Cotswold Ways Walk: Dreaming spires and rabbit holes in Oxford
PUBLISHED: 11:56 10 September 2020 | UPDATED: 15:16 10 September 2020
Walk in the footsteps of Lewis Carroll and visit the inspiration for Alice in Wonderland amid the historic water meadows of Oxford
One idyllic afternoon in early July, 1862, the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson rowed towards Godstow with his friend Robinson Duckworth (also a man of the cloth) and three VIP passengers – Lorina, Alice, and Edith Liddell, the young daughters of the Dean of Christchurch. To pass the time, the girls asked for a story and Dodgson happily obliged, conjuring a tale of three children – Elsie, Lacie, and Tillie – who lived at the bottom of the ‘treacle well’ (a landmark in St Margaret’s churchyard, Binsey). The story so delighted the girls that the Reverend was encouraged to write it down – which he did under the pen-name of Lewis Carroll – and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born, presented to the eponymous Alice in a hand-written and self-illustrated manuscript in 1864 and published the following year.
The history of St Margaret’s goes back alot further, to the Saxon Saint Frideswide (who was said to have created the healing spring with her prayers), and the strange bumps and tumps of Port Meadow even further, to the Bronze Age. With the dreaming spires of the ancient university city of Oxford rising across the slowly winding waters of Old Father Thames, a walk around Binsey and Port Meadow is an evocative one – with a nunnery at one end and a pub at the other, both the secular and sacred needs are catered for. Take a picnic hamper, a copy of Alice, and go looking for Wonderland. On a summer’s day it is easy to imagine it very close by in such a magical spot, eulogised by the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as a ‘sweet especial rural scene’.
1. Starting on Binsey green, go through the metal gate and take the pale, gravelly path heading East across the field to the river.
2. When you get to the river (here called the Isis) turn right, passing Medley Sailing Club and Bossom’s boatyard.
3. Cross over the footbridge to the far side of the river via the long thin island. Enjoy the colourful boats and sparkling water.
4. Take the footpath branching left across the meadow in a north-easterly direction.
5. Head to the corner of the Trap Ground allotments.
6. Follow the edge of the allotments and the common, pushing north, past Burgess Field.
7.On your left, 19 prehistoric sites have been discovered (Bronze Age burial mounds, an Iron Age settlement) the most significant being Round Hill. Beneath the unploughed meadow are the foundations of 17th-century fortifications from the Parliamentary siege of Oxford during the English Civil War.
8. Leaving the edge of Burgess Field keep heading north until you come to an Oxford City Boundary Stone, dated 1886. Another stands by the Godstow Rd carpark.
9. Continue north, and follow the edge of what is now Wolvercote Common left on the other side of the allotments.
10. Proceed to the parking area (toilets!). Look out for bolshy geese – they can be territorial, especially of interpretation boards!
11. Past the car park you come to the lane (Godstow Rd), take this left to the picturesque watering hole, The Trout, and the charming bridge that runs by it, affording lovely views over the weir (watch for traffic on this narrow stretch).
12. Cross the bridge, and take the first gap on your left, down to the river bank and follow that south.
13. On your right should be the ruins of the 12th Century Godstow Abbey. Have a wander round its peaceful interior. Here St Frideswide lived (the legend is she was chased by Aelfgar, King of the Mercians, to the site of St Margaret’s. Run to ground there, she prayed for a miracle – the first blinded her pursuer, the second cured him as a ‘treacle well’ of healing fluid bubbled up as she prayed). It is also the burial place of Rosamund Clifford, mistress of Henry II.
14. Past Godstow Lock follow the charming tree-lined riverside path south. You’ll be thankful of their shade on a hot summer’s day, but it is worth contemplating Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–1889) famous poem of 1879, ‘Binsey Poplars’, written after the felling of a row of poplar trees here:
All felled, felled, are all felled;
Of a fresh and following folded rank
Not spared, not one
That dandled a sandalled
Shadow that swam or sank
On meadow and river and wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
15. Keep winding and wandering until you come to the rear entrance of The Perch. This is a tempting moment for a cool drink and perhaps lunch, or you can push on to St Margaret’s and reward yourself afterwards. Depends how virtuous or thirsty you are feeling!
16. Walk through the beer garden of The Perch.
17. Back on the village green head right past the row of houses along the narrow lane.
18. This will take you (eventually) to St Margaret’s – it is well worth the effort, literally, as in the corner of the churchyard, to the left of the church, you’ll find the stone well dedicated to St Margeret: St Frideswide’s treacle well, and the original rabbit hole! Waggish students would take visitors in search of the ‘treacle mines’ of Binsey, but the well was declared lost in 1850. 7 years later, the Reverend Prout rediscovered and restored it with the archway and stone steps. 5 years later, a famous boating party made pilgrimage to it and the rest is (literary) history.
19.Note the rose-adorned tombstone to Mary Ann Prickett – she was the governess of the Liddell girls, and they nicknamed her ‘Pricks’, so she must have been a bit thorny! She was the inspiration for the formidable Red Queen. Curiously, the site of the church used to be known as Thornbury.
20. Return along the lane to Binsey where refreshments await you if you have deferred gratification!
Need to know:
Distance: 8.70km / 5.40ml walk
Level: Moderate fitness/mobility required. Suitable footwear essential.
Time: 2-3 hrs
Pub: The Perch Inn, Binsey, Oxford, OX2 0NG T: 01865 728891
Alternative: The Trout Inn, 195 Godstow Road, Wolvercote, Oxford OX2 8PN, T: 01865 510930
Public transport: Buses from Oxford city centre to Binsey.
Parking: Binsey (also car parks north end OX2 8PU & south end OX2 6ED of Port Meadow).