Becoming a Punter
Punting through the Fantasyland of Oxford
In most of England a “punter” simply means someone who goes to pubs, an activity at which I’ve always excelled.
In Oxford, however, being a punter involves actual punting: balancing precariously at the back end of a 24-foot-long skiff, gripping a sixteen-foot pole, and attempting to shove a flat-bottomed boat in something resembling a straight line down a narrow twisting stream overhung with tree branches, picturesque low bridges, and other maritime hazards.
Frances, my partner, thought this was great fun because all she had to do was lean back against some cushions while I spent an hour laboriously pushing us in a big circuit around the island created by the Cherwell River’s braided streams just south of Magdalen Bridge (where we rented our punt for £12/$24; www.oxfordpunting.co.uk).
I spent most of my time concentrating on keeping my balance and figuring out how not to get the pole stuck in the mucky river bottom every time I pushed off—the trick is to give it a half twist as you yank it out. (Many a novice punter has, in a panic, kept their stuck pole in a death grip and let it drag them right off the boat. Though I never suffered an irrevocably stuck pole—or an inadvertent dip—I was glad to see there was a tiny wooden paddle in the boat should I find it necessary to go back and retrieve a mud-fast pole.)
Punts are designed for shallow rivers, which means they have no keel whatsoever. They’re essentially little more than elaborate wooden planks, two dozen feet long, three feet wide, and just 18 inches deep. This makes them extremely stable in calm water, and the opposite in chop. But the latter is not a danger on the idyllic Cerwell in Oxford, where I was even hard-pressed to figure out which way the current was running. But it also meant I was attempting to steer what was essentially little more than an enormous wooden plank.
What's more, it turns out the guy who gave me my whopping 25 seconds of instruction was teaching me the Cambridge method of punting: standing at the very back edge of the flat “till” that occupies one end of the boat (both ends are squared off—I told you it was a plank—so there is no sense of which is meant to be the front). Apparently, the preferred Oxford position is to stand down in the boat with the flat till pointed forward. Also, I have since read that, as a right-hander, I’m meant to stand with my right foot forward, not my left, which may explain why my feet kept hurting for the rest of the afternoon.
Frances, meanwhile, spent a lazy hour watching willow whips trace wavelets in the current, duck families waddle across Christ Church Meadows, couples stroll the towpaths, and the occasional white swan glide by.
Once or twice I took a break from poling, clambered down onto a cushion myself, and shared in the scenery. It is, after all, terribly romantic. (American student T.S. Eliot first encountered his future wife while punting the Cherwell.)
The shady riverbanks, grassy meadows, and the famous dreamscape of spires and gargoyled buildings rising beyond...it was suddenly quite easy to see how Oxford has inspired some of the richest fantasy worlds in English literature.
The Original Tea Party
On July 4, 1862, Christ Church College mathematics professor Charles Dodgson and a friend hired a boat for an afternoon and invited the three daughters of the college dean, Henry Liddell, to join them on the river.
It was a “golden afternoon,” according to Dodgson’s diary: “...the cloudless blue above, the watery mirror below, the boat drifting idly on its way.” They had tea on the riverbank, and Dodgson entertained the girls with a fantastical tale of a child’s underground adventures, casting young Alice Liddell in the lead role. Dodgson—better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll—later recalled that, “...in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole, to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.”
Carroll didn’t invent Wonderland from whole cloth. He threw in bits of his everyday life at Oxford—for instance, a cat named Dinah that was fond of napping in a tree in the Deanery garden. Dodgson even had his very own rabbit hole, a spiral staircase hidden by the wood paneling on the dais behind the staff table in the college’s grand dining hall, which he often used to slip out quietly after dinner.
If that dining hall looks oddly familiar, perhaps it’s because it was the inspiration for the Great Hall set used in the Harry Potter movies. In fact, several scenes from the celluloid version of that most successful of modern fantasy tales were filmed here.
Dodgson wasn’t the only Oxford don to dream up fantasy realms during his tenure.
