The River Cherwell from the Isis (Thames) to Magdalen Bridge

The old mouth of the Cherwell is on the RIGHT bank of the Isis (aka Thames) above the boathouses. Unpowered boats only.

The Cherwell is shown here on seven web pages:
Cherwell Mouth (from the Isis to below Magdalen Bridge)
Magdalen Bridge
Addison's Walk
Mesopotamia (from above Magdalen Bridge to the boat rollers)
Upper Cherwell (above the boat rollers to below Bardwell Road Punting station)
Bardwell Road to the Victoria Arms
Islip (Cherwell above the Victoria Arms)
Other pages of interest to punters are:
Bullstake Stream (Other side of the Isis (aka Thames) - for punters to explore)
To Old Navigation (Punt up above Osney Lock and then round to Oxford Castle)
There are also two round trips including going up the Oxford Canal and coming back down via Kings Lock and Godstow

From The British Critic vol 39 F & C Rivington, 1812 -

in answer to Warton's poem entitled 'THE COMPLAINT OF CHERWELL'

Sweet Cherwell, from thy crystal tide
What note of sorrow meets my ear,
While nature laughs in summer's pride,
And flings her choicest treasures here!

Though neighbouring Isis proudly swell
By holy towers and forests fair,
Though round her banks the muses dwell,
And bathe their silver tresses there.

Thy groves and milder shades beneath,
Full oft would Warton lie reclined,
And hear thy waving willows breathe
So deeply to the passing wind.

And here as oft the star of eve,
Beamed sweetly in the western sky,
His rapid fancy loved to weave
Some tale of Gothic minstrelsy.

The Cherwell flow in native pride,
Thy vales and secret shades among,
Nor envy once thy sister tide,
Her flowery banks, her Naiad throng.

That bard that here so oft before,
Of fancy's dreams would take his fill,
In death shall haunt this silver shore,
And love thy whispering waters still.

1600s: Camden -

Cherwell, also a prety river well stored with fish, after it hath for a time parted North-hampton shire and Oxfordshire, passeth gently with a still streame thorow the middest of the country and divideth it, as it were, into two parts.
And Tamis with his waters comforteth and giveth hart to the East-part, untill both of them together with many other riverets and brookes running into them be lodged in Isis. ...
where Cherwell is confluent with Isis, and pleasant Eights or Islets lye dispersed by the sundry disseverings of waters, there the most famous Universitie of Oxford, called in the English-Saxon tongue Oxenford, sheweth it selfe aloft in a champion plaine.
Oxford I saw, our most noble Athens, the Muses seate, and one of Englands staies, nay, The Sun, The Eye, and the Soule thereof, the very Source and most cleere spring of good literature and wisdome. From whence religion, civility and learning are spred most plenteouslie into all parts of the Realme.
A faire and goodlie Citie, whether a man respect the seemely beauty of private houses or the statelie magnificence of publicke buildings, together with the wholesome site or pleasant prospect thereof.
For the hils beset with woods doe so environ the plaine that as on the one side they exclude the pestilent Southwinde and the tempestuous West winde on the other, so that they let in the cleering Eastern winde onely, and the Northeast winde with all, which free from all corruption. Whence it came to passe that of this situation it was, as writers record, in ancient times called Bellositum.
Some are of opinion that it hath beene named Caer Vortigern and Caer Vember in the British language, and that I wot now what Vortigerns and Memprices built it.
But what ever it was in the Britans time, the English Saxons called it Oxenford, and altogether in the same signification that the Grecians terme their Bosphori and the Germans their Ochen-furt upon Odera, to wit, of the fourd of Oxen, in which sense it is named of our Britans in Wales at this daie Rhyd-ychen.
And yet Leland, grounding upon a probable conjecture, deriveth the name from the river Ouse, called in Latin Isis, and supposeth that it hath beene named Ousford, considering that the Eights or Islands which Isis scattereth hereabout be called Ousney.

1909: The Story of the Thames, J E Vincent -

[The Cherwell] - This much sung river that has come all the way from Copredy Bridge (scene of a battle in the Civil War, of otter-hound meets now), and further, is some little trouble to ascend, but the pains are well spent. It is tortuous, narrow, and apt to be crowded, but it and its environment are delightful above measure.

E W Hazelhurst, Our Beautiful Homeland, Oxford -

... the Cherwell, winding, secretive, alluring, willow-girt, whispering of men and maidens, and of the dream days of ambitious youth.

1923: from "Father Thames" by Walter Higgins -

But the Thames (or Isis as it is invariably called in Oxford) is the place of more serious matters. To the rowing man "the River" means only one thing, and really only a very short space of that: He is accustomed to speak of "the River" and "the Cher", and with him the latter does not count at all ...

