Go with the flow

Steve Thompson goes on a route (beer) march from Folly Bridge to Sandford-on-Thames

In early June, I took a river walk along the Thames from Folly Bridge along the Towing Path to the King’s Arms in Sandford-on-Thames, via the Isis Farmhouse and the Prince of Wales in Iffley (where there was unexpected good news). It was my longest Oxford waterways walk so far.

Previous ventures include the River Cherwell from King’s Mill Lane to the Victoria Arms in Marston (wellies essential in autumn, winter and spring); the Oxford Canal from Hythe Bridge Street to the Plough in Wolvercote; and the little-known Castle Mill Stream (a tributary of the Thames) from Folly Bridge through the city centre to Port Meadow. For some reason they all seem to include pubs!

First stop on my latest walk was the hard-to-reach Isis Farmhouse, where I was welcomed by manager Aga Kruger and barman Joey Laird. It was quiet when I arrived at opening time, but I was sure it would be busy later, on such a sunny day. On tap in the bar were Prospect and Trinity by Oxford Brewery (formerly Shotover) and (of course) Isis by Little Ox on keg.

The Isis Farmhouse is probably unique among English pubs in that there is no road access. Morrell’s Brewery, which owned the pub from 1855 to 1998, delivered beer in a light hand-drawn cart that could navigate the narrow towpath. Sometimes, supplies even arrived along the river by punt!

The Isis Farmhouse has a riverside location but no road access. Photo: Steve Thompson

Incidentally, until the boundary changes of 1974, the western side of the river was in Berkshire rather than Oxfordshire, and this had consequences for the Isis Tavern (as it was then). According to Dave Richardson’s book Oxford Pubs: “The Berkshire coroner held hearings at the pub between 1850 and 1925 to determine the cause of death of bodies found in the water. Bodies found on the Berkshire side of the river produced a reward of 7s 6d for whoever pulled them out; but Oxfordshire paid only 5s. You can guess on which side they were always hauled ashore! A landlord of the pub fell in and drowned while fetching water in 1923, when the pub had no running water.”

In his Encyclopaedia of Oxford Pubs, Inns and Taverns, Derek Honey adds to the sombre tone: “Opposite [the then Isis Tavern] on the other bank is Iffley Lock, first built in 1632… Originally a toll was levied to cross, and no dead bodies were allowed through, either those drowned in the river or on their way to Iffley Church. By doing so a right of way would have been established, and as late as 1948 the toll-keeper refused permission to the police to carry a drowned man over the lock. The lock is now free of tolls.”

After the Isis Farmhouse, I crossed the river at Iffley Lock to Iffley Village to check out the Prince of Wales, then closed but due to re-open that weekend (10-11 June) according to manager Sage Dodds. She was busy getting the Wadworth pub ready for business, accompanied by noisy dachshund Rosie.

According to Derek Honey, in 1975 the Prince of Wales “became a ‘real ale pub’ popular with members of CAMRA and regularly held beer festivals”.

Then back on the Towing Path, heading south to Sandford. At the Eastern By-Pass Road, the Towing Path becomes the Thames Path (actually more open field than a path, but easy to cross in dry weather), where I continued to the playfully named island of Fiddler’s Elbow as it seemed the best way to reach the King’s Arms. This Chef and Brewer pub (Greene King) stocks GK IPA and Abbot, St Austell Tribute and Black Sheep Best Bitter by Black Sheep Brewery in Yorkshire. I enjoyed a well-earned pint of Black Sheep Best Bitter and lunched on fish goujons ciabatta.

The King’s Arms is right beside Sandford lock. Photo: Steve Thompson

Oxford is well known for its appearances in fiction, and the King’s Arms alone has attracted at least two famous names, one real and one fictional. Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, drew much inspiration from the River Thames in Oxford. A fellow of Christ Church College lecturing in mathematics, he wrote the books to entertain the three young daughters of the College Dean Henry Liddell. In 1856, he stopped at the King’s Arms for ginger beer and lemonade on the first known river trip he took with any of the Liddell girls, Alice’s older sister Lorina.

In Tom Brown at Oxford (1861), the sequel to Tom Brown’s School Days by Thomas Hughes, Brown foolishly attempts to row a skiff single handed from Folly Bridge through Iffley Lock where, in real life, several inexperienced rowers had drowned. He soon finds himself in difficulties and has to be rescued by a stranger. Hughes writes of Brown and his rescuer: “They met on the bank at the little inn by Sandford lock, and had a glass of ale, over which Tom confessed that it was the first time he had ever navigated a skiff by himself, and gave a detailed account of his adventures, to the great amusement of his companion.”

By contrast, the Isis Farmhouse features hardly at all in Oxford fiction. There is an exception in Gaudy Night (1935), one of the popular Lord Peter Wimsey novels by Dorothy L. Sayers. Wimsey and his soon-to-be fiancée take a punt down the river to where the Thames and Cherwell meet, when they notice a stink from the nearby corporation rubbish dump. However, they decide to continue down the Thames and dine at what can only have been the then Isis Tavern.

The 3.4-mile walk from Folly Bridge to the King’s Arms took me about two hours because I stopped several times along the way, but it can probably be done in 90 minutes. If you’re a bit weary at the end (as I was, more due to the unaccustomed heat than anything else), you can take the city3A bus from Henley Road in Sandford back to Oxford.