Sometimes I talk about Oxford as though I was there for a great length of time. I was not. I studied there for a total of six months. However, the challenge of travelling alone to a distant country as a young man indelibly left an impression, as I was still soft as clay. Much of this is from my notes at the time, edited and shined up.
In the spring when the meadows would surge with crisp and lush plant life, you would find countless people along the green fields that were surrounded by the tributaries of the river. The meadow behind Christ Church was closed off by a fence and cows would graze and rest in the gracious sunlight as small blackbirds fluttered about, perhaps chasing the flies. The larger crows would hop about on the ground, pecking at things and enjoying their game. When the cows stood close to the fence you might walk up as if to say hello, not knowing if it would let you pat its head, and when you’d be face to face with the animal you’d realize that no one spends time grooming the cows, and its fur is matted with dirt and chewed cud, and the smell no longer wafted away by the winds. Perhaps you’d reach to give it a pat anyway, with hesitation. Some were more fearful when you approached, and slowly dawdled away, the great bloated beasts on thin, knobby legs that they are, returning to the safety of the others.
If you had been productive and did not have pressing work to do, the day was a gift and you were thankful. Other times the procrastination brought guilt, and the sunlight and the smell of the wet grass in the morning and the sound of the dirt scraping under your step was not deserved. You may feel guilty to not have earned it that day, as though you were stealing it. Perhaps your work ethic is not as closely tied to your moral compass as mine.
Not every day was full of sun and not every day did the people sit atop the grass with their loved ones for a picnic; sometimes the grey came and you would find the meadow to yourself. The grey days gave volume to the sunlight where it would break through; not being a religious person, you find beauty in nature’s existence and you may feel deeply about it. A jogger may pass. Along the main vein of the river the rowers might be practicing. The rowers would sit in their slim boat in a long peapod row, the long oars moving in unison as a small man sat at the far end shouting directions. With the oars always skimming and pushing, the whole beast was like a mosquito killer skimming across the water, neither floating nor swimming, just scraping, and vanishing with such expedience into the fog that nothing was left but the echoes rumbling across the dark green surface and distant shouts of the little man on the tip of the boat. And then nothing.
One morning, at the river’s edge, there sat an old couple on a bench with their dog running about, and on the other side, across perhaps 60 feet of water, there stood some younger, perhaps somewhat inebriated men. One yelled to the old couple, “‘AVE YOU GOT A LIGHT?”
The old man responded at the top of his voice, “How you gonna get it?!”
After a moment’s reflection, the young man pointed to a bridge about half a mile away. Another minute passed. Then he yelled, “CAN YOUR DOG SWIM?”
The smaller arm of the river on the opposite side of the meadow that ran along up to Magdalen College was where the punting took place.
A punt is a long, flat boat, curved along the bottom in a wide, flat scoop, largely flat along the sides, leading to a square-cut bow at the front and back that cut over the water rather than through it, like a wing. It is the size of a canoe and can hold three or four people. The punter stands on the back side with a long, metal pole with no rudder or fin of any kind, and propels the boat by pushing the pole against the silty riverbed
I was invited by a couple of girls to go on their punting adventure; of course, I had no experience and was eager to see what would happen when I stood on the narrow ledge of the boat and tried to navigate. Would I fall into the murky green depths of the stream? How deep was the water anyway?
A man at the punting docks gave me a brief tutorial; the main point was to not drop the pole into the water, and to return on time. All right! Bon voyage and via con dios.
The girls climbed into the boat and I stood at the flat, rear precipice and took the long metal pole. I was thinly built, more than I am now, and the pole was quite heavy. Indeed, I could feel the weight of the hard wooden boat clonking against the other punts at the dock, and clumsily managed to exit and turn right, under the bridge, under High Street, towards the wider stream waters.
You would grip the pole and lunge it downward to the bottom of the river. Sometimes the waters would run deeper than you would expect and you would be startled when five feet of the metal ran through your fingers in a controlled descent. You would feel the metal scrape and clang against rocks at the dark bottom. Other times it would plunge into silt and mud and there would be some mudsuck when you pulled it back.
I quickly learned how to navigate the boat and was happy. One thrust would propel the punt and we’d cruise for a bit, and then I’d thrust the pole down into the water again, and lift it up out of the water when we wanted to minimize the drag. The pole was also a rudder; after plunging it down against the riverbed you would leave it submerged, and could turn the boat left and right by dragging the pole in the water at the rear of the boat.
The girls had their turn. I pulled to the side where there was a stone wall embankment along one part of the river with large, stone steps. We traded places I lounged in the boat. They too figured out how to propel the boat but I arrogantly liked to think their nautical navigational skills were not quite as refined as my new found proclivity for the waters.
From the bed of the skiff I watched the light through the trees and skimmed the water with my finger tips, and found countless leaves and flower petals floating across its surface from the gentle brushing winds overhead. Occasionally a goose would pass or some ducks. One duck came close and I reached out to it, and it splashed up from the water as if to mount my arm like a parrot. It simply plopped back into the water and we laughed.
Soon after both girls had tried to navigate the punt, we found that we only had a few minutes before we were due to return to the dock at Magdalen College. We traded places and I again stood at the back with the long metal pole. I wanted to see how fast we could go and threw the lance into the water’s depths, and thrust it out, and threw it again against the riverbed, and we quickly gained surprising speed and could cruise for great lengths. When another boat came close I’d dip the pole into the water to turn gently away. We had drifted quite far from Magdalen; indeed, we weren’t sure which of the small tributaries to take, but I luckily made the correct turns and we found ourselves headed again towards the bridge that ran over High Street. We had some time to spare and took a few pictures.
Finally back at the dock I navigated the punt through a maze of other boats and we disembarked safely. I should have, I suppose, “parked” in reverse so that the next punters would find themselves forthright as they departed, but I hadn’t yet learned the art of navigating a boat in reverse and was happy to leave on a high note.
The sun was hot and the day humid, and I was thoroughly wet from the river water that splashed back from the metal pole, and I was tired and happy.