Oh for want of rod and line
I’d fish this stream, serene, sublime
Where college dons and scholars tread
A perfect place to cast some bread.
A place of wisdom, calm and thought
Where those with eager minds are taught
They do not see beyond their books
They have no thoughts of baited hooks
A quest for knowledge is their sport
Mine is of a different sort
These amber sun washed stoic walls
Know more than those within these halls
Five hundred years of Englishness
Centuries more if God should bless
I glimpse a weir beside the mill
Over which the waters spill
A pool downstream dark and deep
What secrets does this water keep
An angler’s presence would raise a frown
From those in mortarboard and gown
These hallowed grounds, revered, divine
Will never see one cast a line
The river guards it’s treasures well
What lurks beneath, none will tell
No disappointment, no regret
This special day I’ll not forget
To fish this river would deny
Precious time to cast ones eye
To savour all that’s cherished here
A fond farewell, thank you my dear.
‘I stood on the bridge looking towards the ancient stone buildings that comprise Holywell mill and allowed my imagination to suppress reality for a moment. In my mind’s eye I beheld an historic angler with a hazel twig dapping rod in one hand and a long clay pipe in the other. A small dog, a spaniel I should think, scampers about whilst his master teases the trout with fur and feather.’
My wife and I had never been to Oxford together and whilst I had lived in the shire for several years I had only ventured into the city centre a handful of times, usually with two children in a pushchair, vital infant tending paraphernalia and the logistical challenges a double buggy presents on crowded pavements, narrow shop doorways and the infernal park & ride busses.
In short, a recipe for short tempers and a short visit.
So with children now no longer requiring assisted perambulation and the prospect of an overnight stay in a city centre hostelry, with parking for the motor, I was up for another mooch around the historic and cultural metropolis which Oxford undoubtedly is.
The Elizabethan coaching inn my wife booked us into looked inviting on the web page and the notion of sampling the local ales in a cosy hotel bar spurred me on during the three hour friday evening car journey south.
However on arrival tired, hungry and thirsty we discovered that this historic seventeenth century icon of English renaissance only sold lager and a draught bitter of dubious provenance. There was no open fire and the bar was about as cosy as a British Rail cafe on a wet November night….oh and they didn’t serve food. The room was noisy, the floor sloped alarmingly and the shower, inaccurately described as such, only managed a dribble on full chat.
On the plus side I didn’t have to wrestle with a collapsible buggy risking the loss of fingers in the folding mechanism of said heinous contraption.
We walked to a ‘popular’ Italian restaurant recommended to us by the barman at the hotel only to find it heaving with unoccupied tables, we took this as a sign to seek sustenance elsewhere.
Heading back towards the city centre, I paused briefly on the river bridge to gaze down into the stygian waters of the Cherwell. I don’t know what I expected to see in the gloom of night but I just can’t cross a bridge without looking over the parapet, I assume all anglers to be similarly afflicted?
We continued on past Magdalen College and ventured across a busy pub which offered a welcoming ambience, fine ales, good food and nowhere to sit. “Give me ten minutes and I’ll find a table for you” was the suggestion from the barman and true to his word we were sat down with menus and drinks in fairly short order. It was a wonderful place to revive the spirits and soak up the frenetic ambience and energetic discourse from those whom we assumed to be scholars, professors, fellows and the odd scattering of unworthies such as yours truly.
During the planning stages of our Oxford odyssey I recalled that a rather nice river, the Cherwell, ran through the city and being an opportunist I began to scheme and plot. Notwithstanding the fact that this was definitely not a fishing trip, had the opportunity arisen, I’d have kicked myself for not having any tackle with me.
For fear of my own well-being I chose not to broach the subject with my dearly beloved, however perhaps I could discretely pack sufficient tackle into the car for a seemingly impromptu angling opportunity? A covert operation was formulated, it required stealth, cunning and a cheese sandwich.
The boot of my estate car has a false floor, under which is a compartment sufficiently commodious to conceal a couple of rods, reels, net and tackle bag. My bait would be masquerading as the aforementioned cheese sandwich, a big chunky one, and a tin of Spam would be stashed in the tackle bag as an option should my prospective quarry prove to be meatarians, It was a masterly initiative.
The likelihood of being allowed to wet a line was a long shot, I fully realised this but there may be just a chance of pulling off a bit of a blinder, “He who dares” and all that, hence I considered my black opps preparations entirely justifiable.
Helen was very keen to visit Magdalen College so following a victualling sortie to Waitrose, suitable comestibles were procured for a wholesome DIY breakfast in the hotel bedroom.
