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HOME AT FIRST's

ADVENTURE

ENGLAND-

  Home At First Goes Back to School—

Strolling Among the

Dreaming Spires of Oxford

 

— PART I —

 

THIS ARTICLE FIRST APPEARED IN DECEMBER, 2006.        MOST RECENT UPDATE: 2014.

 

          Years ago we first visited Oxford, England, with a guide book in hand. Very nice. Last year, we returned to Oxford bearing only our literary guides: “Alice in Wonderland”, “The Lord of the Rings”, “The Chronicles of Narnia”, and, especially, this poem we first read in college in Pennsylvania:

     How changed is here each spot man makes or fills!
    In the two Hinkseys nothing keeps the same;
        Tonight from Oxford up your pathway strays!
Runs it not here, the track by Childsworth Farm,
        Past the high wood, to where the elm tree crowns
           The hill behind whose ridge the sunset flames?
The signal elm, that looks on Ilsley Downs,
                     The Vale, the three lone weirs, the youthful Thames?—
This winter-eve is warm,
Humid the air! Leafless, yet soft as spring,
        The tender purple spray on copse and briers!
        And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
    She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,
Lovely all times she lies, lovely tonight!
                                              —from Thyrsis by Matthew Arnold

          In my own university days I saw the endless hills of Central Pennsylvania in Arnold’s poem. The farms, rural pathways, the stands of woodland, and the sunset ridgelines all had their local corollaries. My river vale was the broad swath of the wide West Branch of the Susquehanna, and the two Hinkseys were West Lawn and College Park, their heights overlooking the dreaming spires of Bucknell and Lewisburg. I shelved these images from English lit for the next thirty years. In recent years I’ve come to know Oxford on the edge of England’s Cotswolds region. My travels there have dusted off Arnold’s old Victorian poetic imagery, and returned me to the richly innocent excesses of the university experience with their unrealistic priorities, pace, and expectations. These, I’ve concluded, are the metaphorical associations of Arnold’s dreaming spires of Oxford.

          Many, many valid reasons exist to see Oxford with a guided tour. And, the quality of the professional guides available ensures the visitor’s education and entertainment. No tour, however, permits the magic of Oxford to overwhelm you. Tours minimize serendipity in order to maximize efficiency. And the proper discovery of Oxford requires serendipity. I’ll let Arnold’s poem be my tour guide.

          With the most pleasant of company I climbed the muddy fields west of the Hinkseys into the orange ball and pink clouds of a December sunset. The pathway bordered the golf course, and crossed the pastures of a large farm, Chilswell Farm, doubtless the Childsworth Farm of Arnold’s Thyrsis. At the top of the mucky pasture, we entered Youlbury Wood, which led to the ridge top. We arrived just as the sun dropped under the horizon and left us in the dark forest. Turning east we found another path that soon emerged from the woods just beyond Chilswell Ho Priory

Oxford from Youlbury Wood. Photo courtesy www.richardpettinger.com
OXFORD FROM YOULBURY WOOD
photo courtesy www.richardpettinger.com

and led into another farm field. Ahead rose the
nearly full moon, buttery and veiled in the evening mists. Diffused moonlight softly defined the Thames Valley ahead of us. Silhouetted against the moonrise were Arnold’s elm tree and the dozens of spires of Oxford. Although the temperature of our winter’s eve was quickly dropping below freezing, the dampness of Arnold’s recollection was in place, promising a heavy frost this night, to replace the purple twilight coverlet of the woods (copse) and hedgerows (briers) with a silvery glint at sunrise.

          The town of Oxford traces its roots back to the Saxon 8th century, at least 350 years before the founding of the university in the years immediately following the Norman Conquest of Britain. One of the tallest spires in town is that of Christ Church Cathedral, built on the site of where a Saxon abbey once stood as the center of Oxford. Spread densely through Oxford town are dozens of other spires—some church steeples, but most ornate appendages of the distinctive gothic architecture of the university colleges.

Thatched cottage, South Hinksey. Photo © Home At First.
THATCHED COTTAGE, SOUTH HINKSEY
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

         Our path again skirted the golf course, emerging at the overpass crossing of the A34 Oxford Ring Road at South Hinksey. Contrary to Arnold’s claim, South Hinksey looks largely unchanged since at least Victorian times. There may be a dozen and a half houses in the village — of which at least half are thatched cottages—plus a squat ancient church and a pub/restaurant, the General Elliot at the end of Manor Road. Then again, maybe Arnold was correct—near the pub we noted an oversized flat screen TV flooding a small cottage living room

 

with electric blue TV light. No matter. The

pub was warm — a fire flamed earnestly in the lounge—and we were hungry after our long walk. We looked forward to a substantial meal and a short walk back to our lodging on the outskirts of Oxford, and bed. Tomorrow we continue tracing Arnold’s poetic guide into town, where we shall seek other literary references among the dreaming spires of Oxford.

          In the fine, frosty morning we departed South Hinksey and passed over the Hinksey Stream and the footbridge across the railway yards that separate South Hinksey and New Hinksey. At New Hinksey we turned right on the Abingdon Road and then left across Abingdon Road onto Weirs Lane, the B4495, at Iffley, probably the Ilsley Downs of “Thyrsis”. In a few hundred yards we reached the Donnington Bridge across the River Thames. Not much of a river yet, this is Arnold’s “youthful Thames” at the weirs. Here the stream was blocked to help fishermen gather fish or to slow and deepen the Thames for navigation. Immediately appeared navigation: a crew of eight pulling hard shot out from under Donnington Bridge.

POST BOX, SOUTH HINKSEY
Photo © HOME AT FIRST

Post Box, South Hinksey. Photo © Home At First.

 

         We dropped down the stairs to the southwest bank

Oxford rowers on the Thames at Donnington Bridge. Photo © Home At First.
OXFORD ROWERS ON
THE THAMES AT
DONNINGTON BRIDGE

Photo © HOME AT FIRST

of the Thames. A towpath traces this shore of the Thames here in Arnold’s “Ilsley Downs” and leads northwest to Oxford. This stretch of the Thames is long, straight, and calm, the ideal water for competitive rowing. This day the river was already busy with a competition among Oxford women’s club rowing teams. Along with several joggers and walkers, we had to watch for rowing coaches running or cycling on the towpath shouting instruction and encouragement to their teams pulling hard in their boats just a few yards away. Soon we reached the confluence of the Thames with Oxford’s other river, the Cherwell, where boathouses and reviewing stands were clustered. Upstream of here the Thames is called the "Isis" until it exits the north side of Oxford. We continued our march along the Isis until it reached Folly Bridge, the southern entrance to central  Oxford. If hunger or thirst requires slaking, the popular Head of the River pub/restaurant immediately across Folly Bridge is ready to serve.

 

 


END OF PART I GO TO PART II — GO TO PART III


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