Getting to Oxford
By Elizabeth Kilcoyne
It had been a while since my daughter Meg and I traveled together. Barging in the Loire Valley in France and walking along the Camino de Santiago in Spain are two of our favorites. But she's been in poor health since her son was born.
We talk regularly, and in February Meg made a special call: “Hi, mom. I’m feeling better and have been working out, and I’m ready to take a walk. Would you like to join me?”
I was thrilled. Meg has been struggling with a poorly understood thyroid condition along with other health complications for six years. She was treating it for some time as an autoimmune disease because doctors had not been able to tell her why her thyroid wasn’t working or why she had crippling fatigue. She recently found a naturopath doctor who was also trained traditionally and is feeling more optimistic. Meg rallies so well when she needs to that few people know how very sick she is, even her loved ones. It's the curse of an invisible intruder.
“How long can you be away?” I asked.
“I’m good for a couple of weeks,” she said.
“What about Archie?” I asked. “Is he ready to stay with his dad for that long?”
“Well, I think as long as they’re both alive when I get home, it will be worth it,” she said.
“I need trails with sweeping meadows and rolling hills. No more mountains for me.”
“That’s good for me, too,” she said. “I need to respect my energy.”
We decided on the Thames River Tow Path in England because it’s flat and next to the water. Meg bought guidebooks and made all the travel arrangements from her home in Portland, Oregon. All I had to do was make my way from Massachusetts to England in late June.
The source of the Thames seemed like a perfect place to start our walk, in the Cotswold Hills of south-central England. There is some dispute among the English about just where the source of the river is. We decided to start at the official marker just outside Cirencester, in Gloucestershire, and walk between six and 10 miles per day until we reached Oxford.
Meg and I arrived in Cirencester by bus. I handed the driver a US five-dollar bill for helping with our packs. "I've never seen one of these before,” he said. “Brilliant."
The sky was multiple shades of blue as we walked through the quaint town, dotted with pubs and churches. We lodged at Golden Cross Inn on Black Jack Street our first night. Their pub featured a Pimm’s cocktail that went down like silk. We sat on their outdoor patio and savored the moment.
The next morning we headed out and found the marker in a remote field to begin our 50-mile walk east. The perennials were blooming and the weather was unusually hot. Sauntering through a beautiful, sunny pasture, we saw our first sign of life: a herd of cows huddled under a shady tree. Neither Meg nor I enjoy the company of cows. We had a run-in with the bovines on our last trip when we shared a narrow path with them on the Camino. As we walked by, she said, "Mom, one of them is staring us down."
“Let’s just keep going,” I said looking straight ahead. We hurried on through the stile to the next pasture.
The beginning of the Thames is a dry river bed, a feature which adds to the dispute of the source location. Though it bubbled up several times on our first day, it wasn't until the third day of walking that the river appeared in full. We enjoyed the landscape and abundance of animals. The fields were filled with knee-high wheat and barley stalks; ripe corn was surrounded by goldenrod and Queen Anne's lace. The rod and lace were ubiquitous. Families of swans entertained us on the small, quiet river, dancing and playing with their fuzzy grey cygnets. We interrupted the solitude of great blue herons who soared away. Dragonflies with blue transparent wings and pale white butterflies darted every which way. We walked single file in some places as the towpath grew tighter: it was a time for solitude and thought. I wondered about our pace. I admired Meg’s bravery in embarking on this adventure.
Some beech trees provided a shaded spot for lunch along the river. Meg treated me to a few chapters of "Three Men in a Boat" by Jerome K. Jerome. We have a long history of reading to each other, which is comforting and familiar, though it had been a long time. The book is what you'd think: three carefree, bumbling Englishmen take a boat trip along the Thames, complete with a multitude of long-winded digressions and comical mishaps.
When we resumed our walk, a painted pony and a crowd of goats crossed the small waterway and ran toward us. We high tailed it out of there to our lodging for the night. Long House was a picture of old England with perennial gardens, tea awaiting our arrival and doting hosts, a welcome sight after a full day of walking and suspicious cows. Our attic resting place with twin beds, slanted ceiling, and flowered wallpaper was lovely, although lugging heavy packs up two flights of narrow stairs was not quite as charming.
The next day, the cows returned. A mob of them scattered on our path, creating an uncomfortable challenge. We discussed the cows at length with some workers surveying the trail. The supervisor decided that one of them would walk with us to the other side of the beasts. You might think this a bit difficult to swallow for a couple of card-carrying feminists, but no. We needed assistance and were happy the Englishmen were there. This support gave us confidence when three fields later, there must have been 100 cows milling about right in front of our next gate. Meg and I considered our options. “Mom, what are we going to do?” she asked.
