Chapter II - Medley & Binsey

- Four Rivers, Medley Weir Site, Medley Footbridge, The Perch, Port Meadow -

WHERE THAMES SMOOTH WATERS GLIDE - Osney Bridge, Four Rivers, Old River, Canal, Medley Weir Site, Medley Footbridge, Bossoms, Perch.

Map: Medley & Binsey

And now the banks finally clear themselves from the dwellings, and become breezy and open. It is sweet here in June with buttercups and the flower of the grass, with yellow iris and great clumps of shapely, upstanding dock. Beyond the raised towpath Fiddler's Island Stream saunters leisurely down, forming the boundary of allotment gardens and of the northwestern skirts of the city. Two miles from Folly Bridge lies the broad cheery expanse of Medley weir, where you go over the rollers by the side of the waters that rarely do more than whisper as they fall. Above the weir, one afternoon in the young summer, the wide water was alive with yachts fluttering ready at the River's edge, or tacking against the clean fresh wind. For here is the Oxford sailing ground, sailing for mere pleasure being tabu below Folly Bridge, owing to its interference with other craft in those somewhat narrow waters. A black spaniel swam across the ripples that danced and sparkled in the June sunshine and never surely did a shoal of minnows more enjoy life than that radiant afternoon. In the tiny arch of water that fell its inch or two over the weir they darted and gambolled, leaping high into the air for very fun, apparently, and exhilaration. Hundreds of little lives there seemed, flashing silver grey and olive green in the whispering water, and thudding harmlessly against the wooden weir beam in their excitement; a veritable minnow ladder; and a joy to remember! Keats must have watched some similar sight:

Where swarms of minnows show their little heads,
Staying their wavy bodies 'gainst the streams.
To taste the luxury of sunny beams
Tempered with coolness. How they ever wrestle
With their own sweet delight, and ever nestle
Their silvery bellies on the pebbly sand.
If ye but scantily hold out the hand,
That very instant not one will remain;
But turn your eye, and they are there again.

Perhaps it was at this very spot; for he was at work in Oxford, on his Endymion, in 1817, and wrote in one of his wonderful letters "This Oxford I have no doubt is the finest City in the world-it is full of old Gothic buildings - Spires, towers, Quadrangles- Cloisters-Groves etc. and is surrounded with more clear streams than ever I saw together. I take a Walk by the side of one of them every Evening. For these last five or six days, we have had regularly a Boat on the Isis, and explored all the streams about, which are more in number than your eye-lashes. We sometimes skim into a Bed of rushes. "

Below the weir the River divides into three streams, of which the westernmost is the modern navigation, the middle is Fiddler's Island Stream, and the eastern-most the old Saxon route, traversing the city by way of Fisher Row and the Hythe Bridge.

Medley manor house, close to the weir, was a farm, they say, before the Conquest, and once belonged to the Godstow nuns. They appear to have used it as an oratory, and also as a demure little pied-ŕ-terre in their journeyings to Abingdon and elsewhere. Osney had it before Godstow; it was conveyed to the abbey by Oxford town in 1147 as a penalty, the citizens having hung some alleged innocent students during a riot. An old drawing in the Bodleian shews it with a fine River frontage and gateway. Hearne says that "one of the places where the nuns used to recreate themselves was Midley or Medley, a large house between Godstow and Oxford"; and that it was in no sense a religious house. Within were many delightful walks and gardens; and the nuns in the summer time frequently retired thither for mirth and pastime, with Fair Rosamund for their companion. George Wither, who was at Magdalen in 1603, mentions the spot in one of his lyrical moments; would he had more of them!

"In summer time to Medley,
My love and I would go
The boatmen there stood ready,
My love and I to row
For cream there would we call,
For cakes and pruins too;
But now, alas! sh' 'as left me,
Falero, lero, loo

As we walked home together
At midnight through the town,
To keep away the weather
O'er her I'd cast my gown.
No cold my love should feel,
Whate'er the heavens could do;
But now, alas! sh' 'as left me,
Falero, lero, loo!

