The best place in the World

Essays Published June 20, 2009 in Published in the anthology 'Caught by the River' in 2009

Sir John Spelman wrote his Life of Alfred the Great during the English Civil War.

An avowed Royalist, Spelman had a point to make with his lengthy and in some places fantastical biography of the king he called the ‘first founder of the English monarchy.’ Spelman wanted to shore up the position of the Stuart monarchs by glorifying ‘the line of their famous ancestors’. He had a vested interest in glorious doings.

In their pursuit, he claimed that Alfred had not only founded the English monarchy (he didn’t: Alfred was only ever King of Wessex) but England itself (though it didn’t exist as a nation state until the time of Alfred’s grandson Aethelstan). Spelman also firmly believed that Alfred founded Oxford University (also highly unlikely). And then there was this:

‘…there were some Assembly of the Chief of both Orders of the Kingdom called together at Sifford (or Seafford) in Oxfordshire … the King there consulted with his Clergy, Nobles and Others, about the Manners and Government of the People …’

Spelman was claiming that Alfred held, at ‘Sifford’, what was effectively an early form of parliament – an institution which would, he goes on to say, become a tradition amongst his successors, who would ‘hold assemblies of their Bishops and Nobles continually thrice a year, in solemn consultation of the affairs of the Kingdom.’

If Spelman is right, then Sifford – or Shifford, as it is today – ought to be both more notable and more noticeable than it is. The tiny village is just visible from the footpath that winds its way along the south bank of the Thames, through empty meadows of grass and cornflower. Shifford’s farm, small church and brace of houses lie just downstream from its quiet nineteenth century lock, one of the last constructed on the Thames, in an artificial cut which changed the course of the river. There’s a small wooden footbridge across the narrow, lazy channel. And that’s it. Nothing to suggest that a founding event of English history may have taken place here. Nothing to suggest that anything has ever taken place here at all.

If Shifford was the site of some great gathering during Alfred’s reign (and modern historians seem to think otherwise), you would never know it today. There has been a settlement here for well over a millennium, but you would never know that either. The upper reaches of the river Thames are like this: they conceal and envelop and remake. This river, more than any other, has been central to English history. Even above Oxford, where it shrinks and meanders and seems so unprepossessing, it is a palimpsest of power and significance. Much has been concealed, and remains so – even today, Viking swords are dragged from its depths. Walk the banks in high summer and you have to look, and know what you are looking for, to understand what has been.

Here is Bablock Hythe, an ancient Roman crossing point; now an unprepossessing pub. Here is Shifford, possible seat of one of the earliest precursors to our much-vaunted ‘Mother of Parliaments’; now the smallest village in Oxfordshire. Here is the beautiful yellow stone of Newbridge, built by monks in 1250 to service the burgeoning wool trade of the Cotswolds, then the prime engine of England’s economy; now, like the Cotswolds themselves, a prettified tourist attraction. Here is a crumbling pillbox, hidden in the reedmace, smelling inside of urine and beer cans; once one of 5000 built along this river, together making up ‘Stopline red’, the last ditch defence against Nazi invasion.

Hidden histories, hidden places: for years the upper Thames has been my own private Brigadoon. While down through London the wide tidal river becomes the world’s business, above Oxford, somehow, it is only mine. Ancient Bablock Hythe is today a chalet park: woodchipped mobile homes are scattered across the fields like wheat ears and the riverside pub’s car park is rammed with shining silver vehicles every summer weekend. Somehow, though, I am the first person to have discovered this place since Matthew Arnold’s Scholar Gypsy was ferried slowly across, his fingers trailing in the moonlit waters, his lap full of wild flowers picked from the ash woods. Edward Thomas’s Lob, ‘as English as this gate’ and as sentimental too, guides me through William Morris’s landscape of beautiful, doomed revolution. The upper Thames is poetry between banks of poplar and bullrush, and on a summer evening it can stake a serious claim to being the best place in the world.

