The Goring Gap
This ‘figure of eight’ tour takes you from the wide, flat Thames Valley at the East end of the Vale of the White Horse, into much narrower and steep sides valley where the river cuts a course between the Chilterns meets the North Wessex Downs. This is the Goring Gap.
It starts from Didcot station and heads north on NCR 5, a good(ish) cycle path towards the Thames, which it follows to Dorchester and Wallingford. Both were important cities in the Iron age and the Saxon period respectively and both can prove it!. It then continues along the bottom of the Goring Gap to Goring itself before returning to Wallingford, enjoying longer views from the upper side of the valley. From there it skirts the foot of the Downs back to Didcot.
Apart from NCR 5 out of Didcot, It is mostly flat, minor roads with the odd busier stretch near the river. Much of it is flat, but there is a long but gentle climb out of Goring and an unmade section around South Stoke. See ‘Route Tips’ below.
Following Jerome K Jerome's trip down the Thames, immortalised in 'Three men in a Boat’.
King Alfred’s Saxon Walls and a Plantagenet castle at Wallingford. Game of Thrones stuff!
Even older Dorchester, once an Iron Age Oppidum and later a capital of Wessex, where you can also visit the site of the World Pooh Sticks Championships next to a Bronze and Iron Age fort.
Good mini-museums at Wallingford (History) Dorchester (part of the Abbey) and Pendon (eccentric!)
Goring Village. A scenic spot on the Thames.
The Goring Gap itself – a slice of geological history!
As ever, a Wunderkammer of other oddities.
your app provides notes
on the road surfaces etc. keep
in mind that they are automatically generated and only as good as the
underlying mapping. The
cycle path out from Didcot is narrow but mostly tarmac. I haven’t
been there after heavy rain but imagine that might cause problems on
the low lying ground. There
is a stretch of unmade road at South Stoke on the way into Goring. If
you are using a road bike, you might prefer to stick to the B4009. The
climb out of Goring is about 90m
3 miles. Not scary.
Thames has moved around quite a lot over time. At its zenith it was
much larger, draining much of North Wales and following a northerly
course before flowing into the North Sea, perhaps around where
Ipswich is today. During a severe Ice Age around 500,000 years ago
this route was blocked by glaciers, so it turned south, cutting
through the soft chalk of the downs to create the Goring Gap and
adopting (roughly, it is always on the move) its present path to the
owes its historic importance to both its location and the
fertility of the surrounding land. In the Bronze and Iron Age when
the this stretch of the river probably marked the boundary
between the Catuvallauni and Atrebates tribes. You might have bumped
into them on some of my other Routes. Sadly, a lot of the traces they
left behind were obliterated by gravel quarrying. It was effectively
the capital of Wessex for a while, its importance was underlined by
the status of its Abbey as the seat of the Bishopric of Mercia. It
lost that title in the 11th century and since then it has been
downhill all the way. It is a sleepy old place now.
is one of the lowest fording points on the Thames, so it was always a
nodal point on early transport routes. Hence King Alfred’s
fortifications. Later, William the Conqueror used it when circling
around London after the Battle of Hastings and its pivotal role in
both the intermittent Medieval conflicts and the Civil War. Now, it
is a bustling small town but while it retains its role as a
convenient river crossing, its administrative and economic roles
shrivelled several hundred years ago.
Dorchester’s owes its historic importance to both its location and the fertility of the surrounding land. In the Bronze and Iron Age when the this stretch of the river probably marked the boundary between the Catuvallauni and Atrebates tribes. You might have bumped into them on some of my other Routes. Sadly, a lot of the traces they left behind were obliterated by gravel quarrying. It was effectively the capital of Wessex for a while, its importance was underlined by the status of its Abbey as the seat of the Bishopric of Mercia. It lost that title in the 11th century and since then it has been downhill all the way. It is a sleepy old place now.
A. Didcot. A heritage of broken chimneys.
Your starting point. I do like the website (link) ilivehere. One entry describes Didcot as a portal to hell. Another, even crueller, depicts it as socially Palaeolithic and having a particular problem with 'chavlets'. It is the kind of place beloved by a strain of pyschogeographers, but probably few others.
