Monday, 6 September 2021

THAMES: 15) 'Thames or Isis'

River Thames or Isis, the maps read now. What does it mean? Two names at once? Or are you expected to choose one or the other, like, say, chocolate or pistachio ice cream, or a red suitcase or a blue suitcase?
Is it the Isis now? Or still the Thames? Is this still the same river?
The river itself is silent on this matter. What the names really tell us about are the humans who come up with them, and here they tell us that there is a set of humans who do things differently from the rest. So differently, at that, that even the water, the source of all that they are, takes on an alternate meaning in their presence.
River Thames or Isis. They tell us, in other words, that we encroach on the core domains of the Oxford English. And that, the Oxfordese tribes would have us believe, is special.
Abingdon. At population 40,000, this largest of Oxford’s moons has achieved stable orbit – for now – by drawing on that city’s economic and intellectual atmosphere while exerting one very much its own.
The river at Clifton Hampden, one of several villages that shelter in the bush along the Thames's-or-Isis's meanders.
Is that difference substantial, as far as the river is concerned? As we draw into Lewis Carroll and Philip Pullman territory, should we expect to find people nosing around in colourful boats that aren’t from around here, no doubt garbed in suspicious hats and coats? Are there glimpses of rabbits darting into holes in the undergrowth, pocket-watch in one paw and bottle of dubious fluids in the other? What is this mystique about the Oxfordshire leisurelands? By what high otherworldly air are they supposedly set apart from the long procession of downstream Privilege Forts which, in flowing through them hereafter, the river must find merely mundane?
Or is it all a magic show, a masquerade of dialect and illusion? Might it be mere disguise for what’s really just a continuation of this valley’s nests of wealth and power, here as there seeking creative ways to write the suffering of those they exclude out of the story?
How different is it, really?
At one level the Oxfordshire Thames would seem to bear much in common with the fare so far. There are lengthening slogs across farm fields; white pleasure-cruisers, lazing past with invariably white passengers; and no fewer than three straight cuts, dug through where they – their monks, their merchants – couldn’t be bothered to put up with the water’s wilful twists and bends.
But at another level, perhaps one does begin to detect a few kinks in the cosmic fabric. The settlements here are secretive, hidden behind farm fields or curtains of bush. As at their Dorchester concentration point, the fields in question have been especially fertile in their yield of clues to thousands of years of habitation gone by. The long progress through these agrarian margins is intermittently disturbed by the metallic sheen of cutting-edge science and technology: the satellite belt of research and development installations that swirl in close orbit of Oxford University. And in the spaces in between you stumble through a field of much smaller asteroids, each unique in shape. Those are the bizarre native rituals peculiar to each village or sub-tribe, the likes of Poohsticks and Bun-Throwing and Morris Dancing which, just perhaps, can only be made sense of under a Carrollian suspension of the limits of everyday belief.
Little Wittenham Bridge. This unassuming footbridge held international significance as the site of the World Poohsticks Championships until 2015.
A suspicious tree arrangement spotted in the rustic middle distance between the Didcot power station and the Culham nuclear fusion research centre. You can’t be too sure of anything in a landscape like this.
A world unto itself then? A place where the imaginary is real, and the real – that is, COVID-19 failure, Brexit-induced food shortages, and most lately this country’s monstrous and agonising betrayal of the Afghans – is all consigned to rude imagination?
At times like these regular attention is drawn to the warnings of one who offered some of the clearest visions on how truth and reality wither in the authoritarian shadow. It so happens that this bit of floodplain is also where George Orwell – who it might be noted, took a river’s name as his own – at last had his bones laid to rest. It’s doubtful his less corporeal parts get much rest these days, whatever the enchantments called up by such nomemancy as Thames or Isis.
The confluence with the River Thame is the start of today’s progress, and the lower extent of the River Thames or Isis naming convention.
Start: Confluence with the River Thame, near Dorchester-on-Thames (nearest station: miles away, take the X39 or X40 bus from Reading or Oxford instead and walk in from the stop on the Dorchester Bypass)
End: Abingdon Bridge (nearest station: miles away, take the X3 or X13 bus from Stratton Way to Oxford or Didcot Parkway instead)
Length: 14.5km/9 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse
Topics: Little Wittenham, Clifton Hampden, Sutton Courtney and Culham, and Abingdon. Is it special?
Little Wittenham
West of the peninsula between the Thames and the Thame, a sweeping U-shaped loop in the larger river creates an even broader peninsula. This one is spread with farm fields and flood meadows and guarded by sibling hamlets at its neck: Little Wittenham on one side, Long Wittenham on the other.
The Wittenham Clumps as seen from the Dorchester outskirts. As the only high ground for miles around, those ancient hills look out over much of today’s section. The Dyke Hills, former rampart of a late Iron Age trading and crafting centre, run across the foreground.
