These are five pilgrimages you can make into Oxford from the surrounding countryside. They start and end at holy places, with more en route. Each route is accessible to start by public transport. And each route ends in the same place: Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. Make sure it will be open before setting out – check opening times here.
The best possible arrival for your pilgrimage is on time for Choral Evensong, an intensely wonderful and free choral tradition of beauty and magnitude. Check the Music List here to plan your arrival for Choral Evensong…
For two COVID-friendly public-transport-avoiding circular day routes, use either a combination of the orange and light orange lines on the Google Map below, OR a the light blue and purple lines. Both of these combinations link together to form circular routes, meaning you can park your car wherever you like along the route and return to it at the end.
These routes were devised by William Parsons, co-founder of the British Pilgrimage Trust.
1: Abingdon Abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – via Boars Hill (12 miles)
Find bus travel details from Oxford to Abingdon here. A taxi from Oxford, carrying four, costs around £20.
Abingdon claims to be Britain’s oldest town, with its late Iron Age valley-fort (an inverse hillfort) and its early founding by Abban, the only Briton to escape the Saxon ‘Night of the Long Knives’ feast-betrayal 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, whose access to 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, as a symbol of independence from the Abbey. This was destroyed in the Civil War.
From here follow to County Hall – the most impressive town hall in Britain, where buns are thrown from the roof at momentous historic occasions. Next you will encounter St Nicolas’ Church, set into the Abbey walls to control access to 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 Long Gallery, another survivor of Abingdon’s once-great Benedictine Abbey.
From here follow the Thames eastward, before cutting through behind the sports centre to the old Abbey fishponds, and over to Barrow Hill, the Bronze Age burial area of Abingdon. All tumuli are now flattened by various stages of urban development, but this is an ancient holy place nonetheless, so treat it accordingly.
At Radley, the Church of St James has its roof supported by wooden pillars since 1290, after the Abbot dreamed this to be necessary. A building made from dreams…
Across Radley park, safely over the A34 after Pen barn crossing, toward Sunningwell.
Sunningwell offers a pub – The Flowing Well – and a church – St Leonard’s. The church has unique paving and a 7-sided porch. The water after which the village is named is the Sunning Well, which still bubbles into the pond opposite the Church.
Now climb Boar Hill – home and inspiration for some of Britain’s most famous poets – Masefield, Bridges, Graves and Blunden. Visit Jarn Mound, built to preserve public access to the once-famous Boars Hill vistas of Oxford – from which Matthew Arnold’s famous ‘dreaming spires’ phrase was coined. Today Boars Hill is mostly private land and highly-hedged, but Arthur Evans, famed antiquarian, built Jarn mound by hand to offer people a peek of those very same spires. Unfortunately, private gardens kept growing and the mound did not, so the view is best in winter.
Then down the hill, through woods and over a golf course, toward South Hinksey. This ancient ridgeway through the swamps is known as The Devil’s Backbone.
Over the safe road crossing to South Hinksey, where John Ruskin’s campaign for a road between the villages (apparently attempted with a 19 year old Oscar Wilde among the workforce!) surely could never have envisioned the eventual dual-carriageway and its impact!
St Lawrence Church, a thirteenth century and 19th century blend, welcomes you after crossing the train line. Hinksey Lake follows. Walk north along the edge of suburban Grandpont, through Hinksey Park and Grandpont nature reserve. Cross the Thames, follow her eastward, then take an immediate right after the Head of the River pub to walk through parkland toward the Cathedral. Enter back out to Toms Tower, and find your way into Christ Church Cathedral.
See you on the path!
2: Abingdon Abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford – along River Thames (11 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. You have arrived.
3: Dorchester Abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (12.5 miles)
For bus travel from Oxford to the Dorchester bypass (nearest public transport link) click here.
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.
4: Islip to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (10 miles)
Travel details here.
Islip is the birthplace of Edward the Confessor, last of England’s Anglo-Saxon Kings, and builder of Westminster Abbey. Begin your pilgrimage where he was baptised, at St Nicholas Church. Then head South East from Islip past the site of a Roman villa to Noke Church. Down Prattle Lane and round Prattle Wood, to Woodeaton Church and its 13th Century Preaching Cross. From here follow River Cherwell, through two farms, to carefully cross ther A40. There is a wide island in the middle, but take sufficient care here, and only cross when sure it is safe. with a slight detour at Marston down Pond Lane to St Nicholas Church. Stop for a rest at the Victoria Inn by the river.
Then follow River Cherwell all the way to Oxford city. Cross the rainbow bridge, follow the river South through University Park, into Oxford proper. Take a left at Park Road, via Radcliffe Camera, the Bridge of Sighs, and St Mary’s Church, and follow the path leading to Christ Church Cathedral from Magpie Lane and Grove passage.
5: Eynsham Abbey to Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford (9 miles)
Take a bus from Oxford to Eynsham Church – find details here.
Begin your pilgrimage at St Leonards Church in Eynsham. Possibly Eynsham had an early Minster, but it certainly had an Abbey foundedin 1005.
From Eynsham cross the old Swinford Bridge, and follow River Thames East, skirting Wytham Great Wood. The bows are often extreme, but beautiful to trace by foot. Cross the A34 at Lower Wolvercote, and find the remains of Godstowe Abbey, burial place of King Henry II’s ‘Fair Rosamunde’ – and a favoured picnic ground of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell.
Keep following Thames south, with Wolvercote Common on the other side, rare and fiercely protected grazing ground. Follow the footpath away from the river towar Binsey, to meet St Margaret’s Church and St Frithuswith’s Holy Well. Also known as the Treacle Well.
Then retrace steps to River Thames, and continue South. Cross over to the Oxford Canal, and enter the city at Hythe Bridge Street. Follow straight to George Street, before taking Bulwark Lane through the through the quieter backstreets. St Ebbe’s Church and St Aldate’s Church are en route. Then follow St Aldate’s Street South to enter Christ Church Cathedral.
Another option for a circular route is the light orange line on the main Google Map at the top.