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Abingdon to Oxford: A Pilgrimage

A #YearofPilgrimage day spent following the mighty River Thames from Abingdon's old abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford

St Helen's, Abingdon
St Helen's, Abingdon

Oh England my England, I found myself thinking, you’re so boggy and wet.

An hour or two earlier, I'd braced myself for a fight with some reeds, in what was to become the first of many battles with nature along the day's 11-mile route. Not for the last time, I'd had to take a diversion to avoid a section of the footpath that looked like it had dissolved into the mud, water and hedgerow. Unfortunately, my way back across Barton Fields, to the 'official' British Pilgrimage Trust route, was similarly blocked.

How hard could it be? How much of a challenge, I thought, could some puddles really present? Alright, so I was walking in early March, in the immediate aftermath of a few named storms: I should have checked how badly flooded the whole route was. In my defence, it was a lovely sunny day, and the Thames Path organisation had tweeted this:

Little was I to know that all those diversions would add several miles to my journey. The River Thames had become swollen with all that rain, and had burst its banks in a number of places, which would be an obstacle even without taking into account all the water-logged ground around the path.

Not the worst obstacle on the route...
Not the worst obstacle on the route...

Barton Fields had a trickle of a stream running through it, but that too was swollen and had pooled in a hollow surrounded by reeds. Very pretty. Very scenic. A bit tricky to get across.

So I trod carefully, and barged my way through the reeds around the edge of the pool. I told myself I would succeed, despite a little difficulty, because I was human and humans have conquered nature. This was one more minor skirmish in the great human campaign to tame the wilds, and I would play my part. I would be victorious.

It was as I stood upright again and nearly lost my balance on the slippery mudbank that I first questioned my earlier confidence. Maybe, I thought, nature just lets us think we're in charge. This was one muddy puddle, but the natural world might throw far worse at me during the course of the coming day. I decided I'd be less cocky in future, and maybe a little more respectful of natural obstacles.

Pilgrimage can be humbling like that.

Soon after Barton Fields, I reached Abingdon Weir. As the name suggests, this was a roaring torrent of water pouring under a bridge, and an early reminder of the possible dangers of nature on the route ahead. For a while, I'd been wandering down a pleasant country path, thinking I could hear traffic in the distance over the birdsong; no, that roar was the weir.

The British Pilgrimage Trust description of this route warns that, after Sandford Lock (some miles further on), the Thames is 'no idle stream, but a demanding force that throughout history has demanded sacrifice'. I think the point had been made to me as early as Abingdon Weir, and the river's temper did not improve!

Maybe, I thought, nature just lets us think we're in charge...

Around Abingdon Weir, I picked myself up a pilgrim staff. Unlike on my previous journey, I found this time a branch slightly shorter than me, and fairly slim. This proved easy to carry – it was never a burden, in fact – and absolutely useful in getting through the increasingly difficult stretches of mud that the path turned into. More than once, I vaulted from one side of the path to the other, over puddles deeper than my boots, and more than once I used the probing end of the staff to establish which patches of water were just puddles and which would have left me knee-deep in the Thames itself. I could finally understand the value of the pilgrim staff, and not just when the woman who greeted me at Christ Church recognised my pilgrim status because of it.

This Thames route was definitely one where I needed the aid of a stick. That puddle in Barton Fields was only the beginning, the first in a long series of muddy patches, boggy stretches and localised quagmires that turned the walk into a struggle. At times, the path was obscured by mud, and at others, it disappeared altogether under pools of rainwater. And don't imagine I'm talking about a bit of mud – more than once I had to move quickly, before the ooze sucked me under. The staff kept me upright, and out of the worst of the river's incursions into the path, and it helped me push back brambles and branches. It almost put me in a pilgrim mindset.

But only almost. This was a tricky day for the pilgrim mindset. I've read a lot about the meditative state that can be reached by walking, and how the deliberative and deliberate act of putting one foot in front of the other can help the pilgrim to transcend their everyday reality and reach a higher plane of contemplation. The animal part of the brain is supposed to focus on the walk, and the human, reasoning part, can fly off to do its own thing.

Well, not on this day. When the going's good, say, along a flat easy path, then you can think. Not in amongst the mud. Every time you get through an especially difficult patch, you wonder if it was worth it and when you’ll have to turn back because the path is impassable.

Struggling for every step across the mud I have to admit was a test of my patience, endurance and honestly my faith in the wisdom of this whole endeavour. What was I hoping to achieve, exactly? Even if I did make it to Oxford, was this fun any more?

And you know what, on the simple stretches, yes, it was fun. When I could stroll across dry, sunny fields and amuse myself with thoughts on the nature of the English countryside, I saw flashes of what this day could have been. When I arrived at Oxford and was welcomed into the cathedral (for the half hour before closing time) I was genuinely touched at how easily the staff let me in without question. But was that worth the whole day's struggle? I'm not so sure.

I told myself I’d laugh about it in years to come. We’ll see. Somewhere before Sandford Lock – maybe halfway through the route – I finally met my match.

This was the first place where I didn’t think ‘I CAN make this if I’m careful, but SHOULD I try?’ This one, there wasn’t a question that the chance of success might outweigh the risk of failing, there just wasn’t a chance of succeeding.

I’d made it over or around areas where the river and the path had become closely acquainted, but on this occasion they’d moved in together and had river babies. There was no path through or around, and the water reached right around the corner, so I couldn’t even tell where the blockage ended.