And Dr. Plot is impressive about a thunderstorm on the tenth of May, 1666, which rather terrified Oxford, but was "mischievous only at Medley, a well-known House; two Scholars of Wadham College, alone in. a Boat, and newly thrust off shore to come homewards, being struck from the head of the Boat into the Water, the one of them stark Dead, and the other stuck fast in the Mud like a Post, with his Feet downward, and for the present so disturbed in his Senses, that he neither knew how he came out of the Boat, nor could remember either Thunder or Lightning that did effect it. "

Just above the weir a curved iron bridge carries the towpath to the right bank, and immediately a raised causeway leads westward across a daisied green to Binsey, surely one of the tiniest of communities. As you walk along the causeway Binsey Lane comes through a gate upon the green from Oxford, the old road to Eynsham, and continues through an opposite gate to lead under arches of elms to the solitary little church a short half-mile away. The Perch stands upon the green, behind a duck pond, with pleasant lawns at the back and an old English skittle ground, busy on Saturday afternoons. To drink tea in the cool shade of its willow bowers is not the least idyllic of summer idlenesses.

Along the lane to the church the meadows blaze in June with the mauve of clover and great oxeye daisies and the russet tips of the young sorrel. In the hedges is pink-edged may, and the banks of the little Pot Stream are gay with ragged robin. Tall elms cast their grateful shade around a cattle gate that crosses the secluded roadway; and the delicious elusive fragrance of a hidden bean patch wafts dreamily upon the sense.

You will no longer find at Binsey the primitive chapel built here in 730 by St. Frideswide. It was no doubt very similar to the well restored tiny church at Greenstead, by Ongar in Essex, of which Green's History has an excellent drawing-a characteristic Saxon erection of wood, hastily put up to receive the body of St. Edmund, king and martyr, during its progress to London.

GREENSTEAD CHURCH, Ongar, Esse, to shew style of Saxon log walls. Photograph by Fred. S. Thacker

The walls were of split trees, the flat inside and the round rough bark without, fitted into crossbeams above and below. Binsey no longer knows anything of such an edifice; but a little old stone church stands on the same site, dating back to about 1132. It contains a font of that date, a late Norman south doorway, an old timbered roof, and one or two splayed lancet windows. The north wall is entirely unlighted. On the roof is a quaint belfry turret with two bells. The nuns' house that adjoined was pulled down only in the seventeenth century, they say: "A house, with arched Windows and arched Door, joining to the North Side of Binsay Chapel, was pulled down in July 1678 by the Widow Fifield, to sell and save Reparation. Shee pluckd it downe, as 'tis said, to prevent beggars lying ther. "

St. Margaret's well, just by the west end of the church, was miraculously opened through the prayers of St. Frideswide. In ancient times it had a stone covering, and a picture of either St. Margaret or St. Frideswide; all pulled down by Alderman Sayre of Oxford in 1639. It was then long lost, but afterwards rediscovered; and it is regrettable that the love and care which restored it and surrounded it with new sheltering masonry are not extended to preserve it from the unwholesome state in which it sometimes is; in dry seasons often the merest puddle, choked with stones and deplorable refuse. Its water worked miracles after the saint's death, and was sold, it is said, for a guinea a quart. Jurkiva and Rilda, blind sisters of Eynsham, journeyed hither and received their sight- two Norse raven names out of the black night! The silence enjoined at these sources by the Romans is best here; still it remains the fittest homage:

NYMPHIS LOCI BIBE LAVA TACE

they wrote up in their perdurable tongue. The well used to be dressed with flowers in the old days when they cared for such things.

When the new masonry was erected an Oxford wit suggested as a motto:

When you open your pew-door,
This may comfort supply,
Should the sermon be dry.