Where once stood that ancient settlement you are now more likely to find these fellows.
What reflection does it make on this country, that so significant a threshold as the confluence with the Thame has been defaced with COVID-19 conspiracy theories?
A large pasture holds the bottom of the Dorchester peninsula, with woolly inhabitants to offer wholesome company round the first of today’s many riverbends.
Much breakfast is had on this field.
The black-fleeced and white-fleeced populations are about fifty-fifty here.
Regrettably they tend to shuffle away in shyness after a few moments, providing no opportunity to touch the fluff about their heads.
There are impressively large trees to be found here at the foot of the Wittenham Clumps.
Watch out – this one’s armed.
These would appear to be horse chestnuts, known colloquially as conkers. In earlier generations when it was still safe for young people to go out in this country without getting stabbed, records speak of a popular competitive pastime by which they would thread string through the smooth, hard seeds in these shells and swing them into each other’s, scoring points if they managed to break their opponents’. At higher degrees of professionalism they were said to harden their own conkers by aging them or soaking them in varnish.
Round the corner is Day’s Lock, whose lock-keeper’s cottage adjoins the footbridge to Little Wittenham. The bridge might appear a simple white-coated iron and wood affair, but it holds a special place in English sporting consciousness.
Little Wittenham Bridge, with the Day’s Lock cottage on the western bank and a rich white moneyboat shaving narrowly beneath the bridge.
In the much-beloved Winnie-the-Pooh stories of A. A. Milne, the eponymous friendly bear and his companions play a game in which, while stood on a bridge and facing upstream, each simultaneously drops a stick into the river. They then wait to see whose stick emerges first on the downstream side, with that individual considered the winner. Poohsticks, as this game became known, rose to broad popularity with the success of the Pooh books and occasionally attained practice as a professional sport, with detailed stratagems devised around the shape and composition of the stick, the method of its release, and the identification of the fastest channel of river current, along with severe penalties for any participant deemed to have thrown their stick rather than dropped it.
In 1984 the late Lynn David, resident lock-keeper here at Day’s Lock, had the idea to hold a Poohsticks fundraising event on this bridge for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) – a venerable charity devoted to saving lives at sea (and lately vilified by the English nationalists for rescuing refugees rather than letting them drown). The Poohsticks tournament took off as an annual event, attracting ever larger crowds to this spot and eventually reaching a international television audience.
Such was its popularity that by 2015 the crowds had outgrown this little bridge, and the World Poohsticks Championship was moved for safety to a bridge on the River Windrush further up the Thames. It was last held in 2018, with the COVID-19 pandemic regrettably forcing its cancellation for several years running.
Day’s Lock in action – notice the two cheerful lock-keepers operating it on behalf of boaters. Built in 1789 by the Thames Navigation Commission, it was apparently named for a family of local Catholic yeomen – though under what circumstances is an interesting question given this country’s violent hostility to Catholics at that time. The lock gradually fell into ruin but was thoroughly rebuilt in the late nineteenth century.
Walking upon the lock’s gates and weir gets you across the river, but if vessels are passing through then you’ll need to wait till they shut the gates after them.
Upstream from atop the weir.
The fourteenth-century bell tower of Little Wittenham’s St. Peter’s Church peeks over the treeline. This tiny village at the foot of the Wittenham Clumps was once held by the abbey up in Abingdon, which surrendered it under suppression by Henry VIII in the 1530s. Little Wittenham ended up in the hands of the powerful Dunch family, with the evidently sizeable hindquarters of one of its female notables – supposedly Oliver Cromwell’s aunt – producing the hills’ local nickname.
There follows a trek of some four kilometres round the top of this loop. These low-lying flood meadows make for easy walking when dry, but likely grow treacherous, sometimes impassably so, after heavy rains or during the harsh English winter.
Could the transition from stone pillboxes to brick ones be another representation of the Oxford glamour? While the former merely provide a defensible firing position, no doubt these ones work by disgorging otherworldly magical forces out of portals. Alas their cunning plan was not thought through: this one’s been defeated by a single sheep.
From here it’s easy to appreciate the flatness of the river valley in the lower Oxford Plain. The sky is broad and the horizons are far away.
Across to the east on the Dorchester side the meadows and their fleecy inhabitants stretch on. The latter’s bleats provide a chorus along here as they keep up their correspondence over a great distance. No doubt they are exchanging grievances over the filled in-gravel quarries over there, which demolished the remains of one of this country’s most important Neolithic ceremonial sites.
Even in dry conditions these fields retain water, to the advantage of gregarious congregations like these.
Suddenly, a floof.
Near the top of the loop the back gardens of affluent houses line up across the water. These are the residences of Burcot, a tiny hamlet traditionally in the orbit of Dorchester.