Reluctantly, I turned back and walked the ten minutes to the last place I’d identified as an escape route if all was lost. From there, I had to take a more urban route, using some real roads with real tarmac. It wasn't in keeping with the pilgrim ethos; a friend of mine kindly tweeted that I was being a wuss, and that medieval pilgrims would have dived right into the Thames to carry on their pilgrimage. Maybe he had a point – maybe medieval pilgrims were more dedicated than me, maybe they could have gone around the blockage (like I'd done on a few earlier occasions, but couldn't this time because of the barbed wire and enclosed land).

Like a medieval pilgrim, though, I didn't consider this a complete failure. It didn't stop me reaching my ultimate destination. Like life, a pilgrimage isn't always plain sailing (although some sailing might have helped me with this particular incident), and, as in life, I was forced to be a bit more resourceful and determined in order to achieve my goals.

There's your motivational speech right there.

Two hours later I found the far end of the blockage, and more fields under water. The Thames Path organisation who manage this route think it’s going to be lovely when the flood waters go down a bit. Maybe they’re right.

The BPT route has two detours, one of which I didn't have time for after my flooding encounter, but the other, up to Iffley, was a delight. Crossing over the Thames at Iffley Lock, this detour takes you rather sharply uphill to a church 'called by some the most impressive Norman church in Britain' (so says the BPT description).

St Mary's, Iffley
St Mary's, Iffley

Built in the 1160s, St Mary's doesn't seem to have changed a great deal, and is still a good example of a fairly consistent church design. Where subsequent generations have made changes, these seem to have been fairly modest, and don't detract from the very Romanesque impression the church gives from first approach. That said, the walls themselves look very new, almost as though they get cleaned every other day – this is an active and loved church.

The current building has a simple layout, with no transept or side chapels, although it apparently once had an anchoress' cell on the south wall. The organ and stained glass are additions since the Reformation. When I visited, St Mary's was a calm, quiet sanctuary that gave me the rest and solace I needed from the rigours of the journey. It was the first time I'd felt at ease on the journey since I'd started out with a little prayer in the church of St Helen's in Abingdon.

St Helen's is quite a different church, in some ways. While St Mary's dominates the hilltop at Iffley and looks over the village, St Helen's sits at the basin of Abingdon, up against the docks and river. St Helen's is surrounded by the town, and for centuries was in competition with the local, and more powerful, Benedictine abbey. Nothing remains of the abbey, except some stones outlining its former walls in the Abbey Gardens, so St Helen's appears to have had the last laugh in that particular conflict.

Like life, a pilgrimage isn't always plain sailing (although some sailing might have helped me with this particular incident), and, as in life, I was forced to be a bit more resourceful and determined in order to achieve my goals.

For much of the way after Sandford Lock, I followed a paved cyclepath, which eventually rejoined and formed the official BPT route. This path for bikes seemed not to have suffered from the local flooding and boggy ground, like the pedestrian footpaths. From here, I finally hit a stretch, and a good long run into Oxford, that was something like what I'd expected from the whole day. I was walking on what basically amounted to a canal towpath, the sun was out, and the trees cast pleasant shadows across some water that clearly knew its place. If only, I thought, the whole day had been like this.

With an inner-city destination, I'd been worried that the last half hour or more of the route might be spent on city streets, surrounded by buildings. Any sense of connection with nature or musings on the countryside would be wiped away in the smoke of urban living, which was exactly the sort of thing a pilgrimage was supposed to get you away from.

But the BPT route to Christ Church from Abingdon is actually quite good at delaying the inevitable city entrance as much as possible. Oxford comes upon the pilgrim suddenly, as you emerge from the riverbank onto a bridge, just a few minutes away from the Tom Tower and the entrance to the cathedral. It’s rather well done, springing the city on you like that, even though you’ve been able to see those dreaming spires through the trees for the last mile or so.

Christ Church's Tom Tower
Christ Church's Tom Tower

I'd expected to find a mercantile, grasping cathedral, insisting I pay the entry fee even as a pilgrim turning up half an hour before closing time. But no, the bowler-hatted guide sent me straight through, and the woman on the entrance desk was delighted to stamp my pilgrim passport. It was a first for both of us.

Between that and Evensong, I made my way back to the river and ceremonially discarded my pilgrim staff, commending it to the care of the Thames and wishing it well for its journey back to Abingdon, from whence it came, or beyond. A reunion felt appropriate, as the staff and the Thames had been my near-constant companions for the journey, and almost characters in the story of my day. This had been a good staff, which had served me well – I couldn't say the same of the river.

At the gate to Christ Church, Oxford: from John Bunyan's 'A Pilgrim's Progress'
At the gate to Christ Church, Oxford: from John Bunyan's 'A Pilgrim's Progress'

Oh, and finally, here's one highlight, of a sort, for me; a rare moment of genuine connection with nature, harking back to the medieval pilgrim experience.

One of the biggest diversions from the route, before the big one, had me tracking off through actual woodland in order to get around a bubbling bog that had devoured the path. As I went deeper into the woods (singing Sondheim lyrics under my breath), a deer ran out in front of me. An actual, wild deer. I’ve no idea where it disappeared to, because it seemed to run towards a barbed wire fence and I never saw it again. It was a fleeting moment of joy, that came back to me over the following days more than most other experiences of that day.

Still, that’s the wild for you; unpredictable, unknowable and occasionally unforgettable.

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