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Pictures from Oxford Water Walks

Oxford Water Walks

Historical & Literary Walks & Talks, and Books by Oxford Towpath Press

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TALKS – historical and literary

Mark Davies lived on a narrowboat in central Oxford from 1992 until 2020, giving him a unique insight into the evolution of the ‘living waterways’ we see today. As a result many of his talks include an OXFORD WATERWAYS theme, but other Oxford specialities are TOWN & GOWN; LEWIS CARROLL’S ‘ALICE’; HOT-AIR BALLOONING; WALES; BOTANIC GARDEN and OXFORD CASTLE.

  1. Stories of Oxford Castle: from dungeon to dunghill (f)

The exploits of some of Oxfordshire’s most devious, daring, deluded, or defamed prisoners. Gripping tales of 17th– and 18th-century hard labour, transportation, escape, and execution, revealing some extremes of human depravity and ingenuity.


  1. Daniel ‘Damnable’ Harris: gaoler, builder, artist, and architect

Harris (c.1761–1840), a carpenter by trade, utilised his engineering, building, and architectural skills (and convenient convict labour) in three major capital projects with lasting impact on Oxford: at the Castle Prison, the Oxford Canal, & the River Thames.


  1. Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ (as an unusual insight into aspects of Oxford history)
  • 3a Alice in Waterland: the River Thames as Carroll’s creative inspiration
  • 3b Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Russia: ‘Alice in Volgaland’: his one and only foreign holiday, humorously and perceptively observed in his journals & letters
  • 3c ‘Let’s pretend we’re kings and queens’: Alice, Carroll, and the Royal Family
  • 3d Lewis Carroll: ‘the most outstanding 19th-century photographer of children’
  • 3e Through the Looking-Glass: the book and the chess game from start to finish


  1. Artists in Wonderland: Pre-Raphaelite Adventures in Oxford

Many of the Oxford associations with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood centre on Thomas Combe, Superintendent of Oxford University Press, who was an early patron of these young, aspiring artists. He also played a key role in the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, whose author photographed Combe’s artistic protégés and their families.


  1. A Literary Waterways’ Tour: flowing words & ‘liquid history’

From Chaucer’s pilgrims to Jerome’s ‘Three Men’ and Tom Brown’s higher education, via the children’s classics of Alice and Wind in the Willows, and the more recent ‘gyptians’ of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials & Book of Dust, the waterways of ‘river-rounded’ Oxford, and of the county, feature in numerous works of classic and lesser-known literature.


  1. The ‘Joneses of Jesus’: Oxford’s Welsh Connections

Oxford: the fabled home of Welsh dragons and actual home of Jesus College, founded for ‘sons of Cambria’ in 1571. An often jocular overview of Welsh-inspired Oxford fact, fiction, and fable, including Arthurian myth, Welsh students’ notoriously ‘rough and adventurous relaxations’, and a Celtic Red Herring, through to Tolkien & Dylan Thomas.


  1. Oxford ‘Town & Gown’: ‘to lick a Lord … or thrash a cad’

Oxford’s Town & Gown riots are as old as the earliest colleges, and continued until recent times. Bargemen were prominent in these fierce battles, which feature – often with black humour – in countless works of fiction. However, it was the Oxford Canal which initiated the first overt collaboration on account of a shared desire for coal.


  1. John Taylor the Waterpoet – ‘mad, sad, glad, & bad’ Civil War Oxford

John Taylor (1578–1653), London waterman & wordsmith, ‘sculler & scholar’, produced the first ever survey of the whole River Thames, then spent much of the Civil War in Oxford, penning humorous narrative and verse as the principal Royalist propagandist.

  1. James Sadler: Oxford pastry cook and first English aeronaut (f)

James Sadler (1753–1828), ‘King of all Balloons’, was the unlikely first Englishman to build and fly a hot-air balloon in 1784. Later a designer of engines and armaments, and Chemist to the Navy, Sadler returned to the mass entertainment of hot-air ballooning in 1810. He and his son Windham (1796–1824) set many records on ascents throughout Britain, and their eventful story also encompasses the first ascents by British women.


10 ‘Professors of Rowing’: the first Oxford-Cambridge Boat Races

The first inter-varsity boat race in 1829 had an unusual Town & Gown dynamic, with watermen and boatbuilders equipping and training the early Oxford crews. But it took several more years before an epic Oxford victory caused rowing to displace cricket as the pre-eminent varsity summer sport, leading eventually to global interest in the Race.


  1. Oxford’s Botanic Garden: 400+ years of notable keepers & events
    Oxford University’s Botanic Garden is the oldest in Britain, founded in 1621, with the eccentric Jacob Bobart, the ‘German Prince of Plants’, and his son playing key early roles. Also featured in a talk about people rather than plants are some notable visitors – scientific, literary, and photographic – and at least one extraordinary innovation.


  1. Oxford’s Historic Waterways: from legend to leisure (f)

The contrasting importance of the River Thames and Oxford Canal revealed through waterside landmarks, characters, and events. The prominence of bargemen during centuries of Town and Gown disturbances created a long-lasting stigma, but in recent times sporting and recreational use has given both waterways renewed relevance.


  1. What a Liberty! Memorable Moments along Oxford’s Ancient Boundaries

Dramatic and amusing incidents from five centuries of ceremonial mayoral circuits of the city’s boundaries (or liberty) – mainly defined by the city’s waterways. Although serious in intent, numerous pub-stops often resulted in ‘high jinks’ and ‘irresponsible jollity’.


  1. Jericho: Oxford’s ‘dangerously hospitable’ first planned suburb

Jericho developed as a result of the very different dual catalysts of the University Press and Lucy’s Ironworks, and overcame an unsavoury reputation – not helped by its canalside location – to achieve a cultural and religious distinctiveness, through, for instance, the Pre-Raphaelites, Philip Pullman’s ‘gyptians’, Inspector Morse & even Alice.


  1. Binsey & Medley: miraculous treacle & Indian/Irish Cheesecake

In essence unaltered for centuries, these two neighbouring island hamlets near Oxford were popular for centuries as destinations ‘of great resort’ for Oxford boating parties. Binsey nurtures the legend of Oxford’s patron saint and has Alice in Wonderland associations; Medley’s past includes a bizarre personal coincidence, with an Irish & Indian flavour, and a short-lived, ‘wonderfull pleasant’ but ‘whimsical’ mansion house.

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