Cherwell Map
The usually punted section of the River Cherwell

Accolade, like lemonade, © 2002, Suzanne de Freitas -

Slow waters of the Cherwell flow
Past groups in flowered skirts and jeans and shirts
Release from academe brings forth
Fizzy pop, strawberries and laughter
And mild hysteria before the morning after
Gazing at you supine, I pole the punt upstream
The glory of your beauty glows while evening dowses
Pubward voices, discarded principles and trousers
In a backwater I drink your kisses;
Declare that love no more than this is
And oh, my love, one swallow makes a summer

The poet has disillusioned me about this. She writes -

I wish I could point out to you which bend in the river was the approximate site of the incident, but I can't as it's fictional...  one summer long ago a gang of us in our mid-20's would drive up to Oxford or Cambridge at the weekend, have a pub lunch, and then hire punts. I remember one afternoon when one of our number fell in. Four times. Getting out each time was harder because his jeans and boots were getting more sodden and heavier and the deck was slippery - also he had lunched liquidly and extensively. I don't remember any erotic interludes, more's the pity. Also, we went to Cambridge far more often than Oxford, but the Cam doesn't scan and the Cherwell does!

Ah well - I wonder if John Donne imagined all the erotic references in his poetry?

T S Eliot, from The Waste Land Listen to 'The Wasteland -

The river's tent is broken; the last fingers of leaf
Clutch and sink into the wet bank. The wind
Crosses the brown land, unheard. The nymphs are departed.
Sweet Thames run softly till I end my song.
The river bears no empty bottles, sandwich papers,
Silk handkerchiefs, cardboard boxes, cigarette ends
Or other testimony of summer nights. The nymphs are departed,
And their friends, the loitering heirs of city directors;
Departed, have left no addresses.
By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept …
Sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song,
Sweet Thames, run softly, for I speak not loud or long.
But at my back in a cold blast I hear
The rattle of bones, and chuckle spread from ear to ear.

If you have your own boat you may of course be coming from the slipway at Donnington Road Bridge. Or hire a punt at Folly Bridge, or at Magdalen Bridge or Bardwell Road on the upper Cherwell above the boat rollers.
At Magdalen Bridge they also hire out paddle punts which are safe, but make a slapping noise as the paddles strike the water.

1922: C S Lewis, Monday, 14th August -

On Monday we went on the river - Smudge, Andrée, Maureen, W. and I in a punt. A good day on the whole, tho' Maureen was rather a nuisance.

There's always one in a punt! (Says he who often punts alone.)

River Cherwell, Footbridge

Cherwell meets Isis

[ Note that there is a Christchurch Bridge over the Thames in Reading (from Reading to Christchurch Meadow, Caversham) ]

On the Isis (aka Thames) below Christchurch Meadow, if in a canoe or punt turn under the footbridge above the boathouses, and enter the Cherwell pronounced "CHAR WELL"

1890: Christchurch Meadows Cherwell Bridge, Henry Taunt

Christchurch Meadows Cherwell Bridge, Henry Taunt, 1890
Christchurch Meadows Cherwell Bridge, Henry Taunt, 1890
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT4500

1839: Merton and Christ Church from the Cherwell

1839: Merton and Christ Church from the Cherwell
1839: Merton and Christ Church from the Cherwell



O MANY an evening have I been
Entranced upon that glorious scene,
When silent thought hath proved too strong
For utterance in tranquil song.
There intermingling with the trees
The city rose in terraces
Of radiant buildings, backed with towers
And dusky folds of elm-tree bowers.
St. Mary's watchmen, mute and old,
Each rooted to a buttress bold,
From out their lofty niche looked down
Upon the calm monastic town,
Upon the single glistering dome,
And princely Wykeham's convent home,
And the twin minarets that spring
Like buoyant arrows taking wing,
And square in Moorish fashion wrought
As though from old Granada brought,
And that famed street, whose goodly show
In double crescent lies below,
And Bodley's court and chestnut bower
That overhangs the garden wall,
And sheds all day white flakes of flower
From off its quiet coronal.
Methinks I see it at this hour,
How silently the blossoms fall.

Most of the time I have known this section suddenly you were in what could be a tiny tributary of the Amazon, in rain forest! The stream was only perhaps two feet deep at most and sometimes it seemed not that much wider. Fallen trees, underwater branches and low bushes needed to be negotiated. However now the stream has been cleared and is deeper since there is now a current flowing taking the silt away. This is the old mouth of the Cherwell, by-passed by the new cut (below the RIGHT bank boat houses) After a hundred yards or so you come out into the main Cherwell.

