Friday, 1 October 2021

THAMES: 16) Nightmares of the Spires

A crossing for oxen, they called it. Good enough, right? Who doesn’t like oxen? They go nuuo. Watch them mooch across the river. Touch them, if you really want. Build your civilisation around all the stuff they do for you. Was that not enough?
Apparently not, because then they just had to go and do this.
“I have an idea, let’s pack our settlement with as many limestone phalluses sticky-up bits as we possibly can. Wouldn’t that be cool?”
So they did, and now everyone thinks they’re special.
So rose the dreaming spires, as they were so irritatingly immortalised in the poetry of Matthew Arnold, and in their image the oxen-ford – one of so many – became the den of one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions of all humankind. To this day the crackling magnetism of its erudite pinnacles strikes awe into throngs of aspiring participants and visitors from all the inhabited corners of this world...
...for most of whom its name, with its scholarly romance, is all but synonymous with that of the settlement which hosts it.
Here, then, is Oxford: principal city – only city – of the upper Thames, and capital both of its wealthy shire and of the English literary imagination.
Has anyone actually counted the spikes in this place? Is it possible within one lifetime?
But we aren’t here for the romance. This critical expedition up the Thames (‘or Isis’, as they call it here) has proceeded upon the principle that the more highly a place’s power pierces the sky, the heavier the anvil of scrutiny onto which its ear must be brought down. And here, at the very peak of the procession of the Privilege Forts of the middle Thames, we confront – just look at it – the most practised and proficient sky-shredders of all.
What is Oxford, really? Is there not, beneath the glamour and fancy masonry, a Thames town like any other? An Oxford of wars and riots, of massacres and plagues, of industrial hope and ruination, of brutal exclusion and injustice? The people of this city would be the first to tell you that the university is not all that Oxford is, and has in fact been an almighty pain in the arse for its mere mortal populace at times. And as for that university, for all its polished dialects and lengthy bibliographies, should we not expect that it is but one more creation of the English, with all the dreadful tendencies they have displayed when they get their hands on power?
As the palaces and castles on the way up here have well demonstrated, you don’t typically make it this big in this country without perpetrating some awful level of colonial, gendered and/or class-based violence. Do the spires stand shameless in that pattern? Or dare they claim exemption from it?
The river downstream near Abingdon. A world away from the spires, yet ever in their shadow.
With its enormous weight in books, films and other popular media, Oxford projects the expectation of its atmosphere of enchantment across its surrounding countryside. But the length of river that links it to Abingdon, though never far on the map from the grand city or its satellites, feels like the remotest reach so far on this journey. Perhaps its magic has deteriorated along with its country? Or was it always more illusion than reality? Either way it is time to traverse it, and so complete the middle Thames passage.
Upstream from Abingdon Bridge, the start of today’s section, on a fog-filled late summer’s morning. At right is the Nag’s Head pub on its namesake river island.

Start: Abingdon Bridge (nearest station: miles away, take the bus to Stratton Way from Oxford or Didcot Parkway instead)
End: Osney Bridge (nearest station: Oxford)
Length: 15.2km/9.5 miles
Location: Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire, Vale of White Horse, City of Oxford
Topics: Abingdon outskirts, Nuneham Courtenay (with Lewis Carroll, and the forced removal of an entire village), Radley (with Radley College), Sandford-on-Thames (with the ‘Sandford Lasher’), Oxford suburbs, Oxford – City and University
Abingdon outskirts
The lay of Abingdon’s surroundings was shaped long ago by its monastery. Across the two-part Abingdon Bridge the island of Andersey, now the town’s recreational green space, was formed by the ‘Swift Ditch’ which the monks cut through this corner a millennium ago.

On the north side are the Abbey Meadows: once the grounds of Abingdon Abbey, now a public park and play area with outdoor pool. The southern Andersey banks are more open, less done-up, and a fun place for dogs to run around.
Then the bush packs in, a preliminary taste of green density to come.
A few thoughtfully-positioned spiderwebs have revived this withered bush as a natural art installation.
And here’s the food court, doing hearty custom this morning.

Just upstream of the town sits Abingdon Lock. At first glance a 1790 Thames Navigation Commission job like many of the others, this lock is in fact a creature of the long hydropolitical story of this bend. For most of the preceding centuries the Abbey’s ‘Swift Ditch’ had functioned as the main channel for river traffic. But with the coming of industrial times, Abingdon’s mercantile interests, likely eyeing the imminent arrival of the Wilts and Berks Canal, managed to revert the main route to this natural channel and got this lock constructed as part of that process.
Abingdon Lock.
The weir is thought to descend from one the monks built in the tenth century. Walkers can cross it to the north bank, as the south has impassably steep woods ahead.
A more exotic breed of cattle than those more regularly encountered on these stretches.
The north bank now provides an escape from Abingdon through the Barton Fields. This former infrastructural land has been converted to a rich little nature reserve, designated in 2003 and managed by local volunteers to promote biodiversity.
The thick growths push roamers off the river for a while, but you are still in regular company of its inlets and ditches. The Abbey used to leverage these local waterways as fisheries and an energy source for its mills.
Barton Fields has been arranged to shelter a range of habitat types. Abingdon’s railway station used to stand on this side of the town, connected via a branch line through here to Radley upriver. Most of the track was pulled up after its closure in the 1980s during Abingdon’s industrial decline.
This being a nature reserve, it’s worth keeping an eye out for early morning friends.
Today was one of the last blasts of summer, with the cooling nights coating the plant life in dew.
These would appear to be Raging Red Furyberries, which derive their colouration from how each berry has political opinions in radical conflict with the berries next to it. Lacking the armaments or locomotion to smash each other up, they can only seethe in crimson frustration.
The upper entrance to the ‘Swift Ditch’ marks the effective limit of Abingdon’s control of the river, and the entry in earnest to Oxford’s inner envelope.
Provoked past its patience by the manifold misdeeds of this society, the grass here seems to have risen up and devoured whole the users of this picnic site. No-one has dared go near it since.
And here’s one of the two adjacent entries to the ‘Swift Ditch’. The land at right (with boat) is the northeastern corner of Andersey island. Imagine how many monks must have trudged out here, robes rolled up and toting picks and shovels, to dig out this channel one thousand years ago.
Out of sight beyond the northern fields are more gravel pits, abandoned decades ago and since flooded to form the Radley Lakes. Originally numbering over a dozen and spreading all the way up the banks ahead, about half were obliterated when the electrical authorities and corporations began dumping waste ash from Didcot Power Station into them. This provoked a frantic community campaign, which in the 2000s managed to stop the destruction and preserve what was left of the lakes as a recreational space and wildlife reserve.
Is the water magic because of Oxford? Does drinking it make you more knowledgeable? Want to try it? (Hint: don’t try it.)
This then is the Oxford Green Belt: a doughnut of land, some five miles in radius, where since 1975 planning and development have been heavily constrained by the local authorities to limit Oxford’s urban sprawl.
In an English context Green Belts became an established notion in the twentieth century, championed especially by Labour Party administrations against the harms of rampant urbanisation and now in place around some dozen towns and cities. They are resented by the priests of the free market, whose go-to argument seems to be that Green Belts reduce space for building houses, thus pushing up house prices and contributing to the English housing crisis (a far from theoretical problem in this particular region). In fact Green Belts are a red (or perhaps green) herring on this matter. The housing crisis has less to do with land scarcity and more to do with the English class system – specifically, the policy-driven disappearance of affordable social housing, and a housing sector configured not for those who need somewhere to live but rather for bankers, housing speculators and rampant landlordism.
White and purple daisies like these are in abundance up this riverbank. They’re not to blame for this country’s homelessness disaster.
To the south, the bush has started to gobble up this forgotten agricultural concern.
More earthworks to the south. A tradition stretching back thousands of years in this region was added to by these more recent works to build the Culham off-road motorcycle (‘motocross’) racetrack. This prestigious course in the motocross world is currently a battleground in the Green Belt war; property developers are hungering to overwhelm it with an estate of over 3,000 new (and no doubt unaffordable) houses that would be several times larger than most of the surrounding villages.