I’m no Bruce Chatwin – though for a period in my twenties I wanted to be – but I’ve been around a bit. I’ve travelled by klotok up the rivers of Borneo in the early evening, when fruit bats swarm from bank to tree-dark bank, and gibbons come to the waters’ edge to call. I’ve swum with giant otters in Guyana’s brown Rupununi. I’ve helped create a makeshift log crossing of a raging white torrent in the highlands of New Guinea. I’ve driven across the Golden Gate and ridden a donkey across the freezing Himalayan currents of Ladakh.

In the Thames’s, and my, homeland – England, Britain – I’ve been around too. At the insistence of my father I spent much of my childhood tramping the long-distance paths of this island, from the east to the west coast and from Land’s End to John o’ Groat’s. I’ve laboured up and down the coastal cliffs of Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, Northumbria and Sussex. I’ve slogged across the South Downs and the Cheviots, the Yorkshire Moors and the Pennines, the Black Mountains and the Flowerdale Forest. I’ve seen a fair number of rivers. But never a river like the upper Thames.

Why? The Thames – especially its higher reaches – is hardly most magnificent river we have: think of the Severn’s annual bore, or the foaming waterfalls of the upper Tees, or the broad sweep of the Forth as it slews into the sea. In comparison, the Thames is sluggish and unassuming. And for sheer beauty, there are other rivers, or at least stretches of other rivers, that can easily compete. There is nothing spectacular about the upper Thames. And this is precisely the point.

This stretch of river wends its way through the heart of one of the most overcrowded regions of one of the oldest, most overcrowded, and most industrialised nations in the world; a nation in love with all the dirt and danger that advanced capitalism brings. Yet in winter you could sit in the watermeadows east of Old Man’s Bridge for days and see only foxes. Sometimes you can’t even hear the traffic; just the breeze in the top branches of the poplars, the nervous chatter of dunnocks, the clattering of dragonflies. If you are lucky, there will be no mobile phone signal. If you are lucky, the world will leave you alone.

If the lower Thames – the docks, the capital, the estuary, the tide – is the world, the upper Thames is home. If the London wharves and the Cutty Sark represent the England of bombast and conquest – Empire and redcoats and capitalism and the White Man’s Burden – then Northmoor Lock and Tadpole Bridge represent an England that is older than that, and perhaps embarrassed by it. The England of the tenant farmer, not the landlord; the villein not the baron; the pressed not the commissioned. There are lock keepers up here who have been working the gates and the sluices for fifty years, landlords whose grandparents ran the same pub, farmers still working their ancestral ground.

This river is old: 58 million years old as a discrete drainage line, and around 450,000 years old in its present course. Older, in other words than the English who now claim it, and older than the Celtic British who named it. It has been used and utilised, named and exploited, crossed and harvested and channeled. It has turned the water wheels that made merchants rich and millers a living, provided water for canals and enough draught to take waterborne cargoes all the way from Lechlade to the sea. The strip lights and strip malls of contemporary England are easily reachable by car, but the river banks can be seen only from a smallish boat or a pair of boots. Even a bicycle, as I’ve discovered myself, will be soon short-circuited by the endless stiles.

There is magic in this landscape, the kind of magic you only find in a few places in modern Britain: the magic of a place which has, somehow, retained its essence in the face of everything we have thrown at it over the last century. The upper Thames, unlike so much of the landscape of southern England, remains stubbornly human-scale; and this is the key to its character.

For fifteen years I’ve lived in Oxford, where the Big Thames becomes the Little Thames. I can shut my front door, walk for ten minutes to the river bank and not stop until I reach the source. I’ve done that, twice, and spent many days and weekends in and on the waters. I have written poems and a novel about this stretch of this river; slept on its banks and camped in its woods, canoed, swum and kayaked its inlets and its tributaries, explored its medieval churches and crossed its medieval bridges, caught pike and perch in its weir pools, slumped drunkenly on the tables of its riverside pubs.

