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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 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.”

“Many of the pictures had not been seen before your talk, and aroused quite an interest. I am sure this will stimulate members to seek out some of the viewpoints of the old buildings and locations. 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.”

2017 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.


  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.

Can also be presented as: An Artistic History of Oxford’s Waterways (using only historical images) and Women of Oxford’s Waterways.


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

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

When Cambridge issued the first challenge in 1829, competitive rowing in Oxford had been a low-key affair, undertaken by only a handful of colleges since the first known inter-college race in 1815. Little changed until a seven-man Oxford crew won an unlikely victory against a Cambridge ‘eight’ in 1843. In between, an improbable alliance of Town & Gown had seen Thames’ watermen and boatbuilders – some immortalised in fiction – crucially equipping and training the early Oxford crews.


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

The River Thames was fundamental to the creation of the world-famous tales of ‘Alice’ invented by the Oxford don ‘Lewis Carroll’. From the riverside picnic when the story was first told in 1862 to the last of the many boat outings he made with the real Alice (Liddell) and her sisters, a surprising range of real people, places, and events alongside the river underlie the fantasy. These include characters such as the Red Queen and the Hatter, and episodes such as ‘The Pool of Tears’ and the ‘Treacle Well’.


  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 Nay, 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. 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 (hence my additional talk: Women with Altitude: the first female balloonists.


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

Thomas Combe, Superintendent of Oxford University Press, was a major patron of Pre-Raphaelite artists such as John Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Combe also influenced the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in several key respects, and helped Lewis Carroll to meet and photograph these famous artists, who often stayed with the Combes in Jericho, close to the inspiring vistas of Port Meadow. Also featured are John Ruskin; John Tenniel’s iconic ‘Alice’ images; those of Carroll himself; and his expertise as a fine early photographer.


  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; it 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.


8. Death on the Thames – ‘The ‘Abingdon Waterturnpike Murder’

A 1787 murder by the Thames reveals a sinister criminal underworld in the market town of Abingdon, and a probable fatal miscarriage of justice. The river is a recurring theme within a factual murder mystery which sheds light on many unusual and emotive aspects of life in 18th-century Oxfordshire and Berkshire. These include the perilous lives of river boatmen, the close-knit river communities, the all-pervading influence of alcohol and brewing, and the gruesome allure of public executions.


9. Daniel Harris – gaoler, builder, engineer, architect, artist

A man of great dynamism and multiple skills, the governor of Oxford Castle Prison Daniel ‘Damnable’ Harris (c1761–1840) had an influence on late-18th-century Oxford which was enormous and lasting. Using convict labour, he applied his skills as a builder, draftsman, and engineer to rebuild the entire prison, to the completion of the Oxford Canal, and to essential changes along some 30-miles of the River Thames.


  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 many 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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