Day13–Didcot to Henley-on-Thames
I woke in time to see the glow of a red sunrise reflected in the waters of Thames which runs past the end of the garden of the house where I was staying. After finishing my breakfast and packing my overnight case, my host Anne-Marie drove me to Didcot Parkway Station where I commenced the next leg of my journey shortly after nine o’clock; walking on my own again for the first stretch. The weather was dry and cloudy, with a hazy sun attempting to shine through the clouds. It was a cold brisk morning, so I needed to keep moving in order to stay warm. The first stretch followed the main railway line heading east out of Didcot, first alongside a paved road and then along a narrow cycle track sandwiched between the railway and the adjoining fields. The pleasant sound of early morning birdsong was interspersed with the screech and whirr of passing high-speed trains – I wonder will I be able to recognise the track which I walked along pass by on future train trips to and from London?
On entering South Moreton, the next village on my route, I noted the first thatched cottage of my trip (there may have been others but if so, they had not registered in my consciousness). The buildings here are starting to show the occasional use of flint as a building material, often with a grid of red brick framing rectangles of white-coated black flint. Shortly after leaving South Moreton, patches of blue sky started to appear, and a bright sun emerged periodically from behind the clouds. After continuing for a time along quiet country lanes, I joined quite a busy B-road with frequent passing vehicles; this was also marked by an increase in the amount of litter in the roadside ditches – why do drivers and passengers have to throw their rubbish, much of it potentially recyclable plastic bottles and aluminium cans, out of their vehicles onto the road ? At this point the surrounding fields were still mainly used for tillage (mostly cereals but with some potatoes); later on as I approached the Thames I noticed an increase in pasture although there were not many animals to be seen. As I paused to answer some calls from people wanting to join and support me tomorrow, I glimpsed an elderly woman in the passenger seat of a passing car flapping her arms madly like a distraught pigeon – I think that the sight of an EU coloured banner had distressed her, a sign of the times with the current febrile atmosphere about Brexit in the UK parliament and around the country.
Around eleven thirty, I joined a busy stretch of the A4130 which loops around Wallingford and continued to follow it in an anti-clockwise direction to reach the bridge over the Thames. Crossing the bridge over the River Thames, I admired the views of the mottled grey clouds reflected in the smooth flowing waters of the river. On leaving the bridge, I was able to join a track beside the road which formed part of the Ridgeway and was the beginning of a long straight stretch of path following a pre-Roman embankment and cut ditch referred to as Grim’s Ditch (discussed in more detail later). Before continuing along this stretch, I stopped to meet up with Anne Marie and her son Oliver so as to have a refreshment break in a small lay by. For the next stretch of the walk, I was to be joined by Anne-Marie and Bica, her large black Portuguese water dog.
Shortly before one o’clock, we set out along the Ridgeway, heading eastwards away from the river along a linear embankment constructed of chalk rubble. After a short distance, I was surprised to notice a trigonometrical station sited on the embankment since these are normally situated on the tops of hills with a good view of the surrounding landscape. Glancing around, I realised that it was in fact situated in a good location for surveyors since we were in the centre of a large basin with views of hills on the skyline in all directions around us. For the next couple of kilometres, I was fascinated by the construction of the man-made feature we were walking on. On the flat floodplain in consisted of an embankment of around 10 metres across at the base and possibly about 5 metres high. Once we started to climb the slope further east, it became more of a ditch which had been excavated into the ground with some of the material used to create a bank alongside the ditch. It struck me that this is exactly the same construction approach used for modern roads and railways, with material from the ‘cuts’ – the ditches on the hill slope- being used to provide the ‘fill’ for the construction of the embankment on the lower ground. The Romans are mostly credited with the engineering of straight linear structures, but perhaps in some places, they were copying the example of earlier works? Bica enjoyed this stretch of the walk as there were frequent burrows and other small excavations indicating the presence of rabbits or other animals which he checked out with his nose. Halfway up the slope, I paused to do my good deed for the day, which consisted of putting a sticking plaster over a nasty splinter of metal which we had noted on the top bar of a kissing gate which the flag that Anne-Marie was carrying got snagged on it; this could have given someone a nasty cut if they held the bar when passing through the gate. The final stretch of the Ridgeway which we followed included some stretches through beech wood, one of which was filled with bluebell plants which are likely to be quite spectacular when they come into bloom in the near future. A short while after leaving the Ridgeway, when we were continuing down English Lane, it started to rain and I decided that it was best to put on my waterproofs. After spending several minutes getting myself suitably waterproof, and lending Anne-Marie my walking cape, we continued on only for the rain shower to stop a few minutes later. Passing English Farm, we stopped for an unexpectedly interesting discussion with James who was working on the hedges alongside the track we were walking along. It turned out that he worked as a hedge layer and also did some flint work, trying to keep these old traditions alive in this part of the country. He explained that the work he had done on the hedge here was Midlands style and there were different styles for hedge laying all around the country. In terms of Brexit, he belonged to the category of people who did not vote as he felt that he was not in a position to make an informed decision. Along the next stretch of road, we had further conversations with three separate individuals; a woman walking a golden retriever, a woman driving a car and a map walking a black dachshund. Their views on Brexit varied but were generally on the lines that we did not realise how complicated it was when we voted and that it was really up to parliament to get on with it and sort things out. One of the women was concerned about the potential impact of a No-deal Brexit on the future for her five grandchildren.
