Map: Folly Bridge

Chapter II - Folly Bridge, Bacon's Folly

Rivers were made for wise men to contemplate;
and fools to pass by without consideration.

HOWEVER often one may turn upstream under Folly Bridge, it is always with a sense of entering upon an undiscovered land that for many centuries has lain quite undisturbed. Once beyond the city boundaries there begins to stir within the heart the gladness of escape from civilisation and modernness, of the dawn of a world still to be explored however often visited. To the ordinary voyager from London, intent upon "doing the River" in the fewest possible days, Salters' raft is the ultimate limit and source of the Thames. He learns, if he learns anything, of mere slums above, of gasworks and railway bridges and easily concludes that Nuneham and Iffley are the last word the River has for him, and that beyond this raft he need not ascend.

Astride the north end of the Norman bridge once stood a tower known as Friar Bacon's Study, which tradition says the old astronomer used as an observatory of the stars. It was built, probably, at the end of the twelfth or early in the thirteenth century. Somewhere about 1650, having fallen very ruinous, it was leased to a citizen named Welcome, who repaired and heightened it. His neighbours, sceptical of its advantage to him, nicknamed his venture "Welcome's Folly," and the epithet stuck, ousting high-sounding Grand Pont and legitimate South Bridge; and thus we get the colloquial modern title.

Pepys came along and viewed it in 1668: "To Friar Bacon's Study: I up and saw it, and gave the man 1s. Bottle of sack for Landlord, 2s".

The tower was taken down in 1779, about half a century before the bridge upon which it stood. There is said to be a model of the old bridge in the Ashmolean but it could not be found the afternoon I went to see it. Yet they sell you little views in the shops, as it appeared from above; with two round side arches, and one pointed in the centre; and heavy angular piers like New Bridge. There is the Friar's Study plain to see; whether the sketch is authoritative I cannot tell.

Here is an excellent story about him out of Wood. "Once upon a time several Scholars of Cambridge came to dispute with the Scholars of Oxford, the which Fryer Bacon hearing, fained himself a Thatcher, and when he was upon a house at Oxford Town's end, he, upon the approach of the Cantabrigians, came down to meet them, and drawing near to them, one of the Cantabrigians said to him: Rustice quid quaeris? Bacon the Thatcher answered Ut mecum versificeris. Then quoth another of the Cambridge Scholars: Versificator tu? Bacon answered Melius non Solis ab ortu. Whereupon the Cantabrigians seeing that Oxford Thatchers were so good Versifiers, and being afraid of the Scholars themselves, returned to Cambridge re infecta.

Friar Roger Bacon was "of a genteel Family among the People of the County of Dorset, near Cirencester," curiously prints an old Church history. He was in orders in Oxford in 1233, and after a period of absence returned about 1250. Then followed various imprisonments, the lot of all men at all times who have been in advance of their age. He died in Oxford about 1294,"unheard, forgotten, buried," as he lamented long before his death. His most popular invention was the magnifying glass; but he was self-instructed in many things then quite wonderful, such as the laws of refraction, the nature of explosives, and the movements of the stars and of comets. There were of course many fabulous legends about him; one of which was that he had used certain magic in the construction of the Study, so that if any man cleverer than he passed beneath it, it would collapse and kill him. Hence the old ironic warning to freshmen: "Do not walk too near the Friar's Tower."

The hollow bit of road between the Study and the old south gate of the city at the lower end of Christ Church was in Wood's time "meadow and pleshy ground"; and the bridge arches continued northwards over it. Many other arches also stretched south of the River over the marshy ground and streams of Thames; so that he reckoned altogether no less than forty to the complete bridge. On the southward end of the main part there stood in ancient times a little chapel of St. Nicholas, a hermitage; such another as once stood by New Bridge and many other bridges of importance. Its builders were the brethren of Abingdon, probably; it was in their country; "a pretty little stone building" where the hermits spent their lives in prayer and in ceaselessly digging their own graves and refilling them. Another and more respectable labour was the mending of highways and bridges, out of which grew the responsibility in later times of keeping Grand Pont in good repair, the solitary hermit then surviving meeting the cost from the tolls he was empowered to collect. The chapel went to ruin at the Suppression; a cottage remembered by Wood was built upon its site, called the Court of the Archdeacon of Berkshire.


Chapter II - Oxford Monasteries and Castle