I was privileged two years ago to be invited to lunch at the Hall of one of the Ancient Guilds in the City of London. In the magnificent loo in the basement there was a fine collection of former liverymen in sporting gear by Spy as well as an original Bateman strip cartoon, the punchline being “The coach who told his crew”Well rowed”. Obviously coaches were tougher in those days! however it was not the caption which caught my eye as the fact that the coach was not in a launch or on a bike, but on horseback! Wow wouldn’t that be fun!
Eight years ago the towpath was in a parlous state, nothing more than a series of connected puddles, with large stretches of bank about to fall in the river. Getting to the Boathouse was quite an adventure. Finally the Environment Agency and the City Council got their acts together and have transformed the towpath from Oseney to iffley Locks into a fine civic amenity. City Fathers, may your greybeards never grow shorter!! Our gratitude is profound. At this time of year when the daffs are just out and the pussy willow is greening, upstream of Folly Bridgealong the towpath is a beautiful ride, then back to college along the Botley road. I have seen a kingfisher in the early morning on the river by the ice rink. In a few days we will see all manner of wildfowl nesting and then cygnets, ducklings and goslings trying desperately to get out of the way of the blades of training VIIIs.
The towpath is indeed where great draft horses would pull barges, from London,along the Thames, up the Oxford canal, the Grand Union canal and then north to the great network of canals around the rapidly industrialising midlands and back again. London at the time, although many miles from the sea was the greatest port in Europe, indeed it remains the UK’s third largest port to this day.
The Thames, England’s longest river, once a tributary of the Rhine, flows on gentle gradients through lush countryside, connecting many rich little market towns, and collecting tributaries, making it an ideal conduit for trade. It is increasingly clean which also makes it a good angling river. Watch out for long fibreglass rods across the towpath on your bike, not to mention the hooks ofanglers preparing to cast.
This magnificent stream has an inauspicious beginning in a dry meadow (the flow is seasonal) at a stone marker labelled Thames Head by the side of a copse a mile north of Kemble, near Cirencester in the Cotswolds , but it is here that the Thames and thewell marked, long distance Thames Path begins its 180 mile way to the Thames Barrier at Greenwich where it ends. The path is a footpath and only on specific stretches such as the ten miles through Oxford, are you allowed to cycle (or indeed, ride a horse). Never cycle (or ride your horse) through a lock. It is anti social and dangerous and you will get shouted at by the lock keepers, who therwise are gentle and generous souls.
Slowly the Thames becomes a decent sized stream and then just above Lechlade it becomes a small river. from then on downstreamyou will fin river cruisers But you can get no further upsteam in anything but a canoe and indeed at Lechlade, St John’s lock is the famous sculpture of Old Father Thames. Lechlade is a very pleasant summer day out if you have the use of a car.
Also if you have family obligations, think about a trip to Abingdon on a Salters steamer (boarding at Folly bridge. you can do the round trip in a day with lunch in Abingdon. Everyone from younger siblings to GrandMa have a great time, the bar serves beer, tea and coke and it’s a great way to see the river, with no effort.You can take shelter in the saloon or under awnings if it’s wet.
Explore and Enjoy.