Reflections from not such Muddy Waters

The view from the Bridge at Wallingford looking East towards an Estuary that feels a world away.

Walking up the Ridgeway from Goring towards Wallingford with Jamie, its hard to believe that this limpid stream is the same river as the slow, sludgy, salty, ship laden delta of the North Sea I grew up with. The cleanliness of the water – so clear you can see small fry fish darting in the shallows by the banks, with the “Prince of Wales Angler Club” signs everywhere warning off casual fishers and showing that the age old aristocratic war against the poacher is alive and well (“Day Passes NOT available”)- is complemented by people paddling punt like boats and inflatables, and one swimmer. Swim in the river off Grays and you’d need several injections and a stomach pump. Large, comfortable looking houses the size of small hotels are lazing on this sunny afternoon in Summertime; with elegant motor cruisers tethered at the bottom of their immaculate lawns; and I’m sure the people in them love to live so pleasantly, live this life of luxury…(1)

Something dream like about these houses, with their tall slim Tudor style chimneys in red brick; some of them with thatched barns where they might keep pet Hobbits. Live in this part of the world and it would be hard to imagine there is very much wrong with it – at least in so far as it impinges on your own life. Troubles elsewhere are “noises off”. The downside of course is that, living in a place like this, all such noises are implicitly threatening.

The Ridgeway is said to be the oldest continually travelled route in England. Going back well before the Romans, it runs alongside the Thames for a bit, then up and across the Chiltern hills, hence Ridgeway, past the Vale of White Horse and ending up (or starting) just under a hundred miles on at Avebury, the largest stone circle in the world, that late Stone Age people started building 5,000 years ago. So, this has been a highway of sorts since at least then, at least half the time since people first started edging into the country as the glaciers retreated 12,000 years back. In continuous use throughout the Holocene.

Its now mostly a footpath, mercifully inaccessible to motor vehicles but much used as a Bridleway. We stand back to let pass a couple of riders coming the other way. The horses are enormous close up, which reinforces how daunting cavalry must have been to foot soldiers for so long.

Partly overgrown like a tunnel through trees; further on parts of it are a classic Hollow Way where continuous erosion from walking feet and the hooves of driven animals and carts have worn it down to well below the level of the surrounding fields, but where we were there were just some cool, shady, green lit avenues over arched by trees, like the naves of a living cathedral, followed by exposed paths alongside burnt out fields of stunted wheat, fried in a merciless sun.

Dragonflies cruise and flit like predator drones. J points out that dragonflies have the highest successful predation rate of any insect. The sensitive vision of their huge eyes complemented by their capacity to hover and fly fast gives them an 80% successful hunt rate.

Wallingford was not our target. The original idea was to get up onto the hills, but after about four hours of walking, our strategy of stamina through dehydration was hitting its limits, so we headed for it as the nearest town; in the process testing the limits of online navigation well beyond its (or possibly our) capacity. Overshooting it to the East, we had to cut back and approach it from the North. In doing so we passed the house in Crowmarsh that Jethro Tull (1674 – 1741) had lived in. This was the inventor of the horse drawn seed drill in 1701 after being partly inspired by the mechanics of musical organs when he was just 27. Not to be confused with the highly successful and distinctive band of the same name, who were monikered by a history loving agent; who wanted something that stuck out from the morass of common or garden band names on a poster. 2. Hey aqualung!

Wallingford is a tight little town; still inside the neat square of its medieval wall boundaries and evidently wanting to stay that way. Incorporated as a Borough in 1155, under Henry II, its Jubilee Union Jack bunting is complemented by flags displaying the town arms. It has the feel of a place that might just issue its own passports if provoked enough. It is twinned with two similarly prosperous small towns, one in Germany, one in France: showing that the rest of the world that’s worth knowing is “people like us” and nothing to scare the pony club. No riff raff.

Established early around a strategic river crossing, it had an Anglo Saxon earthwork on the higher ground overlooking the ford, then a powerful medieval castle doing the same for the bridge; which was first mentioned in the historical record in 1141. The castle was enough of a strategic stronghold for the Empress Maud for it to be put under siege by King Stephen during the “Years of Anarchy” in the 12th century; but never taken. It was the last Royalist Fortress to surrender to Parliamentary forces in the Civil War – underlining the oft made comment that Oxfordshire has often been the last home of lost causes – and then demolished. Only the mound for the keep and a few bits of wall and buttress remain, alongside a sheltered graveyard left over from a Priory alongside that Henry VIII dissolved before Cromwell could knock it about a bit.

