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Oxford Water Walks

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

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TALKS – historical and literary

Mark Davies has lived on a narrowboat in central Oxford since 1992, giving him a unique insight into the evolution of the ‘living waterways’ we see today. His talks adhere largely to an OXFORD WATERWAYS theme, but with OXFORD CASTLE, LITERARY OXFORD, TOWN & GOWN, PIONEERS OF HOT-AIR BALLOONING and WALES & OXFORD as related topics. Please scroll down for the current list:

“Thank you for a wonderful second talk this year. Once again you will have gathered from our response how much we enjoyed seeing you again and how interested we were in what you had to tell us.”

“Our heartfelt thanks for coming to our rescue. Our members found the history of the canal fascinating, and particularly enjoyed the wonderful illustrations.”

“I think that we were really privileged to get you to talk to our meeting. You can be sure that your effort was greatly appreciated.”

“Our members found the talk fascinating, and we now have a much better understanding of the history of the area.”

2018 Talk Topics

 

Please note, I generally require provision of a digital projector (for Powerpoint), please. Wherever possible, talks are adapted to be relevant to the immediate locality and can also be given a strong female focus if desired.

 

  1. Stories of Oxford Castle: dungeons & dunghills; deaths & deliverances

When told through the exploits of some of its more colourful inmates (and indeed its gaolers), the otherwise largely uneventful history of Oxford Castle comes vividly to life – and death! – as a hugely significant county prison. These mainly 17th– and 18th-century tales of imprisonment, hard labour, transportation, escape, and execution touch on every part of the county, and show how Oxford fortuitously came to exemplify prison reform under the astute governorship of the multi-talented Daniel Harris:

 

2. Daniel Harris: jailer, builder, engineer, architect, artist

A man of great dynamism and multiple skills, Daniel ‘Damnable’ Harris (c1761–1840), governor of Oxford Castle Prison for more than two decades, had an influence on Oxford which was enormous and lasting. Using convict labour, he applied his skills as a builder, draftsman, and engineer to rebuild the entire ancient prison; to complete the Oxford Canal, and to instigate essential changes along some 30-miles of the River Thames.

 

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

Gloucester-born John Taylor (1578–1653), ‘sculler and scholar’, spent much of the Civil War in Oxford, as overseer of the city’s waterways but more notably as the principal Royalist propagandist, recording the period in humorous yet revealing narrative and verse. Before and after, Taylor published light-hearted accounts of many inspirational journeys – by boat (including the first ever survey of the entire River Thames in 1631), by horse, and on foot – several of which passed through various parts of Oxfordshire.

 

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

The contrasting importance of the River Thames and Oxford Canal revealed through the stories of waterside landmarks, characters, and events – legendary, historical, fictional, and recent. The river is the very reason for Oxford’s existence; the canal heralded fundamental change in a city accustomed to centuries of academic isolation. In recent times recreational use has given both waterways renewed relevance and perspective.

 

  1. A Literary Tour of Oxford’s Waterways: flowing prose and verse

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 and Book of Dust, the waterways of ‘river-rounded’ Oxford feature in innumerable works of classic and lesser-known literature. An alternative, sometimes whimsical history of Oxford, revealed on a virtual cruise inspired by the descriptions of poets, novelists, diarists, and chroniclers across the centuries.

 

  1. Alice in Waterland: Once upon a time in Oxford …

The River Thames was fundamental to the creation of Lewis Carroll’s world-famous tales of ‘Alice’. From the riverside picnic at Godstow when the story was first told in 1862 to the last of the many boat outings made with the real Alice (Liddell) and her sisters, to Nuneham in 1863, many real people, places, and events alongside the river underlie the fantasy. These include characters such as the Red Queen, the Dormouse, and the Hatter; and episodes such as ‘The Pool of Tears’ and ‘The Mad Tea-party’.

  1. James Sadler: Oxford pastry cook & first English aeronaut

James Sadler (1753–1828), “King of all Balloons”, defied the constraints of his upbringing to become the first Englishman ever to build and fly a hot-air balloon, in Oxford in 1784. Subsequently an engineer, designer of armaments, and Chemist to the Navy, Sadler returned to ballooning in Oxford in 1810. He and his son Windham set numerous records while ascending from some 40 British towns and cities, many being the first ever from those places. Yet despite a lifetime of achievement, bringing him into contact with some of the most significant names in Georgian Britain, Sadler ended his days back in Oxford in impoverished obscurity. The Sadlers also enabled the first ascent by any English woman and that of the first woman in Ireland.

 

  1. Artists in Wonderland: Oxford, ‘Alice’, & the Pre-Raphaelites

Thomas Combe, Superintendent of Oxford University Press, was a major early patron of Pre-Raphaelite artists such as John Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Hunt in particular often stayed with the Combes in Jericho, close to the inspiring vistas of Port Meadow, which he made his ‘studio until sunset’. Combe also influenced the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and was photographed by Carroll, as too were Combe’s artistic protégés. Also featured are John Ruskin; the iconic ‘Alice’ illustrations of John Tenniel; those of Carroll himself; and his exceptional photographic portraits of key contemporaries.

 

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

Oxford is the fabled home of Welsh dragons and the actual home of the collection of ancient Celtic folk tales known as the Mabinogion; the city hosts Jesus College, specifically founded for ‘sons of Cambria’; it is the setting for Welsh students’ notoriously ‘rough and adventurous relaxations’; it nurtured the Celtic languages; and it sustains the story of the Welsh saint, Aldate. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales, Dylan Thomas, J. R. R Tolkien, & T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) are among the famous names featured in this jocular overview of Welsh-inspired Oxford fact, fiction, and fable.

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

Oxford’s Town & Gown riots can be traced back to at least 1209, when the city’s scholars fled en masse, some going to Cambridge, never to return. Confrontations continued for another seven centuries. Bargemen were prominent in these violent battles, which feature – often with black humour, often on Guy Fawkes Night – in countless novels. It took the arrival of the Oxford Canal in 1790 to inspire a grudging collaboration, through a shared desire for coal in a city renowned for its lack of fuel.

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