Here the Nuneham Railway Bridge – colloquially the Black Bridge – brings the Great Western Railway’s Oxford branch back across the river, with which it now runs in parallel the rest of the way to Oxford.
The original Nuneham Bridge was an 1844 timber Brunel design, but was replaced in iron the following decade. The present steel bridge replaced that in turn in 1929.
As if to show arrivals that they are not to be messed with, the Oxford sorcerers have captured some superhero and imprisoned his soul in the brickwork beneath the bridge.
Nuneham Courtenay
The bridge gets its name from a village which ought to be just ahead on the east bank. Nuneham derives from New Ham, simply “new farmstead/settlement, and its riverbanks offer the prettiest hints so far of the postulated Oxford enchantment.
The thick tree cover of Lock Wood packs the south bank slope here.
Evidence of a methodical approach. Much of this land isn’t so much left green as kept green.
There we go – a tunnel to another world. Watch out for suspicious rabbits.
Of all the stories soaked in these woods and reeds, none is so redolent as the excursions of Oxford mathematician and cleric Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898) – better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Weaving together extraordinary otherworlds and logical puzzles and paradoxes with a comically absurd cast of characters (anthropomorphic animals, political caricatures, megalomaniacal playing cards and chess pieces all included) along with some quite renowned body-altering food, the Alice stories have been among the most phenomenally influential works in all of English literature. Accessibly presented yet deeply profound, their tropes so trouble the margins between reality and imagination that they have not only seeded their way into cultural consciousnesses worldwide (Alice is enormous in Japan for instance) but also spawned an entire field of study whose devotees, known as Carrollians, have dedicated breathtaking time and ink to unpacking the mysteries of these texts and their oftentimes bewildering author.
What is not in doubt is how fundamentally the Oxford Thames (‘or Isis’, they’ll remind us) provided the seedbed for what Carroll nurtured forth. The people, buildings and ways of life that surrounded him at Oxford University’s Christ Church College inspired many of the characters, structures and motifs of these tales, whose main content he appears to have come up with spontaneously during boat trips with friends up or down the river.
Famously friends for Carroll often meant little girls, whose company he preferred and with whom his fascination regularly comes through in his writing. Such a character would likely not have survived the baying mobs of today, who are inclined to scream pedophile at non-conforming individuals, harmless artistic subcultures, or otherised groups with marginalised sexualities or darker skin pigmentations, but have little to say or rather, blame the victims – when actual sexual abuse is committed, within their structurally abusive society, by established power such as celebrities, rich businessmen, priests, sports coaches, police officers, mainstream authoritarian parents, or certain members of the royal family.
In fact no evidence has been found of any erotic dimension to Carroll’s much-studied interest in young girls. His sexuality is rather one of his many eccentric mysteries which, along with those of his mental health and attitude to religion, invite perhaps more pertinent questions into how far his Oxford privilege made a life of such idiosyncrasy supportable at a time when the judgemental and punitive Victorian norms of his country certainly abusive to children in the extreme wrecked so many misfits who lacked his class protection.
The main inspiration for Alice is thought to have been one of the girls in question: Alice Liddell, also of an Oxford University family. It was to her and her sisters during one such boat trip up to Godstow that Carroll came up with the earliest version of what, on them enjoying his telling and asking him to write it down, eventually grew into the manuscript for Wonderland. Frequently his rowing parties also came down here to Nuneham, whose setting is thought to have heavily influenced its Looking-Glass sequel.
Lock Wood Island, here at right, is coated in trees but used to have a lock, bridge, and thatched-roof cottage. As a popular picnic spot in the nineteenth century it was a favourite for Lewis Carroll’s boat trips, with its heavily wooded surroundings suggestive of those that stretch through much of Through the Looking-Glass.
Alone in a riverside clearing – but not looking particularly put out by its solitude – is what appears to have been Radley College’s old boathouse, now re-done into some unaffordable private mansion.
So far so enchanted then? Let’s ruin that.
The question all this raises is where this village of Nuneham, which is supposed to be right there on the east riverbank, actually went. Like Sutton Courtenay downstream it got the name of the de Courtenay family of Norman nobility attached to it. In this case it happened later, around the fourteenth century, as part of a merry-go-round of titled big-named families who got hold of the manor when their predecessors died without heirs or fell from political favour.
This revolving door spun on till Nuneham fell into the hands of the Harcourt family (another Norman hangover, now extinct). More specifically it was bought by their first earl, the diplomat Simon Harcourt, and at his will something extremely English happened.
Where Nuneham village once stood, there is now this opulent Palladian villa in 470 hectares of landscaped pleasure-gardens.
Simon Harcourt decided that he wanted a residence in Nuneham with lavish gardens, a sweeping view of the river, and all other such luxuries as befitted his noble caste. The only problem of course was Nuneham itself. The village, and the people living in it, were in the way. And so he had it demolished – manor house, cottages, church, the lot – and rebuilt a mile and a half to the east to make way for Nuneham House, his new riverside villa, with a vast park that would later receive the attentions of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, England’s landscape-artist-in-chief.
As for the impact on the people who lived there, let alone the question of their consent – well, these of course are not recorded. This was a period in which the broader Enclosure movement to which this act belonged was laying waste to the rural communities of England, who for the whim and profit of rich landowners, were thrown off their traditional land into poverty, starvation, and a growing regime of laws, courts and sadistically violent punishments to stop them ever getting it back. Quite typically, since the winners of this process were the ones who wrote the history, all readily available information today on what happened here seems to be about how spectacular Citizen Harcourt’s amazing new villa was, with not one word on the feelings or fates of the villagers it displaced.
One of the most cutting contemporary critics of this decimation of the English peasantry – its customs, folklore and knowledge as well as its livelihoods and bodies – was the Irish poet Oliver Goldsmith. His long poem The Deserted Village (1770) lamented the death of a hamlet named ‘Auburn’: its buildings dilapidated, its fields seized for the villas and parks of the ‘man of wealth and pride’, its inhabitants lost to the cruelties and corruptions of the cities or to overseas emigration. ‘Auburn’ is fictional, but Goldsmith is known to have personally witnessed and condemned the destruction of a certain village near London to make way for a landscaped villa. This was almost certainly Nuneham Courtenay, which so closely resembled the poem’s details that it is thought to have been its main inspiration.
Alas then, this landscape is not some magically-enriched Oxford romance after all, but a direct result of this most consequential yet still so poorly-acknowledged phenomenon of systemic mass abuse in English history. Needless to say, its main current then – the destruction of the vulnerable for the arrogance and pleasure of the privileged – is still the main current now.
Once you’re aware of it, no glistening water will wash the taste of that callous legacy out of your mouth. What happened to the people of Nuneham? Where do you go if you want to find out? The soil of the green and pleasant land is soaked in blood and angry ghosts.
In World War II Harcourt’s villa was requisitioned by the RAF as a place to interpret air surveillance photographs. Afterwards the family sold it to Oxford University, who since the 1990s have leased it to an Indian spiritual foundation, and in recent years are rumoured to have sold it again, for £22 million, to a secretive buyer.
Meanwhile here on the western bank the fields nest a better-known settlement. Radley appears to derive from the Anglo-Saxon read leah, for ‘red clearing’, on a site settled on and off for thousands of years.
The main village is a kilometre and a half inland, clustered between its thirteenth-century church and its train station. Closer to the river it has also sprouted the satellite hamlet of Lower Radley, from where a road connects to this boating facility.
Radley College Boathouse – the base for that school’s river training.
This is not a small installation.
The school in question is what elevates Radley’s name, for Radley College is no less than another piece of this country’s infamously influential ‘public school’ tradition which we took apart at length in Eton. Founded in 1847 as part of a wave of Victorian school-building, Radley College’s 320-hectare compound is about as large as the village itself. Soon it even proved it had such clout as to get Radley its own railway station, built specially for its pupils in the 1870s.
Radley College’s pupils are all boarders, and the school continues the inexcusable tradition of being boys-only, thereby reserving the privilege of elite education for men. This is an ugly heritage to be caught carrying at a time when the Afghan Taliban’s atrocious attempts to exclude girls from it are under scrutiny.
