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Abingdon Abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – via River Thames (10.5 miles)
Find bus travel details from Oxford to Abingdon here. A taxi from Oxford costs around £20, carrying 4.
Abingdon claims to be Britain’s oldest town, with its late Iron Age valley-fort (an inverse hillfort) and its early founding by Abban, sole Briton to escape the Saxon ‘Night of the Long Knives’ at Stonehenge. Abingdon has a remarkably long Anglo-Saxon heritage, being burial ground to some of the earliest Germanic people found in Britain.
This pilgrimage begins at St Helen’s wharf, for the River Thames’ trade and transport were the foundation of the town’s importance. St Helen’s church is second widest in England – incrementally widened by proud townsfolk. St Helen’s was the focal point of Abingdon’s traders, led by the ancient Guild of the Holy Cross, who built a highly decorative cross outside the Church, renowned for its beauty and size. This was destroyed in the Civil War.
From here follow to County Hall – the most impressive town hall in Britain, from whose roof the Council throw buns at moments of historic significance. Then encounter St Nicolas’ Church, set into the Abbey walls to allow – and limit – access to the Abbey grounds. Pass through the Abbey Gatehouse – where local superstition suggests you hold your breath to prevent the Gargoyles stealing it – and into the Abbey gardens. Visit the Unicorn theatre and the Long Gallery, survivors of Abingdon’s once-great Benedictine Abbey.
Now follow the Abbey Stream, crossing to its left side at the first footbridge. Follow the edge of the woods, doubling back briefly as signposts demand. The way shall be very clear, this being the Thames Path, a national trail of importance with significant funding.
You first cross the Thames in search of a holy palce at Sandford, over the lock and through the Kings Arms pub. Turn left behind, and follow the road to St Andrews, an ex-Templar Church some 1000 years old. It features a Yew tree planted on Good Friday 1800, and a flat-topped gravestone from which bread was given to the poor.
Now re-trace your steps back to the pub, and cross back over the Thames. You will pass close to Sandford Weir – Big Lasher – site where the River Thames has claimed an uncanny number of sons of important people. This is the place where Peter Pan died – in the form of J M Barrie’s adopted son, Michael Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for the fictional ever-young faerie character. Keep following the Thames – but be aware now that this is no idle stream, but a demanding force that throughout history has demanded sacrifice.
Your next holy place is a confluence of rivers – long revered in the Hindu religion as places of deep significance. Here the Hinksey Stream blends into the Thames. The Hinksey in its upper reaches is known as Seacourt Stream, and this little unassuming waterway was once the ancient boundary between Mercia and Wessex! Until 1974, it was also the boundary between Berkshire and Oxfordshire.
Following the Thames north again, you pass beneath the bypass road, before crossing over again for a most impressive and important Church – St Mary’s Iffley. This Church is called by some the most impressive Norman church in Britain. It appears as though its astonishing stonework was carved only yesterday.
Again, re-trace your steps and follow north. If you want to rest at a pub, the Isis Farmhouse is on your left. Beware its mixed reviews and cash-only policy.
The Oxford University boathouses are on the other side of the river. You should see youngsters admirably learning to pull their weight.
When you meet the main road crossing the Thames, follow it into Oxford proper. Take a right hand turn behind the police station on your right, to follow the Meadow Walk toward Christ Church Cathedral. Re-exit onto the road, find Tom Tower on your right, and head into the Cathedral. Be clear you are a pilgrim, wishing to pray at the altar – whatever your religion, prayer is surely a universal practise – and you can avoid the fee. Otherwise, wait until it is time for Choral Evensong, and enter freely to the experience of amazing world-class choral music washing over your tired body for the ultimate pilgrim refreshment.
Congratulations, pilgrim, for you have arrived.
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