From near Oxford’s city centre, this circular bicycle route takes you through peaceful countryside and villages, up to the iconic view of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’. It’s a view loved by numerous English poets who lived on Boars Hill. The return trip ends with a delightful ride beside the River Thames. Follow the route anticlockwise for the best views on the way down.
Terrain: rural bridleways, gravel tracks and quiet roads. The first part has a couple of steep hills, doable with moderate fitness (or just walk and push for a bit).
Distance: 10 miles\16 kms on the map but more like 12m\19k with the ups, downs and wiggly bits. Allow plenty of time for slow cycling and viewing stops.
Villages, open countryside and peaceful woods
Whether you start from the small car park at Oaklands Recreation Ground, the nearby train station, or Oxford’s centre, it’s only minutes before you’re out of the city. A quiet and leafy, traffic free path takes you to North Hinksey village with its pretty 12th century church and highly-rated gastropub, The Fishes. You’ll pass through equally charming South Hinksey on the way back.
After crossing under the A34, Harcourt Hill Road is the first of two climbs. Take it slowly in first gear and don’t be ashamed to get off and push! It levels off soon enough, becoming a bridleway of compacted gravel, with fields and pleasant views around.
For the last 100 yards, the path becomes rough and narrow, leading to wide open countryside – something of a marvel such a short distance from the city. From here, a narrow path leads up into Youlbury Wood.
In the wood, pause to listen. No sound of traffic. Just birdsong, bees, and sheep in the distance; a place of peace, well suited to the secluded Carmelite Priory that you’ll pass on the left.
Rural views and ‘dreaming spires’
The ‘dreaming spires’ of Oxford is a phrase from the 1865 poem Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold. In one of its verses he describes a walk from Oxford to Boars Hill and the splendid view of the city from the top. Sadly, the great elm tree that marks the poet’s viewpoint has gone. But follow the short detour on our route map, heading north-east along the grassy bridleway towards Birch Copse. About 400 yards along is roughly where the elm once stood and a good spot to capture the view.
Back on the circular route, next stop is the view from the other side of the Boars Hill ridge. Here, a large sign beside the path marks ‘Matthew Arnold Field’. It’s a beautiful spot with a view south-west to the distant Berkshire Downs. Climb over the stile and take a few moments on the bench at the top of the field – perfect for your lunchtime sandwich.
Just around the corner is the Jarn Mound, a 40-foot high mound constructed around 1930 by the archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, famous for unearthing the palace of Knossos in Crete. The mound once provided an improved 360-degree view of the surrounding landscape. Thirty-two steep steps lead up it, but sadly, trees have grown around it, leaving it like a minor pyramid lost in the jungle, with nothing but tree-tops visible from its top.
Fortunately, much of the land between here and Oxford is owned by the Oxford Preservation Trust, so there are unobstructed views along the rest of this ride. Fields of happy-looking cattle and sheep and old farm houses dominate as you roll on down towards the city.
The River Thames path
After a long and gentle descent and crossing the bridge over the A34 to the village of South Hinksey, there’s just one more small hurdle before the easy ride along beside the Thames. That’s the footbridge across the railway line, where you’ll have to lift the bike up steps and down the other side. It’s worth the effort for a nice view of the lake and an enjoyable ride beside the Thames.
The river passes the university boat houses, Folly Bridge, then Grandpont, the Nature Park and Osney before reaching the point where you started this circular cycle ride.
See more circular cycle routes and tours
- in the Cotswolds and Thames Valley
- Oxford city sights: full-day bike rental that includes a 2-hour city bicycle tour with a knowledgeable guide. Good value.
Photo credits: slowcycling.net
Photos may be re-used if a clickable link to slowcycling.net is included.