Recalling that a militaristic dedication to sports – especially rowing – is at the core of these schools’ ethos, one might imagine that the river here gets quite rowdy when the students of Radley descend on these facilities along with their megaphone-toting coach-totalitarians. Yet for now, they aren’t here, and beside the occasional walker the village of Radley seems to make no further imprint on this landscape.
Meadows, woods and farm fields cover the inland side, shielding the village from view.
The east is much the same: a wide spread of farms with little in the way of settlement.
It’s pretty, that much can be conceded.
Look carefully and you might spot the occasional native hunter-gatherer attempting to catch fish.
These Forbearing Pinkberries must be relatives of the irate red ones seen earlier, only having evolved slightly more multi-dimensional perspectives – as evidenced by their four-lobed shapes – which leave them not quite so incandescent with rage at their neighbours.
And then, after another kilometre or two in this vein, signs of human activity trickle back in, for ahead is the outer tip of Oxford’s urban constellation.
And because it’s Oxford it doesn’t do to fish like the mortals fish, does it? No, you need a fishing turret bristling with poles and nets and equipment boxes and possibly an unfolding fish-cleaning hut, stove and dishwasher built in there too.
Sightings of large rural creatures are less common on this section than those preceding it.
The sandy fordSandford – has spent most of its life since the Domesday survey as a tiny agricultural river hamlet, although it did host the Knights Templar for a time. Its main activity centred on a mill next to where Sandford Lock is now, whose labour-intensive work would likely have employed most of the one or two hundred people who lived here.
The thousand-year-old Sandford Mill originally produced corn, first for Abingdon Abbey and then for the Knights Templar, but in the industrial nineteenth century it converted to paper production to feed Oxford’s insatiable demands. It lasted until 1982 and is now this housing development.
Sandford Lock is the deepest of all the Thames’s pound locks and also one of its oldest, built as far back as 1631 by the Oxford-Burcot Commission. It links Sandford on the east bank with a couple of elongated river islands, of which the northern is known for its shape as ‘Fiddler’s Elbow’.
The King’s Arms pub was converted from the mill’s malthouse in the nineteenth century. It sits on what used to be a very busy wharf, where the mill’s raw materials were shipped in and its products sent to their markets.
Major redevelopment in the last century has since pushed Sandford’s population to over one thousand and joined it to the very tip of the Oxford conurbation. Socio-economically it has been integrated closer still. Its neighbourhood now includes the hulking Oxford Science Park, built in 1991, owned by the university’s Magdalen College and host to over sixty science and technology companies; and the Kassam Stadium, opened in 2001 as the base for Oxford United Football Club and named for its dodgy billionaire owner.
The lock islands are a popular little green space for the locals’ recreations.
This would appear to be a private time machine, so when they get to the part where the English start eating each other the property-holders can jump back a few decades and enjoy their quiet greenery all over again.
This one cares a great deal. The eyebrows and moustache make it apparent.
The Sandford islands’ west channel harbours a dark secret. It is there that they built the weir for Sandford Lock, known as Lasher’s Weir. It created a pool which harbours deceptively powerful sub-surface currents, and by the late nineteenth century these were dragging down and drowning so many boaters and swimmers as to raise the Sandford Lasher, as it became known, to national infamy. Warnings about it were soon cropping up through the literature of the time, with Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown series, Charles Dickens Jr.’s Dictionary of the Thames, and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat all referring to its dangers.
Many of the Lasher’s victims were Oxford students, whose names are now inscribed on a memorial obelisk atop the weir. Perhaps the most famous of these casualties was a certain Michael Llewelyn Davies – ward of novelist J. M. Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. Davies was the inspiration for that story’s main character, the ‘boy who wouldn’t grow up’, which only added a further tragic twist to his drowning here in 1921, aged twenty, together with his close friend and fellow Oxford student Rupert Buxton.
Yet this wouldn’t be England without a further, more socially abusive twist to the tale. On their recovery the two young friends’ bodies were found clasped together, such that the inquest concluded that Davies had got into difficulties and Buxton had drowned trying to rescue him. But speculation by Davies’s brothers, friends, and Barrie himself has ever since kept open a different possibility: that the two friends were romantically and/or sexually close and drowned here in a suicide pact. Though impossible now to prove, there is no doubt as to this country’s malicious hostility to same-sex affection, then and in many quarters now; not least when its destruction of Oscar Wilde would have been fresh in memory, and less still when the (likewise persisting) violent masculinism from which that hostility springs, with its hatred for Davies’s softer Peter Pan model of manhood, had just fed a million of its people, mostly young men, into the blood-spattered meat-grinders of World War I.
Were Davies and Buxton murdered not by the Sandford Lasher, then, but by an English atmosphere of alienation and prejudice? We cannot know for sure, but the girders of the Oxford Wonderland look brittler for every step we take.
This stream cuts between the islands to the Sandford Lasher on the west channel. The memorial to the Lasher’s victims is no longer accessible: the local community, perhaps with an eye to the place’s dark reputation, have recently installed the ‘Sandford Hydro’ hydroelectric plant in hopes of transforming the weir into a hearty source of clean energy. Its three big blue Archimedes Screws – a pump device whose design goes back to ancient Egypt – stand out clearly on satellite maps.
This most vocal squadron noisily circles the skies above the ‘Fiddler’s Elbow’.
This bridge connects the island’s north tip with the western bank, where the towpath resumes its approach to Oxford.
The rather specific choice of languages on this sign might bear consideration.
Oxford suburbs
Likely in the same spirit as the Oxford Green Belt, the city’s southward expansion has preserved a leafy corridor for the river itself. It now threads a way into the heart of Oxford between a cluster of villages absorbed as residential suburbs.
The small Rose Isle sits in a kink in the river. This was another popular stopping point for river-trippers in the Carrollian manner; its Swan Hotel was converted to this private house in 1929. The island was also known as Kennington Isle after the nearby village.
To the west, Kennington stretches north to south along the old Abingdon Road. Like Sandford it has spent most of its days as a tiny agricultural hamlet, most likely growing up in service to the Abingdon monastery. It submerged in the records after the Abbey’s destruction, but eventually resurfaced with its life squarely oriented towards Oxford. Its present-day shape and identity is largely a product of the last hundred years.
Mysterious stone remnants sit about the Kennington riverbank. What might this have been?
Kennington Railway Bridge is a 1923 steel replacement for a bridge first built in 1864, connecting trains between Oxford and High Wycombe in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. The railway was closed in the 1960s, but this northern bit survives to carry freight to the BMW Mini car factory in Cowley.
The Kennington Meadows are also where the Hinksey Stream, which splits off from the Thames some way upriver, rejoins the main channel. A border between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in Anglo-Saxon times, then between the English provinces of Oxfordshire and Berkshire till 1974, this side-channel is the first sign of the river’s breaking into many channels in and around Oxford.
And here the towpath turns to tarmac, signalling its entry to the Thames’s highest city.
To the east rises a small plateau known as Rose Hill, a key patch of flood-safe high ground on Oxford’s shoulder which for the last thousand years has been controlled by the manor village of Iffley. The origin of that name is unclear – some kind of clearing (ley) – but over the centuries the power in this village, especially over its highly productive mill, transitioned from the Norman nobility (specifically the St. Remy family) to numerous Oxford concerns.
Like Kennington, Iffley has done its best to preserve its independent sense of village life. Nonetheless by the eighteenth century it was metamorphosing into a residential appendage of Oxford, all the more so following the industrialisation of the city’s east side – most of all the car factories of Cowley – from the 1920s on. With the arrival both of middle-class urban escapees (typically to its nicer suburban housing), as well as immigrant factory workers and poorer people cleared from Oxford’s slums (typically to council estates like that which now occupies the top of Rose Hill), Iffley has transformed dramatically and now stands on that difficult margin between urban and rural, wealthy and downtrodden, dream and nightmare.
Another member of the local angry berry family, this species appears to have got over its internal quarrels and developed apertures to fire plasma at passers-by instead.
The Isis Bridge takes the Oxford Ring Road over the river. This dual carriageway, which emerged in segments in the post-World War II decades, is a particularly beleaguered piece of England’s long-distance infrastructure. Its role as the only route for cars around inner Oxford’s strict traffic restrictions (whose congestion problems it was built to solve in the first place), together with the out-of-control growth in traffic-lighted intersections for all the new housing developments around it, make it well-known among motorists as a horrendous regional bottleneck.
