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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.”

2019 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 usually also be given a strong female focus if desired.

      1. Stories of Oxford Castle: from dungeon to dunghill

When told through the exploits of some of its more colourful prisoners – variously devious, daring, or deluded – the relevance of Oxford Castle comes vividly to life – and death! From the Civil War onwards, these tales of hard labour, transportation, escape, and execution reveal the extremes of human depravity and ingenuity. The focus can be adjusted to feature individuals (men and women) or stories from different parts of Oxfordshire – particularly the wider Abingdon, Banbury, Bicester, Henley, Thame & Witney areas. Always featured is one of Oxford’s most remarkable (yet little remarked) citizens, the gaoler (river & canal engineer, artist, architect, and builder) Daniel ‘Damnable’ Harris (c1760–1840), about whom an entirely separate talk is possible.

  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. 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 (1795–1824) 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’.

  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. Oxford’s Botanic Garden: notable keepers, visitors, and events
    Oxford University’s Botanic Garden is the oldest in Britain – 2021 marks its 400th anniversary. 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 – and a later descendant was celebrated in fact and fiction as Oxford’s ‘Classical Coachman’. Also featured are some of the famous visitors and important events which the Garden has hosted, including 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 many individuals responsible for nurturing Welsh traditional folk tales and the language. It hosts ‘beer imbibing, Welsh-rarebit-fed’ Jesus College, founded for ‘sons of Cambria’; it is the setting for Welsh students’ notoriously ‘rough and adventurous relaxations’; 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.

  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

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 uncharacteristic 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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