This was a special one.
Henley to Oxford had been long mooted as a potential hike but because of its extended length (40 miles rather than our regular 20-25) we knew it needed a worthy occasion to happen. Fortunately for us, John, Alan, Mat, Alex and I all turn forty this year and the phrase “40 over 40” seemed to stick.
I want to say that the route seemed relatively self explanatory but then I didn’t get involved in the planning at all, that was all Mat, and we were pleased to see that the hike split neatly into two instalments of 20 miles (more or less) with the first half ending in Wallingford, giving us an ideal overnight stop off.
We put the word out and attendees started to gather. The net was cast wide as ever but the drop off rate seemed lower than usual because unlike with our normal hikes the accommodation situation forces people to book up and pay in advance. So attendance was looking higher than usual, closer to twenty than our usual ten-twelve.
The evening before the hike, people started making their way down; a contingent staying in Henley, others camping in Wallingford. I gather the Henley crew managed to control themselves and there seemed to be no noticeable hangovers when we arrived the next day.
On Friday morning our attendees converged at the Catherine Wheel in Henley. A bunch of us parking up at Wallingford and (collecting the campers) we all pile into a minibus to take us to the start. We struggle to overtake a painfully slow car on the quiet Oxfordshire roads, and when we point this out, our driver sagely replies “Maybe if you lot weren’t so heavy…”
Breakfast at the Catherine Wheel is the Weatherspoons standard, (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) although not messing around Alex orders a large breakfast with a side of Eggs Benedict which earned some respect.
Final preparations are made (mostly destroying the toilets) and we are almost ready to go. We stare in awe at Max’s endless, almost Tardis-like bag, and Tom’s brave choice of hiking jeans. Then, finally having waited for John to take care of some business, we get our obligatory start photo, set the runtrackers and are off!
Leaving Henley along the river we march along the walkway until we learn it’s closed, and have to double back on ourselves, following a diversion.
An early challenge appears when we see the recent rain has turned several of the fields into marshes, and we have to get creative to avoid getting wet.
Spring is in full flow though and Swatty is more than eager to drop some nature knowledge, which we all eagerly absorbed.
After a couple of hours we’ve blasted through six miles with ease; passing by fancy houses, sneaking through idyllic woodland and crossing numerous fields in places with names like Tokers Green and Craysleaze.
Somewhere called Gallowstree Common was also on our route but we didn’t see much of interest there or it’s cool name (history here).
Eventually our path leads us to an enormous field of rapeseed oil that we have to walk right through the middle of.
Finally reaching the end of the sea of yellow we crack on for more fields and woodlands, spotting two small things:
Then, at the end of twelve pretty productive miles of marching, we reach our first stop, The Highwayman.
Dating back to the 16th century (or so it says on their website), the Highwayman has a traditional-meets-gastropub vibe. The staff seemed pretty undaunted to have nearly twenty gross and noisy hikers arrive as they wisely usher us into a large room towards the back, presumably so we don’t disturb the other patrons. Uncharted territory for a Walking Idiots hike is entered as most of the group order lunch, and the majority of the team have three pints. (Call it perks of a relaxed distance with an overnight stay).
Eventually Walking Idiots management acknowledges that if we remain there any longer we’d never leave, and a five minute warning is given.
Stood in the pub car park that once was a blacksmith’s forge, the group are poised and ready to set off when Mathias whips out a bottle of tequila. Along with a lemon someone had brought and some salt liberated from the pub, the group forge (stretched that) some shots for morale, and finally we set off once more.
As hiking karma tends to do to us, almost immediately after leaving the pub we find ourselves ascending a pretty steep hill which wakes everyone up a bit, and shortly after we cross a field full of young cows, which Max and I immediately befriend.
A short while later we reach the church of St Peter and St Paul in Checkendon, a mild detour but well worth it – it’s a Grade 1 listed building with parts dating back to the 12th century (made by the Normans) with Gothic additions.
Before entering I see Rob checking out an unusual gravestone and when he moves closer to take a look he does a sort of tiptoe step/dance over some graves to get there, saying “sorrysorrysorry” the whole time. I would’ve loved a photo of him doing that.
The church is great inside, with a decent 13th century wall painting…
… and a brilliant modern (well, 1960’s) etched glass window which is hard to see unless you’re at the right angle, and then it pops.
Departing the church, more tequila is consumed and we vanish into the countryside.
The woods are achingly quiet, devoid of the road or aircraft sounds we’ve come to expect even when walking in local woodland…
… for a while at least.
Our path across the road heads straight up a low rise hill topped with trees called Watch Folly. It contains pretty much the only history I found in researching this hike that’s of interest (this link about the ghost of a shepherd boy) but the hill itself is pretty unremarkable and before I have the chance to recount it, we see something that’s much more The Walking Idiot’s bag.
The (what we assume was an) abandoned grain store didn’t have a sign saying no entry, so really it’s on them if a group of tequila-swilling miscreants choose to enter it. It would’ve only been to bring you high end blog content if so.
Having finally enjoyed this enough we decide to rejoin the others, who by this point are understandably worried sick. They forgive us though and only seem slightly jealous. The route leads us on through North Stoke, which has quite a pleasant bridge/mill combo and like everywhere else on this hikes looks like somewhere I’ll never, ever be able to afford to live in.
After that we head up through The Springs golf club, cross an unsafe, damaged bridge that has the same density as cheddar, cross the bridge at Winterbrook and arrive at Wallingford with only a few aches and pains.
