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In the Footsteps of Gilbert White…Backwards (Leg 1)

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It was a rather more select bunch who left Oriel College on Friday morning to walk to Oxford than the crowd who arrived there this time last year. I dare say the absence of Oriel’s sumptuous tea made a difference, but then this was the start of our exertions rather than the finish and tea and cakes would have weighed us down. Coffee was very thoughtfully provided and we were seen off by the Treasurer and the Bursar, with whom our suggestion that a statue of Gilbert White be erected instead of that of Cecil Rhodes fell on deaf ears. I expect they have heard it all before….


The weather was not encouraging, but the rain held off until we got to the boat house belonging to Radley College south of Sandford. There we trespassed amongst the craft to eat our lunch in the dry (good thing they didn’t know Marlborough College was there, let alone Wellington) before setting off again, by which time the rain had stopped. The mud was much less formidable than it was last year on this leg of the route – perhaps it doesn’t rain as much in Oxfordshire as Hampshire – and we all remembered Gilbert White in his hat, wig and buckled shoes last year getting thoroughly covered in it. We all remembered Fleur too and wished that she had been with us – it was not the same without her in her high-viz gilet and undaunted cheerfulness. Her health was drunk in champagne on all three days and will continue to be so.

On Saturday the sun came out, and we had a spectacular walk from Abingdon to Dorchester-on-Thames. It was a day for admiring civil engineering, and the group photo was taken in front of the wonderful brick bridge over the Thames at Clifton Hampden. One member of the party, the admirable Tom Darrah-Morgan, stands out in the group not only for his yellow jacket, but also because he was the only member of the party under 60 – but he didn’t appear to mind. Butterflies were thin in number to the disappointment of some of our party, but we were strong on swans and geese, who seemed to prefer the fields to the river. Red kites, introduced over 20 years ago to this part of Oxfordshire were wheeling above our heads.


Some of the group at the Clifton Hampden bridge.

I am pleased to say there was a historical interlude on Day 2. Honor Juniper told us about the history of the wonderful flat lands in the bend of the river at Dorchester, and we listened to her at Day’s Lock, under the lee of Paul Nash’s Whittenham Clumps. We heard more about the extraordinary twin dykes that separated Dorchester (as it was to become) from the river in Iron Age times, and about the development of this beautiful landscape and town from pre-Roman times to the present. The Abbey provided tea and cakes and the White Hart excellent baths!

Day’s Lock was also the scene of what I can fairly safely say was to be the only cultural activity of the walk. In honour of the death-day of William Shakespeare David Whitehouse read from Cassius’ speech about the ‘turbulent Tiber’ – with the waters of the Isis rushing past us through the weir and with pauses while the Iphone caught up with itself – the text is at the end of this blog. Then Captain Oates (Bryan), not to be outdone, gave us ‘If music be the food of love’ and we felt thoroughly in tune with the mood of the times. It is the anniversary of Gilbert White’s birthday (300 years) in 2020, by the way.

On Sunday we set off on the longest leg of the whole walk, leaving from Dorchester and walking beside the river all the way to Goring (12 miles). This 3-day stretch of the Thames has three wonderful weirs, and we lingered on all of them, at Abingdon, Dorchester and Benson with the river in full spate beneath us. Victorian civil engineering was much to the fore again on Day 3, with the astonishing brickwork of Brunel’s Great Western Railway Moulsford bridge giving us pause for thought at South Stoke – we simply could not work out how it had been done. It was a tired group who arrived in Goring but we were revived by The Catherine Wheel’s beer, tea and cider – but some of us were still glad that we weren’t walking again until next Friday! See some of you then.









Photo One – on the weir at Abingdon with Jeremy Thoday in the foreground. Photo Two on the weir at Day’s Lock at Dorchester with Captain Oates first in line.

From Julius Caesar Act One, Scene 2

I know that virtue to be in you, Brutus,
As well as I do know your outward fav our.
Well, honour is the subject of my story.
I cannot tell what you and other men
Think of this life, but, for my single self,
I had as lief not be as live to be
In awe of such a thing as I myself.
I was born free as Caesar. So were you.
We both have fed as well, and we can both
Endure the winter’s cold as well as he.
For once upon a raw and gusty day,
The troubled Tiber chafing with her shores,
Caesar said to me, “Darest thou, Cassius, now
Leap in with me into this angry flood
And swim to yonder point?” Upon the word,
Accoutred as I was, I plungèd in
And bade him follow. So indeed he did.
The torrent roared, and we did buffet it
With lusty sinews, throwing it aside
And stemming it with hearts of controversy.
But ere we could arrive the point proposed,
Caesar cried, “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar. And this is the man who
Is now become a god, and Cassius is
a wretched creature and must bend his body
If Caesar carelessly but nod on him.


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