On arrival at the Porters Lodge we were informed by a very helpful man that the college was closed to visitors as the funeral was taking place for an erstwhile college president. Was this divine intervention perhaps….was this my cue? I made my very best attempt at a disappointed face and turned to my wife…
“Well that’s scuppered our plans sweetheart ….errr…just wondering what to do instead?”
“Id like to go to Chipping Norton”
“I’d like to go to Chipping Norton”
“I want to go to Diddly Squat”
“I want to see Clarksons’ Farm for real”
I was totally confident I could turn the situation to my advantage if I appeared vehemently disinterested in my wife’s agenda. An hour later we arrived at Diddly Squat to find the car park full.
Cars were parked nose to tail on the grass verges on both sides of the road and a long line of people cued outside the small farm shop in the rain, wind and mud. We eventually found a gateway into an adjacent field and parked there. I wouldn’t normally park in front of a gate but it didn’t look as though it had been opened for years and frankly I didn’t really care. It was most likely Clarksons’ gate and it was his bloody fault I was there in the first place.
After cueing for over an hour in the rain, wind and mud we were finally ushered into the shop and spent an extortionate amount on t-shirts, hats, bee juice and Diddly Squat Christmas baubles. Clarkson wasn’t there, and neither was his girlfriend, they were most likely in the pub having lunch on me.
Back in Oxford we had a late lunch in a posh bistro, paid the posh bill and went for a spot of window shopping, as my wife put it. She bought a very nice handbag from a very nice shop which sold very nice things, she bought me a very nice hat and told me to pay the very nice man.
The following day with hopes of an hour or two on the river bank dashed, we plodded off to Magdalen for our second attempt to visit the college and grounds. This time we were admitted without fuss and began our meanderings around the faculty.
The campus does not fail to impress. The Historic and ornate architecture and attendant formal gardens convey the visitor via pretty stone bridges and a riverside path to a large deer park and water meadow which is in effect an island created by the Cherwell and its back waters. The willow fringed margins, gravel runs, riffles, slacks and deep pools are denied to the angler. No one will fish here, it is just not done.
I stood on the bridge looking towards the ancient stone buildings that comprise Holywell mill and allowed my imagination to suppress reality for a moment. In my mind’s eye I beheld an historic angler with a hazel twig dapping rod in one hand and a long clay pipe in the other. A small dog, a spaniel I should think, scampers about whilst his master teases the trout with fur and feather.
A wisp of pipe smoke ascends slowly and drifts towards the bridge, I can almost smell it. My ghosts slowly fade away into the damp air as I continued on towards the mill to discover a poem scribed on a stone plaque.
The poem was written by C.S Lewis, a fellow and tutor of Magdalen –
I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear:
This year the summer will come true. This year. This year.
Winds will not strip the blossom from the apple trees
This year, nor want of rain destroy the peas.
This year time’s nature will no more defeat you,
Nor all the promised moments in their passing cheat you.
This time they will not lead you round and back
To Autumn, one year older, by the well-worn track.
This year, this year, as all these flowers foretell,
We shall escape the circle and undo the spell.
Often deceived, yet open once again your heart,
Quick, quick, quick, quick!—the gates are drawn apart.
Now that’s a poem!
There is a reverence about this place. It’s in the centre of a city but there’s no apparent noise, it’s an oasis of calm and serenity.
The inescapable air of academia pervades which makes you want to read books in a gloomy study with a big fireplace and leaded windows or maybe participate in philosophical debates on scholarly topics whilst recumbent on large chesterfield sofas.
It must be the most privileged experience to be fortunate and indeed clever enough to study here.
Time seems to have stood still whilst walking the pavements and cloisters marvelling at the architecture and carefully tended grounds. The trees have a magnificence and majesty about them, some of which were mere saplings when the college was founded. Now tall with thick outstretched branches they stand guard over their younger brethren of only a couple of hundred years or so.
Some of their lower boughs are so massive they require support from posts concreted into the ground. They’re like giant mythological deities stiff with age and infirmity and reliant upon stout walking staffs to maintain their formidable postures, what tales they could tell.
It occurred to me that if my time had been spent on the river bank I would have missed out on a truly memorable experience. It amused me to think that I was so close to this beautiful river with tackle available and yet I wasn’t fishing nor at that moment had any great compunction so to do. I was totaly engaged by my exposure to this quintessentially English institution, the historical ambience and the mental and emotional consequences of simply being there.
There are times to fish and there are times not to fish. This was definitely one of those times not to and I don’t regret for a single minute being denied the opportunity to fish here as our predecessors most assuredly did with perhaps a canine companion, clay pipe and a hazel stick.
Writing & Images Jeremy Croxall – June 2022