The landmark cooling towers at its power station were demolished in 2020. Four people died in the process. Next to the Railway Station, the Railway Centre is a treasure trove of Great Western Railway memorabilia and a junk yard of what is claimed to the larges collection of locomotives from a single company in the World. Crack for anoraks.
|Blowing Up The Cooling Towers
B. Long Wittenham : Pendon Museum
More railway stuff. Pendon Museum advertises itself as offering 'a glimpse of English rural life around 1930 through extraordinary dioramas featuring railways, villages and landscapes'. Built by an Australian who got all soppy about the Great Western Railway and the Vale of the White Horse, this is no glorified train set but offers a real glimpse of pre WW2 England. It isn't open all the time so check times at (link) Pendon Museum if you want to visit.
|Long Pendon Museum
C. Three Men, One Boat, and a Nuclear Fission Experiment
The thatched, timber framed Barley Mow pub dates back to 1352. It is a pearl among the Thames pubs. Some 130 ago, Jerome K Jerome and his pals stopped there on the trip that was immortalised in his book 'Three Men in a Boat'. He described it as the quaintest, most old-world inn up the river.' It's changed. But not too much.
|The Barley Mow in Jerome's Time
In contrast, there is nothing old or quaint about the Culham Science Centre. It is a UK Atomic Agency Authority facility and the home of its research into the viability of Nuclear Fission reactors. So pedal quickly if a strange glow appears.
The route turns to the right onto the A415 after you cross the bridge over the Thames, If you want to take a look at Culham, divert by turning left instead and go about 500 yards down the road to the west
D. The Other Dorchester
This is 'Dorchester on Thames'. It is much smaller than its namesake in Dorset. Strictly speaking, only the river flowing out of the town is the Thames. The one flowing into it is the now unfortunately named Isis.
It has been suggested that both names are derived from the old Brythonic word for ‘black’ and that old name for the Thames - Tamesis - is an abbreviation of Thame Isis. There are more detailed posts on the deep history of both the Vale and the Thames Valley in blog posts on www.pootler.co.uk
This place is so old it can afford to be almost contemptuous of its history. An old stone age sacred site just to the north was destroyed by gravel pits and the village makes no great show of its adjacent bronze, iron age and Roman relics.
In the Medieval period, the town thrived and then rather died on the back of its religious role. In Saxon times, it was the Bishopric for both Wessex and Mercia and was the most important place in Wessex until it was overtaken by Winchester and the Bishopric removed after the Norman Conquest. Later, in the reformation, Henry VIII dissolved its Catholic Abbey; but there is still an old 'Abbey Church' here, with a small museum which opens in the balmier months except Monday and Tuesdays. Shortly before you reach the Abbey, the White Hart is an original Coaching Inn dating back to the 15th c. when the town was on the main road from Gloucester through Oxford to London. The George, further down the High Street, is another.
If you want a break from your velocipede, you could walk a few hundred yards down to the river to Day's Lock. To get there, go about 200 yards down the road and turn right into Bridge Lane. In another 150 yards you will find Wittenham Lane off a small triangular open space. Follow this onto a footpath. Day's Lock is the venue for the annual World Pooh Sticks Championship.
|Pooh Sticks Athletes
On the way to the River you will have passed the substantial remains of a major bronze age settlement and iron age fort, the rest of which has been heavily damaged by ploughing although the markings of old buildings and burial mounds can be seen in aerial photos. Maybe the location of this fort is explained by its position on the borders between the Bronze Age Dobunnni, Atrebates and Catevallauni tribes who poke their heads above the parapet in some of my other routes. Several bronze age field systems have been identified around here. They are not readily visible but in case this stuff interests you I have posted a link to a research summary here: Link Bronze Age Dorchester
The hills you can see on the other side of the river are Wittenham Clumps, whose alter-ego is 'Mother Dunch's Buttocks'. Mrs Dunch was apparently the unpopular wife of a medieval squire. There is an iron age hillfort up there, maybe a counterpoint to the fortifications at the Lock?
