15 Best Things to Do in Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxfordshire, England)

Written by Alex Bird
Updated on
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Nine miles from Oxford, Dorchester-on-Thames is an irresistible village with a high street of timber-framed houses and a grand coaching inn from the end of the 15th century.

And while the village is small, the parish church Dorchester Abbey is a monument of real significance, brimming with Medieval history.

Dorchester is close to where the Rivers Thame and Thames meet, in a landscape of water meadows and isolated chalk hills.

You can walk a stretch of the Thames Path, a National Trail, and pick from a selection of absorbing museums nearby for vintage Aston Martins and historic locomotives.

Let’s explore the best things to do in Dorchester-on-Thames:

1. Dorchester Abbey

Dorchester AbbeySource: Chrislofotos / shutterstock
Dorchester Abbey

Begun in the middle of the 12th century, Dorchester Abbey grew throughout the Medieval period and has a full spectrum of Gothic architecture.

There’s Early English Gothic in the north side of the nave, Decorated Gothic in the choir and south side of the nave, and Perpendicular Gothic in the south porch.

Antiquarians have much to discover, like the glorious image of the Tree of Jesse in the east window, and the 14th-century piscina sedilla in the sanctuary.

There are frescoes painted in 1340, and many funerary monuments like a stunning 15th-century brass for the knight Sir John Drayton.

A very unusual piece is the Norman baptismal font, one of the few surviving to be made from lead.

The abbey museum, set in the Abbey Guest House and cloister gallery, is open Wednesday to Sunday in summer and shows off Bronze Age pottery, alongside Norman stonework recovered in excavations at the abbey.

2. Pendon Museum

Pendon MuseumSource: en.wikipedia.org
Pendon Museum

More than 60 years in the making, the Pendon Museum has a set of scale models capturing the English countryside as it would have looked in the 1930s.

These depict Dartmoor, the fictional Madder Valley and, largest of all, the Vale of the White Horse, representing a big swathe of Oxfordshire countryside between Oxford and Swindon.

The scenes have an astonishing degree of detail, with beautifully rendered nature, cottages, cars, boats and railways.

Everything you see in the Vale of the White Horse is based on a real building, place or vehicle.

Hand-crafted model railways are at the heart of every scene; the Vale of the White Horse has a Great Western Railway station and precise reproductions of six different GWR steam locomotives.

3. Thames Path

Thames PathSource: wyzik / Flickr
Thames Path

In Dorchester you’re on the route of a 184-mile National Trail snaking east from the source of the Thames to the Thames Barrier in Charlton, London.

But for a few small diversions, the Thames Path is a flat and forgiving walk through idyllic meadows and riverside woodland.

In summer there’s a constant stream of narrowboats chugging past, and you’re never more than an hour’s walk from a cosy pub.

If you’re really determined you could walk to Oxford in a day, but Abingdon upriver and Cholsey downriver are more comfortable targets.

On your trip you’ll see weirs and locks going back to the 1700s, as well as old boathouses, lots of thatched cottages and pretty bridges.

4. Wittenham Clumps

Wittenham ClumpsSource: mubus7 / shutterstock
Wittenham Clumps

On the opposite bank of the Thames there’s a pair of high chalk hills that stick out in the landscape for miles around.

The more southern of these is Castle Hill (110m), which was the site of an Iron Age hillfort and has evidence of human occupation going back more than 4,000 years.

Round Hill (120m) nearby is blessed with a view to fall in love with, taking in all of Dorchester as well as the 18th-century Day’s Lock on the Thames.

An orientation table on the north side points out some landmarks, including Faringdon Folly, almost 17 miles to the west.

5. Hurst Water Meadow

Hurst Water MeadowSource: Rod Allday / geograph
Hurst Water Meadow

Running down Dorchester’s east flank is a sequence of preserved water meadows, all protected and maintained for the public after Hurst Water Meadow Trust.

North to South these are the Hurst Water Meadow, the Old Bridge Meadow and the Overy Mead Piece at the confluence of the River Thame and the Thames.

The largest is the Hurst Water Meadow at 18 acres, trapped on island between the Thame and the Overy millstream.

The meadow floods around three times a year, but if you come when it’s not underwater it’s an extremely picturesque and atmospheric spot with Dorchester Abbey and the Wittenham Clumps as a backdrop.

6. Didcot Railway Centre

Didcot Railway CentreSource: Ron Ellis / shutterstock
Didcot Railway Centre

Open daily in the summer is a preserved Great Western Railway locomotive shed and engine stabling point.

This was on the line from London to Bristol, servicing engines that carried passengers to the coast to catch transatlantic steamliners.

The current structure dates to 1932 and was closed in 1965 when steam power was replaced by diesel on British railways.

There are some neat things to see, like a replica of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Atmospheric Railway, which used air pressure to propel its trains.

You’ll have an array of historic steam locomotives to check out, dating back to 1857. Many of these are in working order and can be ridden along short lengths of track on Steamdays that take place all through the summer, but especially in July and August.

7. Day’s Lock

Day's LockSource: Steve Daniels / Wikimedia
Day’s Lock

Take the path down to the Thames and you’ll soon come to this historic pound lock built in 1789 and sitting next to the tiny village of Little Wittenham.

This humble spot played a big role in the history of navigation of the Thames, as King James I’s Oxford-Burcot commission (1605) took place close by and resulted in the first locks to be built on the river.

The main gauging station, measuring the flow of the whole of the Thames is also set right here at Day’s Lock.

You may be interested to know that theWorld Poohsticks Championships have taken place here every year since 1984 as a fundraising event for charity.

