A Bike Ride Around Oxfordshire.
Guest post by Anna Van Leemputten:
Three Men in a Boat, a tale of a journey along a river in a camping skiff, by three single young men, is one most have heard of, if not read. Written by Jerome K Jerome, it epitomises leisurely travel and the adventures that can be had. However, many are not aware he also wrote a sequel, Three Men on the Bummel, with the same characters out and about on bicycles in the English countryside. There is nothing like recreating a small piece of that tale and paying a nod to the final resting place of an ‘original’ travel writer, since Jerome is buried in Ewelme Church, Oxfordshire.
I thus planned, at the suggestion of Inntravel , the ‘slow holiday’ company, to explore a slightly circuitous route between Goring and Henley-on-Thames, taking in Ewelme and Swyncombe as well as the Stonor Valley. This is an ideal route if you want to spend a weekend out of London, but could also be extended if you wanted to try and complete the Chiltern Cycleway, a 170-mile circular cycle route through the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, crossing Southern Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire. This is a clearly signposted route and takes a leisurely week to complete, with the opportunity of many interesting detours.
There is a mainline train station in Goring, and a range of accommodation from a youth hostel, to more upmarket hotels such as The Swan at Streatley (don’t worry – it’s one of those Oxfordshire things that an area is named differently on either side of the Thames bridge that separates them) or Friars Ford Country House, plus numerous coffee shops as well as a weekend market and ice creams by the lock. It’s not hard to see why the late George Michael made this area his home outside of London, a celebrity who was part of the community with his black Range Rover and distinctive number plate, so much so that on the weekend of the 25th June, what would have been his 54th birthday is being marked with a local concert, in the village hall. It’s already sold out, unfortunately.
Cycling is a bit of a passion in this area of the country and every weekend all forms of two-wheeled transport can be seen out and about – from well laden international cycle tourers to the lycra clad mamil army – so cyclists are welcomed and always chatted to. Do expect, even if it’s just a wave, to be acknowledged for your efforts. When I stopped in Goring I was congratulated by a lady with a spaniel for getting out and exploring on the bike.
If you can tear yourself away from a morning coffee and cake, the route in earnest starts by turning left, after crossing the railway bridge. Nipping right and left past the fire station you will see both typically English Victorian and ‘30’s architecture and more modern grand designs, with even a curved brick house: Incurvo.
As you climb out of the village the first thing you will notice is the silence. There is a sense of the countryside opening up before you and there being nothing but the sky and cornfields – you could easily be in the south of France. You are not alone, however, as the skylarks sing and the kites circle overhead, whilst the local free range pigs bask in the sunshine. You might also spy some more architecture in the form of Rowan Atkinson’s new house on the hillside at Ipsden. The site of this always reminds me of Tom Sharpe’s novel Blot on the Landscape, having been previously a very typical English brick house, as the white building is quite a statement and involved a very different appearance from the actor at a public enquiry.
Working your way along the roads you are likely to only meet runners or horse riders, or the occasional small aircraft as you cycle past the local airfield. The route, however, does cross a couple of busy A roads, the first of which you meet as you make your way towards Braziers Park, one of the few remaining Strawberry Hill Gothic style houses, now run as a secular community.
Following roads that could easily be mistaken for farm tracks, you enter the village of Ipsden and another climb again rewarded by amazing views and possibly the first helicopter sighting out of RAF Benson. In the distance are the remaining cooling towers of Didcot power station and Wittenham Clumps, a local landmark. A small detour could be made here to Blue Tin Produce, a local farm shop and a good place to buy jam, chutney or some local cheeses, which is just to the east of the village.
Carrying on the main route, with more kites and the odd cyclist for company, you cross the Chiltern Way at the bottom of Grimms Way, a palaeolithic path that connects Henley and Wallingford. The brown Chiltern Cycleway signs clearly mark the route as you carry on the single track roads to Oakley Wood. Don’t be put off by signs for the local tip, which is well hidden by groundworks, and carry on climbing. A quick right left and you swing round and through the middle of RAF Benson to Ewelme. You will come out at the medieval water meadows, which support growing of watercress, the bubbling stream carrying on to feed into the Thames at Benson
Following the stream against the flow, you will come to the village duck pond. Here it was I met the Parish Priest and his lovely terrier, who I then followed up to Ewelme Church.
St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme is a stunning building with a distinguished history and in more recent times was used in the Holywood film Les Miserable, starring Hugh Jackman, as the backdrop to Valjean’s soliloquy https://youtu.be/WMcbfyiwIhQ
The present building has not changed greatly for almost 600 years, with Thomas Chaucer and Alice de la Pole entombed here – Queen Victoria’s commissioners examined the latter’s effigy in order to discover how a lady should wear the insignia of the Order of the Garter. It is here that Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927), is buried alongside his wife as they lived at Gould’s Grove just south-east of Ewelme; their tombstone reads “For we are labourers together with God”.
Stop here for afternoon tea and a well-earned rest, take in the history and perhaps a leisurely stroll down to the cricket ground to watch a few overs, before getting back on the bike to tackle Swyncombe hill. This road again crosses the Chiltern path and you will see many walkers out and about.
The climb to St Botolph’s Church, Swyncombe, is worth it as this small Norman church seems to be untouched by time, surrounded by sheep.
Pat yourself on the back and continue up to Cookley Green onto the faster B-road that links Nettlebed with Watlington and then take the right to Pishill. This is your reward – a fast stretch of downhill, into the developing wine area of Henley, with the recent building work at Hundred Hills Vineyard (http://www.mypalweb.com/hundred/) having recently won a design award for their new buildings, and into the village of Stonor.
Stonor Park has been home to the same family for 850 years and the corner of the chapel is built on a palaeolithic stone.
It is definitely worth planning a visit even if for another cup of tea at the Chiltern Pit Stop café.
Then you head into Henley reaching the iconic Fair Mile, the long stretch that takes you directly into the town centre. Follow the one-way system to the river and the bridge and if you feel like dipping your toe in the water walk down to the slipway and take your socks off!
Welcome to Henley. Here you can find both well-known chain restaurants such as Café Rouge, Pizza Express, Zizzis and Strada and less well-known venues such as the Giggling Squid – perfect if you’re vegetarian and want simple filling food – or Shaun Dickens at the Boathouse if you want full a la carte. There is also the flagship Brakespear pub The Bull on Bell Street, which serves food in its courtyard garden.
There is no shortage of hotels or other types of accommodation, as the world descends on the town for the annual Henley Royal Regatta in the last week of June.
Henley is a place to unwind and watch the world go by, with the possibility of spying a celebrity or a unique car or motorbike. A place to plan your next adventure from.
Whether you choose to walk, cycle, or travel by train, boat or car, Inntravel’s carefully crafted self-guided activity holidays ease you into the rhythm and patterns of everyday life. Journey through wonderful landscapes, uncover hidden corners and share authentic encounters with local people along the way.
Oh….and what’s a Bummel I hear you ask. Well:
One of the characters in Jerome K Jerome’s book asks, “how would you translate [bummel],” to which the narrator replies, in the very final paragraph:
“A ‘Bummel’,” I explained, “I should describe as a journey, long or short, without an end; the only thing regulating it being the necessity of getting back within a given time to the point from which one started. Sometimes it is through busy streets, and sometimes through the fields and lanes; sometimes we can be spared for a few hours, and sometimes for a few days. But long or short, but here or there, our thoughts are ever on the running of the sand. We nod and smile to many as we pass; with some we stop and talk awhile; and with a few we walk a little way. We have been much interested, and often a little tired. But on the whole we have had a pleasant time, and are sorry when it’s over.”
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