Running through every story on this website is a silver thread: the river which has shaped Oxford’s destiny, indeed the very reason for Oxford’s existence. The water even takes on a different name as it flows here, turning briefly from Thames to Isis (supposedly from the Latin ‘Tamesis’) though few people now use that term, except in literary circles.
It is a remarkable fact that for all the surrounding geological convulsions, the course of the Thames has remained virtually unchanged for over fifty million years. Beyond the Chiltern Hills and before the last great ice age, it originally turned north and east, entering the sea near what is now Ipswich. But in Oxford there was no such change of direction. When we stroll along the banks of Port Meadow today we are following in the exact footsteps of our most ancient human ancestors.
From its humble beginnings as an almost imperceptible spring beneath the canopy of an ancient ash tree in Gloucestershire, through slow, flat meadows, collecting on its way the volume of its tributary rivers (the Windrush, the Evenlode, the Cherwell) the water makes its stately passage around the loop of Wytham Wood before approaching Oxford, where it gathers pace on its way towards the nation’s capital – and the sea beyond.
A barrier and a conduit. A source of life and of locomotion. Generations have walked beside it, fished it, swum in it, skimmed stones across it, lobbed bread onto it, rowed up and down it, written about it, painted it, sailed on it … This is liquid history.
Let us escape the rushing torrent of the weir at the Trout Inn and begin our voyage where the water slips patiently under Godstow Bridge. Nearby stand the romantic ruins of the abbey where King Henry II’s beloved mistress, Rosamund the Fair, lived out her final days.
From here the river flattens and curves to a place where flocks of waterfowl and migrating birds gather – widgeon, teal, lapwing and golden plover over-wintering before their long flight south. Ancient ridge-and-furrow fields covered with buttercups and hawthorn run away from the water’s edge. Cows and horses graze contentedly on one riverbank; the poplars immortalised by Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose ‘airy cages … quench in leaves the leaping sun’, shimmer and sway on the other.
At the hamlet of Binsey the river becomes playful. Tiny skiffs scoot around outside Medley Boat Club. (Pick a punnet of fruit from Medley Farm while you’re here, or enjoy a pint in the garden of The Perch.) Close by is Bossom’s boatyard (est. 1830) where you can still see someone mending a small craft or perhaps even making one. Then arc over Rainbow Bridge to look at the pleasure fleet gathered in the marina, bobbing against the backdrop of the approaching spires.
Past the Bailey bridge (a legacy of World War II). Past Fiddler’s Island with its mysterious willows. Eyes left as we reach perhaps the most important watercourse in Oxford – Sheepwash Channel – the conduit which, having passed beneath the railway line, enables the river to join the canal at Isis Lock.
An unflappable heron stands vigil under the arch of the Botley Road Bridge as we cross to Osney island. Here, for centuries, the mass of the water has been enlisted to generate power, first to drive the flour mills of the great medieval abbey which once stood on these banks, now for the hydroelectric turbine which feeds green energy into the nearby substation.
Through the solid pillars of the Victorian railway bridge the river widens as we sweep round to reconnect with another tiny island – the smallest such patch of inhabited real estate on the Thames – and beyond it the beckoning arches of Folly Bridge and Grandpont.
Pink-fleshed crowds congregate at the Head of the River pub. The air is noisy with the sound of beery laughter, and pungent with cigarette smoke and car fumes. This is the section of water best known to tourists and boaters. It’s where the Thames changes gear and suddenly becomes bustling and commercial.
Salter’s Steamers Ltd., river cruise operators, have their headquarters here – a family firm named after three brothers, John, James and George, who inherited the business their father had set up in 1858, and have been piloting a course between Oxford and London ever since. Once it was possible to make the journey in a single continuous flow. Now it is staged: Oxford / Abingdon / Wallingford / Reading / Henley / Marlow / Maidenhead / Windsor / Staines.
The panorama across the water discloses the southern range of Christ Church and – rising over the gravelled Broad Walk and duck-lined river bank, over iron railings, grazing cows, meadow grasses, pollarded willows and a perfectly striped cricket pitch – the majestic presence of Magdalen Tower.
Canoists and the occasional punter circle in the sun, beside the bigger boats, whose engines rumble in anticipation.
The confluence with the river Cherwell, the moment at which Oxford is officially encircled, is marked by a low bridge which crosses to Boathouse Island. Square cabins line up side by side. Facing them, on the opposite bank, the University College boathouse seeks to assert its darkly gleaming dominance. We have now entered serious rowing territory.
On flows the river, wide, straight and purposeful, gaining speed all the time (the racetrack where Roger Bannister ran the world’s first four-minute mile is close, but hidden by trees). Past smooth green sports grounds and bushy nature reserves (Aston’s Eyot, The Kidneys) past parks and gardens (River Greens, Longbridges) under the concrete mass of Donnington Bridge, alongside meads and meadows, and the land once known as Cold Harbour …
Until, finally, the Norman tower of Iffley church rises up out of the trees to welcome us. An ornamental eighteenth-century stone bridge marks the end of this section of the river. Descend its steps to touch the bronze-green cast of a bull’s head. Through its flaring nostrils passes the ‘starting ring’ to which a rope is attached, and from which the college boat races known as ‘bumps’, ‘torpids’ or ‘eights’ set off – crowding the river for four excitable days every spring and summer term.
The Isis ends here. And so does this part of our journey. The whole river trip to Kingston-upon-Thames takes a further four days – 3 days and 23 hours slower than the train or car (the distance by water is 112 miles compared with 56 miles by road.) There remains just one last opportunity to enjoy some liquid refreshment, in the tabled garden of the Isis Farmhouse, before we pass through Iffley lock and set off again, downstream towards the capital – and the sea beyond.
Ever drifting down the stream –
Lingering in the golden gleam.
Life, what is it but a dream?
Lewis Carroll, Through The Looking Glass