E. Shillingford Bridge
The handsome little 200 years old bridge bridge at Shillingford was designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott, the architect of Victorian Gothic masterpieces such as the Grand Midland Hotel at St Pancras and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. He also had a less glamorous track record designing Workhouses and Lunatic Asylums. A man has to earn a living!
|View From Shillingford Ferry 1823
Wallingford became important because it was good place to cross the Thames, especially if you had a few thousand heavily armed and malodorous pals with you. It didn't always work though. Many drowned when a Viking army led by Swein Forkbeard tried to cross here. Now, it is one of England's biggest and best preserved Saxon burhs, which were the fortified towns built by King Alfred to protect Wessex from the Danes. The earth ramparts and ditch date back to that time and are best seen from the Parks adjoining Croft Road and St Georges Road which you will pass by on the return leg of the route. The banks are now around two thirds the original height and the ditches partially filled.
The outline and layout of the old Saxon Town is still easily discernible from aerial photos today. The dark green ring is the ramparts.
William the Conqueror crossed the Thames here, following his victory at Hastings and heading for Berkhamsted where what was left of Saxon royalty was holed up. He later commissioned the Castle, bits of which survive and which perhaps reached the zenith of its strategic significance a century later when it was the stronghold of the Empress Matilda in ‘The Anarchy’, her civil war with King Stephen, who were respectively the daughter and nephew of Henry I. A bit of family guidance wouldn’t have gone amiss there.
|Wallingford Castle : As was.
A generation later the dispute would be settled in the ‘Treaty of Wallingford’ which meant that Matilda’s son became Henry II. He left Wallingford a tip, in the form of rights and freedoms comparable to those enjoyed by London.
|Wallingford Castle : As is
It is one of only four towns mentioned in the Magna Carta. Many later Monarchs also stayed here and notoriously it was the hangout of Edward 1st supposed lover, Piers Gaveston; so maybe it deserves a place in LGBQ history as well. During the Civil War between Parliament and King Charles in the 17th Century it was it was besieged and effectively destroyed by Cromwell with a lot of the stonework being used to build the local churches.
See also the old Town Hall in the market place, built in 1670 with a timber frame and stucco to make it look swankier than it actually was, and the 1856 Corn Exchange and the decoration over its door. There is a little Museum at 52 High Street. If you want more detail on the history of the castle check: (Link) Wallingford Castle
Less ancient famous residents included Agatha Christie.
|Wallingford Town Centre
You are now in the heart of the 'Goring Gap', a valley which separates the Chilterns from the North Wessex Downs. It was formed when the ancestor of the River Thames was blocked by glaciers in the Ice Ages and forced to divert southwards to something like its present course. You can find more on how this landscape was formed in my blog posts on geology.
In prehistory, this was where the ancient Icknield Way and Ridgeway crossed the river.
The village is in Oxfordshire with the Chilterns to the East. Take a quick diversion to take in the view from the bridge across to Streatley, on the other side of the river, which is in Berkshire with the North Wessex Downs to the west. The large Swan pub is where Jerome K Jerome and his exhausted pals (to say nothing of the dog) finished their epic trip down the River. It has changed since then and is now a hotel. I wonder if Jerome would have enjoyed a dinner at their 'Coppa Club' restaurant. I didn't.
|The Goring Gap
But there are good cafes and pubs elsewhere in Goring, which is pretty and has played host to a decent dollop of the famous and notorious. Oscar Wilde stayed at the Ferry House in Ferry Lane (which you pass on the short detour through the town) with Lord Alfred Douglas, a liaison that led to a series of trials and his eventual imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’.
Many years later another famous gay artist, George Michael, also lived here. Other famous residents have included Pete Townshend, lead guitarist of the Who and, less happily, Arthur 'Bomber' Harris, the RAF Marshal who planned the destruction by bombing of Dresden in World War Two, and the bombing of civilian targets generally, which he described as 'relatively humane'.
H. Back through Wallingford.
This time, the route takes you straight through the town at right angles to the route you took the first time and past the old Saxon fortifications, At the end of Croft Road turn right and head for South Moreton. There is yet another railway museum close by here but I am guessing that you have had an overdose of those and this one is nothing special.