Despite a present population of only about five hundred people, Burcot carried enormous importance as far as the river is concerned. The hard sandstone river bed and low natural water levels here meant that till the last two hundred years or so, the river became unnavigable to boats here. Travellers heading upstream were thus forced to disembark and continue their journeys by land.
Eventually successive regimes tried to do something about this. Their first effort, the Oxford-Burcot Commission appointed by James I in 1605, represented this country’s first government commission into the management of the Thames. Nonetheless they struggled, and the problem was really only solved when the Thames Navigation Commission’s locks and weirs raised the water level at the end of the following century.
Burcot lost its traditional importance after that, but from the Victorian period on it revived as an attractive place to live for the tiny minority of people who could afford it. Almost all its houses appear to date to within the last hundred and twenty years or so.
The Chinese goddess Nüwā is said to have created humans by scooping earth out of a riverbank and shaping them by hand. This appears a candidate for where she created the English, though one might ought to question her sobriety at the time.
The Wittenham Clumps are in plain sight to the south. You can bet that out here you’re in plain sight of them too.
This looks like a newer creation. If you row across to its lawn in a canoe and place your fingertip on a blade of grass, how many seconds till the alarms go off and automated turrets pop from the ground to kill you?
In hushed whispers, it’s also suggested that Burcot, along with some of these other villages in the Dorchester cluster, were a hotbed of religious dissidence during the height of repressive English Protestantism in the eighteenth century. There is evidence that adherence to Catholicism or non-conforming Protestant branches bubbled on in these parts, perhaps explaining how a Catholic family could stay prominent enough to got a lock named after them.
Here on the west side meanwhile, human habitation is limited to clumps of farmhouses in the distance. The fields along the river belong to a bulkier populace.
Specifically – Nuuo. These don’t care what religion you are. They’ll moo at you regardless.
A certain rectangularity might warrant inquiry here.
Then there are works.
Temporary fences and signs of digging materialise along the northern arc. They are part of a project to transform some of these water meadows into a full-fledged wetland, as organised by an alliance of local trusts under the name River of Life.
The goal appears to be to improve flood flows into these meadows, thus creating valuable wildlife habitats – fish, newts, waterfowl and so forth – as well as improving water retention so as to alleviate the risk of downstream flooding.
COVID-19 has slowed the project but it appears to be getting back underway; a couple of surveyors were spotted assessing one of the worksites. Notably it’s funded by a European Union agricultural development grant, making it one of a species of project facing imminent extinction due to Brexit.
Burcot lounges expensively on.
Plenty of dogs come out this way, with much excitement thrown off by their encounters. Here such an encounter is unfortunately deferred by the intervening body of water.
Not so much the Cheshire Cat as the Oxfordshire Dog.
Cross a few more fields from here and you reach another curious little settlement.
Look. They’re storing dubious concealed objects in this one.
It’s about the right size and shape for a crate. Doubtless it contains weapons to do oppressive colonial wrong things with.
Boathouses like these are common along here, but in general come attached to posh houses. That this one emerges straight from bush can only mean it’s a gateway to an alternate Earth where this is part of South Scotland Province.
Soon the roofs of Clifton Hampden emerge on high.
Clifton Hampden
The operative part of this village’s name is brusquely pragmatic: village/farmstead (Anglo-Saxon -tun) on top of a cliff. Historically a tiny rural outpost of Dorchester supported by the Abingdon road on a fordable spot on the river, its profile grew with the turnpiking of that road in the 1730s (it’s now the A415), followed by the coming of the Thames Navigation Commission to fight the turbulent meanders just upstream.
By then its name had got a Hampden attached. How is not clear, although the lord of the manor in the 1530s was apparently a Miles Hampden, whose family must therefore be the prime suspects as to why this place has inherited the rather less pragmatic – you might say positively unwieldly – title of Clifton Hampden.
Clifton Hampden’s St. Michael and All Angels Church: an 1840s Gothic Revival restoration job, albeit allegedly with bits inside that date back to the twelfth century. Till the nineteenth it was a satellite chapel of Dorchester.
The highlight of present-day Clifton Hampden is its bridge. Its architect was George Gilbert Scott, better known as a prolific redesigner of public buildings and churches (including the above), hence perhaps this bridge’s picturesque idiosyncrasy.
The village got a new breath of life in the Victorian period, when it fell into the control of Henry Hucks Gibbs (a.k.a. Lord Aldenham), governor of the Bank of England, who commissioned many upgrades and restorations. With the water level raised by the upstream lock, to the relief of river traffic but the consternation of people trying to take cattle across the river, it received this charming bridge made from local red brick in 1867 to placate the angry latter.
The bridge was built with these triangular bulwarks to provide pedestrian refuges, a convenience which has come into its own in the age of motor traffic. It charged tolls to cross till the Oxfordshire and Berkshire government councils bought it off Gibbs’s descendants in 1946.
