Em has long wanted to visit Oxford. Previous attempts to visit have been frustrated by illness. We usually go away somewhere for our birthdays so I decided to surprise her with a visit to Oxford for a few days. I booked us into Browns Hotel on Iffley Road and got cheap advance tickets through https://wcbs.trainsplit.com/main.aspx
The journey was an uninterrupted ride on a Cross Country Voyager. Oddly, our reservations were for seats some distance apart, but the reservations system on the train had broken down anyway. The seats we sat in claimed to be reserved from Bristol to Cheltenham, a route the train wasn't taking today. The random seat allocations caused much confusion among passengers boarding along the way, but no-one challenged us in our choice of seats.
Voyagers can be very fast https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_220 but this one seemed to dawdle all the way. The seats, crammed into the limited bodyshell, become uncomfortable after a while. At Wolverhampton a stylish young Muslim woman sat opposite us. It amuses me to see someone adopting a style of traditional dress intended to prevent over excitement among males, then tweak it to make it as sexy as possible within the constraints given.
Between Leamington and Banbury we passed through my childhood trainspotting territory. Our train was a far cry from the Great Western Kings and Castles that used to thunder along this way back in 1962.
We were pleased to get off the train at Oxford. Em took a taxi to our hotel (never again at that price) and I cycled. the taxi driver asked about house prices in Manchester and was shocked that you can buy a 2 bedroom terrace for under £100,000. In Oxford they cost around £350,000. No wonder he charges so much!
I didn't know the way but I had glanced briefly at a map. Inevitably I fook a wrong turn, so I asked someone. Either the residents of Oxford are deeply ignorant of local geography or, like the natives of Bootle, they derive a perverse amusement from sending strangers the wrong way.
Eventually I reached the hotel, via the Thames towpath and Iffley Lock. At each entry point to the towpath the council have put up a big notice warning people not to use the towpath when it is flooded. It seems to me that only the terminally foolhardy would do such a thing. Presumably their legal department is worried that, should someone drown on the flooded towpath, they could be sued for not being there to stop someone doing something stupid. Such is the craziness of the modern duty of care.
Em had already checked into the hotel when we got there. She was not impressed by the stairs up to our room and I had to explain that when I booked I had to take the only room available that was affordable as they were being booked up rapidly. Browns Hotel http://www.brownsoxford.com/ is pleasant with a really good, if expensive, cafe downstairs. We found the bed uncomfortable though and I was disturbed that I kept having to unwedge the fire door at the top of the stairs, only to find it wedged open again later. Oh, and the shower on our floor didn't work.
Em rested and I went out to explore Oxford. I enjoy the amazing architecture, all built in honey coloured stone, but feel more at home in more plebeian places like the covered market. I like the cosmopolitan atmosphere. As you walk along a street you hear many languages spoken and see people from different cultures mingling happily. In Lancashire I'm afraid we have a sort of unspoken apartheid and, while there is cultural diversity, intermingling is, at least in my age group, limited.
My internal homing device failed again so I asked a group of mixed race teenagers hanging about outside a park. They spoke in the poshest accents imaginable but had no idea of local geography. Their best suggestion was to follow a bus.
At a right angle turn in the road I decided to follow a footpath/cycleway that went straight on. It led me into meadows and a crossing of the Cherwell. This seemed good as I needed to cross the Cherwell, but I was a little upstream from where I needed to be. The busy path led to a 1970s estate. A young cyclist had stopped so I stopped to ask. He said he'd had an accident and was trying to make a running repair on his damaged front carrier. I helped with the repair. He didn't know where Iffley Road was but suggested I travel with him back to the city centre. Back at the start of the path I veered off left and soon found my way back.
Back at the hotel, Em had rested. She'd discovered that nearby was an Anglican convent who host 'pay as you like' retreats. She's interested. Most retreats seem to be only for the wealthy. With rye bread bought from the cafe below we ate a simple picnic, then scoured the TV channels for something interesting to watch.
Next morning was Em's birthday. I dug out her present. She had mentioned the need for a better camera, so I got her one. She wanted to explore Oxford. We went to catch a bus, but it was rush hour and the first one to come was full, so we started walking. Em hadn’t brought her new camera so she asked me to photograph this wooden tower on top of a building.
