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.

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