River Cherwell Main channel

The River Cherwell has (or had) three mouths onto the Isis. They are -
1. The old western mouth referred to above. Sometimes rather deprecatingly known as 'Shire Lake Ditch'
2. The new cut which comes out below the boathouses.
3. The old eastern mouth now very blocked and unusable (see "Freshman's River" above Donnington Road Bridge).
1896: Ordnance Survey Map showing Cherwell before new cut-

The two mouths of the Cherwell before the new cut

Turning right would take you back to the Isis below the boathouses, but turn left.
Here you will encounter punts. Some few of them may even have punters aboard who know what they are doing! Admire their skill! But most will not keep right, or even straight, or even speak English, and it may be difficult to avoid them.
Punts should keep right - though with skilled punters it would be more correct to say that punts should obey the rule of the river that "where there is a danger of collision" keep right. However no one appears to keep the rules at all - so steer clear and make it obvious which side you wish to pass. Be prepared to stop suddenly.

In 1906 Henry Wellington Wack gave an explanation of what were then the rules: The Rule of the Road on the Thames. Those rules no longer apply.

Play spot the punter - there are a variety of occupants -
general tourists (sideways - not going anywhere)
language course students (sideways - bouncing from bank to bank - loudly - in French)
university students (not examination time), picnics with much beer. Generally fairly skilled if not inebriated.
university students (examination time), solemn and serious and apparently studying or holding deep conversations. Books have been seen. (Generally fairly skilled if paying attention).
old University members on a nostalgic show-the-spouse-and-family-what-it-was-like trip. (Reasonably skilled but slow, the old muscles are not as supple as memory says they once were).

There is a persistent belief that punting is essentially comic. It was fed and encouraged perhaps by Jerome K Jerome in "Three Men in a Boat" (despite the fact that his heroes used a camping skiff and not a punt).

George said he had often longed to take to punting for a change. Punting is not as easy as it looks. As in rowing, you soon learn how to get along and handle the craft, but it takes long practice before you can do this with dignity and without getting the water all up your sleeve.
One young man I knew had a very sad accident happen to him the first time he went punting. He had been getting on so well that he had grown quite cheeky over the business, and was walking up and down the punt, working his pole with a careless grace that was quite fascinating to watch. Up he would march to the head of the punt, plant his pole, and then run along right to the other end, just like an old punter. Oh! it was grand.
And it would all have gone on being grand if he had not unfortunately, while looking round to enjoy the scenery, taken just one step more than there was any necessity for, and walked off the punt altogether. The pole was firmly fixed in the mud, and he was left clinging to it while the punt drifted away. It was an undignified position for him. A rude boy on the bank immediately yelled out to a lagging chum to "hurry up and see a real monkey on a stick."

Notice that Jerome in the 1880s understands the normal method of punting to be 'running' - that is with the punter moving along the length of the punt. The new Oxford method of pricking a punt from a fixed position was just coming in.
A cartoonist's view of Oxford punting

1902: Sketch of University Life, punting -

Sketch of University Life, punting, 1902
Sketch of University Life, punting, 1902
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; D262654a

Sketch of University Life, punting, 1902
Sketch of University Life, punting, 1902
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; D262655a

Sketch of University Life, punting, 1902
Sketch of University Life, punting, 1902
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; D262656a

Jubilee Footbridge

Just before the island is a new footbridge, the Jubilee Footbridge (at the place marked 'ferry' on the map for this page). There used to be cables stretched across the river, waiting to decapitate the unwary. This was a wire ferry with a fixed punt belonging to Christchurch college. For a year or two it appeared to be rarely used, and in 2003 it disappeared.


2013: A NEW bridge across the river Cherwell in Christ Church Meadow is being proposed by Christ Church. The college has submitted a planning application to build The Jubilee Bridge, which will link the meadow to the college's playing fields. The 28m long footbridge would be built on the site of an historic ferry crossing point of the Cherwell.
But while members of the public will be able to enjoy views from the steel bridge, only Christ Church students and staff would be able to cross it. A gate will block access to the sports ground side of the river.
James Lawrie, the Christ Church treasurer, said: "The Jubilee Bridge replaces an historic static punt that fell into disuse. We wish to reinstate the link to enable our students to go from Christ Church Meadow to our sports grounds and also our student accommodation in the Iffley Road.
We think that it is an elegant modern design and does not impose itself on the landscape. It is a steel bridge with a timber walkway. What we are planning will allow the public access to the bridge itself to enjoy views up and down the river."
He said a locked gate would block public access to the sports ground and tennis courts for reasons of security, with the facilities shared with children at Magdalen College School. The bridge will not be open for cyclists, with cycles not allowed in the Meadow. At the proposed bridge site remnants of the ferry survive with stone steps visible descending into the water.
The bridge would have a minimum 10ft clearance between the high water line and the underside of the bridge to allow boats to pass beneath, in one of the busiest stretches of the Cherwell for punting.
It is named the Jubilee Bridge in honour of the Queen, who has a close link with Christ Church as Visitor of the college.
The college declined to reveal the cost of the bridge, which it hopes could be completed by the beginning of Trinity Term in late April (2014).
But the bridge is not being welcomed by all university sportsmen. One hockey player from Keble College told The Oxford Student that the bridge was "a cheeky shortcut" adding, "It would not be any hardship to allow all university students to use this bridge."