Leisure-craft sit parked along the riverbank on the approach to Clifton Hampden’s lock and river cut.
An extremely suspicious piece of cargo is spotted being smuggled downstream. Likely it’s something from the nearby Culham nuclear fusion research centre, getting sneaked away for military adaptation.
Across the bridge we descend the west flank of the flood-meadow peninsula. On its lower corner sits the village of Long Wittenham, but it is too much of a trouble to reach on account of the river’s sudden rambles next to it – or rather, the decision of the Thames Navigation Commissioners to engineer their way through them after getting fed up of endless accidents, disasters and delays.
The product of their efforts, after decades of abortive schemes and suggestions, was Clifton Lock – which was then further delayed for reasons described in the sources in no greater detail than that ‘the owner of the land was a lunatic’. It was finally completed in 1822 at the head of the Clifton Cut: a trench they carved straight through the neck of these meanders to bypass them altogether.

Clifton Lock, also in action. The cheerful lockkeeper will shout a greeting to you as you pass.
The Clifton Cut: dead straight and flat all the way along. Long Wittenham along the river’s natural course is a long detour followed by a very long distance to the next crossing point (which is maybe why it’s Long Wittenham), so let’s grudgingly forego it and take the simpler track along the cut.
Here at least is one advantage in doing so.
It’s a variegated crowd, this one.
The weir at the head of the Clifton Cut, where it first diverges from the river (and where you rejoin it if travelling upstream).

There follows one of the longest slogs so far through open farmland, with little in the way of settlements or installations to distinguish it – or so it appears. In fact the river threads this marginal band between two serious high-energy particles in orbit of the Oxford nucleus: the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy to the north, and the railway junction town of Didcot with its great big power station to the south.
You wouldn’t think it, looking at this. Miles of agrarian back-of-beyond, side by side with marvels or monsters (depending on your point of view) of science and technology. Perhaps that manner of amalgam is an Oxfordshire thing too.
This has to be the aftermath of some esoteric ritual. What unimaginable entities might they have called forth here on a starlit summer’s night?
Halfway up this long reach, the village of Appleford peeks out from the growths across to the south. This is an old settlement which appears in Anglo-Saxon land grant records, although farmers and gravel extractors in the 1950s and 60s discovered large hoards of Roman coins and pewter artifacts here. The village’s name likely indicates a traditional role as a crossing point to bring the produce of the orchards to its south – still Berkshire back then – into Oxfordshire.
The oldest parts of Appleford’s church, whose spire pokes out here, go back to the Norman period. Like Little Wittenham it existed as an appendage of Abingdon Abbey till that monastery’s destruction by Henry VIII.
More nuuo.
And more of this, too. How far up do we suppose they go?
Appleford also comes with a railway bridge – and with it the return of the Great Western Railway, which here has put out a branch from Didcot for the final leg of its linkage to Oxford.
Both sides of the bridge are thick with vegetation such that you only get much of a view of it from beneath. Compared with Brunel’s mantlepiece-quality pieces down in the Goring Gap this bridge is a more hard-headed affair, built first in timber in 1844, replaced with wrought iron in the 1850s, and finally done up in steel in 1927.
The chimneys of the Didcot B gas power station stand as one of the most recognisable landmarks of this region and by this point are ubiquitous on the southern horizon.
After further lengthy trekking through farms the trail at last dives into a tight riverside thicket – on emergence from which, after long kilometres with no settlements in sight, two suddenly crop up at once.

Yes. There are trees with faces here.
Come here at night and see what happens.

Sutton Courtenay and Culham
Between Sutton Courtenay to the south and Culham to the north we have another round of hydro-engineering. When the Culham Cut opened in 1809 it was one of the longest artificial cuts yet made on the Thames to that date, and served as a proof of concept on which they based the Clifton one.
The village of Sutton Courtenay, cumbersome double-barrel name and all, streaks away along the river’s original course before skewing off down the Harwell Road to make contact with the Didcot Power Station complex, which no doubt supports a large proportion of its livelihoods. Wayfarers are once again encouraged to follow the Cut, but the village harbours secrets not many people know and is well worth a quick diversion.
Sutton Bridge, an 1807 stone crossing with a humongous purple thing trying to squeeze through it. The bridge gained an extension two years later, so that it crosses both the main river and the Cut to provide access to Sutton Courtenay. It replaced earlier bridges and ferries and as at Clifton Hampden used to charge tolls.
Culham Lock – named for the village on the north side – was built out of stone at the foot of the Cut.
Sutton Courtenay. This northern hub around the river and church would appear to be the oldest part of the village.
This bend has been inhabited since very ancient times, but the present village seems to be Anglo-Saxon in origin. Its initial name of Sutton, meaning south village/farmstead, was named in apparent reference to Abingdon, of whose abbey it became another satellite under the Kingdom of Wessex.