“We’re going to walk right through them like we own the place and dare them to come near us.”
“Alright.” She didn’t sound convinced.
We journeyed toward the gate right through those cows. They moved toward us, then away, but allowed us to pass. As we walked in their midst, I felt a hand in mine. Always a mother.
On the other side of the gate, the adrenaline having left our bodies, we turned around and barked at the cows—“We’re not afraid of you!”—and snapped their photo.
Back in civilization, we found ourselves stranded in the town of Castle Eaton, whose only visible commercial enterprise was an inn that was closed for the afternoon. I spotted a young man in a white truck and walked over to see if he knew if anything was open. He was delivering Amazon packages and was looking for Orchard House. Before I could speak, he asked, "Why don't the English have house numbers?"
Meg and I had been noticing the house names along the path, such as Garden Cottage, The Paddock, and South View, and thought it was quaint until he mentioned the obvious challenge. “We were wondering the same thing. But you must become familiar with the area after a while."
"I get a different route every day," he said. I asked if the pay was worth it.
He smiled. “Absolutely.”
Meg and I checked in regularly to see how the other was faring. I’ve got a trick knee; I like saying that instead of a “bad” knee. Meg’s health issues can kidnap her energy without warning, but she was going strong as we meandered through the Cotswold Water Park—40 square miles of more than 100 lakes, preserved primarily for wildlife. Walking along an esker kept us mostly above the water levels with unobstructed views of the extended lakes and a heron or two. During the rainy season, this path is often under water.
The trail took us down a farm road, through cornfields and a hole in the hedge, past the farmhouse and through a kissing gate to the river. This was our first kissing gate. One must push the gate to enter a ring made of chain-link fencing, step inside and swing the gate back into place to exit. The "kissing" is when the gate swings and hits the other side of the ring, which stops it. The design eliminates the need for humans to latch the gate as they travel along the towpath, keeping animals in their fields. We had imagined a much more fanciful story of a young couple kissing and being separated forever by the gate.
Our first sign of navigation on the Thames came on the morning of the third day. A kayaker was paddling up the river, which was still quite narrow. "Good morning," I said. “You’re the first boat we’ve seen since we started walking.”
“Oh. Did you start at the source?” he asked.
“How far is it from here?”
“About 15 miles. But you’ll run out of water in a mile or so.”
“Oh.” He sounded surprised.
We asked where he was from.
“Cambridge. And you?” he asked.
He chuckled and asked how far we were going.
“Oxford,” we replied.
“You should take a side trip to Cambridge so you can experience Oxbridge.” He laughed.
“Enjoy your travels.”
We continued on. The river was growing and swelling. Before noon, there were family barges in the river and locals and tourists on the path. We had only seen maybe 10 walkers until this point.
After a satisfying dinner along with a Pimm’s cocktail—my new favorite—in a hotel garden, we watched across the river as a couple hundred cows moved among the human picnickers. “We can deal with them in the morning,” Meg said as we shared a look.
The next day was windy. From a distance, I saw a woman walking with an umbrella. Catching up to her, I noticed it was a parasol with heavy beige thread laced through its ribs. When the wind blew, she was able to protect herself from the sun without her parasol flying away. I need one of those, I thought. The weather continued to be unseasonably hot for late June, averaging 29 degrees Celsius or 84 degrees Fahrenheit. With a 10-mile day ahead, I finally accepted the forecast and mailed home the rain and cold weather gear I’d been carrying.
Sometimes we walked side by side on a perfectly unencumbered towpath, while other times there was barely an opening through the armpit-high bushes, prickers, and stinging nettles. We arrived at Newbridge with a few extra scratches, which seemed appropriate for the bridge where a significant battle took place in the English Civil War in the 1600s. Newbridge is one of the oldest bridges on the Thames and was built to bring together the wool towns in the south with the farms in the Cotswolds. On the northern side of the bridge, we dined in an outdoor garden, where we took off our boots and relaxed under the umbrellas. The English are quite optimistic to devote so much real estate to space that is only usable in sunny weather.
Barges moved on the river the next morning, with families camping and swimming at the locks. I couldn't be tempted. Civilization brought better-maintained paths and places to eat. Our night’s lodging in Swinford was The Talbot Inn, where our room had a shared bath and twin beds with springs. Meg laid down and sat back up. “Mom, what’s wrong with this mattress?”
