When I think about Oxford (as I am doing a lot of late, because we are going back for a week in April and I am dead excited), I think about her waterways. I had never lived in a city with a river before, and Oxford has two main rivers, plus a canal. I found this proximity to water delightful, and it afforded abundant opportunity for one of my favourite pastimes, walking by water.
I walked a lot in Oxford. Typically I lived anywhere from one to four miles outside the town centre, and I either biked or walked everywhere. I walked to get from A to B, to explore, or simply for the sake of it, and I was repeatedly drawn back to the paths by Isis or the canal wherever possible. These are never the direct routes, and so immediately I was making the choice that I was in no real hurry to get where I was going and could therefore take time to enjoy the journey itself.
Riverine paths seem a liminal space between the built up city and the country, allowing something of nature to encroach on the organised and structured space. The paths are maintained and usually well tended, particularly where they see the most tourists, but by following the river itself they curve and wander and are a little uncontrollable. Oxford is low-lying and prone to flooding, so there are times when they are impassable. The life of the city must conform to the space of the river and I like that.
Then there’s the walking itself. I maintain a pretty brisk stride and there is a rhythm to walking that gives me a rare feeling of getting body and mind in synch. (I am usually so caught up in my head that I’m not aware what the rest of me is doing, and I am fairly sure this is what makes me clumsy. Not noticing my own presence in relation to, say, doorframes, means I am just as likely to walk into them as through them.) Perhaps walking taps into the mythological release of endorphins that exercise is supposed to provide? Anyway, walking time is generous, uncluttered thinking time. It’s a good way to clear my head, or an equally good way to resolve a problem.
Walking in Oxford takes you through what feel like hidden parts of the city. There a few businesses that front the river, boathouses and pubs mainly, but beyond that the view is of the back or edge of things: back gardens to lovely Victorian houses; old, red brick factories that are now overgrown; the far edge of school playing fields; the side of the railway; Oxford colleges; the Botanical Gardens. It’s rather like being let in on a secret, or glimpsing well-lit rooms within through open curtains.
It is also a walk through strata of history. Port Meadow, the startlingly beautiful flood plain at Wolvercote, has yielded artefacts from the Bronze Age onwards. There are the remains of Godstow Abbey, which was once a wealthy and flourishing convent until Henry VIII tore it down. At the other end of the spectrum, in town itself the river passes an extremely ugly public ice-rink, public housing and various Oxford colleges dating from anywhere in the last 800 years. The river is the thread that ties past and present together, enduringly and comfortingly, and that draws the walker in as well, to take their place amid the crowds who have trodden those same paths over the years.