When we arrived at High Moor Cross around half past four, I parted ways with Anne-Marie and Bica as the next stretch of the route was alongside busy roads and would not be suitable for Bica. Shortly after leaving her, a car pulled up and the woman driver asked me what I was doing. When I explained that I was going to attend the People’s Vote March on Saturday she became agitated and said no we must have Brexit, just get on with it! I think that she had confused me with one of the marchers from the March to Leave which is heading to London from Sunderland. I suspect that her daughter, who had an embarrassed look as she sat sandwiched in the passenger seat between the two of us during this conversation, may have had slightly different views from her mother on Brexit.
As I walked along quieter lanes for the next stretch I was surrounded by the pleasant sound of birdsong in the surrounding woods, which seems to be a typical response to the passing of a rain shower – perhaps the birds find that the quality of sound is improved once the rain has cleared the atmosphere. After a short detour past Grey’s Court, a National Trust property, I was then alongside busy roads for the rest of the walk into Henley-on-Thames. Luckily, in most places, there were wide grassy verges which I could walk along. It was dusk and the passing cars now had their lights on, so I was relieved when I got to the 30 mph sign on the edge of Henley from which there was a footpath alongside the road for the rest of the way into town. Descending into the town, I met Anne-Marie coming out to meet me. She accompanied me to the town hall where we took the obligatory end of day photograph. Afterwards, she and her son Oliver dropped me off in High Moor Cross at the home of Judi and Dickie who were to be my hosts for tonight.
My walk from Didcot to Henley-on-Thames covered 19.1 miles (30.7 km), starting at 9:10 and finishing at 18:40, a longer day than anticipated.
Researching on the internet to find out more about Grim’s Ditch I found that it is a name applied to a variety of early (mostly pre-Roman) structures in southern England. The description below is based on information obtained from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grim%27s_Ditch
Grim’s Ditch, Grim’s Dyke (also Grimsdyke or Grimes Dike in derivative names) or Grim’s Bank is a name shared by a number of prehistoric bank and ditch earthworks which are found across the chalk uplands of southern England. The purpose of these earthworks remains a mystery, but as they are too small for military use, they may have served to demarcate territory. Archaeologists agree that Iron Age peoples built the earthworks around 300 BC.
The origin of the name is linked to the ancient gods, perhaps reflecting the fact that the Anglo-Saxons considered them to have been features that could not have been constructed by humans. The name “Grim’s Ditch” is considered to be Old English in origin. The Anglo-Saxon word dīc was pronounced “deek” in northern England and “deetch” in the south. The method of building this type of earthwork involved digging a trench and forming the upcast soil into a bank alongside it. This practice has resulted in the name dīc being given to either the trench or the bank, and this evolved into two words, ditch and dyke in modern British English.
The origin of the name Grim is shrouded in mystery, but there are several theories as to its origin. Many ancient earthworks of this type exist across England and Wales, pre-dating the Anglo Saxon settlement of Britain by some 800 years. It was common for the Anglo Saxons to name features of unexplained or mysterious origin Grim. Most scholars believe that the name derives from the Old Norse word Grimr, an Anglo-Saxon alias for the Norse God of War and Magic, Wōden (called Odin by the Norse) and meaning “the masked one”. The name of Wōden is thought by some historians to be evident in Wansdyke, an ancient earthwork of uncertain origin which runs from Wiltshire to Somerset. Wednesday, the day of the week, also has the same link to the Norse god, Wōden, so perhaps I walked this stretch of the Ridgeway on the wrong day of the week!