Meanwhile Oxford appears under invasion by an independent crocodile army from this direction. The attackers have already seized this entrance and plastered their colours over its walls.
Iffley has its own lock, another early 1630s Oxford-Burcot Commission piece (although frequently repaired and upgraded, most recently in 1927). The final lock on the approach to Oxford, it exhibits a few unique quirks that bind it to the life of that city.
Somewhere in here there’s a metaphor for the English’s struggles at saving their history.
Oxford’s rigorous wisdom tradition is here on glorious display.
Iffley Lock, with its weir stream at right. Iffley’s mighty mill, prolific in both woollen cloth and a range of agricultural foodstuffs, stood about this site till it went down in a fire in 1908.
The lock used to take tolls for all the punts, skiffs and assorted little pleasure-boats that ply the Oxford zone of the ‘Thames or Isis’. More ominously, it is here that we enter the proving grounds of its university’s fearsome rowing establishment.
Unique among the locks on this journey, Iffley’s has installed these rollers on a side-stream for the easy passage of punts. The ducks here come up to you expecting food.
Here then is the point of no return. To pass through this lock is to commit to braving the terrors of the university city, whose fiercest statements of outward force-projection – its boathouses – stamp their claim on the riverbanks ahead.
The Isis Farmhouse is a nineteenth-century pub, seemingly once an actual farmhouse, whose advantageous riverside situation can only be reached on foot, bike or boat.
Scary at first, but a false alarm: this is just an ordinary public boat hire, not an outpost of the University navy.
Typically of this country, the one place on the middle Thames actually named for cattle is the one where we hardly encounter any.
In the distance here is Donnington Bridge, one of the Oxford Thames’s few available vehicle crossings. Its position makes it a popular site to watch the University’s rowing commotions.
The pair of suburbs on either side here, Donnington to the east and New Hinksey to the west, are largely nineteenth- and/or twentieth-century housing developments. These too keep their watchful distance from the river, because here, now, we are in rower territory.
Territory which expands with every passing day.
Once more the university city’s intellectual pedigree is proudly on show. ‘THE MEDIA IS THE VIRUS’ and ‘COVID IS A LIE’ have here been graffitied onto this emergency life-ring holder.
This would appear to be the marker stone for the City of Oxford’s southern limit. Of course, boundaries are imaginary, and the city's imagination seems to have swelled since this was placed here for its frontier today is drawn as far south as the orbital road bridge.
At left are another couple of backwaters. These ones trickle off through the Longbridges nature reserve before rejoining the river via the Hinksey Stream.
The river widens at this kink, known in Oxford rowing parlance as The Gut. This is likely to indicate that in rowing culture this is considered a reasonable place to eat passers-by.
This battery of boathouses belongs to Oxford University’s Hertford College. The University is divided into many Colleges, each with its own strong identity and political self-governance. Each likewise commands its own rowing division which makes its independent claims on the river.
The unified Oxford University Boat Club, which coordinates the colleges when they come together to fight their Cambridge rivals in the annual Boat Race, also stood here till it burnt down in 1999 with the devastating loss of its historical archives. They have since built a new headquarters downstream of Wallingford.
And here’s the main compound. On this triangular island are concentrated the war machines of two dozen colleges or so, forming between them the bulk of the Oxford University navy. Do not under any circumstances attempt to land on this island with anything less than a fully-trained professional force and the skills to properly deploy it.
The River Cherwell, Oxford’s defining tributary, arrives at the Thames in two channels that draw the sides of this fearsome nest of oars. Journeying far to get here from the hills of Northampton province, it feeds the larger river the northernmost water in its drainage basin.
The serene glide of the Cherwell is at the core of the university’s cultural identity, hosting the majority of its summer leisure-punting and lending its name to its principal student newspaper. That said, its name origin appears an utter mystery, and its true character is said to be ferociously bad-tempered.
Take its double confluence for instance. This lower one is artificial. Known as the New Cut, it was dug out to relieve the Cherwell in 1884...
...because the Cherwell’s natural channel, here on the boathouse island’s upstream side, enters the Thames from the exact opposite direction to the main river's flow. In temperamental conditions the two rivers used to be easily capable of shunting each other into reverse, threatening Oxford’s development with disastrous flooding.
Another fine offering from England’s most hallowed centre of scholarship.
And here at last, the first of those vaunted spires makes its appearance. The tower of Oxford University’s Magdalen College overlooks the riverside Christ Church Meadow, itself named for another college. The meadow covers the peninsula between the Thames and the Cherwell and serves as one of Oxford’s main recreational spaces, as well as providing access for civilian (punting) and military (rowing) river activities.
One final suburb perches over Oxford’s front door. The Abingdon Road, which here enters the city, historically came in over a Norman-engineered stone causeway, possibly of earlier Saxon origin. Still buried somewhere beneath the present-day road, the memory of this ‘Great Bridge’ survives in the south bank suburb’s Norman French name of Grandpont.
Like the other outlying villages, Grandpont was tiny, but in 1785 it acquired this grand-ish house for Oxford’s town clerk, William Taunton. His family held it for just over half a century before selling it to the university’s Brasenose College, which has leased it out since. A tailor and town councillor who lived here around the 1860s, and whose attempt to restrict pub opening hours got the house attacked by an angry crowd, is thought to have inspired the Mad Hatter character in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The house now hosts a range of the university’s para-academic activities.
In Grandpont’s case it was the coming of the railways in 1844 that set off its growth into a suburb. And it is here that we arrive, at last, in Oxford proper: for this, it is said, is the site of the original oxen ford, and hence, if the name is accurate, this city’s birthplace.
At Oxford’s threshold, the river splits round a small island whose buildings include a restaurant and steam boat hire service. There’s no going back now.
It was here, beneath the St. Aldate’s Yard warehouses that are now The Head of the River pub, that Carroll’s famous Wonderland-spawning boat trip up to Godstow is said to have embarked on a ‘golden afternoon’ in 1862. In the foreground another boat trip embarks from this city of ancient wisdom with exemplary caution for the spread of COVID-19.
Every single life ring box on the way up this reach has been defaced with the slogans of COVID-19 conspiracy theories. And then, right here, to welcome arrivals through the gates of Oxford, there’s this one. Did you know that the city’s motto is apparently fortis est veritas – ‘the truth is strong’?
The Folly Bridge at Oxford’s south entrance dates back only to the 1820s, by when the folly tower they named it for had been demolished. But it replaced an earlier South Bridge, which in turn was built upon the old Grandpont causeway and the oxen ford before it. This peculiar structure on its island is the 1849 ‘Cauldwell’s Castle’, built for an Oxford accountant in the 1840s. The site is thought to have once housed the studies of thirteenth-century friar, empiricist, and possibly wizard Roger Bacon.
Here, then, are the spires, the boss stage, the Privilege Fort of Privilege Forts, the grandest imaginative exercise of all to conclude the valley of imagination that is the central Thames.
Oxford – the City
Thus far it is the fabled University of Oxford which has done most to advertise its city unto the river. Are we to suppose, then, that the water now leads us straight to the feet of its glistening towers of power?
Actually, no. In fact the Thames curves off west, away from the spires and round the city’s backside.
This would have been packed with industrial labourers, cargo barges and tow-horses, to say nothing of the noise, sweat, shit, coal-smog, filthy water and life-altering accidents. Not the scenery that Oxford’s name brings first to mind, is it?
Suddenly the University might as well not exist. The river winds unglamorous through a post-industrial green sleeve amidst backstage bridges and graffiti-strewn pieces of yesterday. Breaking what’s left of the reverie, they sink us back to the question of reality. Is there, then, an actual Oxford – that is, a settlement – behind, or beneath, the soaring diorama?
Oxford’s famous Bridge of Sighs is not on the river, but if it’s actual sighs you want then it offers good candidates. This forgotten footbridge was built to carry pipes for the huge St. Ebbes gasworks which sprawled across both sides here in industrial times.
