My most memorable walk

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2012/11/18 by grahamfawcett2012

Walking for good health and discovery!

Note that I say ‘memorable’, not ‘best’, ‘most enjoyable’, or so on, so no one should feel left out. I’ve done many fantastic walks in interesting locations around the world, but the single most memorable walk I have ever done was in Oxford, England. It gave me so many levels of discovery, my highest personal criterion for a walk’s success, that I can’t think of any to equal it. Briefly put, it had layers of history and culture that still amaze me.

The walk in question is the British Walking Federation’s Permanent Trail #46, organized locally by the Ise Valley Vagabonds. It is only 13 km long, and an easy, level walk. Normally, I will do a 10 km hour walk in less than 2 hours, but this one took us four to five hours to do, as there was so many things of interest to absorb. The description on the web page now gives away some of the surprise, but there are other details given in the walk instructions that make it even more memorable for the walker.

My wife and I watch a number of British programs not usually available on commercial television. One of our favourites at the time was Inspector Morse, the story of the adventures of a Detective Inspector in Oxford, funded by WGBH in Boston and broadcast at the time on PBS in the USA . The plots of the episodes take place mostly in and around the University and Colleges at Oxford. Even though the series is fiction, the settings, history, culture, and even the weather lend authenticity to the stories.

As I have already explained in a previous entry, the crowning element of any walk for me is a sense of discovery. So how did this walk offer so much? By connecting locations and events going back centuries with British history and modern culture.

The walk starts north of Oxford at Wolvercote, in a parking lot beside the River Thames, a river that has played a role in British history and culture going back to the Romans. It is not very big, by Canadian standards, and it is now a completely controlled waterway. When I think of the Thames, I think of all the references to it I have read or heard about over many years.

Even though the walk start point is on the Thames, the route takes one away from it to an old, early 19th century canal built for commercial and industrial purposes. It was here that I made a connection with our own Rideau Canal, a World Heritage Site, that runs from Kingston to Ottawa. The Thames canal pre-dates the Rideau Canal by probably forty or fifty years, but ours was much more difficult to build and its system of locks are massive in comparison. It was interesting, however, to learn that England has thousands of miles of these canals still in use, mostly by people who live full time or spend their holiday time on canal boats. These are former industrial carriers converted to mobile living quarters. The owners have quite a culture of their own, and I had the opportunity to speak to several of them along the way. The trail you follow is the old towpath where horses would have towed the heavily laden commercial barges.

One follows the canal into the heart of Oxford itself, and leave the canal by climbing stairs up to street level. Up until that point, one is surrounded by greenspace on both sides of the canal, then immediately surrounded by urban development at street level. The route passes by several historic points of interest, then arrives at the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s finest museum for antiquities. As entrance that day was free, we actually went in and took a look at the Egyptian antiquities on the first floor.

From the Ashmolean, the route leads through the heart of modern Oxford’s commercial centre. Busy shops, double-decker buses, many one-way streets (Morse used to say that Oxford ‘hates the car’), and then the University district. I’ve studied at five universities in my time, but to find oneself in the middle of Oxford University and its colleges is a special treat. This is where the Rhodes Scholars are invited to study. Centuries of learning, culture, and discovery have taken place here! The walk does allow you to have a close look at some of the colleges, but if the school year or summer sessions are on, you can only enter as far as the Porter’s gate to have a look. The beautiful, manicured lawns of the quadrangles can be seen, however. Other unique structures such as the Bridge of Sighs and Radcliffe Camera are easily identifiable also.

There are checkpoint questions to answer along the way, and one of the more interesting ones on the way out of the College district is the Bear Inn at the end of Blue Boar Street. It’s only a question on your instructions, but you should also go in to see this Inn’s most distinguishable attraction. Everyone knows of the ‘British school tie’ and its importance in the past, this is where they were ‘separated’ from their owners. An amazing collection of tie ‘ends’ is found here.

At this point on the route, you have started your way back to the Start / Finish point. For the return, you leave the road level and descend to the water level of the Thames River. There are more substantial boats on the Thames than on the canal, along with several locks to get them up and down the river. Near the Godstow locks, the excellent instructions explain that you are passing by the ruins of a nunnery where ‘fair Rosamond’, a wife of Henry II in the 12th century died, possibly murdered.

Near Godstow, there is also a broad meadow, called Port Meadow, on the opposite side of the river. It is along this stretch of the river that the Reverend Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, took young Alice Liddell and her sisters for a boat ride and invented a fanciful story to amuse them along the way. Sound vaguely familiar? Yes, Alice In Wonderland was created along this part of the Thames.

The final surprise is that only a few hundred meters from the start point, the trail crosses the Thames over several stone bridges. In the shadow of these bridges is the Trout Inn, the favourite ‘watering hole’ for Inspector Morse and his Sergeant Lewis. It is a beautiful English country inn, and the restaurant area is lined with framed book jackets of Colin Dexter’s novels in the Morse series. At that point, I felt the circle of discovery was truly complete!

I can imagine this walk as if it were yesterday, and it still brings a smile to my face. I have told my friend Gord Bell about it, and he has done it also. The Ise Valley Vagabonds posted one of my former blogs and accompanying photos from this walk for several years.

Pictures from this walk may be found here.

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