Sutton was a pretty major centre in its own right if we judge by the hints of massive installations found here by Time Team among others. These include not only one of the largest Saxon timber halls in the country but also an enormous causeway, which together with the weirs, bridges and islands that emerged over later centuries, have split the river’s flow into a leafy backwater known as the Sutton Pools.
A trail crosses a series of weirs along the Sutton Pools to rejoin the Cut halfway down. Sutton Courtenay was big on paper-milling, though the mills have long since disappeared. The separation of the water flow into no fewer than three channels makes this one of the more complex segments of the river.

As for why it’s called Sutton Courtenay, the culprits were the de Courtenay family from France, a bunch of Crusaders who developed an English branch in the twelfth century. Specifically, Reginald de Courtenay is said to have been given this village by Henry II, supposedly for assisting him in securing his kingship out of the shambolic and bloody power struggle between Matilda and Stephen. Reginald’s family later became Earls of Devon, where they live in a huge castle and still have a guy in the House of Lords today.
Sutton Courtenay’s All Saints Church, with a twelfth-century Norman tower and a brick porch conspicuously stuck on in the fifteenth. It narrowly survived the civil war when the vicar at the time, a supporter of Parliament here under the nose of the king’s Oxford stronghold, carelessly stored ammunition inside it which of course blew up.
Another in the recent trend of local churches sitting open for anyone to poke around inside. This was rarely the case downriver.
This feathery pair has taken up residence at the top of the tower.
There’s more to the church. How about a look in its cemetery?
Herbert Henry Asquith of the Liberal Party was prime minister of this country from 1908 to 1916 and introduced its first major set of social welfare reforms, including the minimum wage and free school meals. This cultural seed would blossom in the post-WWII welfare settlement, then get torn out (or worse, poisoned into a system of abuse) by the Conservative Party in the present. However Asquith got himself stuck on the wrong side of the women’s suffrage struggle and was found ineffective as a war leader in the opening years of World War I, leading to his eventual replacement. He spent his final years at his country house here in Sutton Courtenay.
Asquith’s great granite block is this cemetery’s obvious centrepiece. Yet there’s another quite considerable name in here, and this one keeps quietly to itself in one of the rear corners.
Eric Arthur Blair – better known as George Orwell. Beyond the church’s information board there are no signposts or other indications that he is buried here, and his unassuming headstone can take some searching for even if you know that he is.
George Orwell, author of such impactful works as Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four, had no particular connection to this village. Rather before his death in London in 1950 at age forty-six, he’d stipulated in his will that he wished to be buried ‘in the nearest convenient cemetery’. With London’s cemeteries apparently lacking space for him, his friend David Astor, editor of the Observer newspaper and resident of Sutton Courtenay at the time, managed to get a place for him here instead.
And this is the point where you check over your shoulder.
In the church’s entryway is a collection box for the Abingdon foodbank, launched by an alliance of local churches in 2009. Oxfordshire is one of the wealthiest provinces in England, but it too has created clusters of appalling poverty.
It at first appears this might be some exciting Alice in Wonderland potion for changing the physical properties of whoever drinks it. Alas, on closer inspection it turns out to be Trump Juice, no doubt left over from the American king’s ill-advised state visit in 2019.
Beyond the church the village pulls away from the river, necessitating a return across the backwater weirs to the Culham Cut.
Looking back down the Cut from atop a footbridge, heavy river traffic is seen accumulating at Culham Lock.
This is water sausage territory.
Culham is the other village in this pair, another Anglo-Saxon settlement (Cula’s homestead) formerly under the remit of Abingdon Abbey. Having grown up in the riverbend it’s now drifted a little way inland, with the intervening space given over to farmland.
The roofs of Culham, including the tower of its 1852 Gothic Revival church.
The occasional red kite swoops around in the skies above the middle Thames. Sighting one at rest like this is less common.
Round the bend the Culham Cut departs (or rejoins) the main flow, and once more the river is whole – at least for the one kilometre from here to the next cut.
Ploughed fields spread through the space between river and village.
After a thousand years as yet another tiny rural hamlet whose influence remained largely within the reach of its ploughs, Cula’s homestead would suddenly find its name propelled to the forefront of humankind's efforts to meet the challenges of its energy future. In 1944 a Royal Navy aircraft station was opened to the village’s east to train reservists, but it closed after World War II and sat around for a while as a storage centre. That was when the UK Atomic Energy Authority came along. In those years this was the body with full responsibility for this country’s civil and military nuclear affairs, and above all for getting this country its own nuclear weapons. (This included atomic bomb tests in Australia and the Pacific, with devastating legacies there in the effects of radioactive fallout and nuclear waste, but be ready for the nationalists to tantrum at you if you mention it.)
