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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.


2021 Talk Topics (* denotes a significant anniversary in 2021)

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 usually also be given a strong female focus if desired.


  1. Stories of Oxford Castle: from dungeon to dunghill *

The 17th– and 18th-century history of Oxford Castle told through the exploits of some of its more colourful prisoners – whether devious, daring, or deluded. From the Civil War onwards, these tales of hard labour, transportation, escape, and execution reveal the extremes of human depravity and ingenuity – not forgetting the gaolers! Most striking among the latter is Daniel ‘Damnable’ Harris (c.1761–1840), a skilled engineer, builder, architect, and artist, whose use of convict labour on the Thames, the Oxford Canal and within the prison itself epitomised a more enlightened approach to the treatment of prisoners in general. A separate talk about Harris is also available. The Castle talk can be adjusted to include a local focus – particularly the Abingdon, Banbury, Bicester, Henley, Thame or Witney areas. The Norman Castle was founded in 1071.


  1. A Literary Tour of the Waterways: 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 feature in innumerable works of classic and lesser-known literature. An alternative, sometimes whimsical history of Oxford(shire), revealed on a virtual cruise enlivened by the descriptions of poets, novelists, diarists, and chroniclers across the centuries.


  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 (1796–1824) 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. Alice in Waterland: the Thames as Lewis Carroll’s inspiration *

The River Thames was fundamental to the creation of Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books. From the riverside picnic when the story was first told in 1862 to the last of the many boat outings made with the real Alice (Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church) and her sisters, many real people, places, and riverine events inspired the world-famous fantasy. These include characters such as the Red Queen, Dormouse, White Knight & Hatter; and episodes such as ‘The Pool of Tears’ & ‘The Mad Tea-party’. 2021 marks 150 years since the completion of Through the Looking-Glass.


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

There are many Oxford associations with the artists known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, notably John Millais, William Holman Hunt, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. A key figure was Thomas Combe, Superintendent of Oxford University Press, who was an early patron, and who also hosted introductions at his Jericho home which had a significant influence on the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The talk features PRB artwork; the iconic ‘Alice’ illustrations of John Tenniel; Lewis Carroll’s quirky originals; his exceptional photographic portraits of Combe, the Pre-Raphaelites, and other key contemporaries; and the ‘drawling-master’ John Ruskin.


  1. Oxford’s Botanic Garden: 400-years of notable keepers & events *

Oxford University’s Botanic Garden is the oldest in Britain, founded in 1621. Jacob Bobart, the ‘German Prince of Plants’, was the first keeper, famed both for his horticultural skill and his eccentricities. His sons were Jacob, ‘horticulture’s sapient King’, and Tilleman, overseer of the grounds of the new Blenheim Palace, while a later descendant was celebrated in fact and fiction as Oxford’s ‘Classical Coachman’. Also featured are some of the important visitors and events associated with the Garden, including Ashmole, ale, apes, aeronauts, and ‘Alice’: a talk about people, not plants!


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

Oxford is the fabled home of Welsh dragons and the actual home of the means of preserving Welsh folk traditions and language. It hosted ‘beer imbibing, Welsh-rarebit-fed’ Jesus College, founded for ‘sons of Cambria’; it is the setting for Welsh students’ notoriously ‘rough and adventurous relaxations’; it sustains the story of the Welsh saint, Aldate; and it nurtured a crucial Red Herring. Geoffrey of Monmouth, Gerald of Wales, Lewis Carroll, T. E. Lawrence (‘of Arabia’), J. R. R. Tolkien, Dylan Thomas, and hot-air balloons feature in this jocular overview of Welsh-inspired Oxford fact, fiction, and fable. 2021 amrks 450 year sinc e founding of Jesus College.


  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.


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

Gloucester-born John Taylor (1578–1653), ‘sculler and scholar’, was a London Royal waterman who spent much of the Civil War in Oxford 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 – and several times passed through various parts of Oxfordshire.


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

Although the first known inter-college race was held in 1815, competitive rowing was still a low-key affair in Oxford when Cambridge University issued the first challenge in 1829. That changed in 1843, when a seven-man Oxford crew won an unlikely victory, and rowing displaced cricket as the pre-eminent summer sporting activity. In between, an unusual alliance of Town & Gown had seen Thames’ watermen and boatbuilders – some immortalised in fiction – crucially equipping and training the early Oxford crews.


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