Wallingford to Abingdon near Oxford
After a few nice days, today saw the return of normal English weather. The staff of the George Inn were waiting for me at 7am and I enjoyed scrambled eggs on toast with more toast and marmalade. And a pot of tea.
Although no rain was forecast, I opened the door to a brief and wayward monsoon. AccuWeather now apologetically forecast rain for at least 60 minutes so I put my wet gear on and naturally the rain stopped…for a little while.
I said goodbye to Wallingford and set off along a less interesting part of the Thames. There were flat fields of cows and their excrement, wet grass and few signs of human life. The Thames Path diverted away from the river through Shillingford, a preposterously expensive village of grand houses and landscaped gardens and then I was alone with my thoughts.
I walked for at least three hours without seeing a bench until I reached Clifton Lock where I sat down and dug out my chocolate almonds.
There are so many locks on the Thames that you barely notice them. They were all built in ancient times and are simple and clever. So clever, in fact, that you ask Google who invented them (Leonardo da Vinci did the gates). The gate opens, you sail in, the gate closes, you go up or down, the other gate then opens and off you go. It all works like clockwork for the regulars.
Now introduce the holiday makers on their first trip up the Thames. The regulars look down with horror from their ocean going launches at the little rental boat. It doesn’t seem to want to steer in the right direction nor does it want to stop where required. And when it does, no one is able to throw the rope around the snubbing post to secure the boat. The captain is always cursed with an inept first officer who wishes they had gone to Spain as usual despite the Government advice.
The Lock Keeper is also the master of ceremonies. “Come in on the right”, he shouts. “No, the right!” “Move forward … STOP … watch the gates”. “You. No you! Don’t lean on the wall, you’ll fall in”. He flushes them on their way and tells me he wouldn’t trust them with a Tesco trolley.
I stayed for ages, drawn by the stress and anxiety of the experience.
Just after Clifton Lock I saw my first traditional Thames camping skiff. You can row one of these things along the river and they have a removable canvas cover and everything you might need for your journey. The man came from the Pennines and he gave me that patronising look which northerners reserve for us softies. “Few make it beyond the first day”, he warned me. “Then it gets worse. Winds, driving rain, thick fog”. He thought for a moment and asked if I had a waterproof cover for my map. “Map?”, I replied.
The problem is this. I know he’s right. The Pennine Way is the most grueling trail in Britain. Wainwright drew it up in the 1950s but hated it so much that he left some money behind the bar of the pub at the end to pay for a pint for anyone who makes it. Nowadays it’s only a half.
Meanwhile a second skiff moored and the young man on board played his guitar. He looked fresh from the 1970s, in fact he was the image of my school friend Chris. I remembered him because we once took a boat up the Thames in those far off days. Chris went to medical school in Scotland but was a regular at my College Balls. We sadly lost touch after he qualified. How I miss him. The memories of Chris and my first adolescence friends came rushing back as I walked the final kilometers into Abingdon.
Good morning Wallingford!
Shillingford “Wisteria Cottage”
A word of advice…