Christmas Cracker joke…..What do you find at the end of a footpath? A Towpath. Aaaaaaargh.
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 gents loo in the basement there was a fine collection of portraits of former liverymen in sporting gear by Spy as well as an original Bateman strip cartoon, the punch line being “The coach who told his crew “Well rowed”, the implication being that rowing coaches back then were quicker with the stick than the carrot. Obviously coaches were tougher in those days! However it was not the caption, which caught my eye as the fact that the towpath coach was not in a launch or on a bike, but on horseback! Wow wouldn’t that be fun!
Ten years ago the Thames towpath in Oxford was in a parlous state, nothing more than a series of connected muddy 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 transformed the towpath from Osney to Iffley Locks into a fine civic amenity. City Fathers, may your grey beards never grow shorter!! Our gratitude is profound. Though the towpath has begun to deteriorate again. At any time of year, upstream of Folly Bridge along the towpath is a beautiful bike ride, then you can brave the traffic and cycle back to college along the Botley Road. I have seen a kingfisher in the early morning on the river by the ice rink. In the early spring you can see all manner of wildfowl nesting, grebes, wans, mallards, geese and then cygnets, ducklings and goslings quietly going about their lives without having to try desperately to get out of the way of the blades of training VIIIs below Folly bridge.
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. In the very earliest days of Oxford, before the University, the Thames was the means by which Oxford would send off its Cotswold and Chiltern woollen manufactures to London and thence to Rotterdam and up the Rhine into continental Europe.
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 coarse angling river. Watch out for long fibreglass rods across the towpath on your bike, not to mention the hooks of anglers 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 the well 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 permitted 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 otherwise 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 downstream you will find river cruisers and narrow boats But you can get no further upstream in anything but a canoe and indeed at St John’s lock Lechlade 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 (The graceful boats you see moored at the top end of Christchurch meadows called Goring, Streatley and Reading which were used as temporary hospitals during WW2) boarding at Folly bridge. You can do the round trip in a day (leave 9.30 pm, back at 6.30 pm) with lunch and some hours in the charming and historic market town of Abingdon. Everyone from younger siblings to Grandma have a great time, the bar serves crisps, 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 or cold. There are two trips a day. The return trip is not expensive and can be booked at Salter’s office on Folly Bride, which you pass on your way down to the boathouse.
Explore and Enjoy
Francis King MA, OBE SPC1st VIII 66-70
And Lower VIIIs coach 2006- 2012