And here’s the 1866 railway bridge, whose track branched off the main Oxford line to supply the gasworks with coal. Since the gasworks were demolished in 1960 it too has entered retirement as a footbridge. The St. Ebbes quarter is now largely residential and has unleashed the monstrous Westgate Shopping Centre onto Oxford’s city centre.
More evidence of two different Oxfords. Can the city which did so much to develop the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine be the same city that exhorts you to ‘TAKE YOUR FACE NAPPIES OFF’?
Oxford began as they all did: with the river. Here, sandwiched in the centre of the broad clay vale between the Cotswolds and the chalk, its water is bottlenecked through a cluster of low hills and breaks into a tangled web of backwaters and side-channels. These, along with its aggressive rendezvous with the Cherwell, would have made these marshes a flood-prone deterrent to any aspiring settlers. Perhaps this explain why, though plenty of evidence for ancient activity has been dug up here – Neolithic arrowheads, Bronze Age barrows, Roman pottery kilns – this seems to have been generally rejected as a site for long-term settlement.
It was only after the coming of the Anglo-Saxon immigrants that a permanent community took root here, encouraged most likely by its opportune position for trade on the Mercia-Wessex frontier. Bolstered as one of King Alfred’s defensive burhs, the new settlement’s name makes its first known written appearance as Oxnaford in the entry for year 911 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. A regular pivot for the long-term Saxon-Viking struggle in these centuries, the town was sacked multiple times and gained lasting notoriety as early as 1002 when, according to the Chronicle, some of the worst mass killings of the St. Brice’s Day massacre of Danish people took place here under orders from one of the most poorly-reputed leaders in this island’s history, King Æthelred Unræd (“the ill-advised”).
If it’s ill advice you want then it does look like you’ve come to the right place. There’s not much moral high ground on show here when it comes to not causing massacres with ill advice.
A footbridge over the Bulstake Stream, yet another side-channel which goes off on its own journey above Oxford before returning here to the river. This one however carries a big secret: it is believed to have been the main Thames channel till it was relegated by the construction of Osney Lock upstream.
Æthelred’s bloodbath only provoked the Danes into a further round of conflicts, whose eventual upshot was his kingdom’s transfer to the Danish prince Cnut – who, notably, was also this land’s first king to have his coronation here at Oxford. Clearly the oxen ford was growing in importance. But then again, the same could be said for many of the Thames towns downstream and there was little as yet to specially distinguish this one.
When the Normans took over William the Conqueror parked a minion from the Norman nobility called Robert D’Oyly here. Under D’Oyly’s governance it got a castle (like Wallingford), and later on acquired some monasteries too (like Reading, Chertsey, Syon and a string of others along this river). Once again, so far so Thames.
Oxford Castle, built in the 1070s, saw some action in England’s various nasty little medieval conflicts, most of all during Matilda’s and Stephen’s power struggle, but it never reached the physical or strategic magnitude of, say, Wallingford’s. Falling into disrepair, most of it was demolished during and after the civil wars, with its remainder used as an infamously brutal prison till 1996. It’s now a museum, but they’ve also followed Abingdon’s distasteful example in burying its abusive memories under a hotel and office complex.
The castle keep’s earthwork mound still stands, a prominent landmark for anyone walking into the city from the train station. Pay the museum £1 and you can go up and walk around on it.
The mound offers this view of Oxford city centre. A little underwhelming if you’re in mind of the skyline conjured up by Matthew Arnold’s dreaming spires.
The views north and west, towards the outlying districts of Jericho and Osney respectively, offer a somewhat different vision of what Oxford means.
The community of Osney on Oxford’s west flank is our next concern, because it was here, where the river (and later the railway) comes in, that Oxford’s main monastery appeared in the 1150s. Founded by Robert D’Oyly’s nephew, another Robert, Osney Abbey grew rich by setting up mills and fiddled with the river’s flow to power them, again like so many big monasteries we’ve seen. These works were some of the first in a long tradition of hydro-engineering that further complicated the flow of water through this marshy plain, including the Oxford Canal in industrial times and the ‘New Cut’ at the mouth of the Cherwell.
Yet another side-channel is the Castle Mill Stream, here arriving in the Thames after flowing down in parallel to its east. Traditionally the boundary between Osney and Oxford proper, this is the stream that wonder-addled students and tourists cross soon after exiting the train station, injecting a preliminary dash of Venetian romance to prime their nerves for the beige-spire rhapsody ahead.
Osney Abbey lasted till it got Henry VIII’d in 1539, though its buildings impressed him enough to gain a temporary afterlife as Oxford’s cathedral. Only a few years later that status, along with the Abbey’s bell and much of its treasure, was transferred to the main beneficiary of its demise, the University’s new college of Christ Church. With the monastery ruins ransacked for stone during the civil wars, virtually nothing but its echoes linger today.
The approach round the bend to Osney. The former meadows at left were developed into a large industrial estate, Osney Mead, in the 1960s. It has since gained a neglected reputation and the University is making noises about transforming it further.
For the river’s purposes the Abbey’s most important echo was its millstream, which the construction of Osney Lock in 1790 turned into the Thames’s primary channel. The old main course is now the Bulstake Stream. Nastily, they minimised costs by getting inmates from the prison to build this lock. The current structure is a 1905 rebuild, and in the last few years it’s also sprouted a community-owned hydroelectric station with an Archimedes Screw like at Sandford.
The original Osney Bridge, at Oxford’s west entrance, was likely built by the Osney Abbey monks over what was then their millstream. A later stone bridge collapsed in 1885 after heavy rains, drowning an eleven-year-old girl. This replacement, opened in 1889, is distinct for having the lowest headroom of any bridge on the navigable Thames – thus putting an end to those chugging white pleasure-cruisers of the middle river, and marking the start of the quieter upper reaches.
Osney Abbey was only the most prominent of a smattering of Christian houses which set up in Oxford in the Norman period, which included the Cistercian order’s Rewley Abbey, the Augustinian priory of Frideswide (Oxford’s patron saint who earlier founded a nunnery on the site, destroyed during the 1002 St. Brice’s Day violence), as well as a community of monks within the castle itself. Drawn perhaps by each other’s successes, as well as Henry II’s granting of a charter of privileges to the town in the 1150s and the frequent meetings here of the nascent English parliament, such religious gatherings were this society’s main engine of scholarly inquiry at the time.
This, then, was the soil from which the pointy tips of the University spires sprouted, and so precipitously do they overwhelm the records from then on that any further account risks becoming all about it, the University. It is here then that it becomes all the more necessary to remember that there was still a town struggling on beneath it.
This crossroads – quadrifurcus in Latin, whence its present name Carfax – is the formal centre of Oxford. The stone Carfax Tower is all that remains of the city’s principal church, built in Norman times but demolished in 1896 to open up the centre for road traffic.
To its north, the tower of an extant church, St. Michael at the North Gate, is an Anglo-Saxon survival from the 1050s and believed to be the oldest building in Oxford.
Much as in the other Thames settlements, the English journey gave Oxford’s inhabitants a bitterly rough ride. Then as now their increasingly connected market town grew vulnerable to infectious disease; it was devastated, for example, by the fourteenth-century bubonic plague pandemic and, more mysteriously, the still-unidentified ‘sweating sickness’ outbreak of the 1510s. As a hotbed of religious criticism it also suffered during the long-drawn-out horror of the English Reformation. Indeed it was here, two centuries before the main upheaval even started, that the priest and professor John Wycliffe criticised the dogma and corruption of the Christian authorities and undermined their power by translating the Bible into vernacular English. For this he was thrown out of the University and declared a heretic after his death (the Church even dug up and burnt his body out of spite), but not before sparking the much-persecuted Lollard movement which foreshadowed the Protestant revolution.
Oxford’s 1843 Martyrs’ Memorial commemorates perhaps the town’s single most notorious incident of religious violence: the ceremonial burning to death of Protestant bishops Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer – together known as the ‘Oxford Martyrs’ –  during the Catholic resurgence under Henry VIII’s daughter Mary in the 1550s.
