve been, which three were the most important or potent for me, I’d say feeling the living essence of Goddess in the countryside of Ireland, in Aphrodiasias, Turkey, and in the Sekhmet Temple of Karnak in Egypt.

However, that being said, you would then miss all the wonderful sites such as Knossos on Crete, the temples on the island of Delos in the Mediterranean, the Isis Temple in Philae, Egypt, the sacred Bath of Sulis Minerva in England, the wonders of India, the temples in Japan.

I think you get my point. There are so many sacred places of Goddess that span so many cultures and continents. I think a very important point that this raises is the diversity of Goddess worship that stands as a testament to Her nature of diversity and inclusiveness – two qualities many of us could certain stand to embrace, which might enhance life on our planet.

**To see Karen Tate or take part in one of the events she organizes, here is the list of upcoming dates. There are several. In October, Karen is leading at Sacred Sites trip to Turkey.

Travel the goddess trail with Sacred Places of the Goddesses

For those in search of that little extra umph when they travel–the something more that connects them to self or something bigger than they are, sacred place travel can offer a sense of purpose. Traveling with a contemplative eye can move one deeper into an experience.

Here is a book that offers up sacred places to visit with a twist. In Sacred Places of Goddess, 108 Destinations, author Karen Tate, presents the history of goddess worship, the role of the Divine Feminine around the world, the significance of each particular goddess, and how do you get to the places where you can experience their influence. This is part travel guide, part history lesson, part cultural analysis, –and more. Much more.

Whether it’s a sacred, spiritual boost you’re after, or just an unusual way to look at the places you are wandering though, here’s a book to consider.

Tate’s book caught my eye when I was wandering around the West Hollywood Book Festival last September. With spiritual travel showing up on the radar lately, I wanted to point this one out as a fascinating read that presents sites and information you may not come across otherwise.

Divided into sections by continents and countries, the book delves into the archaeological, sociological and historical significance of particular places and their goddess connection. Sites include: grottoes, churches, temples, ruins, particular statues or artwork of note.

Remember Hera, Aphrodite, Athena, Persephone? You’ll hook up with them in Greece. Hera’s Temple, for example, is in the town of Pythagorian. Tate tells you how to get to these goddess oriented spots, as well as, what it’s like to go there.

“As one travels over the blue-green sea from Mykonos toward Delos, the gentle rocking of the boat and the island ahead growing ever closer becomes a trance-like journey taking visitors from the mundane world into the sacred.”

Delos, Tate points out, is referred to in Homer’s, The Odyssey, and is thought to be where Apollo and Artemis were born when Leto, their mother, was hiding from Hera, Zeus’s wife. On Delos, you’ll find a statue of the Greek goddess Isis, in addition to many temples that honor other goddesses.

If Ireland or Italy are in your future, you can also connect with Isis there. In Egypt, visiting Isis sites is a given.

Tate’s book connects the sacred places through their goddess similarities to make clear the relationship these places have with each other. No matter which section of the world you are traveling, there’s a goddess along the path.

Places include the well known to the obscure. For anyone with a hankering to go off the beaten track, here’s an option.

Throughout the book, photos, drawings and maps highlight particular places and artifacts. Tate also offers suggestions on how to maximize sacred place travel experiences and offers her thoughts about how these places fit into the framework of modern times. The current day perceptions towards women are woven throughout. In Tate’s’ view, history has an influence over the present.

For armchair travelers, or anyone interested in delving further into the subject of the goddess–whether from a historical, cultural or spiritual perspective, Sacred Places of Goddess is a read guaranteed to teach you a few things you probably didn’t know.

For travelers, “It’s enough to amplify the spiritual wanderlust of even the most ardent sojourner.” –Yoga Journal.

Check out this write-up in The Goddess Pages for an in depth review.

Look for a “Talking Travel with Karen Tate” post in the near future.