Arrow marks boat rollers

The Cherwell is shown here on seven web pages:
Cherwell Mouth (from the Isis to below Magdalen Bridge)
Magdalen Bridge
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

The Boat Rollers themselves are at the end of the 'Mesopotamia' page

Parson's Pleasure

The land on the LEFT bank (seen going upstream) [wrongly labelled on the other side of the river in Google Maps] used to be known as Parson's Pleasure where male nude bathing was the custom. This dated back into the seventeenth century.
1909: The Story of the Thames, J E Vincent, The Cherwell Rollers -

... and then a weir. This is a case of portage, made simple and easy by rollers, but if there be ladies of the party it is a case of something more, for immediately above the weir comes the University bathing-place known as "Parson's Pleasure", through which they will not wish to pass. The inconvenience is minor, since all must needs have disembarked for the portage in any case, but for two reasons this small and practical matter is mentioned.
First, it is just as well to know beforehand that the ladies cannot accompany the boat, but can go round to a landing place where it will be brought to them.

There may be several reasons why ladies should hesitate before being taken for a ride on the Upper Cherwell, however nude fellows en masse are now, it must be said, unlikely, even in Oxford, at least by daylight.
John Betjeman (quoted more fully at the end of the Islip section) -

We are at Parson's Pleasure, the open-air bathing place. There may be many parsons there, for all we can tell - clergymen are a great feature of North Oxford - but everyone is naked. Bodies lie stretched on the grass, looking up between the poplars, pipes jammed into mouths, sunlight dappling bald or long-haired heads.

W H Auden on Betjeman -

I can never make up my mind whether Mr. Betjeman was born of the flesh or whether he was magically begotton by myself in a punt on the Cherwell one summer evening in 1926

No comment

1885: Parsons Pleasure, Henry Taunt

Parsons Pleasure, Henry Taunt, 1885
Parsons Pleasure, Henry Taunt, 1885
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT5235

Gascoigne Mackie -


DO you remember that straight gravel-walk
Planted with may-trees leading to the river,
With sunny palisades ? At dawn in June,
When we passed down to bathe, what scented showers
Of pink and crimson petals strewed our path !
Do you remember the old willow stump ?
And how you swam (although I warned you not)
Far out and swimming, gathered water-lilies ?
I feared the treacherous weeds might pull you down :
I seem to see you still, holding the buds
Above the stream, and toiling with one hand !
Ah ! dear drenched head, dear laughter-flashing eyes,
How glad were you to grasp the steps again.
And I, too, swim far out to gather flowers :
And with one hand I toil, that I may hold
These buds of song above the stream of Death.

1906: Parson's Pleasure, in Oxford by Andrew Lang -

Parsons Pleasure 1906
Parson's Pleasure 1906

1907: B H B Symons-Jeune -

One of the most noticeable features in the development of punting during the last few years is the extraordinary number of lady punters to be seen now everywhere on the river, and nothing looks nicer than to see a lady punting really well - the average lady is distinctly better than the average man.

A sign ordered women to get off and walk along the bank for a stretch, so that they would not be shocked by the sight of naked men bathing at Parson's Pleasure.

1930: William Roberts (1895-1980), Parson's Pleasure -

Parsons Pleasure 1930
Parson's Pleasure 1930

So Parson's Pleasure is no more! The given reason was the cost of employing a full time life guard. I reluctantly feel that it was a tradition which had reached the end of the line. I do remember, in 1980?, taking my young family around there and being engaged in conversation by a don whilst steadfastly trying not to look at his full frontal presence.

There is an Oxford story concerning this place which ought not to be forgotten -

An Oxford Professor was sunbathing in the nude at Parson's Pleasure, when a punt full of young ladies came past. All the other bathers immediately strategically placed towels to avoid exposing themselves. The professor however placed his towel over his head and when challenged about this remarked I am known in Oxford by my face.

1922: C S Lewis, Tuesday 23rd May -

After lunch I bussed into Oxford, took Croce's Essence of Aesthetic out of the Union and walked to bathe at Parson's Pleasure. As I went in I met Wyllie coming out: we regretted to have missed each other and arranged to bathe together in future. A beautiful bathe (water 63 degrees) but very crowded. Amid so much nudity I was interested to note the passing of my own generation: two years ago every second man had a wound mark, but I did not see one today.