The Boat House has a lovely setting, an adequate range of beers (we’re not fussy) and a passable interior, so we take our drinks out and celebrate the first day of marching.
After a beer or two the group gently disbands as a couple of our one day only people make their way home (thanks Tom, Pete), others stay out for more drinks and a burger, and the rest of us check into our hotel.
Normally this would be the point where I’d wrap this up, but we’re only halfway through our two day outing, so just to throw out a few more highlights, I’ll add Mat and Swatty’s not-domestic when Mat told Swatty off for complaining (“Stop. Crying.”) and Rob’s opinion on where we should go for drinks later (“I don’t wanna go anywhere where they call me Granddad.”)
Also, lazy option as it seemed at the time, the bar and food at the George Hotel was pretty decent, the staff were lovely and overall it’s a charming little hotel with a nice coaching house-vibe.
The second leg of our journey takes us from Wallingford to Oxford. It’s a strange sensation (and completely new to us) to wake up the morning after a hike knowing we basically have to do it again, but despite some initial stiffness everyone seems game.
Those of us in the George grit our teeth at the prospect of the promised continental breakfast included rather than the desired fry up, until the staff serve us a cooked breakfast regardless. As Alan put it, “Everything is coming up Alan.” Can’t argue with that.
Like Pete and Tom, Mike decided to just do the one day but stayed overnight and leaves us shortly after breakfast.
We’re reinforced by Big Al and newcomer Jacob.
After some logistical padding (lots of faffing with Waitrose lunches) we take our start photo…
… and set off! Unless there’s a sight of historical local interest, nothing can possibly stop us now!
Okay, we didn’t mean to get distracted by something literally less than one hundred metres from our hotel, but come on, this is great. Wallingford’s castle grounds are large, peaceful and filled with just enough ruins to pique everyone’s interest.
A detour owing to another shut weir means we walk along the road for a while before going cross country again, first through some fields, then into woodland, and then climbing a hilly field before ascending Castle Hill.
Situated at the top of a hill and with a raised perimeter the whole way around, I find it doubtful the name Castle Hill is a coincidence.
Descending the hill, our route leaves the countryside and becomes what I found myself referring to internally as a country death road.
We move in single file as cars pass us by, their sense of disdain almost tangible. The feeling of dread intensifies when the speed limit changes to the national limit but I console myself with the fact that Mat and Swatty are ahead of me and their bodies should reduce the speed of any cars by the time they reach me.
For the last stretch of the road some genius had at least considered a raised platform for us to walk along, which I was a big fan of.
Finally the road ends, dropping us off at our first pub stop of the day, The Barley Mow in Clifton Hampden.
We don’t stay especially long but the bar staff are very friendly and the pub is well presented. We spare the patrons (who are in Saturday pub lunch mode) our gross unruliness and sit outside, assessing how we’re finding day two (and generally overthinking it).
With it’s impressive stone bridge, Clifton Hampden reminds me of Sonning in more ways that one, mostly because it creates an ample backlog of traffic that undermines the beautifully quaint English village vibe, but we have no time to dwell on such things as we have more fields to cross.
The public footpath seems to be marked with a convenient trail of orange, which we assume is pesticide.
We cross another field full of cows, but unlike yesterday’s which were all juvenile cows, this is a mix of very young calves and their mothers. One especially massive mama cow makes her opinion of us known by moving into the middle of the path and bellowing repeatedly, forcing our crew at the back to have to take the long way round or face her wrath.
It’s not long later that we find a place even more twee than Clifton Hampden: Marsh Baldon, which has a green more like a wildflower meadow and another pub stop, this one called The Seven Stars.
The Seven Stars was very pleasant, although the most memorable thing about it will be that we were sharing the garden with a five year old’s birthday party, hence why taking pictures probably would’ve been frowned upon.
Also not appropriate for photos (although we did take one but I’m leaving it out so you can keep your lunch down) we saw the phenomenal blister that had decided to consume the back of Tom’s heel. It looked like he’d taken a potato peeler to it, exceptionally gross stuff. He soldiered on though, to his absolute credit.
(Additionally it was here that I finally clock that Mathias is buying a bottle of red at each stop, which is new.)
Leaving Marsh Baldon we walk through a field so waterlogged it feels like an actual marsh (which is flipping great five minutes after a sock change) and then head cross country to Sandford-on-Thames.
Highlights of this stretch include a passionate debate about historical inaccuracies in movies (apparently field size is a dealbreaker) and this pylon:
We treat ourselves to a surprise pub stop, The Kings Arms, which isn’t really needed but when in Sandford-on-Thames.
It had a good range of beers but a bar area so ridiculously hot we all legged it outside to relax and stretch out a bit.
And then we’re off onto the footpath along the Thames that takes us the whole way into Oxford for our last few miles, the way relatively busy with cyclists and walkers, and the river full of rowers as afternoon turns to evening.
At a milestone too eroded to read, Mat’s route tracker pings to tell us we’ve hit the forty mile mark, a cause for celebration by any account.
Initially we had planned to finish at the Lamb and Flagg (it has a tenuous Tolkien connection) but given that it was on the other side of town, we were uncertain if it did food, and there were probably going to be loads of other amazing pubs that we pass by, we decide that we should stop at the first pub in Oxford that looks decent.
Many beers are bought, food is ordered, and everyone celebrates their giant collective win.
And then, inevitably, it was over, our attendees either heading home, to their hotels or to locate an incredibly well earned curry.
It’s fair to say though, that over two days, with double the distance, the bar has been raised. Let’s see what we can do next. (It’ll probably involve tequila).