Gateway to Narnia
English professor C.S. Lewis once wrote in his diary that from his rooms in Magdalen College he could “...see nothing, not even a gable or a spire, to remind me that I am in town. I look down on a stretch of ground which passes into a grove of immemorial forest trees, at present coloured autumn red. Over it stray deer...”
You can almost picture him daydreaming about the thin veil separating fantasy from reality—and how adventurous children might find ways to breech it, perhaps through a magical wardrobe that lead into Narnia...
Lewis would often spend what he described as “golden sessions” with the Inklings, a group of like-minded Oxfordians who would gather to discuss their shared passions: theology, philosophy, literature, and the writing process.
Oxford as Middle Earth
One of the Inklings closest to Lewis was a don of Anglo-Saxon languages named J.R.R. Tolkien.
Tolkien was fond of a massive black pine in the Oxford botanical gardens we had glided past while punting. There’s a famous picture of him seated there and I can only guess that Peter Jackson was tipping his filmmaker’s hat to honor the writer when he introduced Elijah Wood’s Frodo Baggins in a similar pose in Fellowship of the Rings.
While there’s little of Oxford that we know for sure inspired any element of The Lord of the Rings—though the man himself once commented that the Radcliffe Camera looks like Sauron's temple to Morgoth on Nümenor—there is a slice of long-since vanished Oxford that’s tantalizingly open to conjecture.
The brilliant 12th century monk Roger Bacon lived and worked in a tower, nicknamed Bacon’s Folly, overlooking the Thames River. In the middle ages, this figure puttering around an alchemy lab, making wild (and often true) scientific statements about the world that flew in the face of accepted medieval superstitions, and frequently appearing on moonless nights to take measurements of the stars from atop his tower, was thought by many to be some sort of sorcerer.
It helps to know that, in Oxford, the Thames River is more commonly known as the "Isis," which would make the proper name for a tower on that river “Isisgard.”
It’s hard not to make the connection between that and a certain robed wizard living in a tower at Isengard.
From the Rabbit Hole to the Rabbit Room
From 1939 to 1962, when not teaching literature (or writing it), the Inklings met regularly in the Rabbit Room of The Eagle and Child (tel. 01865-302-925), a 1650 pub at 49 St. Giles Street that they called "The Bird and Baby." Nailed to the wall above the pub’s fireplacearound which the professors would meet for their chats is a 1949 document signed by the Inklings to attest that each had drunk to the landlord’s health.
I stood in the Rabbit Room, glass of Oxfordshire-brewed Brakspear Special in hand like a proper punter, and examined the signatures, which were so florid and bombastic I could come to only one conclusion: the Inklings must have been quite drunk at the time.
With a Cheshire smile I raised my pint and made my own silent toast: to Middle Earth, Narnia, Wonderland, and the Oxford that inspired them all.
When You Go...
Oxford (www.visitoxford.org) is just a 100-minute bus ride (www.oxfordtube.com or www.oxfordbus.co.uk) from Heathrow airport (£17/$34) or London’s Victoria Coach Station (£12/$24).
My favorite lodgings are Bath Place Hotel (011-44-(0)1865-791-812, www.bathplace.co.uk, from £99/$200), a clutch of 17th-century houses—featured in Jude the Obscure, once home to Dorothy L. Sayers, and former trysting site for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor—on a delightfully twisting alleyway in the center of town. An added plus—though not for nightly noise levels—lies across the alley: cheap pub grub and excellent ales at the venerable Turf Tavern (www.theturftavern.co.uk), where Oxford student Bill Clinton famously didn’t inhale.
Among the 35 separate colleges puzzled together to make up both the university and the urban fabric of Oxford, Christ Church (011-44-(0)1865-276-492, www.chch.ox.ac.uk; £4.90) is the largest, most prestigious, and one of the few that makes it easy for non-students to tour (Mon-Sat 9am-5pm). Its chapel doubles as the city’s cathedral (the smallest in Britain), and its picture gallery contains works by Da Vinci and Michelangelo.