- Written by David Haugh David Haugh
- Category: Thames Thames
- Published: 14 June 2020 14 June 2020
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The forecast is for change, but so far the weather is holding out for our last day of the cruise, which will take us to Abingdon (or Abingdon-on-Thames since 2012, when it reclaimed a title lost in 1974). Cleeve was a good overnight stop for many of us, and Mike and Gay Herlihy, on board Endita, had enjoyed a magnificent sunset from the opposite bank to the Leathern Bottel, compensation maybe, as they’d been unableto moor alongside.
We’re now on the longest unlocked reach of the Thames, with some interesting places to see, and some good overnight stopping places too, but they’re for another day. Having left an ancient hostelry, its not long before we pass another. This is the Beetle and Wedge Boathouse Inn, most recently famous for hosting Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O’Brian and Rory McGrath when, together with Loli the dog, they visited in their tv series of Three Men in a Boat. Its also of course still in Wind in the Willows territory, so this is a familiar stretch of the Thames to many people. The Beetle in the name refers to a hammer, which together with a wedge, was used for splitting logs, and there’s been an inn here, and a ferry, since 1860, although the last ferry left in 1967. Even in 1902 it was being described as a ‘modernised’ inn, something that the new owner aims to do too, although taking over in February of this year might force some unfortunate changes of plan. We’ll have to wait until Andrew and Celia Cotter take Wisecrack back there again to get an update, but you have to wish the new owner lots of luck in these strange times.
The inn is in the village of Moulsford (OE Mule’s ford) and a little further up is the site of the long gone lock which confused Jerome K Jerome, when he and his friends originally passed this way. They had an old, out of date map, which showed a lock in the vicinity. This was probably Chalmore lock, which lasted for less than 50 years from 1838 to 1883, which had been built as a summer, or low water, lock. In 1873, the residents of Wallingford had petitioned for its refurbishment, the lock having fallen into disrepair, but this never happened, and within a couple of years it was gone.
Anyone who’s owned a Freeman on the river will know of the next establishment, Sheridan Marine, now the spiritual home of Freeman’s. When we had one, it was an annual pilgrimage to visit and see what could be got to help with the renovation of our little 22, MkII.
Opposite, is the first of the Stokes, South Stoke, with Little and then North Stoke above. South Stoke has a 13th century church, and a pub, the Perch and Pike. The Ridgeway Path runs through here, too, which probably helps to keep the pub open. The other two Stokes, close by, are fairly similar, although the 14th century wall paintings in North Stoke’s Grade I listed, 12th century church, are worth a visit.
Just above South Stoke is the magnificent Moulsford Railway Bridge. Known locally as the ‘Four Arches Bridge’, it carries the GWR Paddington to Wales line across the Thames. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (I’ve always thought that with a name like that, he was destined for greatness) and built in 1838, it’s constructed from wonderful, red brick, with Bath stone quoins. The arches, with 62 foot spans, are elliptical and skewed across the river, whilst the supports are at right angles, so there is no impediment to navigation, particularly as the headroom is nearly 22 foot.
Passing under gives a wonderful view of the work involved and the skill of the brick-layers, whose efforts have lasted close on two hundred years, and look to go on for many more years yet. Its one of the wonders of the Thames, and the third of Brunel’s great bridges which cross it. A further bridge, keeping to the same style, but without the stone quoins, was tacked on to the original in 1892, to provide for more rail traffic.
We’re back among the ‘ings’ again, this time its the town of Wallingford. First though, we pass under the bridge that’s replaced the ‘ford of Wealh’s people’ as the major crossing point hereabouts. It connects Wallingford and Crowmarsh Gifford, where in 1701, Jethro Tull invented his seed drill. There’s been a bridge here since 1141, when King Stephen besieged Wallingford castle. A stone bridge was built in the 13th century, and there was even a draw bridge inserted during the English Civil War. Although there is some evidence that four of the arches date from this time, the structure we see today was mainly built in 1751, with some replacement of arches since, due to flood damage.
