Thames Path day five: Oxford to Culham

We started walking the Thames Path, a 180-odd mile walk, back in October last year. Travel was just about okay – an island between lockdowns – even if it still felt a bit edgy at times. We did the first four days’ worth of the walk in one chunk as it is the more remote part of the walk and travel to and from the Path itself is not easy. This meant we were lucky enough to stay at a number of nice places – both the towns/villages and the accommodations themselves. 

With this chunk out of the way, and having made it as far as Oxford, we knew that later sections would be much more accessible, enabling us to tackle it in day-long stages.

Write-ups of the first four sections are found here: Section one from the source at Kemble to Cricklade is here. Section two from Cricklade to Lechlade-on-Thames is here. Section three from Lechlade-on-Thames to the Rose Revived at Newbridge is here. Section four from The Rose Revived at Newbridge to Oxford is here.

Read on for section five… Oxford to Culham.

Returning to Oxford nearly eight months after ending our last section of the Thames Path had that uncanny feeling of it being a totally alien place and yet feeling like it was just yesterday that we left.

We’ve done a few long distance walks before, where we travel to Point A, walk to Point B, then travel home, and then some time later return to Point B to walk on to Point C. This process creates a slightly strange disjointedness – because each journey to and from is different, and yet it is to the same places visited previously. So it was with our return to Oxford and the usual short walk from the station to the last point where we left the main Thames Path last time, so as to create a continuous unbroken walk. Fortunately – and particularly with this walk following a river – this meant the nearest bridge, and a ‘proper’ start and finish line.

The other uncanny thing about starting a walk like this at Oxford is knowing that the ensuing walk would shortly become very remote and rural despite starting at a busy railway station. But first we had some interesting buildings – wharves and warehouses – to pass, which highlighted previous(?) industries along the riverside.

The next lot of buildings which we found alongside the river were of a very different nature  – boathouses and rowing clubhouses as far as the eye could see. We also inevitably saw a number of rowers, scullers and canoeists on this stretch, bringing a brief flurry of energy and speed to an otherwise sleepy section of the river. This also served to highlight my deep lack of knowledge when it comes to the different names for people on boats as I grasped for the right names and M just looked on, exasperated, she having done rowing on the Thames in uni. 

Case in point, the first draft of this post used the spelling ‘skullers’ rather than scullers. 

From this point on, the riverside was very quiet, and we were very much in bucolic countryside on a stunning day. At many points the air was thick with blossom, and the recent wet weather throughout May followed by the warm sunshine had led to a real flourish of new growth across the board.

We paused for a breather at a point just after the impressive Radley College boathouse and noticed damsel flies alighting on the surrounding vegetation, and a number of black-headed gulls swooping fast and low just above the surface of the water, no doubt scooping up whatever tiny flying creatures were enjoying the humid weather. Possibly the aforementioned damsel flies.

I like birds like black-headed gulls: you look at this random bird and think to yourself “I don’t know what that bird is called, but if I had to rename it, I’d say it sure looks like a black headed gull. I’ll google it. Oh. It is a ‘black-headed gull’. Turns out.”

Later, we passed under the Culham railway Bridge, noting that this was not particularly far north of our day’s destination of Culham railway station, but the map showed us we had a large curve of river to follow before we would end up there. This was fine by us on two fronts: first, it was a truly glorious day and to be out and about and we were happy for the walk to continue as long as it desired to. And secondly, this loop of river took us through beautiful Abingdon – or Abingdon-on-Thames, to give it the proper name we saw adorning a number of signs. Apparently it was known simply as Abingdon between 1974 and 2012, and my only prior knowledge of the town was by its proximity to Truck Festival which I attended a few times in the mid-2000s, and which took place in a field near Steventon, off the Abingdon road. 

Abingdon-on-Thames could not possibly have looked more glorious than it did this sunny afternoon. Having crossed the roaring Abingdon weir, and passed adjacent Abingdon Lock, we could see and hear the Saturday afternoon crowds filling Abbey Meadows. From here the river curves slightly towards an attractive stone bridge which spans two channels, and gives access to what is essentially an island in the Thames, home to some pretty parkland, the Nag’s Head pub, a boat hire company, and Annie’s at the Boathouse, a nice cafe that served us exquisite ice creams which we devoured in the sun overlooking the river.

After Cricklade and Lechlade, Abingdon-on-Thames is yet another pretty little place spanning the river, with a stone bridge and church coming into view as you approach. I savour these milestones along the river towards London and look forward to them slowly evolving as we continue along the Thames Path.

The remainder of our day’s walk led us further around this curve in the river, to a point where we left the Thames briefly, instead walking along a different section of waterway named Culham Cut. Along this stretch we noticed the curious presence of what must be permanent boat moorings – at that time sans boat – where the vegetation had been strimmed back neatly, forming a small path between the edges of fields and the river itself.

At Culham Lock, we turned away from the Cut, and headed ‘in-land’ away from the river, passing the small village of Culham itself, and onwards towards the railway station. This latter part was, as is often unfortunately the case, the least elegant and least enjoyable part of the walk: it took us up to the main road out of Culham and a long, hot stretch of pavement next to a fast road. Thankfully, as this is a well-used route to the station for the nearby European School and various scientific buildings, the road has a decent shared bike/footpath running alongside. It’s just a bit close to the fast traffic and you wish there was an alternative path through the adjacent lower-lying fields. The worst part is we will have to retrace our steps along a couple of KMs of this road when we next return to Culham to continue the walk. But we will have another lovely section of riverside walking to look forward to, and we will press on.

The good news, if you find yourself waiting for a train at the pretty but isolated Culham station, is that there is a perfectly serviceable pub directly alongside, and if visiting in good weather, their beer garden is pretty and extensive. I couldn’t help but want to improve their signage/branding, but a pub’s a pub if it serves a cold pint of beer or cider at the end of a long walk.

I hope it’s not another eight months before our next section of the Thames Path.