Friday, September 22, 2006

Boat dwellers, horse dealers and alchemists

It's a watery, raffish, amiable, trickster-like world of boat dwellers and horse dealers and alchemists. The character of this part of Oxford is very ancient, quite unmistakable, entirely unique. (Phillip Pullman)

I love the curious world of Jericho and the Oxford Canal. It's a window into another existence quite separate from the pomp and circumstance of the academic buildings and university streets. It still has a fairytale feel to it, but a darker, more sinister one that gives you goosebumps. You can tell that ghosts prowl the terraced streets of Jericho.

As you move towards the canal, away from the trendy bars and resturants of Walton Street, walls start to crumble and weeds weave inbetween the iron gates and the cracks in the pavement. The sky is dominated by the romanesque tower of St Barnabas Church (1860), built in concern for the spiritual welfare of the new community which was developing around the university press.

The canal itself is a centre for a large community of people who live on boats. The setting is not far from the picture of gypsie boat-dwellers that Phillip Pullman paints in His Dark Materials Trilogy. One thing I love to do is to walk along the towpath and see the curious little alchemy boat yard site - wonky old buildings, rickety-looking stables that have been there for over 100 years. And, people use them, and work them - it's a useful place. Sadly it looks as if the boat yard is going to be wiped out in a bid to build 47 luxury flats which would earn up to £2m instant profit for British Waterways. I don't think the ghosts would be very happy with that.

The true glory of Jericho however is Oxford's most ancient, and most beautiful monument - Port Meadow. Older than the university and any building in Oxford these 400 acres of common land have never been ploughed and are home to a population of grass, thistles, ponies, cattle and geese. Every year a medieval custom takes place where the Sheriff of Oxford, and his followers, drive all animals off the meadow and into a pound. This is supposed to be a 'top-secret operation', so that owners without grazing rights cannot remove their animals at the last minute and escape a fine. But most years, news leaks out and many animals suddenly vanish before the Sheriff's arrival.


No comments: