It was once said — apocryphally, I think — that when Oxford flooded properly you could punt to the railway station from Christ Church meadows.
Somehow I doubt it. But I have seen parts of the Botley Road submerged, Binsey Lane drowned, the northern fringe of University Parks covered, and of course St Hilda's cricket pitch, bits of the Magdalen Island, and Cherwell Meadows all inundated. It is the best defense nature could have given the city against rapacious over-development.
Right now Oxford is flooded again, and not for the first time this year. If you are hurrying from tute to tute, I suspect you take it for granted. But arriving from London as I did last week, with bicycle and camera in hand, I was struck by just how wonderfully it transforms the place.
I was also treated to a mini-adventure, finding myself taking a shortcut along a very narrow footpath that literally divides two channels of the Thames (or Isis, as you like it) as you strike north to Port Meadow from the Botley Road and Osney Bridge. The channels are called Fiddler's Streams.
At the first point of flooding, I was preceded by chap in wellies walking a beautiful spaniel. I inched along at a safe distance, gauging the depth and half rotating the cranks to avoid getting a wet foot. Then, I overtook the spaniel, but was warned: "I think it gets worse further up."
I drew to a halt at the edge of the next flood, which was much longer and involved a real cross-current, just level with Fiddler's Island, with the reddish Rainbow Bridge in the distance. I set off, reasoning that I could reach a bench marooned half way then grab it and take stock. When I got there, the current was tugging at me and I couldn't see the path any more; I was sufficiently unnerved to jump off into the icy water and walk the rest.
I didn't want to become a minor headline on page four of the Oxford Mail: “Oxford Man drowned in Thames Floods”. The water was cold but, after a momentary shock, quite alright — maybe even refreshing. I turned back to the spaniel owner and waved him in.
I was then rewarded by the most amazing “in-land sea” Port Meadow I have yet seen, completely calm before the bright but cold morning sun.
Later in the week, I was present as the river broke its banks at Magdalen Bridge, and on 1 February I rode my bicycle to Reading, taking visual notes as I went, determined not to merely glimpse the Thames fleetingly from the train window. A bit like snow fall, these scenes are but a distant memory by summer. I wonder if they are celebrated enough.