And still, this is my river and nobody else’s. It saves up secrets for me and distributes them according to its mood. It gives me restored medieval churches, the foundations of abandoned villages, quicksand-rimmed lakes, tall, silent poplar groves, secret pools, tiny osier-studded islands, disused canals, Bronze Age mounds. It gives me reed warblers – tiny brown birds you rarely see but often hear – and startling blue damselflies with black wingtips. It gives me water voles and banks of reedmace, meadows of snake’s head fritillary, herons crouched like sculptures on the branches of dead elms. It gives me paddle-and-rymer weirs, abandoned houseboats hidden behind the rushes, old toll bridges and the ancient, evocative names of its tiny tributaries – Windrush, Evenlode, Cherwell, Glyme.

A few years back, bored and tired of words and writing, I spent a summer working as an assistant lock keeper on the Thames in Oxford. I worked with an experienced keeper, manning three locks. I learned how to operate the gates and the sluices, and how to open the weirs when the signal was received from upriver that the levels were rising. I weeded and watered the flowerbeds and drank a lot of tea and smoked a lot of rollups. Like most of his colleagues I had come across, my keeper was garrulous, cynical, unambitious and well-learned about the ways of the river. You had to be, because if you got your job wrong you could sink a lockful of boats, or flood a streetful of houses. It was best to know what you were doing.

Our three locks were a contrast. Furthest downstream was Iffley, at the south end of the city, just above the ring road. Passing by in a narrowboat or a skiff, Iffley looks picture-perfect, with its riverside pub, pair of weirs, punt rollers, ice cream kiosk, 1930s lock keeper’s cottage and the top of the tower of the Norman church, one of the oldest and most beautiful in the country, just visible above the trees.

You had to work there, though, to know about the city’s special gifts to this part of the river: the gangs of pissed-up-teenagers who occupy the riverside benches after the families have gone home at night; the car thefts; the used needles in the copses. Iffley lock is just around the corner from the Rose Hill estate, which has some serious problems with long-term unemployment and crime. Iffley is where the tourist image of the upper Thames meets the reality of urban 21 st century Britain. Live-in lock-keepers at Iffley don’t always last very long, even with the newly-installed CCTV system.

Osney lock, in the centre of Oxford, just around the corner from the train station, hides different kinds of secrets. Osney Island is on a flood plain, and its pricey little houses are still regularly doused with river water at least once a year. Before the houses were here, the island was home to Osney Abbey, one of the greatest in the region, dissolved by Henry VIII. No sign of it remains today. Now, Osney is also a declining industrial centre. Like so many English cities, Oxford has decided that industry, especially small-scale industry, is a passé embarrassment. What is needed is not production but consumption. Opposite Osney lock is the shell of an old mill, dating from the twelfth century, which burned down finally in 1940. Some of the locals can still remember the fire. For years, the shell of the mill has stood opposite the lock, hung with creeping ivy and elderflower. If the local authority have their way, it will soon be replaced by the kind of bland, soulless housing development that has already killed off the character of most of the old Oxford canal, just up the river. Times change, the city grows and the past will never be allowed to stand in the way of the future.

Finally, north of the city, beyond the great medieval common of Port Meadow, on which the commoners’ horses still graze, is Godstow Lock. Godstow is the gateway to the upper Thames: its lock cottage lies a few hundred yards from the ruins of the twelfth century nunnery, in the grounds of which, somewhere, are buried the remains of Henry II’s mistress, Rosamund the Fair. The geese that nest on the bank opposite every summer, waking the keeper up at 5am with their cackling, have done so for centuries.

And it’s when the sun rises above Godstow and burns off the white dew from the grasses of the meadow that you know you have arrived somewhere special. This is where the upper Thames springs to life: this is where, for the first time, it looks, feels, smells like the river it will become as it leaves the city under the concrete ring road bridge and meanders under the scarp of ancient Wytham Wood, off to the west. This is where the magic is first evident. It is where the secrets will start, if you are slow enough, and interested, to show themselves to you. This is where it begins.

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