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Travel Story

A weekend in Thames Valley

Before it reaches London the River Thames flows through a pastoral remnant of Olde England

After a month of travelling the sparsely inhabited parklands and seeking out the small villages of Scotland and northern England, arriving in Sheffield was a jolt back to urban reality. It was also the place where we said goodby to our travel companions, Alan and Pat. They were off to Nottingham and we were on our way south by rail to Oxford and ultimately to London.

Sheffield, England's fourth largest city, is synonymous with steel-making and the manufacture of fine cutlery. But with more than 50 parks and five fast-flowing streams it claims, despite its size and industrial base, to be England's greenest city. It also boasts Europe's largest artificial ski slope. But Sheffield Ski Village is definitely not a serious threat to Whistler, even in a bad snow year.

We checked into a small hotel near the RR station and spent the afternoon wandering through the nearby botanical gardens and university district – not nearly enough time to do the city justice but enough to realize that even green cities as large as Sheffield bear the burden of their size. After the serene pace and unpretentious charm of rural and small-town northern England the streets of Sheffield seemed frantically busy and fast food joints outnumbered traditional inns and pubs.

In the morning we shouldered our packs and boarded the sleek Britrail coach headed for Oxford. True to tradition the train arrived precisely on time. We found an empty seat and settled in among the black-suited business commuters hiding behind their morning copies of the Times of London. At almost 90 miles an hour the trip to Oxford took only a little more than two hours but it was memorable for its boredom. Rail lines are not located for their scenic appeal and after passing through the industrial backside of Birmingham I snoozed most of the way to Oxford.

Richard and Linda were waiting for us at the station. We first met them years ago while kayaking in the Bahamas and have visited back and forth ever since. As always they were full of plans to show us around their part of the Thames valley.

We started with a climb to the top of the tower of St. Mary the Virgin Church for a spectacular overview of Oxford's university district. Below us the dramatically pinnacled All Souls College enclosed a large green courtyard, and the Radcliffe Camera, a distinctive round building with domed roof and ornate columns sat surrounded by immaculate green lawns. All Souls is one of 39 separate colleges that make up Oxford University. Perhaps more than any other city Oxford is synonymous with upper-crust academic excellence, but according to Richard it was not always thus. The bells in the tower of St. Mary the Virgin once served to rally students to an all out brawl with the townsfolk.

Back in the 14th century the centre of culture and learning in Europe was the Sorbonne in Paris. Oxford was just another Anglo Saxon town which, because of its strategic location, at the junction of Cherwell and Thames rivers, was heavily fortified during the 9th century war with the Danes. But it remained a scholastic backwater until AD 1167. That was the year Anglo-Norman students were expelled from the Sorbonne. They left Paris in droves and, like bees swarming to a new hive, settled on an Augustine abbey in Oxford. The ultra sophisticated students and pragmatic townspeople proved to be a lethal mix that quickly escalated from insults and name-calling to outright violence. After several relatively minor skirmishes the animosity between students and residents culminated with the St Scholastica's Day Massacre in 1355.

It began with an altercation between a couple of drunken students and a tavern landlord and rapidly escalated into a brawl. The bells of St. Mary the Virgin were rung in an effort to restore order but served only to lure more students into the fray. When the mayhem subsided that evening the students celebrated a victory of sorts. But their jubilation was short-lived. The next morning, armed with pitchforks and pikes, and backed by men from surrounding villages, the townspeople went on a rampage that lasted two days and left 63 students and 30 of their neighbours dead on the streets of Oxford. In the aftermath of the carnage a charter to bring the town under the control of the university was drawn up by the king and a fine was levied against the mayor and townsfolk – a penny for each student killed. And so it was that Oxford became a university town.

Today the students share the streets and sights of Oxford with hoards of tourists who come to admire the elegant medieval architecture and soak up the culture and history. We joined them for a while – dropped in to the Bodleian Library reading-room in the Radcliffe Camera, craned our necks at the Martyrs’ Memorial, a towering monument that has replaced the stake where three protestants were burned for heresy. But eventually we tired of the crowds and jumped at Richard's suggestion that we buy some sandwiches in the market and take them down to a park by the river.

The Thames, no longer the wild river it was when Alfred the Great fortified Oxford against the Danes, has been tamed by locks, domesticated by landscaping, and harnessed by a flotilla of sundry watercraft. From our grassy bank in the shade of a giant beech tree we watched teams of rowers gliding silently in their narrow shells past cumbersome barge boats and a slow procession of puttering private yachts. Behind us, in a fenced pasture with a small thatched shed, a dozen brown cows lay contentedly chewing their cuds. We were only a stones-throw from the crowded streets of Oxford, only a heartbeat, it seemed, from the middle ages. But that's England – a country where the old and the new, the urban and the rural are tastefully crowded together in the confines of a small island nation. We finished our picnic by the river and set off on the short drive from Oxford to our friends’ home in Frieth, near Henley-on-Thames.

South of Oxford the Thames loops around the southern end of the Chiltern Hills before flowing east into London. Although the Chilterns are only an hour's commute from the outskirts of England's largest city their grassy downs and beechwood forests shelter picturesque villages and hamlets, unchanged since some more tranquil bygone age. Frieth, the tiny village where Linda and Richard live, seems more like a cluster of country estates than a town. The brick and flint houses, scattered along winding single track lanes, are set back into tidy gardens surrounded by ancient hedgerows. We wound our way into Richard's driveway and settled down on the leafy patio. Linda produced some crisps and beer and we ended the day recalling past trips together and planning future adventures.

Early the next morning I woke to the calls of cuckoos that sounded remarkably like the little wooden bird in the clock. Their wake-up calls were joined by the chatter of jackdaws, the cooing of doves, and the voices of countless other birds joining the morning chorus in a melodious confirmation that "all's well" in the Chilterns.

For the next two days we wandered the laneways and forest trails of the Chiltern Hills, climbed to lookouts on grassy summits, strolled along the Thames, and stopped to refresh ourselves in the dim yeasty interior of pubs that have been pouring pints for hundreds of years – the Peacock, the Chef and Brewer, the Dog and Badger. The pubs, villages, and farms, nestled among the chalk hills of the Chilterns seem to be caught in a time-warp where the pace of change is slower than elsewhere. But, like the river that runs through them, the Chiltern Hills are ever so gradually being tamed and gentrified. The wild beechwood forests that once provided a refuge for outlaws have been trimmed back to make way for the villages and gardens of Londoners seeking a quieter way of life. But the change has been done tastefully and so slowly that the result is a serene harmony between the people who live here and the natural environment.

On one of our hikes we crunched through the dry leaves of a beechwood forest and picked up a trail leading to the twin summits of Castle and Round hills – not much of a climb but high enough to give magnificent views. And looking across the landscape of rolling chalk downs and deep green forest it's easy to see why so many people who work in London are willing to make the daily commute back home to this pastoral remnant of Olde England.