Thursday, 29 September 2011

Dorchester; Long Wittenham and Shillingford

After a cool; dull summer the end of September has seen a sudden increase in temperatures up to 25° just about too hot for walking. I chose to move to lower ground requiring less exertion. If last week was a high point on top of Liddington Hill this was a low point, as I followed the Thames. It continues the Thames Path from where I finished in April. Here is a Google map of the route I took:

View Shillingford - Dorchester - Clifton Hampden in a larger map

I started in the very historic city/town/village of Dorchester-on-Thames. I say 'city' because it has an impressive abbey and used to be an important see in Anglo-Saxon times. Saint Birinus is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as baptising various leaders into the Christian faith at Dorchester in 636 and 639CE. It has some fine early monuments. It claims to be at least important as Winchester in middle Saxon years with a diocese covering land from the Humber to the Thames. The Romans were active here long before too.

Dorchester,Dorchester Abbey

Next to the Abbey is a temptingly quaint museum.

Dorchester,Dorchester Museum

There is one main road through the village and this has many old houses, I could post many more pictures, but this will have to do, I am meant to be seeking out wildlife after all.


As I made my way out of Dorchester towards Day's Lock I followed and then crossed an impressive old bank. How old it is I can not be sure; I can not see how it offered much defence to Dorchester - the Thames is just behind it, I even suspect it may be more about flood management.

defensive bank,Dorchester-on-Thames

Already too many buildings and not enough wildlife, so here is one of the few flowers in full bloom that I saw, a Marsh Mallow (Althaea officinalis)

Marsh Mallow,Althaea officinalis

Day's lock was busy with many pleasure boats taking advantage of the warm spell to sail along the Thames.

Day's Lock,Dorchester

The Thames Path then follows the south bank of the river for several miles, not much wildlife; the Canada Geese have cropped back most of the plants. Here and there a fisherman (hasn't he got a long pole) was, well, fishing.


Avian fishermen included cormorants; herons and great crested grebes (with a grebelet).

CormorantHeron Great Crested Grebe

But the dominant birds were Canada Geese, in their hundreds.

Canada Geese

Burcot on the north bank has some fine mansions, I particularly liked this mock-Tudor house with extensive boat house.

Burcot,Boat house

A dearth of interesting plants along the way, all I found that looked a little unusual was in a solitary patch of wilderness. The fruits look a bit like clenched fists. I believe these are the seedheads of Meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria).


And so to the end of this section of Thames Path at Clifton Hampden Bridge (not the Clifton suspension bridge at Bristol!).

Clifton Hampden Bridge

Nearby the famous thatched, 16th century country pub, The Plough Inn was a very tempting distraction. Showing great fortitude I strode on the road to the village Long Wittenham. This is a village strewn along a road backing onto the river and has many fine houses mixed in with modern infill. This house, while attractive, seemed a little bit too tidy.

Long Wittenham,cottage

The house was on the path to the church. The church has many interesting features including a rare twelfth century lead font, I wonder if H&S allow babies to be baptised with it any more. The rather ghostly figures around the base are archbishops.

Long Wittenham,church,font,lead font

Even rarer is a strange boast and strange story, it claims the smallest carved monument in England. The monument, believed rather ghoulishly to hold the heart of the deceased, is to Gilbert 'the Red' De Clare, Earl of Gloucester (1243-1295) who married King Edward I's daughter Edward I's daughter Joan of Acre (1275-1307). She had an interesting life, born in the Holy Land, hence the 'of Acre' after outliving her powerful De Clare husband she then secretly married a young squire (basically a nobody) causing a great stir. After her death a miraculous case of bodily preservation almost raised her to sainthood. Whether Joan lived in Long Wittenham after Gilbert's death is not known for certain.

gilbert de clare,long wittenham,monument

The church has a fine fifteenth century tower too.

long wittenham church

Following a back lane I came across that most evocative of rural buildings, the dilapidated thatched barn.

long wittenham,barn

And so out into farmland heading for Wittenham Clumps, a famous local beauty spot, which I have visited several times. Although I had never approached them from the west.

wittenham clumps,view

Wittenham Clumps also known as Berkshire Bubs, Mother Dunch's Buttocks or Sinodun Hills are an ancient feature. Geologically it is an outlier of chalk amongst the older Upper Greensand. They have been occupied extensively since the Bronze Age, a Time Team excavation found many round houses and rubbish pits towards the bottom of the slope. In the Iron Age the hills were made even more impressive to neighbouring tribes by exposing the white chalk around the summit of the hills. Views are panoramic and spectacular, to the west the Chilterns disappear towards the Uffington White Horse; to the east is Woodcote; Ewelme; Goring (see blog entry for reverse view).

wittenham clumps,view

To the north east the fringes of Dorchester can be seen and an ex-gravel pit where Neolithic artefacts have been found. The bullocks munching their way around the summit were thankfully engrossed with other things.

wittenham clumps,view

Here is one last view from the top of the neighbouring clump ('castle hill' with its impressive bank and ditch) towards Brightwell Barrow and onwards to Goring.

wittenham clumps,view

From the clumps I headed down into the woodland to follow the Thames eastward. Here were signs of the onset of autumn. As always I was taken by the bright berries of White Bryony (Clematis vitalba)

white bryony,Clematis vitalba

And fallen acorns. I should add that acorn is not derived from combining 'oak' and 'corn' as some people have suggested but purely from 'corn' meaning 'nut' - food for pigs.


Here the farmer has added a 'permissive' path to enable walkers to reach the south bank of the Thames. Keeping to the wildlife theme, back alongside the Thames I found a few Comfrey (Symphytum tuberossum) plants in flower, and on one of these was a 7-spot ladybird (Coccinella 7-punctata). There is an in-built attraction to any picture with a little splash of bright red in them; I suspect this may go back to our hunter-gatherer ancestors requirements to spot fruit from a distance. It is certainly a trick that a lot of painters have used over the years.

Comfrey,Symphytum tuberossum,seven spot ladybird,Coccinella 7-punctata

You have noticed a lack of disappointing lack of butterfly pictures. I did see one or two: Speckled Wood; Common White; Red Admiral and I did have a Peacock come and land on my map as I was perusing it, but compared to other walks at this time of year, very few. Mainly I think down to the lack of flowering plants along the Thames and other paths, but it may be because of the cool summer. Shillingford Bridge is a single lane road like the one eight miles upstream at Clifton Hampden, this is where I linked up with my Cholsey walk

Shillingford bridge

As I crossed to the northern side to pick up the Thames Path I was lucky to spot a small boat sailing upstream

Shillingford bridge,thames,boat

The section back to Dorchester was by contrast a rather dull section, especially as you have to walk along a busy A road for part of the way. In the last stretch of countryside I did manage to catch a rabbit enjoying some late afternoon sunshine.