The UKAEA identified the Culham site as a suitable spot to build a cutting-edge nuclear research laboratory, but in the following decades the Authority’s functions were gradually split off, leaving it as a research organisation almost entirely concerned with developing nuclear fusion – the process that powers stars – as a controllable energy source. To that end the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, as it is now known, serves as one of the world’s primary centres for fusion research and experimental technology. Of these experiments the most iconic is the Joint European Torus, the world’s most powerful fusion reactor (specifically a tokamak, originally the design of Soviet physicists). It began construction here in the 1970s, achieved its first plasma in 1983, and so far holds the record in producing as close to as much power as the amount that must be put in to create and sustain the conditions to do so (which remains the main technical challenge in harnessing fusion as an energy source).
An artificial star in a box: not exactly the first thing you’d expect in these surroundings, is it?
As its name suggests, the JET is a joint undertaking with the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom), which supplied most of its funding. Though distinct from the EU, this country reflexively withdrew from it straight after Brexit because as a primarily theatrical exercise it wouldn’t work unless it threw absolutely everything out of the pram. So out flew a monumental four-decade cooperative investment in some of the world’s most promising research into solutions for humankind’s existential energy crisis, and now the entire project has been flung into doubt, managing its best on temporary arrangements while it waits to find out whether it still has a future.
Perhaps if you put your eye to this you can spot extremely small bunnies making off with bits of the tokamak.
Glimpsed through the bushes is Culham’s old bridge, built by a religious brotherhood in 1422. It was heavily fought over in the Civil War as an ideal place to attack Royalist convoys travelling to Oxford.
And now we draw in to the principal town on this reach. But first there is the matter of the third and final river cut on this reach – which was really the first and oldest by far, because where the Thames Navigation Commissioners dug, there once dug monks.
The footbridge over the lower mouth of the ‘Swift Ditch’, which slices through the corner opposite Abingdon. The town’s suburban outskirts are now in sight.
This cut is an expression of the town’s defining – yet muddled – relationship with the river. Abingdon had a powerful abbey, as indicated by its string of satellite hamlets on this route, and by the late Anglo-Saxon period its monks were diverting the river’s flow into weir streams through this corner to power their mills. This caused river traffic congestion, which in turn caused complaints, so around the 1050s the newly-elected abbot Ordric had them dig a newer, larger channel. This shortcut, which became known as the ‘Swift Ditch’, came into use as the main navigation channel and would remain so till the 1790s, when for reasons likely connected to lock and canal construction Abingdon’s industrial interests got that role reverted to the main river.
These millennium-old waterworks turned the inside of this bend into an island, known as Andersey. Named after a chapel to St. Andrew that once stood on it, this is one of the largest islands on the Thames. It was popular with royalty and held a residence much used by the Mercian, Wessex or Norman kings of the day. Today it’s Abingdon’s primary green space and carries the ancient Dorchester road through parks, fields and sports grounds.
The entrance to Abingdon Marina, on whose north side the town’s suburb of Caldecott beings.
Abingdon is known for its 750-year-old independent school. It’s boys-only (this being a shamelessly sexist country), recognisable to fans of Radiohead as that rock band’s place of origin, and like most such schools has a fervent sporting tradition. This is its expensive boathouse, built in 2003 and claimed to be the largest oak-framed building in Europe.
Further chapters in Abingdon’s relationship with the river are on show as you follow it up into the town.
Pleasure-cruisers and narrowboats line up along the first serious built-up embankment in some distance.
Then an abrupt change in material signals what used to be the junction with the Wilts and Berks Canal (as in Wiltshire and Berkshire – the short form was its official name). This was opened in 1810 to link to the Kennet and Avon Canal and spent a century funnelling the stuff of the industrial revolution – primarily coal – before it was killed off by the railways, finally closing in 1914. Its ruins have since either been built over or abused as a rubbish tip, but in 2001 a partnership formed to get it restored and has been steadily rescuing bits of it.
And then an actual tributary arrives. The River Ock, whose name comes possibly from a Celtic word for salmon, dribbles east down the Vale of White Horse to come in here at left. A southern boundary and millable resource of ancestral importance to the Abingdon settlement, it looks like a tiny stream but is known to menace the town with floods when it’s upset.
And from there we come to Abingdon’s former wharf, and its bridge which brings us into the town proper.
Twelfth-century St. Helen’s Church is an Abingdon landmark and one of its most historic surviving buildings. It overlooks what used to be the town’s wharf, in its day the hub of its merchant community and the living conduit of their trade and prosperity.
That huge purple creature made it through Sutton Bridge and has here pulled in for a rest, allowing us to identify the individual in charge upon its prow.
Abingdon Bridge – actually two bridges, with Nag’s Head Island (here at left) in the middle – is a 1927 rebuild of a limestone crossing erected in the 1410s by Abingdon’s priests and merchants. The relationship between these two estates seem to have been a core dynamic in Abingdon’s rise, which the bridge’s completion secured at Wallingford’s expense.