Oxford then became central to the bloodiest episode of this political and religious identity crisis, the seventeenth-century civil wars, when the king requisitioned it as his alternative capital after Parliament drove him from London – the decision which, as we have seen so often on this exploration, got the Thames’s downstream settlements stuck on the terrible front lines of their contestation. While the royal court lived it up at their Christ Church College headquarters, the townspeople got the complete misery of a wartime climate: the regular din of boots and gunpowder; soldiers who bullied, abused and stole from them and brawled and drank themselves out in their taverns; and constant special taxes, food shortages, and outbreaks of smallpox and typhus, along with perpetual anxiety at the coming parliamentary siege. Ironic then the siege itself spared Oxford serious damage, as the war was in effect lost for the Royalists by the time it arrived. The real damage came when its ageing heritage – the castle, the walls, the abbey ruins – were first cannibalised for defensive materials, then demolished by the victorious Parliamentary forces in the years that followed.
Nonetheless the market town straggled on, increasingly in the shadow of the University whose grandiose architecture was now well and truly swamping its landscape. It is on account of that shadow that when these people industrialised – once more, as so many others did – it comes across here as something like a parallel timeline.
Manufacturing was in fact hardly new in Oxford. Its printing and publishing sector in particular, with the renowned Oxford University Press as its jewel, went right back to the fifteenth-century printing revolution. But once linked to raw materials and markets by the Oxford Canal in the 1790s, then moreso by the railways from the 1840s on, a network of paper and textile mills grew up along this infrastructure together with the (typically poor-quality) working-class housing to support their staff – in the Jericho ward north up the canal, for example, or Osney, now revived into a railway district.
Osney Abbey’s old stomping grounds retain something of an old industrial feel, quite distinct from the university-dominated city centre.
A handful of totemic producers stood at the top of this heap, like the Eagle Ironworks in Jericho, or Frank Cooper’s marmalade near the train station. But as far as heaps went, it was never the highest by the standards of the region. Industrial Oxford only really took off in the twentieth century, when its population growth and urban expansion were sent rocketing by a single driver: car manufacturing on its eastern outskirts in Cowley. The appearance of Morris Motors there in the 1910s, with its Ford-style production lines and supporting sub-sectors such as steel-pressing, drew hundreds of workers and their families to Oxford each year, from a broad range of ethno-cultural backgrounds, until the company’s decline in the 1970s. Most of these factories have since closed down, but rather astonishingly, one plant still survives under the control of BMW, whose production of Minis remains one of Oxford’s largest employers.
These peripheralised zones, then, give the most visible face to the other (or if you like, the real) Oxford, whose scattered but substantial physical presence on the map contrasts against the University’s nucleus of nests. Actual working people do still live in this settlement, and face the same problems of English decline as the rest of their country’s modern underclass – in particular the poverty, hunger and homelessness which, in one of the proudest and most expensive of English cities, manifests in shocking in-your-face inequalities.
The spires might glisten up top, but homelessness, deprivation and decay are common round their bases.
But what then of the spires themselves? The intellectual hub, the city in the clouds, the beige-limestone behemoth of English culture and imagination? What has the University of Oxford to say for itself?
Oxford – the University
The University of Oxford has no official founding date or great pioneer, rather emerging from the miasma of scholastically-inclined religious houses gathering in this town by the twelfth century. Numerous intellectuals, most prominently Gerald of Wales, are on record as teaching and studying here at that time, generating a magnetic pull which was further boosted by an influx of English students returning from the University of Paris in the 1160s under the acrimony of a worsening Anglo-French relationship.
By around the 1230s an organised body of higher instruction seems to have coalesced in Oxford. It had its own Chancellor, official recognition as a singular organisation (universitas, literally ‘turned into one’), and a teaching structure and curriculum modelled on the European paragon of its kind, the University of Paris. Following the continental trend of the time it taught theology, philosophy and the humanities (or ‘liberal arts’) to male-only students (this being a sexist country), as well as the rudiments of what would now be recognised as science, at a pivotal moment in the growth of European learning in general. This after all was when the foundational philosophies of Ancient Greece, long lost to Europe after the post-Roman Empire upheavals, were trickling in thanks to their preservation in Arabic by Muslim scholars.
Relations with the town were tense from the beginning. The University had no separate buildings as such; teaching took place in churches or hired halls, mostly in lectures prior to the arrival of the printed word, while both students and teachers lived scattered about the town. At the same time they were independent of it, being functions of the religious houses – which placed them outside its civil regime, beyond the reach of its laws, and free to make trouble for its people as they pleased. Oxford’s split into a two-tier town, in other words, with a privileged caste above and an underclass below, was already underway, and an early flashpoint proved particularly fateful. When a student allegedly murdered a townswoman in 1209, an angry mob caught and lynched two or three students – likely not including the correct one – resulting in riots which sent many students and teachers fleeing. A core of them set up an alternative centre of learning out in the eastern fens, which would grow into Oxford’s rival and mirror image, the University of Cambridge.
The same upheaval demanded new regulations on lodging, with students, their numbers on the rise with the University’s prestige, now required to live in approved communal boarding halls. It was these which would eventually develop into the University’s college system, whereby its operations – and the city geography – are partitioned up into Oxford’s distinct walled quadrangles, each a self-contained and semi-autonomous principality beneath the University umbrella.
Balliol College, one of the first three Oxford colleges to emerge. It was founded in the 1260s by John de Balliol, Norman counsellor and father of the John Balliol who as king of Scotland had a very bad time. Another John-son and specialist in bad times, Boris Johnson, came through here too. Proud of yourselves Balliol?
Merton College, another in this initial set. Its founder was Walter de Merton: Lord Chancellor, Bishop of Rochester, and effectively regent for King Edward I while the latter was off giving John Balliol and other Scottish people a very bad time in violent colonial ways. The third member of this set, University College, also dates from this period despite its claim to have been founded by King Alfred.
By the fourteenth century Oxford’s and Cambridge’s prestige had so swelled as to let them successfully petition King Edward III to block construction of any new universities in England – a decision which guaranteed the pair’s duopoly over English higher education for centuries to come. In the meantime the new housing arrangements did little to ease the scholars’ relationship with the townsfolk. The students rioted against the merchants, rioted against the monks and friars, rioted against the Pope’s ambassadors, and rioted against each other, being divisively organised along lines of geographic origin at this time. When disputes got out of hand the authorities tended to step in, imposing a peace that more often than not advantaged the University over the town. The scholarly community’s better ability to flee to rural holdings during the Black Death when the townsfolk could not – and worse, to take advantage of it by buying up large pieces of plague-vacated land – could have done the people’s resentment few favours either.
It was under that atmosphere of plague-ravaged decline that these hostilities came to a head in their worst ever round of bloodletting, memorialised as the St. Scholastica Day Massacre of 1355. It began with a tiny incident: a quarrel between two students and a Carfax tavernkeeper over the quality of his wine. Arguments came to blows, customers picked a side and jumped in, and from there the fighting spilt onto the streets where bells clanged and fresh mobs reinforced both sides. The University’s refusal to hold its students to account only stoked the populace’s pent-up rage, and soon improvised bludgeons like pots and tankards had given way to swords, shields and bows. The three days of murdering, sacking, burning and mutilating that followed left some thirty townspeople and twice that number of students and masters dead and much of the town a smoking ruin.
At this point King Edward III sent commissioners to bring blood-crazed Oxford under control. Their judgement was devastating for the townspeople: huge fines and prohibitions, the imprisonment of civic leaders, and the guarantee of a whole range of privileges for the fully-pardoned University such as over property, taxes, weights and measures, and arbitration of legal disputes. It was as harsh a signal as any that the University’s dominance over this town – its rise as a Privilege Fort – was confirmed, and as though to make it real clear, the mayor and sixty townspeople were forced to do public penance for the 1355 violence each year from then on, parading in shame for the scholars killed and paying a further symbolic fine till as late as 1825.
Several new Colleges emerged as the University expanded on this burst of power. This one, New College, was founded in 1379 by William, Bishop of Winchester (who also founded that city’s big public school). It sits on a large piece of Black Death burial ground just within the town’s east wall, where it was intended to train replacements for the staggering number of priests who fell to the plague. The town set a condition that New College look after that piece of wall in return for the purchase; it remains in its care to this day. It’s also got some of the more popular architecture for films and TV series like Harry Potter and His Dark Materials.