8. Aston Martin Heritage Trust Museum

Aston Martin Heritage Trust MuseumSource: Aston Martin Heritage Trust Museum / facebook
Aston Martin Heritage Trust Museum

There’s something thrilling concealed in a 15th-century barn minutes away in Drayton St Leonard.

Set up in 1998 and opened to the public in 2002 is a collection of mint condition Aston Martins.

Among these cars is the oldest Aston Martin known to exist, a Bamford and Martin A3 dating to 1918. You can track almost 100 years of the manufacturer’s history, all the way to a rare pre-production Volante, assembled in 2013. There’s a pair of engines on show, while in display cases are models, components, items of clothing and other pieces of motorsport history.

9. Harcourt Arboretum

Harcourt ArboretumSource: Steve Daniels / Wikimedia
Harcourt Arboretum

At the village of Nuneham Courtenay you can visit a satellite of the University of Oxford’s botanical garden.

This is on what used to be the grounds of Nuneham House, and since 1963 has contained a big chunk of the university’s plant collection over 130 acres.

In this calming Picturesque landscape roamed by peacocks is one of the UK’s largest and most beautiful conifer collections.

Known as a “pinetum”, this part of the arboretum was first laid out by the 19th-century landscape designer William Sawrey Gilpin.

The monkey puzzle trees and giant redwoods he planted are now mature.

There’s something to love in most seasons, whether it’s the sea of bluebells in spring, the rhododendron and azalea blooms in early summer or the reds and golds of autumn foliage.

10. Wallingford Castle

Wallingford CastleSource: Bill Nicholls / Wikimedia
Wallingford Castle

In the same borough, Wallingford Castle is four miles down the Thames and has a history going back even before the 11th century Norman Conquest.

This started out as a Saxon burgh, controlling a vital crossing point on the river.

From the 1200s it became a Royal Castle, so you may be interested to know that important historical figures like Richard, 1st Early of Cornwall, Simon de Montfort and royalty from King Henry III to Isabella of France lived or stayed at this place.

Henry VIII was the last king to use the castle before it was abandoned and its stone shipped downriver to develop Windsor.

The rolling earthworks, old walls and remains of a priests’ college are within the 16.6-hectare Wallingford Castle Meadows, which has been awarded the Green Flag for the past decade.

11. Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary

Island Farm Donkey SanctuarySource: Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary / facebook
Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary

The nearby village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell is home to a crowd-pleasing donkey sanctuary, open every day of the year except Christmas.

Island Farm rescues and cares for a large herd of donkeys that have been abandoned or poorly treated.

The farm has no entrance fee, but does accept donations and has a gift shop along with a cafe that opens on weekends.

Although Island Farm doesn’t actively rescue other farmyard animals, it has adopted goats, sheep, ducks, geese, chickens and a beloved pot bellied-pig called Percy.

12. Little Wittenham Wood

 Little Wittenham WoodSource: Andrew Smith / Wikimedia
Little Wittenham Wood

It’s actually faster to walk to this nature reserve on the south bank of the Thames than it is to make the drive from Dorchester.

The Little Wittenham Wood is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as well as an EU Special Area of Conservation.

This land was purchased by the Earth Trust in 1982 and has been allowed to revert to native woodland.

Lots of ponds lie hidden in the woods, and these are a key habitat for the great crested newt.

With a bit of patience and good fortune you may catch sight of a kingfisher or otter on your walk, as there’s a bird hide beside the Thames.

13. Water Activities

Oxford Wakeboard And Ski ClubSource: Liz Gainer / facebook
Oxford Wakeboard And Ski Club

Dorchester is completely surrounded by water.

Not only do you have the Thames bending round to the south, and its tributary, the Thame to the east, there’s also a mosaic of lakes, north, east and west of the village.

The Queenford Lakes have been a watersports centre of excellence for more than 50 years.

Two are used by the Oxford Wakeboard and Ski Club, which offers a range of activities to non -members.

You can take beginner’s lessons in waterskiing and wakeboarding, or take a 15-minute high-speed ringo ride.

If you find yourself in the Dorchester area for weeks or months, there are open water swimming sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays in spring and summer.

14. Oxford Wet n Wild

Oxford Wet N WildSource: oxfordwetnwild.com
Oxford Wet N Wild

Catch a hot summer’s day and you could have a fun family day at this floating aqua park in the Queenford Lakes.

Open In the warmer months, Oxford Wet n Wild is a circuit of inflatable platforms, stairs and slides for exhilarating and exhausting fun.

Adults and kids aged six and up will wear a life vest, and neoprene depending on the weather, and can spend hours sliding, climbing, bouncing, scrambling and slipping through the course.

The attraction has a cafe catering to children’s parties, and also hires out pedal boats and paddleboards.

15. Dorchester-on-Thames Festival

Dorchester FestivalSource: www.pactcharity.org
Dorchester Festival

The village maintains a strong community spirit and this is in full effect during the Dorchester-on-Thames Festival.

The event place every other May, and attracts 3,000 people to more than 30 events each year.

There are concerts given by surprisingly high-profile artists and ensembles, as well as wildlife walks, an archaeology tour, art class and a food and gift fair.

The festival also keeps kids engaged, with activities like drama workshops, science shows and lessons in making stop-motion movies.

15 Best Things to Do in Dorchester-on-Thames (Oxfordshire, England):

  • Dorchester Abbey
  • Pendon Museum
  • Thames Path
  • Wittenham Clumps
  • Hurst Water Meadow
  • Didcot Railway Centre
  • Day's Lock
  • Aston Martin Heritage Trust Museum
  • Harcourt Arboretum
  • Wallingford Castle
  • Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary
  • Little Wittenham Wood
  • Water Activities
  • Oxford Wet n Wild
  • Dorchester-on-Thames Festival