I was having lunch with Liz K, talking about the joys of Bristol Botanical Gardens when she said “If you want to see a great botanical garden, go to Oxford” and that’s just what I did. It was a magnificent day, beautiful sunshine, hot, just the sort of day to walk in a garden. And they had a tea towel. I love this tea towel; it is based on a 1675 engraving by David Loggan of the Physick Garden (now known as the Botanic Gardens). The original engraving, together with others of views of the city and Oxford Colleges, is held in one of the college libraries. It is a really unusual tea towel and a great reminder of a day out which I thoroughly enjoyed.
The Oxford Botanic Gardens offers free entrance to all Oxford University students and lecturers. I cannot think of a better ‘perk’ in Oxford than to be able to spend a few quiet hours each week wandering around the gardens, reading a book, eating my sandwiches or just watching the world go by. While the Oxford Botanic Gardens are on a main road into the centre of Oxford, you cannot hear traffic, there are no crowds and there is just an air of tranquillity. When I visited, it was clearly exam time because students were wandering around in their academic gowns, loitering outside the Examination Centre and others were in the gardens with their heads buried in books, presumably doing last minute revision.
Around the edge of the Botanic Gardens runs the River Cherwell (pronounced Charwell), a tributary of the River Thames (or Isis as it is sometimes known in Oxford). Rowing takes place on the River Thames and punting on the River Cherwell. There are benches along the footpath that runs alongside the Cherwell; places to sit and watch punting (For those unfamiliar, a punt is a long flat boat that is propelled by means of a pole pushed against the river bed). This can be just relaxing or hilarious where inexperienced punters struggle, making the classic mistake of holding on to the pole too long before removing it from the river bottom and nearly being dragged off the punt into the river. Another mistake is punting in an uneven manner and thereby losing direction, swivelling and swerving in the water. I watched at least three punts collide with each other, with passengers forever apologising.
As I watched this, I was unexpectedly taken back to 1971 and my first visit to Oxford. I had forgotten all about that visit. 45 years ago; it’s strange with memories how one can spring into your mind and then others rapidly come flooding back. I was at school with Henry Cleary. He was a good friend of mine but unlike most of the other boys, in that he didn’t play sport – no rugby, no cricket, he didn’t even watch sport but he did have one particular passion in life which was railways. He was fanatical about them; had hundreds of books about them, knew more facts about them than I’ve had hot dinners. I learned never to talk about ‘gauges’ because that would be the end of any further conversation, just a lecture. He wasn’t a ‘trainspotter’ as such; it was an all round interest which included the ambition to travel on every railway line in Britain. He loved stations, railway memorabilia and much more. Dr Beeching, who closed many railway lines in the early 1960s, was his nemesis. The growth of road travel, and with many railway lines unprofitable, Dr Beeching was asked to produce a report with recommendations on the restructuring of the railway system; in 1960 there were 18,000 miles of railway track and he recommended cutting 6000 miles along with closing 2363 stations. There was a lot of protest and some lines were saved. The poet John Betjemin was a leading campaigner. I think I’d always imagined that Henry would end up working on a Heritage Railway Line in his spare time; I wonder if he did.
Henry read history at Christ Chuch College in Oxford and at the end of his exams in his first year he invited me to visit him in Oxford. Oxford University was steeped in tradition at that time; he lived in shared accommodation within in the college. Shared accommodation at Swansea University, where I studied, meant sharing a bedroom; in Christ Church it meant an ‘apartment’ with two single rooms and a shared lounge with large leather sofas and a small kitchenette. I remember the large poster on the lounge wall with all the railway lines in Britain, including those closed by Dr Beeching. It was covered in red lines, indicating the railway lines Henry had already travelled on. He had done some fair mileage; I imagine after 45 years he has probably completed that odyssey.
Meals were taken in the Dining Hall with all the students in full university gowns. I was invited as a guest to take sherry (I hate sherry) and then dine. The meal was good and to think tax payers subsidised all that!! Henry had booked me into a Guest House that college students used for their guests (no guests stayed in the college rooms!). It was immaculately clean. However…….I had never slept on nylon sheets before, and I can honestly say that I never have again (and never will). This was a very hot June, at the height of the hay fever season; I was a very bad hay fever sufferer. I was already starting to show symptoms and had been taking my Piriton but one night on nylon sheets and I’d thought I was going to die. Coughing, sore throat, difficulty breathing, runny nose. It was awful and in the morning I looked as though I had stuck my fingers in an electric plug; my hair was alive with electricity and my eyes were so swollen I could hardly see out of them. On the second night I slept on a bare mattress and covered myself in just a yellow candlewick bedcover (no duvets in those days). It certainly reduced the electricity charging through my body.
On the second day, Henry wanted to take me out on a punt; I thought this was a great idea since I had no idea what a punt was or what it would mean. What I didn’t take into consideration was that the River Cherwell flowed through the grassy meadows of Oxford, overhung with trees (and tree blossom). You could almost feel the weight of the pollen. By this time, the sneezing had started and my eyes were becoming very sore and swollen. Sneezing in a punt is not the safest of activities and is certainly uncomfortable. Henry was very skilled at punting, much better than some of the people I’d seen from the bench in the Botanic Gardens; if it hadn’t been for the pollen it would have been thoroughly enjoyable. We then went for a walk around Christ Church Meadows – more sun, more pollen and breathing was becoming painful. So why did I go along with it? Why didn’t I ‘come clean’? Why didn’t I say I had hay fever and ask if we could sit in a cool, dark room? Because at 19 I wanted to appear ‘cool’, sophisicated; I was slightly intimidated by this more sophisticated lifestyle, more sophisticated than I experienced at Swansea University. I didn’t want him to think I was a wimp but, at one point, I did think I was going to have to go to hospital. Fortunately, as the day clouded over, the pollen count dropped dramatically. On thinking about this, there is no way he couldn’t have realised I was suffering because I must have looked awful. Why didn’t he suggest going indoors?
The strange thing is that I don’t remember meeting up with Henry again; for a while we kept in touch by letter and the odd postcard (remember those days before email? Ah those were the days). I often wonder what happened to Henry; I have often thought that I might see him one day, on one of the many journeys I take on a steam train (see Blog dated 13/4/16). After 45 years would I recognise him? Almost certainly not, but I can still remember a tall, slim man with jet black hair and stout shoes in an Oxford gown who showed me around Oxford.
I had sat long enough reminiscing about my trip to Oxford and continued on the tour of the Oxford Botanic Garden. There was a lovely pale pink climbing rose on one of the old walls and a very full wisteria hanging above a bench which had a memorial plate enscribed ‘To Charlotte…..who was just learning the names of the plants’ – a little girl aged 3, sad but a nice memorial. There were huge urns, manicured lawns, great glasshouses, some ‘forced’ rhubarb under terracotta pots and much more. It was a lovely day out bringing forth some good memories and every time I use this tea towel I will remember them.
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