Wallingford was important during the middle ages, and in 1155 became only the second town in England to be granted a Royal Charter. The Treaty of Wallingford, ending the civil war (The Anarchy) between Stephen and Queen Matlida, was signed here. The Black Death had a major impact on the town, and it declined in importance, eventually falling out of favour with the Tudors, who ended the long tradition of royalty using the castle. Henry VIII started to demolish it, using the stone to extend his castle at Windsor. In the end, the building of the bridge at Abingdon, provided a more efficient route to the West, the Midlands and to London, and Wallingford settled into its present role as a comfortable, traditional English market town.
Just above Wallingford Bridge, to starboard, is the landing stage for Salter’s Steamers. There was a regular passenger service between here and Abingdon from about 1888, but nowadays the service only operates for pre-booked groups, although there is a summer service down river, and a regular summer service from Abingdon to Oxford. These old Salter’s steamers are a lovely sight, but its best to give them a wide berth, and with a lot of care, especially in the shallows - I speak from experience!
Next up comes Benson Lock, 72 miles above Teddington. The lock first became a pound lock in 1788, and was converted to its present form in 1870. Bensington (with the ‘ing’ nicely in the middle) pronounced as it is now written - Benson - was once an important village, but although there is a thriving boat hire and teashop just above the lock, and RAF Benson of course, nearby Ewelme has by far the most important history. So, whilst boaters might enjoy an ice-cream at the team room, and a stroll along the tow-path, most won’t be detained by Benson itself. At any rate, as I recall, the ice-creams were a worthwhile reason to stop, even in 1986, when our well-travelled Chairman, Peter Bentley, visited his younger brother, who then worked in Wallingford. His brother had access to a 20 foot Viking cruiser, so together with Margaret, Peter, his brother and wife, took a cruise. There’s a photo of them locking up, but no record of whether they enjoyed an ice-cream.
They went all the way up above Abingdon, at least to Sandford lock - a great place to visit, with a pub right on the lock. Members who went to the Oxford AGM, and on the boat cruise, will remember the Kings Arms well, for that is the pub. The lock is also the location of the infamous Sandford Lasher, notorious for the number of people who drowned in the weir pool. That’s another story, but be careful where you swim, if you ever venture that high.
Back to our cruise, as we approach Shillingford Bridge, which connects the hamlet of Shillingford on the north side of the river, to Wallingford. Although records suggest a bridge here in the 14th century, it wasn’t the strongest of structures, as from about 1379 a ferry did duty, until a wooden bridge was again built here in 1767. This was a toll bridge but, in 1874, the counties of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire bought it, and scrapped the toll. The present stone structure was built in 1827.
On the south side is Shillingford Bridge Hotel, a popular mooring. There’s a charge, but there’s also a choice between the river and the hotel pool for swimming, and a lovely lawn for eating on, or just having a quiet doze in the warm sun. Strictly, being on the south of the river, the hotel isn’t in Shillingford itself, but is part of the wonderfully named Brightwell cum Sotwell, a pretty village with a great “camra’ rated pub, The Red Lion, always worth the walk since its opening about 200 years ago.
I used to think that Shillingford had to do with the cost of a very expensive crossing, before I came across the ‘ing’ word, and now know that the ford used to belong to Sciella and his tribe. Nowadays, or until recently, the sum of £10 seems to have been involved, although that might be to do with the cost of mooring for a night.
‘True Life’ seems to be at home there, and David Harrison and other members of the Thames Region, came here in the past to enjoy the spacious lawn, the tranquil location, the swimming pool and the hotel facilities, and maybe even a stroll into the village to sample the delights of the Red Lion.
Just above Shillingford, the river meanders firstly with a sharp right, then a hairpin left, an increasingly common feature of the Thames as we get higher. On this first meander, is one of the prettiest boat houses around, built in the grounds of a house of very mixed architecture.
