Water bodies are historically hubs for human settlement and the River Thame is no exception – it has long been a key part of local livelihoods, and continues to play a role today by providing services and leisure to people in the catchment. The River Thame may seem small and insignificant on a national scale but it is a relic which holds important histories. Throughout its lifetime it has seen countless important events and inspired a number of well-known artists and writers, all whilst remaining at the heart of the community.
Some of the most archaic structures linked to use of the River Thame are bridges. There are many bridges along the river varying in style and including stone, wooden, and more modern steel and concrete structures.
Dorchester Bridge is possibly the oldest bridge over river, the earliest reliable evidence of its presence is from 1146 but it is thought that it may have been built as early as Anglo Saxon times. A new bridge was built 100 yards above the old structure in 1815 but the foundations were badly washed away in less than 10 years so it had to be underpinned in 1824. In 1847 the ladies of Dorchester complained about nuisances on the seats of the bridge which were described as a disgrace to the parish – brickwork was sloped up the seats to remedy this which can still be seen today. Illustrations show that barges used to transport goods under these bridges but the river is now almost entirely non-navigable by boats.
Chiselhampton Bridge is another important historical site on the River Thame – when built it determined the site of the village of Chiselhampton, and the river has since marked the boundary between Chiselhampton and Stadhampton. The earliest recorded date of the bridge is 1444, when the men of Chiselhampton were granted pontage (the right of toll for bridge upkeep) for it. It has been rebuilt over the years with stone arches, altered by multiple repairs, extended, and in 1899 widened with steel troughing. It is now 54 m long and has eight stone arches. The bridge played an interesting role in the civil war – in 1642 King Charles’s court was at Oxford, so control of the bridges on the River Thame became vital to their defence. In 1643 the bridge was gated – nobody was allowed to cross it apart from on market days and other minor exceptions. Prince Rupert led 1000 of his cavalry and 800 infantry from Oxford across the bridge, in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the payroll of the Parliamentary Army of the Earl of Essex.
Wheatley Bridge replaced a former ford, first recorded in the 12th century. A number of complaints and petitions in the 16th century raised the issue of Oxford carriers transporting “unreasonable loads” across the bridge and ruining it. It was clearly an important landmark to the local people and as a result Archbishop Laud requested that no more than six horses to a cart were to be used to cross the bridge. Repairs from the 17th to the 19th century considerably changed the appearance of the bridge and it was rebuilt in 1809.
Numerous fords, weirs, fishponds, watermills, and moated sites are historical locations across the catchment which have been used by people for centuries. Many of these features are no longer in use, but remain in dilapidated states which are often characterful additions to the river scenery. The Old Fisherman pub in Shabbington is a former watermill and is now a popular riverside attraction.
The natural beauty and intrigue of the River Thame has captured the imaginations of many over the years. The river has been immortalised in paintings by artists such as William Turner and Mortimer Menpes. It has also been the subject of poetry and prose in the works of Michael Drayton and Isaac Walton as well as being mentioned in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queene” where it is quizzically referred to as the father of the Thames. The River Thame has long been a part of many traditions like the Shabbington/Tiddington tug of war and the Drayton St. Leonard duck race. The river has provided leisure activities such as canoeing and angling for years and is the backdrop to many peoples’ local countryside walks. In the past it has been host to popular bathing sites and to this day continues to provide beautiful scenery for communities to enjoy.
With thanks to Charles Dickerson for providing the information and pictures needed to write this article.