WALKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF GILBERT WHITE Selborne to Oxford
THE EIGHTH DAY 5th May
ABINGDON TO ORIEL COLLEGE, OXFORD
Well, we made it. At the dot of three o’clock, with the clock striking, we crossed the Oriel threshold, into the stunning Jacobean quadrangle, in blazing if blustery sunshine that had kept us company the whole way from Abingdon. Rain threatened but never actually fell on us – maybe we had had our fair share at Wallingford. This was our largest day of walkers, with nearly 40 of us on the Thames path, including Gilbert White (aka Ronnie Davidson-Houston) on the only part of the walk that I feel reasonably certain would also have been trodden by Gilbert himself. We know he stayed at Abingdon (and Reading and probably Basingstoke en route) and what could be more easy than to follow the Thames into Oxford, as we did? Also with us was his trusty maidservant dressed in full 18th century costume, carrying a 20th century haversack, otherwise known as Amanda Pagett from the Gilbert White’s House staff.
Gilbert White before he nearly lost his hat into the river – note the fabulous buckled shoes
Trusty servant Amanda, with Gilbert before the mud got to him, and Captain Oates
Special mention must be made of Giles Harrop, accompanied by Sona without her belt and braces car by now, who has walked the whole walk apart from a brief spell in Louisa yesterday, despite being in recovery from very debilitating medical treatment – what an example for us all of fortitude and determination. I can’t help feeling it was this spirit which carried Scott, Oates and the rest to the South Pole and back, but we are all so pleased that Giles made it to his destination, Oriel!
The route led us through the thickets and marshes to the north of Abingdon, and on to the open marshes, complete with geese but alas for poor Finn, no sheep today.
Overhead were terns presumably making their way north from their winter lodgings, and perhaps blown inland by the winds. Geese abounded in the fields and on the water, and swans too. The picture was taken at Sandford, and you might be able to discern the goslings keeping their parents company.
At Nuneham Park, nearly opposite the Radley boathouses a folly in the grounds was the former Carfax conduit, pointed out by champion gate-opener and holder Jeremy Thoday. Here is the Wikipaedia entry about it:
The Carfax Conduit was a water conduit that supplied the city of Oxford with water from 1617 until the 19th century.
The conduit ran in an underground lead pipe from a spring on the hillside above the village of North Hinksey, beneath Seacourt Streamand the River Thames, to a building at Carfax in the centre of Oxford. The system was built by Otho Nicholson, a London lawyer, to supply the citizens of Oxford with clean water. It replaced a system built by Osney Abbey between 1205 and 1221 that had fallen into disrepair.
The conduit building at Carfax was an elaborate structure, some 40 feet (12 m) tall, with eight niches containing statues of historic and mythical figures. By 1787 it had become an obstacle to traffic and it was removed and replaced by a smaller cistern. The original structure was given to the Earl Harcourt, who had it re-erected in the grounds of his home, Nuneham House, where it remains to this day.
After a rather brief lunch at Stanford – where the weir is known as the Stanford Lasher and the lock has the biggest fall of water on the Thames – we pressed on into Oxford, catching our first glimpse of the dreaming spires as we also saw our first boathouses. It was at this point that Rosemary Andreae caught up with us, jogging from Sandford to ensure she was one of the party to enter Oxford. Given her speed I am rather thankful she didn’t join the walk any earlier, but it was fantastic that she managed to join us.
The party at Iffley Lock
Predictably cyclists found our presence irritating, but no-one was actually run over as far as I could tell, and at 2.30 we arrived at Folly Bridge, to be greeted by the non-walking members of the party (most of whom have muscled into the photo below) and Tim Pottle of Oriel, who guided us across Christchurch Meadows, past the Merton sports fields and into our destination.
The welcome at Oriel was magnificent. The Provost – Moira Wallace OBE – welcomed us with humour and grace to a superb tea in the Champneys room (the mind boggles at the name…..did the fellows of Oriel find themselves in recovery mode in the famous health spa, or is it celebrating an earlier incarnation?). 18th century fancies had been prepared by the Librarian Marjorie Szurco and a small exhibition of Gilbert White-related artefacts was shown by the college archivist Rob Petre – he showed us Gilbert’s account book, a book of his sermons – one preached 18 times but once you are onto a good thing …..– and a book which recorded incidents in his career as a fellow. I felt compelled to make a short and heart-felt speech to thank all those who contributed so much to making the walk possible, and also to give a few details about Gilbert’s life as a fellow, where the story that caused the most laughs was as follows:
He records in the 1750s during one visit that he tried to borrow pen and ink from two students at the college, to be told “that they had never really possessed any since they came to College, tho’ they had been there two and three years.” Gilbert commented – “I hope this fashion is not general.”
Bryan was very kind about the organisation of the walk and we were all impressed by the profit he had gained from his reading of the Gideon Bible.
After all this grandeur and excitement of actually arriving at our goal, most of us then left the splendour of Oriel to catch the bus back to Abingdon! Sic transit, as they say.
Thank you to all who accompanied me on this walk, it has been a great experience. Thank you particularly to Fleur, Caroline and Avril who have kept me company on the recces, and to the 2 sherpas who have rescued us in their cars. Thank you to Captain Oates and David Whitehouse, whose good humour brushed aside blisters, strained muscles and other irritations. Thank you to David Knowles and Roger Blackburn for bringing Louisa to the rescue of Giles, Captain Oates and myself on Day 7 and effortlessly taking us into Abingdon (with the help of Captain Oates at the oars). Thank you to Fleur, Selina and Finn for acting as pilot fish for most of the way, to all those who walked all the way and to those who joined us for individual days and for sets of days. It has been a great trip and the friendship of all the walkers made it all possible and very special.