You are warned against "trespassing" beyond the church; but the old road from Oxford to Eynsham formerly continued along here, long since closed. It passed through Seckworth; and the remains of the ancient bridge by which it crossed the County Stream are still to be seen in the clear water.

This Frideswide, who left so deep a mark upon the Oxford country, was born quite early in the eighth century, the daughter of Dida, a ruler of the city, and his wife Safrida. Displaying very early a taste for the religious life she persuaded her father to build her a convent, whither she retired. Drawn by the fame of her beauty one Algar, a prince of the Leicester country, sent his men to demand her in marriage, and if unsuccessful to abduct her. She refused his advances; and the messengers attempting violence were stricken blind. Algar then journeyed southward in person; but being warned of his approach and probable fury Frideswide "hurried to the Thames, taking two sisters with her, Katharine and Cicely, where they found a youth of heavenly look, clothed in dazzling white, who seated them in a boat, and in a short hour's space landed them ten miles down stream at Abingdon. " In a drawing in the little Life by Father Goldie, S. J. , the angelic waterman is shewn propelling the craft with one oar astern, sea fashion, so that the arrival so far in so short a period was no doubt a miraculous intervention. Nowadays the locks alone will cost you the time. The youth and the boat vanished together when the nuns had landed. Meanwhile Algar, raging in his disappointment against the townspeople, was himself blinded, but healed, as his men had been, by the forgiving prayers of the saint. This blinding left so deep an impression that until Henry III it is said no monarch dared to enter her church. Frideswide's presence at Abingdon being betrayed through a miracle she performed, she fled back up the River to Binsey, where her father had held an estate, and there she built the little chapel of which I have spoken. She died there in 740. They say she once went to Rome, and returning through the little village of Bomy,

[In Addition and corrections Fred added: This name should perhaps be Borny; but the whole legend of the Saint's journey is very hazy indeed. ]

"four leagues from St. Omer," left such a fame that the church there was dedicated to her under the name of Ste. Fréwisse, and the little local stream bears the same name to this day. But no-one in France will confirm me this legend, nor even reply to me about it. And instead of Abingdon some histories name Bensington and Bampton as the saint's refuge from Algar; though both these places are much further by River than the legendary ten miles of her voyage. Wood is very strong for the latter town; and, indeed, there is much to be said for its claim, as you will find.

Her bones were disturbed under strange circumstances during the reign of Elizabeth. The dead body of Peter Martyr's wife had been exhumed by Cardinal Pole, a habit then very popular, to answer for heresy. But as she had had no English no witness could be found to her opinions; and she was therefore reburied in a dungheap for the breach of her vow of chastity committed when from a nun she became the wife of the German divine. Elizabeth, to balance matters, commanded that her bones should be rescued and mingled with those of Frideswide. Happily indeed did our Saxon forefathers change the name of the place from Thorney (the title of a certain other island) to Binsey, Bene ea, the Island of Prayer, a region of deep meadows and wooded hills. And proud enough are the natives of their history, and of the traditions of Seacourt, or Seckworth, mentioned in ancient records from 968 downwards (as Sevacorde in Domesday), with its once sixty-five thousand inhabitants and other vanished glories. It sprang up entirely in consequence of the huge resort of pilgrims to St. Frideswide's chapel and holy well, and is said to have contained over a score of hostelries and eleven churches for their bodily and spiritual sustenance. Only when the saint's shrine and priory were removed about 1158 into Oxford to the site of the present cathedral, and to form part of its structure, did the town dwindle down and ultimately vanish away. Wood says the people of Botley and Binsey in his time declared it paid tithes to no parish, and that if in any at all it was in that of Windsor. And now little but the name and tradition remain; though everybody seems to have these upon the tip of his tongue; and farm labourers and innkeepers are equally anxious to bring them to the attentive notice of the wanderer. A mere tiny hamlet, and Seacourt dairy, on the road between Botley and Wytham, now alone remain to witness to the ancient populous town under Wytham Hill, that reminds you in its beauty of Cooper's Hill so far away, so similarly wooded, so similarly illumined and shadowed with gold and purple in the level evening sun.