All Souls College was founded by Henry Chichele, Archbishop of Canterbury, together with scholarly king Henry VI in 1438 (just before the latter’s school at Eton) to commemorate the victims of the Hundred Years’ War – hence its actual name, College of the Souls of All the Faithful Departed. It was and is distinct in not taking undergraduates, being more a research institution for those with prior academic experience. Behind it here is the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, long the centre of the University’s administration and academic ceremonies.
Magdalen College, with its landmark tower, was formed in 1458 by a different William, Bishop of Winchester, during the turmoil of the Wars of the Roses. Named for Mary Magdalene (close friend and follower of Jesus but eroded in the records because the Christian authorities were and are misogynistic), it is best known for the locals’ peculiar pronunciation of its name as moh-dalin, supposedly preserving the fifteenth-century accent.
Favoured as it was for its learned contributions, the University grew charged on Europe’s now-flourishing classical and Renaissance learning. These critical perspectives were further advantaged when it started accepting tuition payments from students themselves, thus no longer relying on endowments, typically with strings attached, from the church or rich patrons. This placed the University at the centre of the vicious religious disputes in this period, with the John Wycliffe controversy a case in point. It survived Henry VIII’s sledgehammer – though not without heavy state intrusion and the fleeing of dissident scholars – even as the abbeys, convents and religious foundations that had produced it in the first place were brought to ruin around it. It could not, however, escape the generations of revolving persecution this violence set off: for example the ransacking of its libraries, statues and windows by the commissioners of Henry’s Protestant son Edward VI; then the live burning of Protestant dissidents by Catholic Queen Mary, as we have seen; then yet another round of expulsions when Elizabeth I’s Protestant henchmen came to clear out Catholics again.
Christ Church College, now one of the University’s largest, was a creature of Henry VIII’s political tempest. Set up by Cardinal Wolsey in 1525 as the humbly-named Cardinal College on the grounds of the old St. Frideswide Priory, which he suppressed, it was seized by the king after Wolsey’s fall and re-named, equally humbly, as King Henry VIII’s College. He later changed its name again, this time to its present form, and made it the city cathedral; a status it inherited, along with much treasure, from the suppressed Osney Abbey.
Corpus Christi College was founded in 1517 by Richard Foxe, another Bishop of Winchester, as a centre for Renaissance learning. This college’s scholars laid many foundations of the emerging English Protestantism, including the English translation of the Bible into the King James Version.
Henry VIII’s rampage also claimed this college of Benedictine monks from Durham. In 1555 after the rise of Queen Mary its buildings were revived by Thomas Pope, a Catholic civil servant, under the name of Trinity College. But the flames of its Catholic torch sputtered when both founder and queen died soon after, leaving it isolated and cash-strapped in the face of Elizabethan Protestant revenge, especially from its neighbour and rival Balliol. Pragmatic leadership steered it through and it is now one of Oxford’s most prominent Colleges; more sadly it also bears some responsibility for Jacob Rees-Mogg.
Another victim of the back-and-forth religious violence of these years was the University’s library, which was purged for dissident texts and had many of its books burnt. Only in 1598 did rich Elizabethan diplomat Thomas Bodley set about restoring it, since when the growth in its buildings and collections has made the Bodleian Library the second-largest library in England. It has huge underground storage space, continues to hungrily acquire new books, and maintains a tradition that none of them may be borrowed or removed from its rooms.
Privilege becomes less comfortable at such times when the tables keep turning, as the University’s civil war experience would further teach it. Its closeness to the Royalists came perhaps in part because it owed the codification of its lasting statues, including reinforced powers to bully the town, to its new chancellor as of 1630: William Laud, the authoritarian Archbishop of Canterbury and hated enemy (and eventually victim) of Parliament. As such, it was the University’s support for King Charles I – not the townspeople’s – that got the Royalists setting up Oxford as their wartime capital.
While the Parliament-sympathising townspeople suffered under occupation by the Royalist war machine, the University happily gave over its colleges to the king’s cause: that is, to his residence and royal court (Christ Church); his Privy Council (Oriel); his barracks and officers’ living quarters (Jesus, Pembroke, St. John’s); and even to his arsenals (All Souls) and gunpowder magazines (New). It was equally obliging with its coffers and treasure, much of which it relinquished to fund the king’s army. So it was that when the Royalists lost, it was the University, more than the town, which suffered punishment at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s vengeful Parliamentary junta. This time of course it was Royalist staff who were kicked out in another round of purges, and into their posts Cromwell plugged his own supporters, having taken the grand prize of Chancellorship for himself. And of course, no sooner had the carousel settled than it spun into reverse yet again, with the Puritans removed and Royalists reinstated after the monarchy’s return to power in 1660.
Yet for all the distress that professors and students must have suffered on this hellish ride of revolution and counter-revolution, none of their political mistreatment went deep enough to shake the University’s structural privilege as an institution. Whether under hard-nosed Puritan pragmatism or the new coffee-drinking scientific bent of the Restorationists, its established potential as an engine of scholarship was deemed too beneficial to state and church alike to simply trash.
Wadham College, founded in 1610 by Dorothy Wadham on the will and funds of her late husband Nicholas, the Sheriff of Somerset, was an early glimmer of Oxford’s scientific turn. In the midst of the civil war upheaval its students included both England’s architect-hero Christopher Wren and the scientific polymath Robert Hooke, from whose milieu emerged this country’s national science academy, the Royal Society, in 1660.
Though Oxford would never again get so invested in political conflicts as to become a military battlefield, the political turmoils of England’s rising empire – the Jacobite wars, the loss of the American colonies – brought it still more irreconcilable divisions, purges and censorships. These continued to seriously hamper its scholarly pursuits, which, along with antiquated teaching standards and a stagnant curriculum, now dragged the University into an intellectual decline that was only really checked by the far-reaching (and much-resisted) reforms of the nineteenth century, especially under the Royal Commission of 1850. The gradual settling of the intolerance of the English Reformation; the decline of religious power itself against earth-shaking scientific breakthroughs (geology, dinosaurs, Darwin); the growing consciousness of English society’s oppressive treatment of anyone who wasn’t a rich white man; each of these made their mark on the University with changes such as administrative secularisation and the admission of religious dissidents; the teaching of the more rigorous new science, with lustrous facilities and museums built to its glory; and at long last, the prising open of its doors to women, on which more in a moment. This was perhaps the period when Oxford University, as an institution of learning, most took on the shapes it carries on in present-day imagination.
The Radcliffe Camera, perhaps the University’s most iconic building for being a rare circular object in a sea of squares. Built as a library in the 1740s under the bequest of physician John Radcliffe, its collection came to focus heavily on medical science and natural history. Eventually it was acquired by the Bodleian Library next door, which moved its books to other buildings and now uses it as a reading room.
Oxford’s famed Ashmolean Museum originated with a gift of curiosities from the antiquary Elias Ashmole in the 1680s, but after two centuries of dreadful decay it was revived in the Victorian period as this massive museum of art and archaeology. Ashmole’s original building and collections meanwhile went on to become the Museum of the History of Science.
The University’s other huge museum, the Museum of Natural History, rode in on the crest of the 1850s and 60s wave of scientific discoveries. In the 1880s it further gained the Pitt Rivers Museum of anthropology, named for the archaeologist encountered at Dorchester who donated his collection. The latter museum, in particular its famous Shuar shrunken heads from Ecuador, is currently a focus for critical interrogation of the violent legacies of British colonialism in Oxford.
Another emergent from this period was Blackwell’s bookshop. It was founded in 1879 by librarian’s son Benjamin Blackwell, who lacked formal education and developed a passion for helping people educate themselves through books. It’s still run by his descendants, and despite its ye-olde facade, its near-1,000m2 underground room with more than 5km of shelving makes it one of the largest bookshops in the world.
Such was the revitalised Oxford University that entered the twentieth century to face England’s and Europe’s supreme calamities. World War I was a horror for the University: thousands of staff and students enlisted for its bloodbaths and a great many never came back. In World War II however Oxford was entirely spared the Luftwaffe bombings that wrecked so many other British cities, for reasons still not entirely clear (theories range from Hitler’s plan to use it as an occupation capital, to secret Anglo-German backroom deals to spare certain cities on either side). In the meantime the University has continued its attempts to catch the winds of change, as reflected in an ongoing wave of new colleges – from Nuffield, founded just before World War II to specialise in political science and economics; to its most recent college, Reuben, emerging right now in 2021-2 with an explicit focus on pressing problems such as climate change and artificial intelligence.
