19 September 2009
Along the River to Godstow
Researching an article for Smithsonian Magazine, I took Sid and Tashi along the river to Godstow from Oxford, the same route that Lewis Carroll took when he told the story of Alice in Wonderland. Puts Carroll's trip in a different perspective.
He and his friends must have been pretty fit. It's a good three hours solid rowing - we chickened out of that and had a boat with a motor. It was an electric motor, so it was almost as silent as rowing, but faster, and no doubt less healthy than rowing would have been. (Well, Victorians were used to exercise, right?)
But travelling in a smallish boat with kids made me see what a boon it would be to have a storyteller on board. They were trying very hard to be good, but after all a child has to do something! After they had leaned perilously over the edge to feed the ducks, pretended to kill all the alien cows with laser guns, tried spotting different kinds of wild animals, trailed ropes, etc. it was only too clear why Carroll's party played parlour games. I expect they stopped often along the way so the younger members of the party could run around. With a small boat, of course, you can do all kinds of exploring down side creeks.
It was dreamlike floating down the wide, pale and rather empty river, and some of the countryside along the way is traditionally managed in a fashion you don't often see now.
The commoners of Wolvercote still graze their sheep and cattle and there were scores if not hundreds of greylag geese congregated on the banks - like a wildlife film. The old hay fields at Godstow, are as full of marvellous wild flowers as they would have been in Carroll's day. Weeping willows trail over the water, cormorants and kingfishers flash to and fro.
This laid back boat trip made a startling contrast to the rest of the Oxford experience. I am not a huge fan of modern day Oxford. The colleges are jaw dropping but the city itself is too crowded, cycle-unfriendly. It bans cars but public transport is expensive and inconvenient. Much nicer to get out of all that hassle and drift backwards in time.
The Perch Inn, at Binsey, at which you can moor en route to Godstow, is well worth a stop. It's stylishly decorated but does have fairies and white rabbits amongst the flowers - managing to be pretty rather than twee.
You reach the pub through an enchanting series of rustic arches through the woodlands, twined about with little lights. A couple of Buddhist monks were enjoying their lunch there when we visited, which gave a slightly surreal air.
Our guide, Mark, is a waterways historian. As a Great Western Inter City screamed over a bridge across the river he pointed out that Carroll and the girls would have also seen the locomotives of the period chugging and roaring along. Perhaps the sight of them inspired the bit in Looking glass about the curious railway journey. Mark is halfway through a book about Carroll and the river, and it should be well worth reading.
We went with Oxford River Cruises in a very snazzy Edwardian style boat - highly recommended. Apparently if you have a children's party on the boat they can supply Eat Me and Drink Me food. But the idea of even more kids going down the river ... hm....
You know, anyone who is interested in Lewis Carroll ought to do this trip.