Saturday, June 02, 2012

Leaving Oxford in 100 blog posts: 7. The river

The river, just after we got out of itEvery city should have a river. Being a bit fancy pants, Oxford has two, the Thames (aka the Isis) and the Cherwell. Plus a canal.

All that water get can very confusing, especially in places like Osney Island and Mesopotamia, and it can sometimes get a bit floody as well, but without the river(s), we wouldn't have the river magic. And we have a lot of that.

The river has flowed in and out of my life here. When I first used to come here to visit my Significant Ex, we would sometimes sneak out of his mum's house at night, cross the railway line, and walk across a field full of buzzing pylons and down a pitch black towpath to sit on a footbridge over the water.

We would wrap ourselves in a blanket, share a joint and look at the reflections of the trees in the river. On a still night, they looked like giant moths.

Once we moved to East Oxford we were further from the wilderness, but closer to the Isis Tavern, in whose idyllic garden we spent long summer evenings getting wasted and feeling just a little bit gilded. One night the water was still as glass, and Dave the Rave and I had to hold on to each other just to make sure neither of us jumped into the abyss.

There was (and occasionally still is) also punting, of course... and although to my mind the Cherwell's not a patch on the Cam for that, only a churl could fail to enjoy drifting by punt through the University Parks. They know how to do a weeping willow, do the University Parks. I did once have to do a nature poo there, but we'll gloss over that.

When we split up, I moved to West Oxford, living briefly on Osney Island, where our local pub was the Waterman's Arms. They had a sign up over the bar saying 'Man seeks wife with own boat. Please send picture of boat.' I loved it in there, in fact it may merit a post of its own. I loved living so close to the river as well, and stayed close when then-housemate-S and I took tenancy of the Bungalow-On-Top-Of-A-Storage-Building just down the road. When I finally embraced cycling in Oxford, which wasn't till I got my job at NGO X, my first route to work was down the river, then over to the canal, then through the back streets of Jericho.

You need to see the river regularly to have a proper relationship with it, though, and once M, then-housemate-S and I moved back east-side, we didn't hang out there so much... the odd walk through Christchurch Meadows, the odd trip to the Isis Tavern. Occasionally we would cycle back from town that way, but it was a long way round, and in the summer the towpath fairly swarms with slow-moving tourists, making cycling somewhat hazardous. I don't think that really changed until Hinksey Pool appeared in my life, when I worked out that I could cycle there by heading over to Donnington Bridge and then heading down the towpath. I enjoyed that ride so much -- through patchwork backstreets, past allotments, under cherry trees, alongside water -- that I wanted to film it, but it never happened.

Tumbling Bay
It wasn't till last summer, though, that I actually went river-swimming in Oxford -- I'd had an ambition to swim at Tumbling Bay for years, but never done it. But I knew we were leaving, and I wanted to do it before it was too late. So one hot humid afternoon last July we cycled over there. There were people there catching crayfish, there was a guy drinking Stella and dancing by himself, there was an old friend of M's who lives nearby and swims there all the time. But otherwise it was deserted. It was a glorious experience.

And then we moved to the Interim Bungalow, and suddenly there was a lot more river. Once you get your bike over the Killer Bridge, the river is the way to everywhere. I go down it for a bit in the morning, on the way to the ring road cycle path to work, I go in the opposite direction and come off at Donnington Bridge for East Oxford, or by University College boat house for Hinksey Pool, or at Folly Bridge if I'm feeling energetic and have cycled all the way into town. We did it in the depths of winter, gliding over icy puddles and feeling intrepid, through the spring, as the green appeared, and then through the near-floods of April and the heat of late May. When you go to the river several times a week, you notice the flora and fauna changing, you notice the level rising and falling, you notice the smells and the sounds and the million shades of green and brown, and the way the second you cross under the ring road on the way out of the city, the towpath changes and it all gets wilder and more unkempt.

We were sitting at our desks last Sunday afternoon, feeling hot and irritable, when I got a text from wild-swimming H: 'fancy a swim in the river? meet you on the meadow opposite the big house?' It was a bit squidgy on the way in, but then it was cool and dark green and lovely. We swam upstream for a little while, drifted back down, then lay on the bank (where I took the photo at the top) and watched the world go by, slowly, feeling that sense of deep calm that is so elusive at the moment. Water is the best.

I love Bruce Springsteen's River, and Joni Mitchell's. But the song I associate with Oxford's river is the Grateful Dead's Ripple. Like the river itself, it is made of wistfulness.



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Blogger Miles said...

Lovely post, thank you. But sorry to see no mention of Nick Drake's River Man whose gently tumbling pace and melancholy strings is my perfect evocation of the stretch of Thames we are now briefly living beside. Funny though, won't work with the Lune, not lazy enough.

12:56 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

River Man is also the Cam for me... I wonder if the Lune will be Black Muddy River? Or maybe Down by the River?

1:36 pm  
Anonymous Mac said...

Is the move to Lancaster going to be "Take me to the river"?

3:03 pm  
Blogger Jo said...

It was the river wot did it, truth be told.

11:17 pm  
Anonymous jonathan said...

Couldn't agree more with your assertion at the start- a city needs a river. Me and Charlotte are both from river cities (Newcastle and Liverpool) and the one thing that we both agree is missing from our adopted city is a life-giving body of water coursing through the middle. Canals are all very well but can't hope to compete (even if like one of ours you can drive a ship through them).

11:07 pm  

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