Another Oxford landmark: the Bridge of Sighs, built in 1914 to link two bits of Hertford College. It was named after a similar bridge in Venice for the apparent sighs of people being marched through it to prison.
And another new college for this troubled modernity: the Oxford School of Management Studies, re-branded in 1996 as the Saïd Business School on a £20 million donation from a dodgy Syrian businessman of that name. Less a dreaming spire than a stop-dreaming-and-work spire perhaps, but beneath the noise of its site’s regularly gridlocked traffic – on Frideswide Square, near Oxford railway station – the religious and industrial echoes of old Osney linger still.
At this point the story blurs. It can only blur, because it blends into such a thick sea of contrasting views and visions – the Oxford of the otherworlds of Carroll, Tolkien and Pullman; the Oxford of dignified limestone fortresses and of people reduced to sleeping on streets; the Oxford of the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Oxford that scrawls ‘COVID IS A LIE’ on public works; the Oxford I didn’t get into but might not have survived if I did through which any attempt at a single coherent narrative of what Oxford means today becomes, for the passing stranger at least, completely impossible.
Better, then, to do it fairness by subjecting it to the same critical treatment as all the Privilege Forts of this valley by identifying a few areas which, in participating in the English heritage of exclusion and oppression, it really ought to have done better. For the University of Oxford, unlike the myriad palaces and castles on this journey, roots its privilege in a claim to the sincere and meritocratic pursuit of the truth. For all its history as a foundry for the cream of this country’s political, scientific and cultural elite, whose power is built at least as much on its rubbing their noses together as what they actually learn in its lecture halls, this here organisation makes a great deal of effort to advertise its hallowed halls as, in fact, open to anyone who would join it in that pursuit of truth – regardless of background, wealth, or other such considerations in a country where class is usually everything.
In that capacity, one offence is so shocking as to be abominable. That is, of course, how for almost its entire history Oxford University, suffused with misogyny, has totally and uncompromisingly excluded women. It was only in 1879 that, with much struggle and in the face of fierce resistance, colleges for women began to open; only in 1920 that it grudgingly assented to offer women full membership and academic degrees; only in 1974 that the traditional colleges began admitting female students; and only in 2016 – yes – that all its colleges and halls became open to students regardless of gender.
It is unpardonable enough that such exclusion, based on perhaps humankind’s most baseless and catastrophic long-term system of lies and prejudices, was and still is widespread in English society. But for a university, whose very existence is supposed to be predicated on a concern for truth, this one’s eager participation in the English disempowerment of women, entitling of men, and in their myths and disasters of gender more broadly – especially once those claims to rational and objective science came in – was and is reprehensible in the extreme. And there’s no avoiding it, even now. It drips on you at street level from those very spires, these silos of phallic supremacy, which with every step you take, rain on you the architectural reminder that Oxford University was designed by and for the masculinist power fantasy.
Oxford’s student intake might belatedly be close to 50-50 male-female now, but what about nonbinary people? What about persisting myths of masculinity, femininity, relationship structures, and the ways these have poisoned its entire heritage of scholarship? What about English university culture’s sexual violence and harassment, which surely plagues this one just as it does all the others in this country and only now grows to public acknowledgement? Is it not time that something, just perhaps, be done to all those bloody spires?
How different might this city look – how different might its academic output have looked, how much healthier its impact on the world? – if not for this crime against humanity? How long will it take this society to recover – will it ever recover? – from the exclusion of women from, and dominance of gendered myths in, the cockpits of its search for truth for almost as long as it has existed?
Perhaps such corruption also explains why the University so struggles with another huge plank of English oppression: that of racism and violent colonial legacies. Only in recent years has it been forced to begin acknowledging how the atrocities of the British Empire, and the pseudo-scientific lies of racial hierarchy invented to justify them, are embedded into the structures of its supposed temple of truth. But its bitter public rows over names, buildings, and endowments from slavers and colonisers – Oriel College’s Cecil Rhodes statue, All Souls’s Codrington Library, the Pitt Rivers Museum’s plundered and mis-represented items – are only mass-media lightning rods for the deeper, more pervasive problem of how the racist inheritance affects everything from course content and admissions (only about 20% of its present intake are black or ethnic minority students) to administrative violence and casual racist attitudes among students or staff.
It has little helped that the Conservative Party government has seized on such strife to promote its nationalist crusade of noisily feeding on trauma for the sake of sensational news headline. Feckless posturing such as attempts to legally guarantee “free speech” (i.e. of people who agree with its lies and bigotries, while threatening and abusing those who don’t) or the recent row over a photo of the Queen in a Magdalen College common room might seem – indeed are – pathetic, but risk doing real damage to marginalised students already alienated, when not downright violated, by a learning environment built over so many generations to justify and enable white supremacy.
Doubtless there are those at the University making wholehearted efforts to rectify these monumental wrongs. As an institution it certainly wants to be seen to be making a great effort, that much is clear. But the sincerity or true reach of those efforts is beyond the judgement of the wayfarer who, like the majority of those who behold the University’s limestone cliffs, walks only past them, forever foreign to the secrets at their heart.
And so we end on the question where we began. What is Oxford – really? What is its role in the story of the English, their sordid problems with power, and the ongoing desperate struggle (of some of them at least) to overcome them?
If Oxford’s journey has made one thing clear, it is surely that its spires do not reach the heavens. They are, at the end of the day, a Privilege Fort: a bastion of resources, of status and mystique that built itself up by treading down a settlement much like any other on the middle Thames. Even atop that two-tier system its journey has not, for all its claims to its sacrosanct scholarly calling, been some safe and sombre procession down gilded corridors in the clouds, but rather a gauntlet of riots and bloodshed, of plagues and prejudices and perpetual political purges and pressures and punishments.
If there is a lesson there, it is perhaps that no matter how high you build those spires, they will never lift you to some detached higher world of truth; can never free you of the subjectivities of this troubled surface, nor of your link to – and thus responsibility within – its chains of causes and consequence. Oxford – the city, the university – is, like everything the river has shown us, a creature of that river just like the oxen which once, in the simple act of crossing it, gave it its name. It too is an output, and a reflection, of the unresolved cultural and political conflicts of the people along its banks.
At a time when they tear themselves between crazed nativist dreams and altogether more wretched realities, Oxford’s high magical air, which one still witnesses dewing the skyward eyes of tourists and aspirants on these streets, begins to taste akin to bad coffee. Its sand-gold cliffs of timeless wisdom, darkened above by soot and pollution, bleached below by the everywhere-brands of a hollow consumerism, appear ever more like a Potemkin village or open-air museum. The crowds, still so busy but difficult now to call lively, make one wonder if the real life of this place is in its ghosts. Romance wafts apart in the air as reality subsides into the clay; for this, too, is England, and here no less than anywhere else is England in trouble.
The nationalist cult, among so many others, has well demonstrated that dreams are serious. It is reality that carries the consequences of dreams, and sufficiently twisted dreams are quite capable of devouring it. If Oxford’s spires truly dream, then they above all should be sensitive to the English nightmare. Their dreams in the past have contributed to that nightmare. England needs better dreams now. It needs responsible dreams. Can the spires complete the necessary turn and apply their full dream-power into waking this land from its nightmare? Or will the nightmare, in its authoritarian hatred of critical inquiry, coil to their tips and drag even these illustrious pinnacles, once and for all, into the abyss of inherited ignorance and deception?
There were days when my path might have led through these halls of stone, but that ship sailed long ago. It means I have come to Oxford still a stranger (thanks Wadham, perhaps it was just as well), and now leave it a stranger too and head for the hills. For this, at last, is the end of the valley of imagination of the central Thames, and from here the high reaches beckon: a place, perhaps, before the English, above the English, where each drop of water begins its journey anew.
People, goods, and stories real or imagined – the river brings them in, and the river washes them away. For all that the stories make up the bulk of Oxford’s cargo, it is, after all, no different.

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