13 June 2024

Enjoying the bridges and boats
on the Cherwell and Isis in
‘the city of dreaming spires’

Punts on the River Cherwell at Christ Church Meadow in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Despite living within commuting distance of Oxford for some time now and within the Diocese of Oxford, I am still familiarising myself with ‘the city of dreaming spires’.

The Victorian poet Matthew Arnold described the beauty of university buildings in his poem Thyrsis, in which he describes Oxford as ‘the city of dreaming spires’ because of its architecture:

And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening.

‘The city of dreaming spires’ … a view of Oxford across Christ Church Meadow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

I still do not feel as familiar with Oxford as I do with Cambridge, where I have studied at the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, staying at Sidney Sussex College over the years. I have also preached and lectured in Sidney Sussex and in Christ’s College, and feel I know my way around Cambridge, its colleges, churches and college chapels, its bookshops, cafés and bars, its open spaces and its hidden corners.

In Cambridge, I know my way along the Backs and by the boat clubs, and I wonder whether some day I am ever going to become as familiar with similar walks in Oxford.

The Cherwell and the Thames – known as the Isis in Oxford – run through the city, and walking through Christ Church Meadow, along the river banks and by the boat houses one recent sunny afternoon I too was captivated by those views that have made Oxford ‘the city of dreaming spires.’

The college boats houses are clustered together in Oxford, lined in a row along Boathouses Walk (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Both Cambridge and Oxford are also cities of bicycles, bridges and boats.

As in Cambridge, the college boats houses are clustered together in Oxford, lined in a row along Boathouses Walk: Saint Anne’s, Saint Hugh’s and Wadham; Saint Edmund Hall; Corpus Christi and Saint John’s; Jesus and Keble; Brasenose and Exeter; Oriel, Lincoln and Queen’s; Baliol and Osler House; Merton and Worcester; Linacre; and Christ Church. Facing them on the opposite bank are: University College, and more college boat houses as one continues south.

In all, there are 40 boat clubs within the university: four representative university clubs (Oxford University Boat Club, Oxford University Women’s Boat Club, Oxford University Lightweight Rowing Club and Oxford University Women’s Lightweight Rowing Club) and 36 college boat clubs, with over 3,000 active members in total. The 40 college and university clubs together form the confederation known as Oxford University Rowing Clubs (OURCs).

Jubilee Bridge, the newest bridge in Oxford, was built by Christ Church in 2014 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Nearby, I crossed the Jubilee Bridge, the newest bridge in Oxford. It was built by Christ Church and links Christ Church Meadow with the college’s playing fields over the River Cherwell.

The 28 metre-long steel bridge opened 10 years ago on 20 June 2014. But only Christ Church students and staff may cross it fully, and a gate blocks access to the sports ground side of the river.

This riverside setting gave rise to the name Oxenford in the Anglo-Saxon period.

All along the Cherwell and Isis, at this time of summer, the water is busy with punts and river cruises and with rowers and scullers practising their strokes.

Folly Island and Folly Bridge, a stone bridge over the River Thames (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

It was a June afternoon, I had walked almost a full circle in a clockwise direction when I found myself back at Folly Island and Folly Bridge, the stone bridge over the River Thames carrying the Abingdon Road south from the centre of Oxford.

The bridge is in two parts that are separated by an island and stands at the site of the ford over which oxen could be driven across the Isis. Until the late 17th century, the bridge was known as South Bridge, and formed part of a long causeway known as Grandpont that stretched along almost the full length of Abingdon Road.

In the 13th century, the philosopher and alchemist Roger Bacon (1214-1292) lived and worked at ‘Friar Bacon’s Study,’ which stood across the north end of the bridge until 1779, when it was removed to widen the road.

Samuel Pepys visited Bacon's study in 1669, noting: ‘So to Friar Bacon’s study: I up and saw it, and gave the man 1s[hilling].’ Later, the place was painted by a precocious 12-year-old JMW Turner. The bridge was rebuilt in 1825-1827 to designs by Ebenezer Perry (1779-1850), a little-known architect.

Punts and river tours are available close to the bridge and Salters Steamers are there too. The Head of the River public house is next to the bridge to the north-east, with views of the bridge and river. It looks like an inviting place to begin or end my next riverside walk.

The Head of the River … a good place to begin or end riverside walks in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland originated as a story first told by Lewis Carroll on a boating trip that began at Folly Bridge. But perhaps that is material for stories and other blog postings in the weeks to come.

Perhaps the most intriguing site at Folly Bridge is Caudwell’s Castle on Folly Bridge. It was built in 1849 by the eccentric Joseph Caudwell, who decorated and adorned it with follies, riotous brickwork, metal and stone statues, cast-iron balconies, decorative crenelations, French windows, and a rooftop statue of Atlas.

It is a folly that tells stories of intrigue, student pranks that backfired, shots in the dark, deceit, intrigue, raucous scenes in courtrooms, clerical misbehaviour, trials and perjury. But these are tales and stories for another evening too.

Five minutes by the river in Oxford (Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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