Eventually we got to the City centre. Em was keen to see Christ Church. We walked slowly down pretty stone streets until we found it. Tours were available but Em thought sh would get too tired to complete one. She wanted to rest so I went exploring nearby streets. When we met up again she was keen to see the Bodleian Library, an impressive place and we paid a pound each to be admitted to a bit that was used in the Harry Potter films with an amazing stone ceiling.
It was dinner time and Em had read about the Vaults & Gardens restaurant which was nearby. A sort of healthy posh Hogwarts themed fast food place. We went there and enjoyed middle class portions of healthy but nice food.
Em was tired so we got a bus back to Iffley Road. She needed to rest so I went out on my bike.
My plan was to repeat the route of a walk that I remembered from last time I stayed in Oxford. This would be about 1985. I had a friend called Julia who lived on an old wooden joey whilst studying at the university. I visited to help and advise on repairs. Julia shifted the ballast to one side to attend to problems below the waterline on the other side. A sensible strategy, but with its dangers. In the early hours I was woken by an agitated Julia shouting my name. I got up and followed the calls to find Julia sitting naked on the toilet, which happened to be next to the bilge pump, pumping like mad. A niagara of water was pouring through the side of the boat behind her. It was lucky that she had needed to get up for a pee in the night, otherwise we may not have noticed that the downward side of the boat was steadily filling up until it was too late and we woke up underwater.
It almost was too late. Julias frantic pumping was no way fast enough to reverse the sinking process. I picked up a newspaper, opened it out and went out on to the sterndeck. I was able to reach round underwater and plaster the paper over the porous area. This slowed the leaks sufficiently so that, taking turns at pumping, we were able to empty the bilge and eventually return to our slumbers.
My idea was to follow the canal towpath up to the Dukes Cut then follow that across to the Thames, perhaps, if there was time, go upstream a little, then back down the Thames to rejoin a refreshed Em.
The Oxford Canal terminal basin was filled in in the 1930s to provide a site for Nuffield College.
Now it simply peters out at a road about 100 yards short of its former end. When I was there 30 years ago this dead end was full of unofficial residential boats that British Waterways were trying to get rid of. At one point they even hired a private detective to spy on people. Their case was boosted by complaints from a local resident who said the boats were spoiling her view. It was later discovered that to see the boats from her house you had to stand on a chair and open the bathroom window. The compromise solution was for BW to provide official serviced moorings that the existing residents said were too expensive.
The smart new moorings are still there, now looking a bit run down, but the boats on them are less interesting than they used to be. As well as Julias boat there was a wooden tug with a huge Gardner engine and the Josher motor “Aster”, now on the Kennett & Avon with an uncertain future. At that time she was occupied by an American couple.
The lock to the Thames under the bridge. Straight on are residential moorings and a dead end.
A new development is taking place at Jericho. I believe a boatyard has been destroyed here to make way for more upmarket waterside residences.
Beyond the lock through to the Thames I
was pleased to see that an anarchic jumble of boats survives, no
doubt to the chagrin of the various autorities and snooty residents.
The Thames backwater that runs parallel to the canal is a particular
hive of anarchy. The chaos of cheap old boats is fascinating to me,
though I can see that those of a tidy and tiny mindset will be hugely
offended that such disorder is allowed to survive.
The towpath was busy with walkers and
cyclists. Interesting looking people predominated. As I progressed
the individuality of the moored boats seemed to increase, away from
the standard welded steel boxes towards vessels that would have
brought joy to the heart of JRR Tolkien himself.
I stopped to photograph one rather attractive boat. As I was doing so I noticed two cats perched on top of the next boat. This looked like it would make a good picture so I turned, aimed my camera at them and zoomed in. As I did so I heard a growling shooing noise to my left. I glanced that way and saw, some distance off, a very hairy man heading my way making angry noises and waving a stick. I wasn't sure whether he had a problem with me or with the cats, but I thought I'd get my picture before he arrived. I made chushing noises to get the cats to look my way and pressed the shutter. Unfortunately, in the split second that it took to activate the shutter the cats detected oncoming danger and turned their heads to look at the noisy man, before scarpering into the hedge.
The man was not angry with the cats, he was angry with me. He told me, loudly, that he was fed up with tourists coming here taking photographs. He kept repeating that this was private, not council. I decided not to engage with him for he was speaking nonsense. Bizarrely, he asked if I was here for the beard competition, one that he would surely win.
