The thatched cottages of the picture-postcard village of Binsey lie little more than a mile from the railway station. Its farm, Medley Manor, is a pick-your-own cornucopia. Its twelfth-century church protects a holy well dedicated to Frideswide, Oxford’s patron saint. And its welcoming pub, The Perch, boasts log fires, mulled ciders, ‘Grouse & Whinberry’ crisps, and a long orchard garden that stretches down to the river. Birds congregate at the water’s edge and there are glistening views across to the wide, open space of Port Meadow where horses and cattle graze contentedly.
The riverside path to the magical ruins of Godstow Priory is lined with a magnificent series of huge and ancient poplar trees. From Easter to late Autumn the rustle of their leaves as you walk by seems secretly supportive, and in winter their profiles stand proud and stark against the empty sky.
These are the descendants of the Binsey Poplars immortalised in verse by Gerard Manley Hopkins – at that point curate of a church on the Woodstock Road – after they were unceremoniously cut down in 1879, and used to make brake shoes for carriages on the Great Western railway. (There were once plans, mercifully never implemented, for the entire surrounding area to house an enormous train depot; but that’s for another Story.)
GMH began his lament in inimitable style:
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled,
Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun,
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
Despite Hopkins’ despair, the poplars eventually grew back; indeed more culling was needed a decade or so ago. One of the trunks lies where it fell, attracting some runic carving and offering a popular picnic site, while year after year insects slowly gnaw away at the wood and return it to the soil.