Now converted into apartments, with one recently for sale at £1.5m, Shillingford Court was built for FW Mortimer, in 1898. Mortimer was tailor to the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), and apparently covered for the Prince when he entertained Lily Langrty, in one of the rooms of the house - I’ll leave you to think about which room.
Further up the river, and coming in from our right, the River Thame flows into the Thames. This, some say, marks the spot where the Isis begins (or ends, I suppose, should you be coming down river), as those scholarly types higher up the river, call it - Isis meets Thame and becomes Themesis, or Thames. Its worth the walk up the path (the Thame is too shallow for us) to the ancient town of Dorchester. Its name tells us of its origins, and although traces of neolithic settlements from about 4,000-2,000BC have been found, it was the Romans who first built a Vicus here in the 4th century BC, and probably a temple on the present abbey grounds, with Birinus building his cathedral there in 665BC. The present building dates from 1140, which gives the village just enough time to fit in all the Midsommer Murders that have been committed around here since the tv series began.
The next sharp right-hander leads directly to Day’s Lock, where care is needed, as its not always possible to see boats moving ahead, either out of or into the lock, and the weir stream runs right across the river, although all was clear when Andrew and Celia Cotter arrived in their Broom 30, ‘Wise Crack’.
This is the site of the famous Poohsticks competition, originally set up as a fund raiser for the RNLI, by Lock Keeper Lynn David, continued by the Sinodun Rotary Club after Lynn’s retirement, and now moved to the River Windrush, when Rotary members became too old to run the by now international event, with the younger members of Oxford Spires Rotary Club holding it each year.
Sinodun Hills, Mother Dunch’s Buttocks or more commonly Wittenham Clumps, dominates the area above the lock, and apart from attracting the most visitors to an outdoor site in Oxfordshire, they seem to have attracted their fair share of BOC members too, and Alan Darby recommends booking with the lock keeper, as he’s done in the past, with ‘Another Knot’, to secure a mooring at the lock.
The Clumps themselves, if you don’t mind the crowds, are worth the climb. At the top, apart from the extensive view, you can wander amongst the oldest beech tree plantings in England, dating from the 1740s. The Chancellor of the Exchequer might want to make the climb too, to see what he can extract from the ‘Money Pit’, now that the ‘magic money trees' are no more, although he’ll have to beat off the guarding raven first. Another bird, a cuckoo, is trapped in a further hollow, the Cockoo Pen, keeping alive the ancient belief that trapping and keeping a cockoo here will provide eternal summer.
The river now cuts a horse-shoe course up towards Clifton, taking three and a half miles to gain about a mile in distance, for no apparent geological reason. Its a pleasant journey however, with the Clumps always in view, but the vista somewhat marred by the cooling towers of Didcot power station.
Clifton Hampden Bridge comes next. Opened in 1867, it replaced a ferry owned by Exeter College, Oxford, which had been running since 1493, in tandem with a cattle ford. Its a lovely bridge, although it takes a bit of care to get through using its centre arch, probably best with everything down. If you can find space you could moor here and have a drink in the Barley Mow. This Grade II listed pub has been standing since 1352, and with its thatched roof, and olde worlde charm, it’s probably the most photographed and best known on the Thames. Jerome K Jerome thought it, without exception ‘The quaintest, most old-world inn up the river’.
If there was no mooring, an old habit of ours, on Kohaku, was to take the weir stream to The Plough, in the centre of the village. Conveniently, its garden runs down to the river and has a mooring for about four boats, good pub grub and good beer, too. There are even loos, and a shower, for campers and boaters alike. Today, though we’re going to continue on through Clifton lock, towards Culham, and thence to our journey’s end.