Rant apparently over he carried on his
walk towards Oxford. More cats appeared wide eyed from the hedge to
join the original pair. Probably they were psychically asking each
other 'what the**** was all that about?'. I saw another photo
opportunity so I raised my camera and pointed it towards the cats.
The angry man must have had eyes in the back of his head for he
detected further photographic activity, turned and ran back towards
me with his stick raised. I turned from the cats, who were once more
beating a hasty retreat, and aimed my camera at the approaching man.
Once more he berated me for my allegedly papperazzi like behaviour,
then left, muttering.
I rode on. A sort of smallholding occupied the strip between canal and railway, with corrugated iron barns and old caravans bursting at the seams. The Oxford bypass crossed overhead on stilts.
I came to the junction with the Dukes cut. The entrance lock, which prevents the Thames from flooding into the canal, had a boat working through it. I soon found the towpath to be almost impassible woodland. At one point an old willow arches low over the path and you have to almost kneel down to get under it.
I found the entrance to the mill
stream, where once number ones delivered boatloads of coal from
Coventry. The motor and butty would go down the stream tied stem to
stem, using the flow of water for motiive power and the engine to
steer. After unloading the motor would reverse out, hauling the butty
From here on the route is a winding backwater populated by what, when they were promoting the British Waterways Bill, the authorities chose to call “colonies of illegal houseboats”. Actually they're just people who refuse to be boxed, doing their best to survive in an over regulated land. I entered one such colony in search of a path. I was greeted by a man with a friendly facade who wanted to know my business. After complimenting me on my T shirt, depicting a bicycle towing the Tardis, he directed me towards the Thames over a soft mown field that was hard going. I dismounted and walked as it was easier. The water route turned back on itself and I began to wonder how far it actually was to the main channel.
I examined my Ordnance Survey map. Close inspection showed that there was no way through on foot or bike to the Thames towpath. This was at odds with my 32 year old recollection, but, knowing the way that memory can be embroidered over time, I decided to believe the map.
I dragged my bike straight across the middle of the huge soft field and joined a noisy trunk road. I followed this until it crossed the canal where I carried my bike down a steel staircase to regain the towpath. A short ride brought me to a lock, where I left the waterway to take a pleasant little lane through the picturesque village of Wolvercote.
Where the lane crossed the navigable channel of the river I went through a gate to join the towpath, or Thames Path as it is now referred to. There's no way you could do any towing from this path nowadays for the actual waters edge is lined in many places with substantial trees and the path often travels through fields some distance from the water.
I came across the ruins of Osney Nunnery, then on to Osney lock, where I lingered to eat some bits and pieces of food I'd brought with me.
Some young rowers appeared from the
weir stream and went off down river. Shortly afterwards an odd
looking catamaran, with an outboard motor and a single seat, followed
the same course. I later discovered that such craft are common on the
Thames and I think are used to carry coaches for the purpose of
shouting at rowers.
With food consumed I headed downriver on the rough but busy path. I passed a converted barge moored randomly in the middle of nowhere.
At Medley Marina the path crosses the river on a long arched footbridge. I crossed this and realised how my memories had got confused. I had conflated two different walks, one to, and partly along, the Dukes Cut and one across Port Meadow then down the Thames towpth back into Oxford.
I carried on down the Thames path until I reached the bridge nearest the hotel.
Em was recovered, so we headed into town on a bus and, eventually, found the Odeon cinema (there are two just to confuse people) where Em had booked tickets for “Blade Runner 2049”. This was very good and raises all kinds of questions about our relationships with the non humans.
Back on the bus, and so to bed.
Next morning Em was suffering for the previous days exertions. She decided to stay most of the day in bed, so I went off on my bike to explore downstream towards Abingdon. Beyond Iffley lock the
path was good and busy with bikes and walkers, then, where the Princes Risborough line crossed on a long girder bridge.
This line once served Cowley, an industrial suburb of Oxford, and Thame on its way to join the direct Banbury to London route. Closed under Beeching, only a freight spur now survives to serve the car factory at Cowley, where they make the new Minis. There is some agitation to get the route revived as an alternative commuter route into London. Recently a new link has been made through from Oxford to join this route via Bicester, but the Cowley line would be much more direct.
