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Dorchester Abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – 12.5 miles
This 12.5 mile pilgrimage offers a glimpse of ancient priories, enters Oxford from its lesser-seen South side.
Dorchester is an ancient holy centre. A Neolithic sacred complex stood just to its north – now sadly wiped out by 1940s gravel mining. It once rivalled Avebury in importance and size. But like all spiritual realities, something powerful surely echoes, transcending the lack of visual presence.
In the village, the first cathedral was built around 630. The current Abbey was built for Augustinian Friars around 1140. It was paid for by the proceeds of pilgrims to the relics of Birinus, a Roman missionary to the West Saxons who converted King Cynegils.
The Abbey Church survived the Reformation and the Dissolution of the Monasteries because a local wealthy personage paid Henry VIII the value of its lead roof. The Shrine of Birinus was destroyed, but has now been reinstated – though without the relics. The Romanesque lead font also remains in place – the only monastic baptismal font in Britain to survive the Reformation.
From the Abbey, follow footpaths to the edge of the village, and walk along its boundary toward the A-road. A safe crossing takes you over, along the edge of one of Dorchester’s gravel lakes and onto the Roman Road (footpath) which takes you North. This ancient track goes straight through Berinsfield, an ex-RAF base which was converted to be England’s first village built on virgin soil for 200 years. This is the penultimate place that Glen Miller, a very popular jazz musician, set foot on earth. He played his last concert here, before flying to an RAF base and from there disappearing without trace, on his way to entertain troops in Europe during World War Two. Follow the straight path directly through the village.
The Roman road does not quite follow its original path, but diverts, though maintaining its northward trend. Cross the lane and bear left toward Marsh Baldon, where St Peter’s Church has been described by a previous Bishop of Oxford as “Oxford’s best-kept secret”. A 12th century Church featuring a Pompeo Batoni painting and a 12th century canonical sundial. The Seven Stars pub is just next door, if you need refreshment.
Over the village green comes Toot Baldon, where another church awaits – St Lawrence’s – a 13th Century classic with Victorian Gothic Revival makeover. It includes a memorial to the 1965 Little Baldon Air Crash, Britain’s third worst air crash at the time. Just up the footpath is another pub, the Mole Inn, if a rest with some really good food is required.
Through the woods you go, to the very outskirts of Oxford. The footpath follows the edge of the road toward the old Littlemore Priory. Its last remaining building was most recently a football pub, but now lies empty, awaiting its next purpose. Just to the north were recently excavated 92 skeletons from this apparently ‘sex-crazed’ priory.
In Littlemore itself, you will now meet two churches in close succession – one dedicated to the Catholic missionary Dominic Barberi, the man who converted John Henry Newman to Catholicism, and the other dedicated to St Mary and St Nicholas, and built by Newman himself. Newman was extremely influential in his spearheading the Oxford Movement at the turn of the twentieth Century – a high Anglican leaning toward Catholicism.