Clifton lock, and indeed the bridge, owes its existence to the Lord Mayor of London. In 1826, his barge became stuck in the shallows and rocks at Clifton ferry, whilst taking a ceremonial boat trip from Oxford to London. This event resulted in the building of the lock to prevent such future occurrences, and unlike many others, it did not replace a flash lock. It did though lead to the water level deepening at the cattle ford, great for river traffic, but rendering the ford impassable, leading to the building of Clifton Hampden bridge, which made the ferry obsolete, and led to the ferryman losing his job. Its not recorded who paid him, though.
The next bridge, Sutton, just before Culham lock, is a little tricky too, so taking the tallest arch, again with everything down, is the way to do it. Built in 1807, its pretty enough to be Grade II listed. The road over leads to Sutton Courtenay, which has a couple of good pubs, including The Fish, owned by a French chef and to pay it a visit, go through the lock, up the weir stream, ignoring the no entry signs, find a place to moor in Sutton Pools and walk across the footbridge into the village. Its worth it.
There’s not much to see in Culham itself though, and not just because its a ‘shrunken village’. For whatever reason, it’s smaller than it used to be in the 13th century. Some attribute this to the Black Death, others to poor, wet harvests in the 14th century. Whatever the reason, people got up and left. In more recent times people have arrived too, and the old AERE, now Culham Science Park where research into nuclear fusion is carried out, covers a large site on what was once a fleet air arm airfield, behind the railway station. Culham is the home too, to the only accredited European school in England, although its future is now perhaps in doubt.
On busy summer days, it can be difficult to look around the bend, and under the bridge, to see if there are any spaces on the lock waiting pontoon, and once through the lock, there is a low footbridge over the lock cut, but after that its clear sailing all the way to Abingdon.
We end our cruise pretty much as we started it, in the realms of history. All the way along the Thames we’ve passed through sites of historical significance to the story fo England, and Abingdon-on-Thames has a significant place in that story too. The first evidence, coming in to our right, is the entrance/exit to the Swift Ditch, crossed at this point by Culham Bridge, now by-passed. A plaque on the bridge says it was built in 1416, and was the site of a Civil War skirmish in 1645. Some 500 years earlier, between 955 and 963AD, the monks from the Benedictine Abbey in Abingdon, dug a canal to divert the river closer to the abbey, and this is now the main stream. Despite the monk’s efforts, Swift Ditch remained the quickest route, hence its name, and a pound lock was built in 1624, to aid navigation. At the top end, if you follow the footpath from the lock, you pass over the remains of this old lock. By 1788, Abingdon townsfolk wanted to make the present course the main one, and so Abingdon lock was built, and now we sail into Abingdon along the course built by those hard-working monks, all those years ago. Ten years on, in 1798, the Wilts and Berks Canal was connected to the Thames, and its remains can still be seen to port, before the Old Anchor pub is reached. Further back, just after the entrance to Sutton Pools, is the entrance to the proposed new connecting canal to the west country.
The long, tall building in the photograph is the Old Anchor, with the Alms Houses to the right, and St Helen’s church spire in the distance. Just out of the shot, to the left, is the old iron bridge, built in 1824, which marks the entrance to the River Ock, and the old Wilts and Berks canal. The scene is viewed from Andersey Island, created by the digging of the ‘new’ river course and Swift Ditch, and this creates a great mooring spot, free for a couple of days, which gives easy access into the town, and by a good bus service, into Oxford and the surrounding area. Alan Darby on ‘Another Knot’ moored here, as did Branco and Karen Bragovic on ‘Lady Flo’, before they went off to have a look at the Alms Houses, near St Helen’s Church, but conveniently close to the Old Anchor.
Part of the total of 32 Alms Houses in Abingdon, the 13 at Long Alley have been occupied in their original purpose since 1446, after the Fraternity of the Holy Cross, having gained a Royal Charter in 1441, were able to raise charitable funds to build them. St Helen’s Church had a monopoly on burials at the time, so the houses were built conveniently close to the Church for the ‘old, poor, sick and impotent’ men and women of the parish, to be carried out on their final journey.