In 1922, Oxford, like everywhere else in Europe, was slowly recovering from the self inflicted horror of war.

Holywell Mill Stream

A Mill Stream (not recommended, included for completeness):
Above Parson's Pleasure is a mill stream on the LEFT bank (your left going upstream). We go under a bridge, besides a sports field, avoiding moored punts almost blocking the stream, to Manor Road Bridge -

Manor Road Bridge
Manor Road Bridge

And eventually we reach the Holywell Mill the other side of which can be reached by the sidestream above Magdalen Bridge. -

Mill Pool between Magdalen & St Catherines Colleges
Mill Pool between Magdalen & St Catherines Colleges

Meanwhile back on the main stream just above the rollers:
Almost immediately there is an island with the straight on, RIGHT bank channel, which for many years was blocked, now cleared.

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

Sooth to say the voyage above the weir has either lost or gained something, it is a matter of taste which of the two, during recent years in point of picturesque quality, even at first; the LEFT bank of the river is less pastoral, more trim, more animated, than it was thirty years ago. [i.e. 1879]
Still there is the beauty of fine trees and grass and soon the sight of men in flannels playing cricket and the like, and it would be churlish to regret the change.
New College and Balliol, both of which used to have to make long pilgrimages up the Cowley Road for cricket - like every other college except Christ Church and Merton - have now cricket grounds of their own in these parts, and it is not sure that a game of cricket does not make as pleasing a spectacle as any "flowing mead"....
They keep punts and canoes here too, for though there is no serious rowing on the Cherwell, and no room for it, it is an ideal stream on which to eat the lotus innocently, with books and tobacco and friends. Time was when, save for the bread and the singing, Omar's familiar quatrain was often true to the letter here:-

A book of verses underneath the bough,
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread - and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness,
Oh wilderness were Paradise enow.

In those days one occasionally took the book of verses, but never forgot the jar of claret-cup.
The bough of some overhanging willow for choice - for a willow's shade seems to possess a peculiar quality of coolness - was always there, and the companions also, in term time a trusty friend, in Commemoration Week a sister, a cousin, or some other guest of Oxford.

Notice the efforts at wild life conservation which have taken place on the LEFT bank. The blocked off channel the far side of an island, and then the large pond on the bank beyond, in the University Parks.

High Bridge, or Rainbow Footbridge

1872: Previous Bridge, Henry Taunt -

University Parks Bridge, Taunt, 1872
University Parks Bridge, Taunt, 1872
© Oxfordshire County Council Photographic Archive; HT01088

The land which forms the University Parks, Oxford, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086. Previously owned by Merton College, the University began negotiations for its purchase in 1853, and in the next 11 years acquired the entire area.
The western section had long been used for recreation and formed part of the University walks - King Charles II is reputed to have walked his dog in the parks in 1685.
In 1860, a committee was formed to deal with the parks. One of the tasks facing the delegates appointed to co-ordinate the laying out of the parks was the provision and siting of a bridge across the River Cherwell. The delegates invited the horticulturalist James Bateman - a former student at Magdalen College and a frequent visitor to Oxford's Botanic Garden - to produce the plan.
From the lily pond, which was constructed in 1925 beside the River Cherwell, a path runs in a south-easterly direction to High Bridge, over the Cherwell and continues along a stretch of river popular for punting.
Built in University Parks in 1927 as part of a relief project for the unemployed, High Bridge was paid for jointly by the city, the University, the colleges and individual subscribers.
Its shape, which led to it also being called Rainbow Bridge, was a topic of much humour when it was built. Time has rendered it a notable landmark, making the meadows on the east side of the river much more accessible at a time when the southern part of the parks was being built on.
Previously, the meadows could only be reached from the west by a foot ferry operating in the summer months.

1950: rebuilding of the bridge to the design of Alfred Goldstein. This is thought to be the first pre-stressed fixed arch bridge in the world; the construction resulted in a more slender structure than the previous bridge.

Rainbow Bridge 1951?
Rainbow Bridge, Muirhead Bone, 1951?

John Betjeman -

The river is spanned by an elegant footbridge, which humps itself like a Magpie Moth caterpillar (Abraxas grossulariata). The effect is quite Japanese. This is the prettiest bridge for miles, a delicate piece of engineering unspoiled by 'architectural' additions.

