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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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A recent and very welcome subscriber to Morris Oxford is the Revd John Eade, whose historical cornucopia of a website, Where Thames Smooth Waters Glide contains no fewer than 84 pages on the rivers of Oxford. He writes:

I attach a picture of Folly Bridge and Lock taken from a publication about Oxford Rowing (1900). Notice Folly Lock on the left (removed in 1884). This throws light on the way that Salters’ boats still, at times, almost block the river at Folly Bridge. They were originally on a weir pool and not on the main navigation, which was through the lock.

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I have recently been working on William Morris’s river trips (News from Nowhere, 1890), his vision of what the river might be like in his ideal socialist future, set in, well, more or less now; and his Expedition of the Ark (1880), some sketchy notes on an actual river trip. On that journey he was towed (by a man with a pony) up to Salter’s at Folly Bridge.  He then walked to Bossom’s Boatyard at Medley and hired two double skiffs to continue his journey to Kelmscott. Below is a photograph of Bossom’s at that time. JE

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Sunset was in the sky as we skirted Oxford by Oseney; we stopped a minute or two hard by the ancient castle to put Henry Morsom ashore. It was a matter of course that so far as they could be seen from the river, I missed none of the towers and spires of that once don-beridden city; but the meadows all round, which, when I had last passed through them, were getting daily more and more squalid, more and more impressed with the seal of the ‘stir and intellectual life of the nineteenth century’, were no longer intellectual, but had once again become as beautiful as they should be, and the little hill of Hinksey, with two or three very pretty stone houses new-grown on it (I use the word advisedly; for they seemed to belong to it) looked down happily on the full streams and waving grass, grey now, but for the sunset, with its fast-ripening seeds.

William Morris, News from Nowhere, cited in

Meanwhile, just a few miles upstream …

Recently, in that patch of the loveliest weather, we wheeled our trusty canoe down to the canal, paddled through Dukes Cut and up the Thames for five hours. Then pushed through the wet, trailing branches of a spreading tree and lo – an idyllic secret spot! Cold beers in the sun, chilli con carne on a primus stove for dinner, peaceful sleep and a paddle home next day round Port Meadow through Isis Lock. Bliss! – K & M

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We were inundated with correspondence about The River, including this thought-provoking reflection:

As usual, this Morris Oxford posting is characterised by great prose and great photos. This blog was instrumental in inspiring me to explore Oxford further. What now strikes me, in that context, though, is that your account of the river takes The Thames as we know it as a given. In fact, though it is natural in some senses, it is also an artefact: the work of people who decided to focus on making this channel navigable, when there were other options, e.g. some people wanted to construct a canal that would have by-passed the city altogether. Naturally, the city fathers didn’t like that, so they set about bringing into being the river that we know, and which you celebrate. But alongside the official river, even now, there run lots of other streams. This is especially evident along the Botley Road, which crosses bridge after bridge.

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The section above uses  the 2nd series (1878) OS map as a base map – because it’s nice and clear and has good info. It derives from I’ve coloured in the watercourses in blue.

I’m also attaching a photograph of the Bulstake Stream – the middle one on the map, though this photo is taken from further down river, from the meadows close to Osney Mead. Between the building of the bridge over this stream in the sixteenth century (meaning there no longer needed to be a ford a bit downriver; instead the Botley Road could keep on going) and the construction of the pound lock at Osney in the 1790s (making Osney Mill Stream hospitable to navigation), this was probably the main navigation channel followed by boats wanting to head beyond Oxford. JI

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Joanna Innes (Somerville College) is one of Oxford’s most distinguished historians. Her recent blog, Life in the Floodplain, is HUGELY informative. The flood map below, which is also the icon of her blog, makes it clear just what a remarkably watery place Oxford is.
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This month’s featured image comes from the doyen of Port Meadow photography, Adrian Arbib. You can see more of his beautifully observed work by clicking on this link.
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