The bus to Reading has many attractions. For me, Reading isn’t one of them, although many shoppers seem to find it fun. However, the X39 and X40 also provide one of the best routes to glorious countryside.
The first stop, Nuneham Courtenay, is reputed to be the inspiration for Oliver Goldsmith’s poem The Deserted Village, which describes a rich landowner demolishing distraught villagers’ cottages so that he could build a new manor house in landscaped grounds: “Have we not seen at pleasure’s lordly call/The smiling long-frequented village fall?”
Looking at the matching village houses from the bus, it’s easy to imagine that there might once have been a jollier community further from the busy road. But Goldsmith may have exaggerated, if Nuneham was really the model for his poem, since the villagers seem to have been pleased with the new houses built by Lord Harcourt in 1760 to replace their former hovels.
If you want the arboretum, a wing of Oxford University’s Botanic Garden, use the second stop at the other end of the village. Harcourt Arboretum is glorious with bright Japanese maples in autumn. The easy walking trails stretch to just over a mile, so if you want a longer walk, take the stile from the car park across a field, then left down a lane towards Nuneham House, now home to a community called the Brahma Kumaris. Unfortunately, the house is not open to the public, and neither is the Carfax Conduit, hidden in the trees to the left. A 17th-century stone structure, it once stood in the centre of Oxford, supplying water. As you reach the house, the public right of way turns left off the road, but it’s worth visiting the neo-classical All Saints’ Church, with its gleaming dome and six slender columns. It seems incongruous to see this Greek temple, with Italian fittings, classical sculptures and busts, on this hill overlooking the Thames.
One reason to take a bus rather than a car is that it means you don’t need to walk in a circle. From here, you can walk a section of the Green Belt Way, created by the Campaign to Protect Rural England to show the value of the green space around Oxford.
From Nuneham, it follows the Thames to Abingdon, from which there are frequent express buses to Oxford (X3 and X13). In the other direction, across the main A4074 Reading road, the Green Belt Way visits Toot Baldon and then Blackbird Leys, with its unrivalled choice of buses. Alternatively, after visiting Toot Baldon’s medieval church, you can return to the Reading road around the delightful Marsh Baldon village green via the Seven Stars pub.
The next X40 bus stop of interest to walkers is on the Dorchester bypass, and is a short, pleasant walk from the village centre, where you can join the 180-mile Thames Path. Better still, get off beyond Dorchester at Shillingford for one of Oxfordshire’s classic walks – Wittenham Clumps, the two tree-topped hills which can be seen for miles around. Dating back 300 years, they are the oldest known hilltop beeches in England.
At Shillingford, walk south west down Wharf Road. The picturesue house beside the old wharf has a plaque on the side showing flood levels – the highest being in 1809 and the most recent 1947. The 2007 flood, which caused such havoc in Oxford, did not reach the house, as the river is now better managed with locks.
As well as being the route of the Thames Path, this is also part of the Roman Way long-distance route, and I am indebted to Elaine Steane’s fascinating book The Roman Way for this and many other delightful nuggets of information.
To get to Wittenham Clumps, cross the historic Shillingford Bridge, recently restored to become more pedestrian friendly, and take the track back west along the river past the Shillingford Bridge Hotel. From here, there are at least four possible routes to the top. The first is steep but exciting, and the third is the route of the Roman Way, which does not visit the clumps but continues to Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, claiming to be the weirdest named village in South Oxfordshire. It has a friendly pub and a shop run by volunteers.
Duly refreshed, re-cross the main Wallingford-to-Didcot road and follow the path uphill to Brightwell Barrow, then down and up again to the clumps. The wide view of the Thames valley is well worth the effort of the climb, particularly now with the hawthorn, wayfaring tree and other hedgerow fruits shiny red, and red kites and buzzards above.
The historic beech trees could be lost to climate change so the Earth Trust, which owns the land, has planted hornbeam and lime. The trust uses traditional hay-making and livestock grazing to encourage colourful wildflowers. According to Elaine Steane, the clumps were known as Mother Dunch’s Buttocks, after the Dunch family, who owned Little Wittenham Manor in the 17th century. Local poet Joseph Tubb carved a poem in the bark of a beech tree on Castle Hill in 1844-45. The letters are now impossible to decipher, but a nearby plaque records the words. Also inspired by the Clumps was the landscape artist Paul Nash.
From the top, it is easy to see the path down to Little Wittenham Church and Day’s Lock, past the Dyke Hills earthworks and a Second World War pillbox to Dorchester. Here, the Abbey Tearooms are renowned for their homemade cakes, but are only open until September 25 (Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays). A quarter of the proceeds go to maintaining Dorchester Abbey, with its medieval wall paintings and the Tree of Jesse, created with tracery, sculpture and stained glass. This is one of the earliest Christian sites, where Saint Birinus is reputed to have baptised the Saxon King Cynegils. The tiny museum explains why Dorchester was so important in the past, even before Roman times.
To catch the X40 back to Oxford, go under the Abbey arch, turn right and continue north until you reach a cycle stand, apparently in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it marks the edge of the path leading down to the bypass, and the bus stop.
For those who relish a challenging walk, there is, of course, the Chilterns. Those made of less stern stuff can change buses at Benson Marina to take the Henley bus (139) to the Crown at Huntercombe, where you can join the Ridgeway. Confusingly, the bus stop is called the Crown at Huntercombe, but the pub is called the Crown at Nuffield (This pub has recently reopened, but check opening hours on 01491 641335).
However, if you have the stamina, walk up from the second Crowmarsh bus stop, taking the old Reading road to join the Ridgeway as it climbs along Grim’s Ditch. For anyone puzzled, as I once was, by the ubiquity of Grim, this was the Saxons’ god of war, invoked for protection whenever they built a defensive ditch.
Follow the Ridgeway for a few miles, then take one of the many tracks down to Ewelme. My favourite goes over Swyncombe Down, where the grazed chalkland supports a wide variety of flowers. Ewelme is an extraordinary village, thanks to the legacy of Alice Chaucer, granddaughter of the poet, who provided a church, school and almshouses. The village shop is again run by volunteers, and offers tea to weary walkers.
Since June 2012, the 139 bus has run along here, hourly on weekdays and two-hourly on Sundays. Alternatively it is a 3km walk along the road (beside the historic watercress beds) to Benson, where the Waterfront Cafe is popular with ramblers, boaters and cyclists. It is also next to the X40 bus stop.
The X40 and the X39 follow identical routes to Wallingford (another place where you can join the Thames Path). The X40 then diverts into Woodcote, where you can join the 125-mile Chiltern Way. For an even more adventurous walk at the edge of Oxfordshire, get off at Cane End to explore the estate of Wyfold Grange, a former mental hospital now converted to private homes, then visit the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row, an extraordinary sight in a traditional English village. It was built with a donation from an Indian prince who wanted to help the drought-stricken people of the Chilterns.
For refreshments, stop at the White Horse, on a minor road leading nowhere between Stoke Row and Checkendon. It has two tiny rooms, the only food on offer is a cheese, ham or bacon sandwich — but the beer has won countless awards. From here, take the track through the woods to Braziers Park, once home to Ian Fleming and Marianne Faithfull (but not at the same time). The bus stop at this junction is well positioned, but make sure you stick your arm out to alert the driver, as it’s a fast stretch of road.
The X40 and X39 run half-hourly on weekdays and hourly on Sundays. www.thames-travel.co.uk tel 01491 837988. Maps: Ordnance Survey Explorer 170 and 171.