Onward, the path deteriorated into a
rutted line across the fields.
I came a cross a rather Enid Blyton house built on an island in the river, Rose Island. A beautiful place to live, but you wouldn't want to keep anything nice on the ground floor because it must flood from time to time.
At Sandford lock there was a mill. An information board gave its history. It's last use, unil 1970, was as a paper mill. At one time it recieved rags by boat upstream from London and coal downstream via the Oxford canal. It must have been an interesting task getting a loaded horse boat down through Oxford. Latterly of course the mill was serviced by road. Now it is upmarket housing.
The path deteriorated so that I had to put my full concentration into keeping moving and staying upright. This was a pity as I had been enjoying the wide gentle valley with its mixture of open fields and woodlands.
As I got nearer to Abingdon the railway crossed over. A branch line once served the town but it was long ago culled by the infamous doctor. The towpath veered away from the river and wound its way through willow woods with wooden bridges over muddy streams.
I have often chuckled at the mountain
bikers brown stripe as they ride mudguardless through merde of all
varieties. I like to have proper strong mudguards. This time the
laugh was on me as my front wheel ground me to a halt, the mudguard
clogged solid with sticky mud and autumn leaves. I got plastered with
the stuff as I patiently unclogged it so that I could ride on.
Where I stopped I noticed a blue tent
among the willows. Nowadays, just like the 1980s, there are homeless
people wherever you go. Despite Oxfords prosperity there are people
who fall through the net, can't work, often because of addiction or
mental health problems, and can't deal with the fathomless and
uncaring bureacracy of the benefits system. They end up begging for
their sustenance and hiding away in tents. At least this tent is in a
I was about to get moving again when I noticed two strange machines, like alien hoovers, moving towards me. They were cutting the grass along the path. I stood back to let them pass, then carried on.
The approach to Abingdon lock is by footbridge across the weir. The lock and its buildings are immaculate, like all Thames locks. At the ancient bridge downstream I left the path and crossed over into the town. A pleasant old place with lots of upmarket shops. I veered off to the left as I wanted to find the entrance to my old friend the Wilts & Berks Canal.
I found the stanked off entrance and
saw the road that now occupies the route of this long defunct water
route. The riverside here was once busy wharves for both canal narrow
boats and the West Country barges of the Thames.
Next to the old entrance was a narrow boat that appeared to be attempting to hide from the authorities
Information on the old wharf said that
a new link to the Wilts & Berks had been built from Abingdon
Marina as part of a very active restoration project. I peddalled
along the riverside road in search of this new canal. The Marina is
predictable, ranks of white fibreglass surrounded by expensive
There are people who dream of making
the whole network like this, but I like the canal entrance, creeping
away unobtrusively under houses and into a tunnel as a narrow canal
I returned to the town, hoping to find
interesting shops where I could buy interesting food for my lunch. I
was disappointed in this, so I bought some provisions at the co-op.
The museum building, presumably the old town hall, was impressive.
Back at the river I pressed on down the towpath but, to be honest, I was starting to get a bit bored with it. The river was wonderful, the boats interesting, the scenery pleasant, the path variable but it was a bit like an endless loop, constantly repeating itself. As I neared another perfectly prim lock at Culham I noticed repetitive 'No Cycling' signs along the path. I decided it was time to head back by getting a train from Culham station.
Leaving the river at the lock, I was soon riding rapidly along a main road. I passed a private school called “The European School”. I wonder how that will fare if the current climate of Europhobia.
The station still has a Station Inn,
now functioning largely as a restaurant I think, and an original,
elegant, Station building, no longer used by the railway, a new
platform with bus shelter has been built to allow it to be let out,
presumably as an office.
I was disappointed to see that there was no train for an hour and a half but I sat in the bus shelter to eat my lunch anyway. With my stomach recharged I considered riding back to Oxford. Apart from retracing my tyremarks back up the towpath the only sensible way involved a lot of unpleasant riding on main roads. The only positive seemed to be that it would take me past a crossroads which, according to the Ordnance Survey, is called “Goldenballs”. I wonder who lives there.
I decided to spend my time
photographing trains. Unfortunately i managed to miss the freights,
which I find more interesting.i
The platform gradually developed a congregation of passengers. I think they were mostly from the nearby science park. Those who were speaking had foreign accents, mostly Spanish. The train arrived and soon I was back in Oxford.
