I reckon every great city needs a river. In our quarter-century in the West Midlands, we never quite worked out what was missing. To be sure, between them Birmingham and Wolverhampton boast more canals than Venice: but you don’t see those cities, let alone the points in between (Oldbury, Tipton, Coseley, Bilston), on people’s bucket-lists as must-visit destinations.
When, a decade ago, we moved to Newcastle, we arrived (for various reasons) to start our new life by train. On a sunny morning, we pulled across the river and gazed at those fine bridges spanning the Tyne. “Yes,“ we exclaimed as one, “That’s what defines a city. Its river.”
Now laughingly described as retired (though currently back at work), we find ourselves spending time in another city with a river. Oxford is intensely proud of its situation on the Thames: though, being Oxford, it has to give it a different name. There used to be a magic in the name Isis, sadly nowadays redolent of less exotic connotations than an ancient Egyptian goddess.
Last weekend was a misery of rain and even snow and slush. This past weekend threatened to be as bad: but a pleasant Sunday morning turned into a bright sunny afternoon, and we Traffords set off for a walk down the river to include lunch. We headed across the water-meadows, joined the river and headed south beyond the Ring Road, passing Iffley Lock, with its view upward to its glorious Norman church.
The tow-path was busy: by the afternoon, the river was even busier with rowers powering their eights upsteam and down.
For lunch we found a splendidly louche venue, the Isis Farmhouse. Little hint of farming remains: the whole ground floor has been torn (almost literally) into one large room. The bar boasts excellent local beers, and on a Sunday lunchtime you can eat anything from a cooked breakfast through soup to a roast beef dinner. At 3pm we were promised jazz, the landlady playing the violin a là Stephane Grappelli: alas, we couldn’t stay.
We headed back upstream, constantly reminded of how all of life is in a river. Inevitably there’s rubbish and the old shopping-trolley, all reflections of modern life. But there are waterfowl of all kinds: geese importuning tourists, ducks minding their own business, and one large immature shag (or cormorant: I still cannot tell the difference) occupying a prominent stump.
By Osney island there is nowadays a cunning water-powered turbine generating significant amounts of energy and, just near Folly Bridge, there is often to be seeing a solitary goose standing on a garden wall, while two or three ducks gather on the path beneath: last spotted in snowy December, for all the world it looked like Oswald Mosley addressing a group of blackshirts. Or perhaps there was more in him of Dad’s Army’s hapless Captaining Mainwaring.
Lots of life and action, then: but grimmer aspects too too. Being in Oxford, we often joke that Oxford’s waterways must be stuffed with corpses awaiting investigation by Morse, Lewis or (the former’s younger alter ego) Endeavour. It was shocking today to see the sign below as we passed Friars Wharf, the police requesting information about the murder (which made the national news) on 3rd January, yet another young man stabbed in a senseless, wicked killing.
Heading back across the meadows to our house on the west of Oxford, we could still see where, early in January, the curious additional watercourses that carry floodwater away from housing and potential destruction had risen some three or 4 feet above their current level: almost unimaginable now, but dramatic back then.
And all that fascination, entertainment and sobering reality free and available to everyone! Truly all of life, good and bad, can be found in, beside and transmitted by a river.