Abingdon’s assertion is a bold one: it claims no less than to be the oldest town in Britain. While impossible to verify, it’s certainly true that the town and its surroundings have thrown up a wealth of artifacts spanning almost every period of human immigration to and settlement in this area. These include Palaeolithic hand-axes, Neolithic pottery, and significantly, a late Iron Age oppidum like that which held the Dorchester bend – only here supposedly contiguous in time with the present town – along with loads of Celtic coins and imported goods suggesting a highly active centre of material exchange.
And if that’s not good enough, how about an Ichthyosaurus? This Late Jurassic fossil was discovered in a local gravel pit in 1988 and now sits proudly on display in the Abingdon Museum.
The oppidum was succeeded by a small Roman town but developed its lasting identity in the Anglo-Saxon period. Supposedly known to the Anglo-Saxon immigrants as Seuekesham, this was changed into Abingdon – from Æbba’s or Æbbe’s hill, they say, even though it’s not on a hill, suggesting they transferred the name from elsewhere at around the time it got its abbey.
Abingdon Abbey had its own (rathe more questionable) claim to be the oldest monastery in Britain. More likely it was founded around the 670s by the viceroy of Wessex, and rose to some prominence before getting thoroughly sacked by the Vikings in the ninth century and left to fall into ruin. Revived under the Benedictine reforms of King Edgar inthe 960s, Abingdon Abbey became a centre for that movement and would spend the half-millennium from then till Henry VIII’s crackdown as the thundering heart of the town and its region.
Little survived of Abingdon Abbey’s buildings after its suppression and decay, but its imprint on the town is tangible to this day. This is its much-restored gateway, connected at left to the small St. Nicolas Church. The latter was built for the Abbey’s workers and servants, who were otherwise excluded from its life in a sign of the tensions between the monastery and the people of the town.
And this is “merely” the remnant of one of the Abbey’s domestic buildings – namely its exchequer, or financial administration, with its timber-framed Long Gallery (here at left) and a curious and rare medieval chimney. As its scale makes evident, this huge monastery was as much a material exercise as a spiritual one.
What looks most like the Abbey’s ruins actually has least to do with it. This is Trendall’s Folly, put up in the 1860s because the Abbey Gardens’ private land-holders wanted something that looked like its ruins. Ironically some of these stones came from St. Helen’s Church so could actually be very old indeed.
Hand-in-hand with Abingdon’s religious status rose its economic clout, with the monks in effect its dominant corporation. The monastery’s river of wealth was of course the river itself, which provided water and fish, powered their mills, and netted them a fortune in tolls on traffic at one of the most fordable points on its upper-middle course.
This went down poorly with the town growing up in its shadow, its merchants and traders most of all. They had their own guild, focused at St. Helen’s Church above the wharves which made them their killing, and they regularly quarrelled with the monks over the latter’s intrusive control over their affairs. The town’s prosperity in agricultural produce and textiles (especially wool) gave high stakes to these tensions, which came to a head in a massive and bloody riot in 1327.
Nonetheless, in the fifteenth century the merchants prevailed on the monks to let them set up the Fraternity of the Holy Cross. Despite the sinister sectarian-sounding name this seems to have been an attempt on the merchants’ part to thrash out some practical self-government in Abingdon; the Fraternity invested considerably in civic infrastructure projects such as almshouses, a causeway, and most importantly the bridge. It also sank a large sum of money into raising a prestigious and ornate market cross in the middle of the square: a clear statement of power and prestige in the face of the Abbey’s.
Abingdon’s market square today.
This hard-nosed mercantile culture was to keep the town going after Henry VIII’s sledgehammer broke the monastery out of the equation – apparently, and surprisingly, with its willing compliance – in the 1530s. Like the settlements downstream Abingdon then had to endure both the crushing impact of this asset-stripping on its market life (further worsened when the Fraternity itself was abolished by the central government), followed by its ill-fated position on the front lines of the seventeenth-century Civil War. The Parliamentary army took control of the town in 1644 in a collapse of the king’s protective screen around his Oxford stronghold; but as yet unable to take Oxford itself, the angry Puritan soldiers took out their iconoclastic ire on the Abingdon merchants’ market cross, which is why it no longer stands in the square today.
Although not all is lost; you can still get awesome hot chocolate from the independent Bulgarian café in its corner.
Against these difficulties Abingdon managed to secure a royal charter in 1556. This elevated its status to that of one of Berkshire’s core administrative and judicial centres, a set of functions it shared with Reading till the latter, with its better position in the railway revolution, surpassed it in its industrial heyday. For its part in this rivalry Abingdon bolstered its status with some fancy architecture, and towards the industrial period set out to distinguish itself with a range of unusual customs.
