Stretching for 184 miles from the river’s trickling source in a Gloucestershire field to London’s Thames Barrier, the Thames Path is a National Trail of charming contrasts. This section, which takes in the 10 miles from Oxford’s spectacular architecture, through scenic farmland to the ancient market town of Abingdon, is no exception. Though, of course, much of
this walk isn’t really the ‘Thames’ Path at all – through Oxford until Iffley Lock, the river is known as the Isis.
A river tamed
Turn right out of Oxford station, along the A420 Botley Road, until you reach the River Isis at Osney Bridge, the start of the walk. Head to the riverside and, with the river on your left, start on your way along the Thames Path National Trail. It’s very difficult to get lost from now on – simply keep the river on your left and follow the path, which is well signposted.
You soon come to Osney Lock, originally built in 1790 by order of the Thames Navigation Commission. The first of many manmade structures you’ll see on this walk, the lock is a reminder of how the once wild river has been tamed over the years to ensure easy passage for boats. Follow the path as it heads up, above riverside level, over the pelican crossing at Abingdon Road, then back down to join the riverside.
The river begins to leave the built-up city behind as you come to the Christ Church Meadow on the other bank, with Oxford’s impressive architecture just visible beyond. Almost immediately you’ll see a set of peculiar squat buildings on the opposite side of the river. These are college boathouses – with each building sporting its college’s crest – part of the proud tradition of rowing on the Isis. On the other side of the boathouses, the River Cherwell joins the Isis as you move into rural Oxfordshire.
The path now heads past the Isis Farmhouse pub and to Iffley Lock, which has rollers to enable rowing boats to be easily moved between the water levels. From here you could take a brief detour to explore Iffley’s Norman church, St Mary’s, a fine example of Romanesque architecture.
Pass beneath the A423 and a railway line before advancing through fields, where you’ll see empty freshwater mussel shells dotted around the water’s edge – the animal inside was a meal for otters or swans perhaps.
Now cross the bridge as the path takes you on to an island, through countryside until, seemingly out of nowhere, you’ll come to Sandford Lock and the Kings Arms pub. You can cross the river here for a drink, or continue on the path and off the island – though take care, as for a moment you’re on a road.
Progress through fields as the Thames flows gently by, past Radley College boathouse. A little further, on the other side of the river, is the impressive, Grade II*-listed Nuneham House. This Palladian villa is now a spiritual retreat, and if you stand and look up towards the house, you can enjoy the view that was painted by a young JMW Turner in 1787.
As you walk now along the often muddy path, nearing Abingdon, the Thames seems to flow so slowly that it’s almost as if this mighty river has no purpose. Even at walking pace, it feels like you could beat it to the sea. And yet it continues to move, as do you, past woodlands and into Abingdon. It is claimed that this pretty market town is the oldest in Britain, but whether true or not, people have certainly lived here for more than 6,000 years. Be sure to explore the ruins of Abingdon Abbey before making your way to Stratton Way and the bus to Oxford station.