"Excuse my ignorance," a visitor said one day to the jolly landlord and his wife at the Perch,"but what are the Binsey treacle mines? " And the roar of laughter that went up was Titanic. By no less a title does local humour christen the mud holes that winter rains and floods leave in the neighbouring roads and footpaths. They say, too, that the inhabitants of the little place, so idyllic in summer, will reply, if asked where they live: "At Binsey! where do you suppose? " when the sunny days are with them. But in winter the groan goes up at the same question "At Binsey, Lord help us! "

The broad and open stretch of water, resembling a long and winding lake rather than a river, with Port Meadow on its left bank, is the Oxford sailing reach I have already mentioned. Port Meadow, or Port-man's Mead, is a grand, breezy expanse of grazing land, about 440 acres in extent, mentioned in 'Domesday, where every Oxford freeman has had right of pasturage for his cattle since the time of Edward the Confessor; a right which not all the vicissitudes of the centuries have been able for long to alienate, though I think the Godstow minchons got a hold upon it for some time, and impounded cattle they found straying there. Each commoner once paid, it is said, a nominal annual tribute of twopence for each of his animals found at grass upon the day of inspection; which day, it need not be said, was not previously indicated. This arrangement, however, no longer exists; all the freemen enjoy the right without fee or stint; a special sheriff being elected annually to administer and preserve it. In summer the Mead serves equestrians excellently for their riding; and in winter, being often largely under water, it forms a fine skating ground, when there is any ice.

At a spot a quarter of a mile above Medley weir is a once important crossing of the River known as Binsey ford; a few yards above the causeway across Binsey Green. Hearne says this was the old ford from which Oxford has its name; but several other spots claim the honour; one by Folly Bridge, one over the old navigation, and others. All these last have fallen into disuse, but the Binsey ford is still clear to see, with its hard gravel foothold. It was in active use, indeed, within living memory, for the horses at grass on Port Meadow used to become so wild that they had to be headed across this ford on to Binsey Green, where they could more easily be caught. "Where islands have formed on the meadow side there was formerly a foot or more of water," says Mr. Taunt but on account of the dredging "near half the broad stream in the summer is entirely dry; and Black Jack's, once a willowy island, is now part of the meadow. " The River is still very deep and dark at Black Jack's (" Black John's Pitt" in Wood), though once much deeper. To scare youngsters from bathing there a bogey tale was told them of an evil goblin who would leap upon them and keep them under water in his cave.

Ahead across the grassland rises the tall chimney of the University paper mill, where the India and other papers used at the University Press are manufactured. The buildings can be better seen some distance higher, at Godstow, where they form a striking contrast of warm ruddy colour against the green. A young native pointed them out to me one day, saying in a low and impressive voice: " They have the finest machinery for making paper in England "; and I wondered what the other mills would say. The village where it stands is named Wolvercote: "the quiet little hamlet of Woolvercot; the only living creatures visible being some white geese on the green," wrote William Black of it as he knew it. It was here, according to Holinshed, that King Memphric, who about a thousand years before Christ originally founded Oxford, calling it Caer Memphric, was seized and devoured by wolves in a solitary dingle; hence the name.

A bridge you can see from Port Meadow in the same direction is over one of the side streams already spoken of; two others of which are the Reach and the Dunge. The first of them to leave the River is the Wytham Stream, up above King's weir; and it also rejoins last of all, just below Sandford lock. Wood calls this bridge Toll Bridge, and says a yearly fair was held there.

WHERE THAMES SMOOTH WATERS GLIDE - Osney Bridge, Four Rivers, Old River, Canal, Medley Weir Site, Medley Footbridge, Bossoms, Perch.

Map: Medley & Binsey

 
 
 
 
Godstow and Wolvercote