Christina Hardyment plans a punting summer exploring the deep topography, history and literature of the Thames above Oxford.
The charm of what Matthew Arnold famously calls “the stripling Thames” when his Scholar Gypsy encounters it at Bablock Hythe, west of the Cumnor Hills, lies partly in the winding river’s profound peace and partly in the knowledge of the mysteries hidden in the landscape. Few stretches of water have richer associations with history and literature. The Roman Fosse Way crosses a barely toddling Thames near Cricklade, where Canute defeated the Saxons, Prince Rupert fought a valiant action at the oldest still extant man-made crossing, the contrarily named Newbridge, barges brought Cotswold stone from Radcot to London to rebuild St Paul’s Cathedral, Second World War pillboxes are dotted menacingly along the northerly banks of the river between Lechlade and Buscot. Shelley wrote a sonnet in Lechlade churchyard after rowing there from Windsor, William Morris rowed all the way from London to fall in love with the weathered grey stones of Kelmscott Manor, which he soon made famous for fine printing, furniture and tapestries.
But although a quarter of the Thames’ 200-mile total length lies upstream of Oxford, it remains, as it has always been, something of a lost world. Dozens of books were written in praise of the Thames at the height of its Victorian and Edwardian fame as a playground, but very few give more than the sketchiest description of the waterway beyond The Trout Inn at Wolvercote. Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) only mentions young gents quaffing champagne and smoking cigars in punts on the Cherwell and rowers coming to grief on the Sandford Lasher. The great Oxford photographer Henry Taunt’s marvellous two-mile-to-the-inch illustrated map of the Thames (1871) only started in Oxford, though later editions corrected the omission.
“Not one boatman knows Eynsham or Lechlade for a thousand that know Medmenham or Marlowe,” declared The Boys Own Paper in April 1883. Its account of three young sportsmen venturing up river in a skiff might have been calculated to deter other explorers. Having rowed and towed for several days, negotiating “cantankerous rush beds” in a stream that wriggled “like an eel in convulsion”, they collapse with relief at Cricklade. “That’s over at last. I never did such a piece of river in my life”, says one of the lads. “And what a pace we went. A mile an hour at least.”
I can vouch for the accuracy of the description, having punted to Cricklade myself a couple of summers ago, immeasurably assisted by my doughty brother John (Lincoln, 1968), who waded upstream Poseidon-like dragging the punt while the dogs and I fended off willow branches. Near Castle Eaton we were deeply vexed at being overtaken by some dear old biddies taking the air on the towpath on zimmer frames. So why do it again? Largely because of a remarkable man. I can’t find much about Frederick S Thacker, but to my mind he is the Thames’ greatest historian. He ignored the general Oxford assumption ‘upstream-bad, downstream-good’ and in 1909 wrote a seductive and impressively erudite account of his journey from Osney, on Oxford’s western edge, to the river’s source at Trewsbury Mead, near Cirencester. He called the plump green volume The Stripling Thames and published it at his own expense. The title page sets the tone with two lines from Horace and a frontispiece showing his chosen conveyance, a skiff called Phasellus Ille (‘That Boat’, a name taken from a poem by Catullus). He burrowed in libraries (especially the Bodleian) and quizzed local people to uncover a phenomenal amount of history, folklore and literary association which immeasurably enriches the reader’s understanding of the landscape surrounding “the far-off lonely mother of the Thames”.
In the introduction he nails his colours to the mast. “I write for no maker and breaker of records, for none who delights in engines of locomotion, whether on land or water”. Crucial to the enjoyment of the “ancient and unspoilt countryside,” he declares, is travelling under your own steam. “You must traverse its roads upon your feet, and pull and steer your craft along its winding reaches with your own arms.” Thacker’s prose is like rich Malmsey, orotund and arresting. The breadth of knowledge he displays both of the river itself, its fords, weirs, locks, bridges and inns past and present, and of the towns and villages within five miles of it, made me realise how superficial both my previous excursions had been. The first was in a British Moth dinghy launched at Lechlade and sailed to Port Meadow, Oxford; the second the previously mentioned punt odyssey. On both occasions, I was, like the many Thames Path plodders I saw, obsessed with Getting There. I saw enticing backwaters and tributaries, flowery lanes and signposts to nearby hamlets, and passed them by, muttering “another time”.
This year, things are going to be different. I am lucky enough to own Dulcibella, a camping punt which I keep at Oxford Cruisers, a busy little boatyard near Eynsham Bridge. Fun as sailing was, it had its frustrating moments: downing the mast for every bridge, shrouded without a tremor of wind in Shifford Cut, fighting for control when a gale made a wild balloon of my dropped sail just above a weir. Moreover, I had to find somewhere to eat and sleep at the end of the day. Punting, especially with my featherlight aluminium pole, is the perfect form of locomotion: facing forward, requiring enough physical exertion to justify slap-up grub at frequent intervals, but far less effort than wielding oars or paddle. The gentle pace is conducive to Thackerite reflection, and tributaries and backwaters can be explored, even if it means wading and towing. I can carry a Kelly kettle, refreshing and sustaining comestibles, cushions, books, and on occasion a friend, as well as my gallant dog, Leo.
I know that I will find Thacker’s preferred country fruitful territory for my own favourite pastime of knitting past to present by seeing it through yesterday’s eyes, savouring the words and images of earlier travellers, imagining myself in a different, less hurried age. Will there be a book about my explorations? Perhaps, perhaps not. Having worked flat out to finish two books last year, I don’t want a looming publisher’s deadline any time soon. Inspired by Cambridge punter John Eade’s polymathic, www.thames.me.uk, I will start with a link (Slow Punting?) on my website, a place to record such gems as Brian Walter’s account of Evenlode villagers sitting in their waterside gardens stabbing toasting forks into trout as they swam upstream to spawn (straight onto the bonfire?), publish images ancient and modern, and invite more knowledge and the experiences of others. Please contribute!