The Charter of 1441, offered the first possibility of the townsfolk to take action over their affairs, independent of the Abbey, which had held sway over the town, the market and its corporation for centuries. From its inception for 12 Benedictine monks in 675AD, until Henry VIII dissolution Act of 1538, the abbey had grown to be the 6th richest in Britain. It suffered setbacks in the process, the Danes under King Alfred pinching all its estates, so that by the time the Bishop of Winchester came along in 954, it was in a terrible state of dereliction. The monks however, were nothing if not industrious, and apart from digging out the river, helped make the abbey the second in importance in the land, after Glastonbury.
The town was on an important trading route, which added to its status over the years, with important bridges, now listed as ancient monuments of Britain, being built over the Thames and the Ock. The one over the Ock also bridged the exit for the Wilks and Berks canal.
The Ock now forms part of a scenic walk through Abingdon, having no commercial use after the advent of the railway scuppered the canal’s traffic, particularly after the collapse of one to the connecting viaducts in 1909. However, as Gill Oldham recalls, the townsfolk still made good use of it and she remembers well the time when her Grandparents used to catch eels in the stream. Gill and John have good memories of cruising up to Abingdon, and Gill has lots of memories of the town, too. Gill was born in Marcham, a few miles out of town, and remembers her father, in the late 1940s, and 1950s, having a good head for heights, being commissioned to climb to the top of the town hall to gild the weather vane with gold leaf.
There is still a lot of tradition celebrated in Abingdon; an annual fair which closes the town centre, creating havoc, the Ock Mayor elections, always accompanied by groups of Morris Dancers, a Town Cryer, still in traditional dress with cocked hat, who before making important announcements, rings his bell to gather the folk around him, and of course the throwing of buns from the top of the town hall. This is a more than 400 year old tradition, which happens when the Town Council decides to hold an event to celebrate some royal occasion, such as the Jubilee. Some 4,000 specially baked currant buns are tossed to the crowd below, all of whom want a bun, which turns the event into a… well, into a bun fight.
Seeking a peaceful mooring over an historical one, the cruise is now heading under Abingdon bridge to moor on the lock island, which entails firstly passing through the lock. The bridge, or more correctly two bridges, or maybe even three, has been standing for over 550 years. Its main navigation arch was widened, and heightened, by the Thames Conservancy, and other improvements have been made and added to over the years, but this is still the first bridge, built to replace the ferry, and to secure Abingdon as a major trading town, to the disadvantage of Wallingford. The first, Abingdon, bridge stretches from the town side to Nags Head Island, and supports a very thriving and well known pub of the same name. Sunday afternoons, in summer, are often filled with music lovers listening to bands in the extensive island garden, enjoying the good beer, and the food, too. From Nags Head Island to the south side, and also bridging the flood-plain, is Burford Bridge, (at least technically, but most folk refer to the whole edifice as Abingdon Bridge.) The final part is the piece that bridges the Swift Ditch, known as Culham bridge.
Immediately above the bridge, to starboard, are more free moorings, with the Abbey Gardens, and a very popular open air swimming pool, on the opposite bank. A few hundred metres ahead, but 85 miles above Teddington lock, is the award winning Abingdon lock, written about in the 2018 Spring edition of Sweeping Statements, with lock keeper Richard Hawkins and assistant lock keeper Frank Jordan ready to take a line as we enter. Be aware though, the cooking of bacon butties on board, or the roasting of beef and potatoes in the lock, is forbidden, and all such items will be confiscated by the lock keeper.
The lock island is where the cruise will end, but its also the scene of the end of cruise party. We could even invite non-members, as l’Orage, the original Dunkirk Little Ship, once owned by Raymond Baxter, the ADLS founder, is moored with us on the island, a great spot, complete with water and electricity, and the best place for a party in Abingdon. Enjoy.