[ See John Betjeman's commentary on the Cherwell at the end of the Islip section. ]
2006: Rainbow Bridge -

Rainbow Bridge 2006
Rainbow Bridge in 2006

On the backs at Cambridge the bridges are smaller and the low art and tradition of pole picking has developed. This consists in lurking on a bridge waiting for an unsuspecting punter to come under the bridge raising the pole within convenient reach from the bridge. A quick jerk on the pole at this crucial moment in the stroke often leads to a swim for the unfortunate punter.
(If you commit this crime remember that the art is a quick tug on the pole - time it well and the reward is a satisfactory splash - but do not hang on to it - that is cheating!)
Punters do so welcome this encouragement from the general public - Thank God Oxford bridges are too tall. And Oxford people so respectful of punters ...



IN summer fields the meadowsweet
Spreads its white bloom around the feet
Of those who pass in love or play
The golden hours of holiday :
Where heart to answering heart can beat
There grows the simple meadowsweet.

Deep-bosomed in some cool retreat
The long reed grasses nod and greet
The stream that murmurs as it goes
Songs of forget-me-not and rose ;
The filmy haze of noontide heat
Is faint with scents of meadowsweet.

Ah, love, do you know meadowsweet ?
Does some pale ghost of passion fleet
Adown the dreary lapse of years,
So void of love, so full of tears,
Some half-remembered echo greet
The tender name of meadowsweet ?

Dragon School & Sports Ground

LEFT bank. (Where John Betjeman went to school).

1922: C S Lewis, Saturday 15th July -

A beautiful morning. After breakfast I foolishly trusted to Arthur's timing, who was characteristically sitting down to the piano when I found we had only 20 min. in which to reach the Parks.
We hastened into town and met Veronica. We walked to Lady Margaret Hall and there took a canoe.
Veronica and I paddled while Arthur made himself comfortable with the cushions. We first went down as far as Parson's Pleasure, then up again a longish way between pleasant banks and under a fine sky - hard stony blue, veined with white showing through fleet after fleet of puffy clouds, some of them very large. We landed for a few minutes in a field where horses were pulling raking machines over new mown hay. We sat on the hay: there were ticks in it: Arthur tried to draw Veronica.
Embarking again, we continued upstream to the Cherwell Hotel:

Cherwell Hotel Sign
Cherwell Hotel Sign

[ It is with some amusement that I note that the hapless punter is falling off the Cambridge end! ]

I was struck with the delightful little formal gardens coming down to the water. Here we had ginger beer through straws - unhappily Arthur considered it humorous to make a bubbling noise and Veronica followed suit, I think from sheer devilment, divining my shudder.
She made one good remark - that an educational career is a school of hypocrisy in which you spend your life teaching others observances which you have rejected yourself.
On the return journey we yielded to Arthur's request to paddle, but he always desisted after three strokes until spurred into activity again. His violent and impulsive movements were near to having us over and once gave me a real fright. The river was perfectly empty and we might have been in a lost continent.

1922: C S Lewis, Monday, 17th July -

After lunch Arthur and I set off with baskets and thermoi. We found Veronica at Lady Margaret Hall who greeted us with the cheerful news that she was bringing "two other females". As we had provided tea for only four, I thought this was rather cool. The parasites turned out to be Miss Wigg, and Miss Hugon.
Arthur punted us up river with some success. We had tea under the trees opposite the Cherwell Hotel during a shower. We dropped the Hugon woman at the Lady Margaret Hall landing stage at five o'clock; then proceeded to a suitable place beside the Parks and tied up. Arthur began painting Veronica, with lavish burlesque criticism and encouragement from us. All very merry till 7 o'clock when we came home.

1923: C S Lewis, Thursday, 2nd August -

Next day I took Maurice out in the morning in Smudge's sister's punt from St Clement's. I punted with fair success.
He told me that English girls were very different from French.
I said nothing.
BLACKGUARD: "Those girls at the otter hunting yesterday, they jump over streams, they lift their skirts up so - so high. In France now they would rather have stayed where they were than show their legs so."
SELF: "A possible explanation is that in France the young men would have been looking at their legs more attentively."
BLACKGUARD: (after a grin that made me retch) "Ahh - They are not girls in England, they are boys. In France at that age they always thinks of love."
We punted on ...