The Thames at Wallingford … time for a change

We have a chance of three days away as lockdown is lifted – for the moment. Where to go, especially as coronavirus was still ‘out there’ ? It had to be less than two hours drive from home and by a river, where we could walk and take a picnic. If it rained a lot, we needed to stay somewhere with a large enough room, where we could read in comfort.

I spent a couple of hours searching on the internet, getting sidetracked and eventually swooping down on Fyfield Manor in Benson, next to the airfield, outside the town of Wallingford.

Fyfield Manor
Fyfield Manor – lily pond
Entrance to Fyfield Manora lion graces each side …

This house is the oldest in south Oxfordshire and was once owned by Simon de Montfort in the 1200s. It has been extended over the years but we had breakfast in the oldest part, at a long, polished elm wood table. I’m curious to think of the people who have passed through here – Simon de Montfort probably wouldn’t have been eating avocados, which we had on toast with eggs.

Fyfield gargoyle – don’t stand under here!

The apple trees were heavy with fruit. A stream with secret inlets ran through the gardens.

Fyfield Manor – secret garden
Fyfield Manor

The fading light still held the warmth of a summer evening as we made our way on foot through a small ‘nature reserve’ to our first supper ‘out’ since March – at ‘The Shepherd’s Hut’ in Ewelme. A white egret soared above us.

Watercress beds at Ewelme

We explored these watercress beds that run through the village before succumbing to the delights of fish and chips with a long Peroni beer. The warm ambiance of this country pub with cheerful waitresses was such a special treat.

Night fell suddenly as we navigated our way back to the manor. Darkness is quite different in the countryside – it can suddenly surround you, hem you in – making you feel you’re not quite sure of the way home. The trees become witchlike in the wild wood, strange noises of nocturnal creatures break into the cloaked silence. Another treat awaited us in the form of a large and comfortable bed.


Our room was barricaded off with sanitiser but we had both a sofa and wing armchair, with a tray of teas and coffee. Wifi worked well and I had brought with me ‘A Good Man in Africa’ by William Boyd – one of his I hadn’t read. His father was a doctor and he was brought up in Accra for much of his childhood.

The house is owned by a family and next morning the tinkle of the piano somewhere downstairs by the children and their play in the distance reminded me of the film we had recently watched again after a long time. ‘A Room with a View’, based on the book by E.M. Forster. Very enjoyable.

We woke to sunshine. Thinking we should make the most of it, as the weather forecast was for rain, we were soon parked up by the river at Wallingford, a ten minute drive away.

The Thames at Wallingford
The Thames at Wallingford – marigolds

Children were swimming by the bridge, which still includes the vestiges of the original one.

summer holidays by the river
walking by the river’s edge
blue boat at Wallingford
well endowed figurehead

Walking along the river bank, an electric boat came into view. It’s in the middle of the photo with a canopy and can take six to eight people. The cost is about £50 an hour.

Electric boats for hire – see centre of photo

There are fields along this part of the Thames path.

Fields by the Thames at Wallingford
The Thames path
Wild flowers by the Thames, Wallingford

On our way to explore the town John saved a bewildered peacock butterfly that had flown into the church. We met a man who said he often found dead ones among the pews.

church aisle
sunscape window
flower basket by Wallingford bridge
net curtains with a twist
Wallingford – the marketplace

It was time to find a picnic lunch. We ended up with bread, cheese, mango and water melon. Simply delicious, sitting in an idyllic spot by the river watching boats of all shapes and sizes coming and going. Thinking of Mole and Ratty by the riverbank, and ‘Three Men in a Boat’. Rivers in summertime have a very calming influence. I could sit here all day.

just messing about in boats …

Wallingford is a Saxon fortified town and its earthwork ramparts were built in the late 9th century as part of a defence against Danish attack. By the 11th century it was the most important town in Berkshire and a castle was built by William the Conqueror which became the most important in southern England. Wallingford is one of only four towns mentioned in ‘Magna Carta’ in 1215.

In the 17th century, Wallingford castle was a major Royalist stronghold before surrendering after a twelve week siege in 1646. Cromwell, fearing that it might be used against him in the future, had it demolished and now only the impressive earthworks remain. We spent the afternoon exploring them. From there you can walk down to the river. Today they are known as the Castle Gardens and are a wonderful place to sit, walk and play. We saw some small boys climbing a steep hillock and sliding down the other side with whoops of joy.

