Friday, 20 September 2013

Thoughts from a Walk with Trees and Ghosts, on Christ Church Meadow

This wasn't the plan. Quite what the plan was, I'm not sure, but I had a meeting to go to at the Citizens' Advice Bureau in town where I'm to be a volunteer, and although a walk was always on the cards, all the other cards were torn up when a bang on the bathroom door whilst I was in the shower heralded the message "I've taken £3 from your percy for the car parking". That was the bus fare, carefully budgeted, as befits someone being trained in "financial capability" by the CAB. There are deep ironies in my doing this, but I'm really hoping that a bit of "physician, heal thyself" might rub off. And I call it my "wallet".

So, a walk it was, my first all the way into town, since we moved to the smart and fashionable suburb of Barton-upon-Bayswater. I allowed too much time, and found myself with a choice, as I crossed Magdalen Bridge, and stood underneath its fine and imperious tower, the first of Cardinal Wolsey's legacies to Oxford when he was the college's bursar, and bankrupted it with his extravagance. He had to flee to the king's service as a result, and did all right after, so they say. The choice was - town, or country? There being nothing we needed to buy in town, country won out, and I headed for Christ Church Meadow, rather than the Covered Market.

It was an easy choice, as I've known the Meadow as a member of Christ Church for nearly 28 years now, and love it no less than the first day I arrived. Perhaps more, as when I came up to university we had lived in the countryside for four years, and I thought I knew all about that, so the rustic charms of the meadow were as nothing compared to the thrill of the wit and banter and friendship of the people I was meeting.

In a quarter of a century, I suppose a tree can grow rather a lot, and that is what impressed me most as I started my walk, just how huge some of them were. And it struck me that a tree is a great explorer. It can't up-roots and wander off to somewhere more exciting, but it can send out an exploratory shoot, and if it's well received, it will grow, and become a mighty branch, and divide again, and turn into something quite unexpected. Most trees, you'd think, are programmed genetically to be of the grow-up-and-broaden-out sort, but so many of these majestic giants had binned the programme and done their own thing, and the beauty was in the unexpectedness of their explorations. No one would want a bonsai tree that resembled an artificial Christmas tree; their charm, as in trees growing wild, is in their twists and turns and surprises. And some of these trees must have been several centuries old.

When I first came to Oxford, I remember my friend Elizabeth's father telling us that since he'd come up to Corpus Christi College (I imagine, in the early 1950s, he's in his eighties now) Christ Church had changed radically in two respects. The library, which had been pollution-crudded grey and black then, was restored to handsome sandstone and whitewash; and the elms of the Broad Walk, which had been planted in the 1660s, had all gone, owing to Dutch Elm Disease (much as they tell us our ash trees are threatened now). I think some of the trees on the walk around the meadow must have been contemporaries of those elms, but their species I couldn't discern.

I passed another turn along the river bank, here it is the tributary of the Thames, called the Cherwell, and had another ghostly visitation, from under the trees. It was the small hours of a balmy and barmy June morning, after a Swansong Party that my friend Nick and I held to celebrate the end of our finals, and the beginning of new things. Somehow, a Beautiful Person and I had decided we must bring the last bottle of port to the Meadow with us, and as the Meadow is vigilantly (and sagely) locked against drunken students, we had to climb the gates to do it. They're really quite tall. With spikes. But we did it, and I dimly remember I was wearing sandals, so I'm quite chuffed with myself. And as we walked in the moonlight I told the Beautiful Person that I'd been rather in love with him for the last three years. I don't know what if he'd have done if the gates hadn't been locked, but he seemed flattered. And then, at my request, he held my hand, and we walked around the Meadow, like the lovers we could never be. And it was there, at that bend in the river, that we sat on the bank and finished our port, and I was gently rebuffed from taking things any further, and that was the end of the story in my moonlit memory.

