Dear fellow travellers
One of the many charms of Oxford is that the countryside is never far away. Indeed, seeing folk from Oxfordshire villages tumbling off the buses as they arrived in St Giles this morning, I had a sense of the country coming into Oxford. For all its urbane sophistication, Oxford is a place deeply connected with a rural hinterland which includes some classic English landscapes. Among the latter are the Cotswolds and the Chilterns, the Cherwell Valley and the Vale of the White Horse.
Oxford has an intimate connection to landscape. And the country seeps into the city. As Jan Morris remarks in her 1965 book Oxford, the city is "full of green spits and patches, unexpected meadows, creepers and damp stains." But some aspects of the countryside are today kept at bay. No longer is there any cattle market in the city. Until 1932, there was a regular livestock market at Gloucester Green, but that was banished to Oxpens just south-west of the city centre.
Farmers and stockmen would come into town to buy and sell livestock at the weekly Oxpens auctions. Older residents of the city can still recall the days when unfortunate animals were driven through the streets from Oxpens over Folly Bridge and down the Abingdon Road to the abattoir at Eastwyke Farm. Oxpens market survived until 1979. The land at the former market site is now used for a further education college and an ice rink.
Yet wander beyond the clutter of modern Oxpens and there is an area around and beyond the railway which reveals quite another Oxford. A great swathe of land to the south-west of the city centre has never succumbed to the tide of urbanisation. The meadows drained by Hinksey Stream, which flows lazily into the Thames just south of Oxford, afford a real sense of wilderness and detachment just a stone's throw from the city. Our January 1838 copy of The Idler (as fine a companion for breakfast time today as it was in the days when it was first published) describes Oxford as a city dedicated to "thoughtfulness, gravity and repose" - qualities which might perhaps be found more easily in the quiet of the meadows at Hinksey than in the city streets during this busy summer tourist season.
Oxford is packed this week and Hinksey is a good place to flee the crowds. Navigating the wetlands was never easy, and the flatlands between the city and the ripples of Hinksey Heights have long been recognised by Oxonians as a place to go for a breath of fresh air. Some were keen to improve the area. John Ruskin sent his students out to North Hinksey to build a road and beautify the landscape. His emissaries were instructed to make sure that door steps were free of moss and weeds and that the village green be "clean and sweet" for the local geese and donkeys.
Walking over the meadows from North Hinksey to South Hinksey this morning, I saw water lillies and caught the scent of mint. I met a lady who said that otters have been spotted. I made my way over to the railway, crossing it on a bridge into New Hinksey, a residential district of Oxford which runs to no more than a few streets squeezed between the railway and the Abingdon Road. And so north past the old waterworks in Lake Street, now a community centre, into Grandpont – named with French affectation in reference to the causeway road which ran south from Folly Bridge across the Thames marshes.
Soon the colleges with their skyline of spires and turrets were back in view. I crossed the Thames at Folly Bridge and a few minutes thereafter was back in the maelstrom of the city centre. In Radcliffe Square, there were tour guides assailing their flocks with facts, figures and anecdotes. "If all the books of the Bodleian Library were lined up on a single shelf, that shelf would stretch from here to London," said one guide, while another told the tale of the hapless mallard of All Souls. Oxford is a frenzy on these midsummer days, but Hinksey, thank God, is always there for those who need a quick escape.
(editor, hidden europe magazine)
Jan Morris' 'Oxford', referenced above in this issue of Letter from Europe, was published in 1965 by Faber and Faber. A paperback edition was published by Oxford University Press in 1978. There have been a number of subsequent editions, all published by OUP.