Alongside the mound is an information board that notes all this and adds a couple of odd stories about a local pub designed to make people have a drink in it with an added historical frisson.

1. That the sweetheart of a Royalist officer killed after a row in the bar mixed her tears with soot from the fireplace and smeared them on a wall – tears that are both enormous and still visible. Touching them up probably comes with the landlord agreement.

2. That infamous Highwayman Dick Turpin, jumped out of the first floor window neatly onto the back of his waiting horse to spur himself away from pursuers; just like he reputedly did in many other pubs in the South of England that were standing at the time.

We rather wearily climb to the top of the mound and watch a red faced toddler with curly hair fire off a foam rocket from the summit with a foot pump powered device, then bump down the slope on his bottom after it; but instead of retrieving it imperiously order his patient grandparents to “fetch that rocket”. It looks like a vision of Boris Johnson’s childhood. In an archetype of conversations with toddlers the world over they wearily riposte with, “If you don’t say please…”

Instead of a castle and priory, it now has a very large and swish Waitrose, which we visit for a while to take advantage of its air conditioning, and lots of “Antique” shops; which have window displays full of stuff that look like they’ve actually been retrieved from house clearances and polished up. Old tat, but OLD tat. None of these shops are owned by the apocryphal antique dealer Robin Bastard, but probably should be.

On the West side of the bridge there is a small children’s playground and a tiny, but perfectly formed, Lido doing a roaring trade with loads of families and small children splashing, jumping and screaming in a happy sort of way. A little vision of heaven. On the river itself boats are up for hire and people are messing about in them with a joyful abandon that we observe warily as we much our Quorn burgers in the shade of one of the bridge’s mighty stone arches.

With our feet about to drop off, we decide a bus journey is preferable to a two hour walk along the Riverside path back to Goring. Waiting for a bus in the tiny market square behind a war memorial that looks more pacific than most – topped with a wreathed female figure that could be a goddess of peace, or victory, or both; the two being indivisible in most British remembrance – in front of a courthouse with a memorial plaque to Sir William Blackstone, he of the Common Law Commentaries that are still updated and used in UK and US Law – who presided there in the early Eighteenth Century. Just before the bus arrives, the church clock strikes five. Five clear, single notes with a mellow tone, but audible across the whole town for people who could count up to twelve to be able to work out how late it was. 5 bells and all’s well.

Back in Reading, as the Friday evening festivities are getting under way, loud music from the pub on the corner, people eating and drinking out on tables on the street, we pass a youngish bloke holding up a large Ukraine flag alongside a cluster of LGBT rainbow flags; an irony given how hostile the Ukrainian far right – who are now the backbone of their country’s military – are to gay rights of any description, and how many violent attacks they have launched on attempts to have Pride events there. Putin’s hostility is well known and energetically publicised here. That of Azov, C14 and the Right Sector not so much.

Cinematic post script

Taking the weight off our feet, and drinking vast quantities of water, we plump to watch American Graffiti rather than 7 Samurai; much more summery. I’d previously seen this as an undergrad in 1974 or 5 in a lecture theatre in York full of slightly drunk students; who added a dimension of audience participation I’ve not experienced before or since. I hadn’t realised it was a George Lucas, nor that it had Harrison Ford in it; looking younger and more svelte than he has ever managed since. Worth watching for the soundtrack alone, with a generous range of tracks from Rock Around the Clock by Bill Hailey (1952) to Green Onions by Booker T and the MGs (1962) and everything in between; and for the vintage cars cruising the strip, each of them characters in their own right – the sort you’d expect Jerry Seinfeld to step out of with a fellow comedian in search of coffee.

“The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only as dusk is falling”, Marx citing Hegel arguing that we can only properly understand events after they have happened. Carved owls in Goring.
  1. Sunny Afternoon by the Kinks. A song I have always associated with this part of the world after a holiday on a boat up the Thames between Shepperton Lock and Henley on Thames with my family in the late 60s. It was played a lot on the Radio at the time, and it seemed to fit the world I could see on the banks of the river. One of the happiest weeks of my life.
  2. Hey Aqualung by Jethro Tull – track that would make a great theme tune for a series of talks about Stranger Danger.