A few more bends in the river, and there was the little bridge that crosses the Cherwell from the Meadow, to the colleges' boat houses, which are on a little island. After dinner in Trinity Term (summer) when the gates were open, some of us used to walk round the Meadow in our gowns, and talk about great things, as young people who are terribly earnest and interested and interesting and subsidised by the state, used to do. But we'd stop at that bridge and play Pooh Sticks. I don't think I'd ever played Pooh Sticks before. I'm sure I'd read, or been read, the book, but my parents are not of a literal turn of mind, and what was read in a book, stayed in the book. I think my friend Mark might have had a "blue" in Pooh Sticks, a great sporting distinction. A sixteenth of a blue, but a blue all the same. Or maybe that was croquet.

For once, now spoilt by the charms of the Bayswater brook, I didn't bother much with the Thames, the river that flows from the city of my birth to the city I have adopted, but turned instead to the Meadow itself, and the view and sounds across it. The bells chimed at 10, and reminded me of hearing a radio programme I heard in that first term, which played a recording of Oxford in the 1930s, and fifty years before, those bells sounded just the same. And there were the Christ Church cattle, a rare breed, we're told, fenced in with iron, not to stop them wandering off, but to protect them from the folly of the thousands of tourists to whom the college willingly and generously opens its grounds every day. And there was a jackdaw, which reminded me of my friend who grew up in Oxford, and once, in her childhood, had a jackdaw for a pet, and I watched this bird, and I could imagine how. Jackdaws and all the crow family are like parrots - sharp, and clever, and funny, but with a meaner streak, I fear.

My walk was all the wrong way round, of course, not like our postprandial undergraduate strolls, starting from the entrance by the Botanical Gardens in Rose Lane (over whose even spikier, but not so tall, railings, the Beautiful Person and I shinned after our unexpected tryst), and ending with the Avenue, which leads to the grand gateway of Meadow Building, where I lived in my first year. The Avenue's trees are much more disciplined - they grow straight and tall, and don't try to seduce people they shouldn't, although, fortunately, they are so proud and lofty, if the whispering grass had ever tried to tell them, they wouldn't have wanted to know.

And then, amongst this ghostly reverie, a new thing, a path I didn't recall. It didn't lead anywhere very exciting, but it was an innovation, so I had to explore it, of course. It went to the college staff car park, and to the ancient barn. This is a lovely, multiply-listed thing, covered in moss-encrusted thatch, which, we are often told in college reports, really does house barn owls. I'd love to go there at night and see them, but the Meadow is off-limits to all but grown-ups in the dark, lest we fall in the river, or devastate a cow, and the consequences get in the papers. The barn is probably older than three quarters of the buildings in Oxford, and has stood silent witness to countless devastating consequences over the centuries.

This led to the elm-less Broad Walk, and thence past a very pretty little garden whose name, if it has one, I don't know, to the War Memorial Garden. When I first arrived, I thought how civilised it was to have a Garden as a memorial; to commemorate the dead, with life. Of course, the names of the college dead are inscribed in stone on the walls of the vestibule as you go into the cathedral (which is also the college chapel), including three with a surname shared by a man who lodged two doors along from me at interview time. I saw those names, and thought "I don't stand a chance". But I got in, and he didn't. Of course, there was always a garden there, and some bright spark took the chance of the war to re-vitalise it, but to wonderful effect, and it is quite the most marvellous view of the college, looking from the colour and vigour of the garden, over sandstone outhouses, to the balustrades of Tom Quad, and the majesty of the Hall.

One of those outhouses used to be called The Old Brewhouse, and it was where my late friend John, the registrar of the Cathedral, used to live. We once came up with a scheme for a "Hymns, Pimms, and Ham Sandwiches" Party, at which we huddled round his piano, in this tiny apartment, and belted out the glory of God from hymnals stolen (briefly) from the Cathedral, and accompanied by the said refreshments, louder still and louder, as the night wore on. Latterly, it has been called Auden Cottage, because it was the poet's lodging in his last years, when he was an honorary Student (other colleges would call it a fellowship) here. He used to appall, and then bore drunkenly, other members of the High Table with questions about whether they would, in extremis, piss in the sink, until stopped in his tracks by the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, John Macquarrie, who said "not if there's an open window handy".

And so through those tall, spikey gates, I'd once climbed over in sandals, with a man I briefly loved, into the world, accompanied by the ghosts of a wonderful past, anxious for the present, but hopeful for the future.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
September 2013

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