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Godstow's Tale of Jealousy

Take a walk across ancient grazing land to Britain's greatest river.

Distance 4.8 miles (7.7km)

Minimum time 1hr 45min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Meadow paths and tracks, tow path, road (can be busy)

Landscape Ancient grazing land north west of Oxford city

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 180 Oxford

Start/finish SP 487094

Dog friendliness Under control on Port Meadow - on lead if cattle about

Parking Public car park at Lower Wolvercote

Public toilets At car park

1 From the car park keep right and walk through Lower Wolvercote. Pass between the houses and on to the Red Lion and the White Hart. Pass Home Close and Rowland Close, followed by the local post office. Continue to Elmthorpe Road and at this point turn right, passing through the gate to reach Wolvercote Common. Approach the railway and, 50yds (46m) before it, swing slightly right, following a grassy path out towards Port Meadow. The path gradually curves away from the line, heading for a cobbled bridge over a ditch.

2 Maintain the same direction across this breezy, open ground and look for barges and sailing boats gliding along the distant Thames. Look for a gate over to the left and pass through it to a kissing gate. Keep right at the junction beyond it and right again at the next track. Head south through Burgess Field Nature Park to rejoin the open ground and follow a concrete track along the edge of Port Meadow.

3 Head towards a car park and turn right just before it at a kissing gate. Follow the bridleway to a wide footbridge over the Thames, turn right to a second footbridge and cross to the opposite bank, heading upstream now beside Bossom's Boatyard and Medley Sailing Club. Continue on the Thames Path, passing a turning to the Perch at Binsey, and on to Godstow Lock. Ahead are the remains of Godstow Abbey where,

4 Continue ahead, keeping to the left of the ruins to the road. Turn right here and pass the famous Trout Inn before returning to the car park.

According to legend, the body of Fair Rosamond, the beautiful mistress of Henry II, was buried at Godstow Abbey after she had been murdered by a jealous queen.

All that is left of Godstow Abbey is a walled enclosure with, in one corner, the shell of a 16th-century chapel. The abbey was founded in 1139, and the nunnery here was where Rosamond de Clifford was sent by her father to finish her education. But fate took a hand. Henry II spotted Rosamond one day after she had been picked to work in a local high-class brothel - now the famous Trout Inn, one of Oxfordshire's most famous pubs.

Henry was so taken with Rosamond that he installed her as his mistress in his royal palace at Woodstock, where Blenheim Palace now stands. She even bore him two sons - William Longspee, Earl of Salisbury, and Geoffrey who became Lord Chancellor of England. The house was secret, surrounded by a maze to protect Rosamond from Henry's queen, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, Eleanor discovered what was going on and set about getting rid of Rosamond. She managed to penetrate the maze, which was shaped like a knot, and poisoned the woman who had become a rival for her husband's affections.

Or did she? Tradition has it that Rosamond was murdered but it's possible that she escaped death and retired to Godstow to become a nun, before dying, probably from natural causes, in 1176. Her tomb was found there. As for Eleanor, she was an extremely unpopular queen and there were many people who were eager to see her discredited. Historians believe that if she did manage to find her way through the maze, it was thanks to a clue provided by a silken thread. Some sources suggest that, confronting Rosamond finally, Eleanor forced her to drink the poison.

After Rosamond's death, royal endowments paid for silk curtains draped around the tomb and there were continuous prayers for her soul. But Bishop Hugh of Lincoln rejected such indulgence and ordered her remains to be removed. However, on his departure, the nuns concealed the bones in a perfumed leather bag, depositing them in a lead coffin in the Chapter House. Years later, the famous antiquarian John Leland recorded that when the coffin was opened, it was found to have a sweet smell.

The nunnery was eventually dissolved in the mid-16th century, passing into the hands of George Owen, Henry VIII's physician. In the Civil War it was garrisoned for Charles I but seized in 1646 and almost completely destroyed by order of the Puritan commander, Colonel Fairfax. Little remains of the place now, but with a little imagination you can picture a young girl who enthralled an adulterous king, walking by the placid waters of the Thames.

Where to eat and drink

Wolvercote has a number of pubs, most of them serving a range of traditional food and drink. The Perch at Binsey and the Trout at Godstow both have a wide choice of dishes.

While you're there

Covering 345 acres (140ha), the ancient common of Port Meadow is where the Freemen and Commoners of Oxford can graze geese, horses and cattle. The grazing arrangements were mentioned in the Domesday survey of 1086.

What to look for

As you return to the car park look for a memorial on the wall by the road to two members of the Royal Flying Corps. They met their deaths in a monoplane crash just to the north of this site in September 1912. The stone was erected as a tribute to the bravery of these two British officers.


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