I was so tired I didn’t even notice that something was off. After lifting the sheet, I said, “There is no mattress here, just springs."
“You mean I’m laying right on a box spring?”
“No. It’s a metal spring with individual coils!” I said. “Let’s ask for another room.”
“I don’t have the energy to move. I’m going to put an extra blanket under me and go to sleep,” Meg said. In the morning, we did lots of stretching before we could walk. But our spirits were high, as we’d arrive in Oxford by early afternoon.
The closer we got to Oxford, the more people we encountered sculling, swimming, rowing and just playing on the river. The cows were with us right to the edge of the city. Oxonians pass through and around these 1500-pound creatures as a normal part of their afternoon stroll along the Thames.
Before leaving for England, I was telling a friend about our plans. “Will you be punting on the Thames?" she asked.
“Of course,” I replied, and then immediately Googled punting. A punt is a flat, shallow boat, 24- feet-long and three feet wide, propelled with a 16-foot aluminum pole that is placed on the bed of the river. The Thames passes through the city, so upon our arrival, we checked on the punting boats at Magdalen Bridge. The rental shop was closed, but we walked out on the dock to check out the punts lined up.
The next morning, we arrived with our lunch and enthusiasm. Meg walked to the dock with casual confidence and requested a punt. The 20-something working there asked if she'd ever punted before, and politely suggested a rowboat would be preferable. "I'll take the punt," she answered, also politely.
He went through the instructions for operating the punt then asked, "Will you punt from the Oxford or Cambridge end?"
"I'll take the Oxford end." The Oxford end is the bow where the punter can stand inside the boat while poling and steering. The Cambridge end is the stern, which is covered with wood, and the punter stands higher on the flat surface.
There was some discussion about how long we would be out. "Just come back when you're done," he said. The look on his face suggested that might be soon.
Once we got on the punt, I whispered to Meg, "Did you get all that?"
"Oh yeah,” she said. “It's pretty much what I read on the internet."
She lifted the 16-foot pole, placed it on the riverbed and pushed. There were a few tricky maneuvers to leave the dock, but she got the hang of it pretty quickly. The pole also serves as the rudder, which proved to be challenging in the busy river. I watched my daughter, who had been ill, move that boat like she’d done it many times before. For lunch, we turned into the smaller River Cherwell and found a shady spot. We ate at a leisurely pace, then Meg read a few more chapters of "Three Men in a Boat." Oxford only got better from there.
We arrived at the time suggested in the Somerville College guidebook and saw the notice: The college is closed to visitors today.
I walked past the sign and up to the security post where a uniformed guard sat behind the window. I told him I’d come from Boston to visit Somerville College.
"Why?" he asked.
"Because it's the oldest women's college in Oxford," I said.
He paused "Okay, go ahead. There's a summer conference in progress so please try to blend in."
Somerville was founded in 1879 by a commission of Oxford University. Turns out it was easier to agree on having an all-female college than on the religious requirements of the women. A non-denominational college to honor Mary Somerville, a Scottish mathematician and science writer, was born. This was considered a liberal position at the time (some called it heresy), which reflected the spirit of Somerville and its founders. Mary herself signed the 1866 petition for the women’s right to vote in England. We felt right at home here. Meg ran a phone bank for Hillary Clinton's U.S. Senate campaign when she was at New York University, and I work for women candidates so we can have the representation of our peers.
Mary’s accomplishments earned her a place on the ten-pound note of the Royal Bank of Scotland. In 2016, the vote for three finalists was held on Facebook. I think she would have enjoyed the open process.
With its 38 colleges, the University is sprawled throughout the city. This was the final day of our trip, and we were trying to see as much as possible. The University's Bodleian Library transported us back a few centuries. Primarily a reference library, to enter one must orally recite a declaration of the code of ethics beginning with "I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library…" This is no doubt left over from a time when books were chained to the shelves to prevent thievery, and scholars had to stand while doing their research. Our tour guide was in his period costume. Performing at his best, he eloquently explained that in the fourteenth century, scholars and scoundrels were considered in the same class.
By late afternoon, I was losing my energy for the beautiful Oxford day. Our glorious 50-mile journey was ending. Meg left me in a café with my tea and went on to see the deer in Magdalen College’s park and the University’s Botanic Garden. I loved her strength and joy.
This story is dedicated to Jessie Ingram (1981-2018) who studied at Oxford University.