It is worthwhile to spend time strolling around the town with its picturesque houses, shopfronts, churches and pubs. The Castle Gardens and the river walks are all close by one another. This is a great way to learn more about our history …

colourful old wall
exploring …
part of the castle gardens – Wallingford

The earthworks are big enough for cows to graze here …

We returned to the river bank to see a narrow boat mooring, which was full of bicycles and young people streaming off the boat into town. This must be a travel company that specialises in ‘boat and bike tours’.

Wallingford – boats and bikes
boathouse, Wallingford
I used to like sending and receiving postcards … 🙁 – it’s a lost art
returning to the car park via a children’s playground

It was now definitely time for tea and biscuits, followed by curling up on the sofa with my book (which is fabulous!), with no other responsibilities that I could think of. Bliss. Slept well.

The weather hadn’t broken although the skies looked as if the predicted storm might be getting closer.

unpredictable weather …

However, next day John wanted to go a little bit upriver to Shillingford, where his parents spent their honeymoon.

The Thames at Shillingford

We walked past quite a lot of moorings, some very modern, sleek crafts and others, old fashioned, neglected and full of cobwebs, looking as if nobody had visited them for a long time. I now sometimes feel a bit ‘out of the swim’ too. I don’t mind too much because there’s still a lot of enjoyment to be had here and there. There are advantages to being older – and I’m grateful to have even got here, having just read Bill Bryson’s book on ‘The Body’ – but I don’t count it among my favourite things!

Some girls were swimming and loving it – a tempting thought. The river looks very clean and inviting. I should take the plunge …

swimmer at Shillingford

There’s an enterprise called ‘ The Earth Trust’, which is taking in small parts of the low lying meadows and creating backwaters from the river for wildlife to thrive in.

Teazles by the Thames

We passed through groves of Himalayan Balsam, which is pretty in pink but also a massive pest. Not as bad as Japanese Knotweed – but pretty bad, as it spreads like wildfire and suffocates native plants.

a grove of Himalayan Balsam
a cornucopia of reeds

Woke up in the night to sheet lightning, followed by rain.

Next morning dawned with a grey drizzle but the sun was struggling to come out. We decided to go to Dorchester as that’s where the river Thame runs into the Thames. There was a chance to visit the Abbey too.

Side chapel – Abbey – Dorchester-on-Thames

The village was silent and empty. Many shops were closed, including Lily’s Tea Room. We just happened to park outside it and I was disappointed that tea, cakes and gifts were not on offer. The Abbey Museum was closed too. The graveyard was beautiful. Silent except for the welcome buzz of bees. A very English country churchyard.

cottage in the graveyard, Dorchester-on-Thamesphoto by JE

We wanted to see where the river Thame runs into the Thames. It’s a walk across fields, past an ancient site called Dyke Hills, which is a rare example of a pre-Roman town. Sheep were grazing peacefully as we passed on the way to the confluence of the rivers. The Thames Path joins up here at Thame Stream Bridge. The Thames, having more muscle than the Thame, pushes its flow backwards but the water inexorably floods into the bigger river.

It’s so quiet here – only one or two boats passed by. The Sinodun Hills rise up on the opposite side of the Thames. It looks a steep climb to Wittenham Clumps on the top. Maybe on a summer’s day with the wind in our hair… another time.

where the river Thame runs into the river Thames – photo by JE

As we made our way back through the fields to the bridge at Dorchester we met a man with a backpack doing a serious hike. I’d like to walk a part of the Thames Path but I’m impressed by the people who take on the whole of it. I must find a book about it instead!

We were homeward bound, stopping off at a herb farm, where I bought a pot of lemon verbena. The map noted a mysterious place called ‘The Maharajah’s Well’ – worth a visit. A strange story. It’s near Nettlebed.

notes on ‘The Maharajah’s Well’ – photo by JE

Nettlebed also has an excellent dairy, which was featured in a recent programme on BBC – ‘Countryfile’. If we’d known about it then, we would have dropped by and picked up some of their delicious butter and hay rolled cheese.

Onwards to Henley, where we went out to lunch with a friend. She has a beautiful arbutus (strawberry tree) in her garden. I commented on it and such is her generous nature, one appeared for us on our return home.

This was a welcome three days away. I now want to take one of those electric boats on the river. A return trip to Wallingford is on the cards.

A summer’s day in Wallingford

PS Three photos by John as the battery in my camera failed!

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