By the magic of telephonic
communication I had arranged to meet Em in the covered market. We had
coffee and flapjack then she wanted to visit the Eagle and Child pub
where CS Lewis, JRR Tolkein and their mates used to meet for a drink.
It's still a proper old fashioned dark pub and we sat where the great
authors of old used to sit.
It was time to head back to Iffley Road. We had hoped to go to a folk night at a pub by the river but Em was too poorly so we stayed in and I started to read an interesting travel book about visiting Iran and Afghanistan in 1933, having redeemed a book token I was given at Christmas.
Next day was Saturday. We met once again for coffee and cakes at the covered market. Em then made her way slowly to the Pitt Rivers Museum while I went down to the river, perched myself near the railway bridge and enjoyed watching trains and boats and writing. Eventually I was summoned and rode up through the town centre to meet her in the picturesque Lamb & Flag alley.
After eating a meal unremarkable except for its price per 100 gram at a little cafe we continued down to Folly Bridge. This is the starting point for Salters Steamers who have been operating passenger boats on the river since the mid nineteenth century. Our boat was shaped like a traditional Thames launch but was made of fibreglass and powered by electricity. We whirred down the busy river, passing punts and rowers and all kinds of craft.
The variety here is amazing. We passed
“Pamela”, the butty that used to run horse drawn hostelboat
holidays. I like boats that are non standard and I particularly
enjoyed the bizzarre conversion of an old British Waterways work
Back at Folly Bridge Em was getting tired, so we made our way back up to High St for Em to get a bus. I went off to the station to check on trains as I had seen warnings of disruption due to electrification work. They said our train would be OK, it was trains to Paddington that were disrupted. Another nice ride along the towpath brought me back to the hotel. We spent another evening reading. Downstairs the hotel owners were having a party, entry by ticket, in aid of the local poetry group. We were invited but decided not to go. Instead we enjoyed the excellent jazz singing and saxaphone playing.
Sunday morning we had to leave. While Em slumbered I went out at first light and rode down to the river. I went exploring a bit and found a delightful backwater full of boats at Iffley Meadows. Unfortunately I'd left my camera behind. One of the boats was “Mafeking”, a converted iron dayboat which I remember on the Oxford Canal in the 1980s. A friend of Julia's lived aboard.
Back at Browns Hotel we quickly packed and headed for Oxford. Once more we met up in the covered market but, it being Sunday morning, hardly anything was open. We breakfasted at a cafe across the road, then made our way to the station, hours early. I was sent on an errand to find something for lunch.
As we approached the station we passed a sea of bikes. this is how things need to be, those who can cycling rather than everyone using motor vehicles.
The station was busy with people hoping to be somewere else. There were lots of extra railway staff standing about wearing different coloured plastic tabards saying things like 'customer service'. They didn't seem to be doing much servicing. One young lady had a pink tabard which said “Customer Service Ambassador”. She was lolling against a post with a vacanthttps://www.northernbelle.co.uk/northern-belle-train/ look on her face and didn't seem the least bit ambassadorial. Em pointed out that 2 good looking young customer service chaps were behaving with each other in a rather sexualised but somewhat unprofessional manner. Someone asked them what they were doing there and they said they'd been drafted in from Worcester as extra security.
As we waited the Northern Belle luxury train drew into one of the through lines and paused for a while. https://www.northernbelle.co.uk/northern-belle-train/
Diners on the train, who had paid at least £250 for the privilege, watched us waiting as they ate. At each end was a 3000HP class 57 locomotive belonging to Direct Rail Services (a subsidiary of British nuclear Fuels) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Rail_Class_57 Why the needed so much power I don't know, though possibly the train was due to reverse somewhere that there were no run round facilities so they needed an engine on each end.
Our Cross Country Voyager arrived and we scrambled aboard the crowded train which was soon whisking us through the pleasant undulating countryside. At Birmingham New St we had to change. Why bdon't they put information about which platform trains are going from actually on each platform? We caught our next train, which was also crowded.
At Manchester I cycled up the towpath, Em got the tram. I stopped at Portland Basin to check on the boats and change some batteries, then got told off for being late back.
That night we both enjoyed being in a comfortable bed.