Friday, 10 July 2015

More walking than boating

The view up the picturesque main street of Dorchester
We certainly didn't repeat the previous night's mistake yesterday: we were tied up before lunch on our bankside mooring. It wasn't hard; we only came two miles upriver, went through Day's Lock – home of the World Pooh-sticks Championship – and moored.
It was going to be a walking day. We were going to explore Dorchester, a place we'd managed to miss on previous Thames journeys, and then walk up to the 'Wittenham Clumps', the pair of hills that dominate the otherwise flat local countryside.
The Abbey and the old  River Thame bridge tollhouse
Curiously, Dorchester-on-Thames isn't actually on the Thames at all: it's about half a mile away and sandwiched between the Thames and its tributary, the Thames, which meets its big brother here.
What a delightful little place it is. Since being by-passed in the 1980s, it has become a picturesque sleepy hollow with a rich variety of houses and inns, from medieval up to modern, from tiny cottages to substantial pads.
Sweep the main street clear of modern cars and it immediately becomes the sort of village beloved of English detective story writers since Agatha Christie and her Miss Marple. Indeed fans of Midsomer Murders will certainly recognise it as it was a regular filming location for the tv series.
Dorchester also has a 12th century Abbey, or rather an Abbey church as the rest of the abbey buildings disappered after Henry VIII's dissolution. It is now an oddly cavernous parish church in this modest village.
The spectacular tree of Jesse Abbey window
It has some fine elements, including the remarkable 'Tree of Jesse' window that incorporates stained glass in between the ornate branches of a finely carved stone tree, wall paintings and impressive carved tombs. Our favourite piece, though, was the stone to one Sarah Fletcher who died of 'excessive sensibility'.
Sarah Fletcher died of 'excessive sensibility'
The presence of an Abbey is a clue to Dorchester's importance in history. Situated on a sweeping bend in the Thames and with the Thame on its other side, the Romans saw its strategic value and built a settlement there. Later, in Saxon times, it briefly became the capital of Wessex.
However there were even older settlements outside the village. One of the Wittenham hilltops was an Iron Age fortress while lines of curious ditches and hillocks by the river below it are evidence of an Iron Age township.
The village remained a busy and prosperous place, serving as a major coaching stop on the main road to London (hence the fine coaching inns), but gradually declined until by the 1950s it was a poor and deprived place, the small houses without even proper drainage. Hard to imagine that, when these days a two bedroomed bungalow here will cost the thick end of half a million quid.
We found out all this in the very informative and friendly little village Museum, housed in what was once the local grammar school next to the Abbey. They also do an excellent tea and cakes by the way!
The jogging club overtakes us on the hill climb
After a particularly hot day we left our assault on the Clumps until after dinner. It's a steep, steep climb up from the riverside and as we puffed up it we were overtaken by a pack of local runners out for a training session. Even some of them were struggling by the summit.
I'm afraid the Harry crew weren't quite as fit as them
The rewards were absolutely stunning views all around (blighted only by the monster that is Didcot power station). The hills are a geographical freak; the land in every direction is flat for miles which makes them a spectacular vantage point.
Worth the effort, though, for the stunning vistas
Then it was downhill and back as the sun set a fiery red in the distance and time for a relaxing beer.
This morning we woke up to discover wasps were busy building a nest in a bankside hole beside us so we skidaddled quickly before they decided to remove us themselves!

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