Jubilee Footbridge June 2014

The 28-metre Jubilee Bridge, across the River Cherwell, links Christ Church Meadow on the west bank with Christ Church recreation ground on the east. The curved steel footbridge, designed for Christ Church college, is built on the site of a former punt crossing. Visitors will be allowed on to the bridge from the meadow but not the recreation ground, which remains closed to the public. Christ Church Meadow, which is flanked by the River Thames and River Cherwell, is owned and maintained by Christ Church but public access is allowed during the day. The college has not revealed the cost of the crossing but said it had been funded by college alumni and benefactors Martin Alderson-Smith and Christopher Ainsley, who officially opened it.

1909: The Story of the Thames J E Vincent -

The meadow on which the pageant of 1907 was displayed, and the cricket ground of that Magdalen College School which Wayneflete founded simultaneously with his college.

And then the Cherwell splits around an island with a sports ground. On the point of the island is sometimes in summer a temporary theatre, the performances and rehearsals at which can be enjoyed for free from the vantage point of a boat. Favourites are Lewis Carroll adaptations.
Go round to the left and you will pass the Botanical Gardens on your left and then when the right hand branch rejoins, punts moored on your left waiting to be hired.

Site of Milham Bridge, & previously, Ford

[Milham bridge was where the stream splits above the island, below Magdalen Bridge.]
from the Antient and present State of Oxford 1773 -

Milham Bridge was situated not far from the south side of East Bridge [ie Magdalen Bridge]. ...
It contained but two Arches, made of Stone, over the Branch of Charwell; from thence was a raised Causeway, across Cowley Mead, containing three or four [arches] more than those over Charwell. Itself was of timber.
The Reason why it was so called, was because of a Mill (with a Ham adjoining, since taken into the said Mead) that stood on the River there, called Boimilie, or, as the ancient Records, Boiemulne; given to the Nuns of Godstow at their first foundation by Roger, Bishop of Sarum 1133.
Concerning the Time of its first Building, I have seen a Writ, that makes it to have been built by the Monks of St. Frideswide for a Way from their Grange into their Corn Fields towards Cowley. ...
At the Time Cardinal Wolsey proceeded to raise his College, he made then also this Bridge, Anno 1524, as appears by the Accounts of his Buildings of the same College and other Edifices belonging to them,
Item, says the same Account Book, to Thomas Watlington, Warden of the Carpenters, for making Planking and Railing and a new Bridge, standing over the Water in Cowley Mead, between St Edmund's Well and the East side of the said College (meaning Cardinal Wolsey's,) with the making of two new Gates, one of them containing 12 Feet in Length and 12 Feet in Height, and the other containing 8 Feet in Height and 1O in Breadth, one of them standing near St Edmund's Well, the other standing near unto a Place, Our Lady in the Wall. ...
So it continued ever after ... and in indifferent good Repair, till about 1634, the furthermost End of it, next to St. Clement's Field, was then forced down by the Violence of the Ice, in a great Frost that happened; which remaining in that Manner, the other Part not long after fell to Decay, and at the Beginning of the War, in 1641, quite demolished ...

1870: Magdalen "viewed from Milham Ford", Henry Taunt -

View from Milham Ford, Taunt, 1870
View from Milham Ford, Taunt, 1870
on the left is a slope down into a ford, and then beyond it a bridge foundation?
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT1085

Milham Bridge crossed the western branch of the Cherwell south of Magdalen Bridge at the south-west tip of the Botanic Gardens. It comprised two stone arches, and a causeway then continued south eastwards before crossing the eastern branch of the river on a wooden bridge.
The canons of St. Frideswide's may have built the bridge c. 1300 to connect their grange to their cornfields near Cowley, and the bridge was rebuilt by Cardinal Wolsey to facilitate the carriage of materials to his new college.
Wolsey's bridge was used as a horse- and footway until c. 1634 when it was damaged by severe frost; it was demolished in the Civil War.
During the rebuilding of Magdalen Bridge [1883] a temporary bridge was erected on the site of Milham Bridge.

[ From: ' Communications', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4: The City of Oxford (1979)
It may be that this Frith photograph of 1890 shows a pier of this temporary bridge. ]
1890: Francis Frith -

1890: Magdalen College, Francis Frith
1890: Magdalen College, Francis Frith