Case in point: Bun-Throwing. This photograph in the Abingdon Museum shows what the market square looks like on major national or royal events. Abingdon marks these with a ceremony in which civil officials hurl buns filled with currants off the roof of the County Hall to the excited throng below. The idea’s origin is unclear but is thought to have begun with the coronation of King George III in 1760. The long-term effect of COVID-19 on it remains to be seen.
In addition to Bun-Throwing this town grew into a major centre for Morris-Dancing, an old English folk tradition with strong regional variations. It’s also one of the few English urban centres to carry on a tradition of late autumn fairs, which customarily gave farm workers and domestic servants a chance to come into contact with better potential employers.
Abingdon’s grand County Hall, in whose design the English’s architect-hero Christopher Wren is suspected to have been indirectly involved, was built in the late 1670s as a courthouse and administrative centre with space for market activity beneath. It now houses the Abingdon Museum and offers access to the roof terrace for good views across the town in all directions.
Not all innovations in this period were so well-intentioned. These sticks were used by officials to assault inmates in Abingdon’s workhouse, built in 1835 under the Poor Law reform to torture people for being poor. Its separation of men and women, and of children from their parents, added to the heinousness of its crimes. The workhouses were the exultation of an English tradition of cruelty, abuse, and the blaming of victims of political and structural violence for their own suffering – the same tradition which informs the present government’s austerity programme and perversion of the welfare system to punish this country’s most vulnerable people.
More abuses: this was Abingdon Gaol, opened next to the bridge in 1811 as the old jail in the Abbey gateway grew overcrowded. The prison system was still taking off in this period, with most inmates (typically driven to desperation by the violence of Enclosure and/or industrialisation) held prior to getting put to death or transported to labour in the colonies. The Gaol represented the shift to punitive incarceration, but closed in 1867 with its functions transferred to the larger prison at Reading. As you can see here, instead of a memorial to organised mass brutality they’ve gone for full bad taste by converting it into a leisure centre and luxury flats.
The rise of the railways passed Abingdon by, with distaste for them among the local landowners displacing Brunel’s Oxford branch to Didcot instead. This and the only temporary advantage provided by the Wilts and Berks Canal risked sidelining the town during industrialisation, and in the 1860s caused it to lose its administrative honours to Reading. Nonetheless its mercantile tradition just about held its own by branching into one or two distinct manufactures.
In the nineteenth century Abingdon’s beer-brewing heritage coalesced into the Morland Brewery, with its headquarters here (at centre) from the 1880s on. Famous for its Old Speckled Hen premium bitter, it was sold in 1999 to one of the all-devouring pub companies of the present day, Greene King, who immediately moved production away to its own ancestral home in East Anglia. The brewery is now apartments.
Old Speckled Hen was named for Abingdon’s flagship industry from 1929 on: the MG car company, or specifically a workers’ car within its Abingdon factory. The Abingdon Museum claims this specimen here to be the final car off its production line, whose closure in 1980 dealt the town a devastating blow. The MG brand now belongs to a Chinese state-owned car company.
Evidently this country’s industrial decline has hit Abingdon much as anywhere else, Thames or Isis or not. In the present day however its place within Oxford’s university-city necklace of high-tech science facilities, equipment suppliers and business parks keeps the nutrients flowing in an economic bloodstream already enriched by its quirky cultural scene. As well as the Culham fusion research centre there are the Harwell and Rutherford laboratories and the Milton Park innovation centre a few minutes down the A34, in addition to the Didcot railway and energy complex, numerous technology company headquarters, and of course, Oxford itself.
Abingdon’s high street, facing west towards the former Morland Brewery and MG car factory. All these high-angle views come from atop the County Hall on the market square.
Didcot looms across the trees to the south. If you’re travelling south by rail then that’s where you go when you need to get out of here. Abingdon did eventually get its own branch line for a while, only to close it to passengers in 1963 and to goods (such as car parts for MG) in 1984.
And this is east to the river, with the double bridge and that hideous Old Gaol defining the landscape. The greenery of Andersey Island spreads beyond.
Part of the Abbey Gardens. Though much reshaped through private hands since the Abbey’s destruction, the reach of its former grounds gives a great sense of how the town was shaped in relation to it.
So it is here, at the last stop before Oxford, at the button on the collar beneath the head of the middle Thames, that we should ask once more: Thames? Or Isis? Farms and fields and villages, just like the rest of it? Or an intellectually-charged passage enchanted by its proximity to other worlds, through whose shifting reeds and glassy reflections flitter phantasms like Winnie-the-Pooh, flying buns with currants inside, metal doughnuts with artificial stars inside, and the ghost of George Orwell as he seethes in his ‘nearest convenient cemetery’...
...and reminds his country that despite all his warnings, it’s still sold the truth up the river?


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