15 November 2011


Remembering an old haunt...


In my opinion, the best fish and chips in Oxford are to be found, well, just a few kilometers outside the shire, in Lower Wolvercote, at The Trout Inn. One can easily get there by car, but those of us without such transportation went by foot through wild fields along the Isis. It's a bit of a walk, but a scenic one, and what is better than breathing in the brisk air of a British summer's day with the sun beating warmly on one's back and one's feet tramping lightly over grassy paths, the stomach rumbling with the anticipation of an imminent hot repast and cold drink?

From the city, one need only find the Thames Footpath. As you start to leave Oxford behind, you'll come across a boatyard and the red Medley Footbridge, from whose small height you can look down into the shallow greenish water with algae-covered pebbles beneath. Behind is the narrow, tree-lined Thames (or Isis, as it is called flowing through Oxfordshire), and stretching forward, where one's future lies, the river broadens out onto flat, grassy plains overhung with cloudless skies: Port Meadow beckons.

Aerial view of Port Meadow

One can tramp for the next mile or so in silence, encountering nothing more than trees, hedges, blackberry bushes, and the occasional grazing cow or wild horse. At the right time of year, one can purple one's hands and fill one's basket with mounds of ripening blackberries, to be brought home and made into a tart berry cobbler (Devonshire clotted cream optional, though recommended).

After some pleasant meanderings, one soon approaches signs of civilization in the form of Godstow Lock, the last electrically-operated lock on the Thames, and a welcome portent indicating the coming approach of one's destination. But patience! Distances remain to be trod and sights yet remain to be seen.

Passing the lock and continuing on the footpath, all becomes lonely and grassy again. It's easy to fall into the temptation of looking down as one walks and observing the yellow pebbles, wildflowers, and white dust of the path; but if one lifts up one's head, one will begin to see, slowly, slowly, in the foreground, rising from the tangled green lawn, a heap of stones arranged in a disheveled quad, with fragmented walls trailing off into turf. These are the remains of Godstow Abbey, built in 1133, home to Benedectine nuns for four hundred years, and suppressed--as so many other convents and monasteries throughout England, Wales, and Ireland--in 1539. The claims are that the abbey had a reputation for license and self-indulgence, but considering the manifold lies propagated by Henry VIII to justify his mass seizure of Church property (and all its riches), one wonders whether the rumors bear any truth.

The triangular wall of St. Leonard's Chapel juts high above the crumbling mass, its windows intact.

As one wanders the desolate grounds, looking on the tumbling masonry and the rocky partitions overgrown with moss, one will perhaps think of the many lives that passed through these walls, that lived, worshipped, and died here; walking through the chapel that is no more, one might imagine the rustic choir stalls where once the nuns knelt to pray matins on bitterly cold mornings, or gathered at dusk to entreat their Lord on the King's behalf. Standing beneath the east window, one might imagine the stone Altar where previously stood some venerable priest to offer the Holy Sacrifice again and again, or the roughly paved floor where knelt the habited sisters to receive the Sacred Host on their tongue. One might consider the place where once rested the golden Tabernacle housing Our Lord, and the presence lamp casting dim shadows on the cold chapel walls, a flame kept burning daily and nightly for centuries--until the King's men arrived on that dreaded day in the year 1539 to tell the Abbess and the sixteen women in her charge that this was their home no longer. Driven out, with meager pensions, to make their own way in the world as laypersons, one might also consider this scene played hundreds of times over all over that venerable isle made sacred by the blood of past martyrs--and once more incarnadined by the blood that would flow at York, Dorchester, and Tyburn. And one might perhaps recall the words of that resolute Jesuit to his monarch and executioner:
Many innocent hands are lifted up to heaven for you daily by those English students, whose posterity shall never die, which beyond seas, gathering virtue and sufficient knowledge for the purpose, are determined never to give you over, but either to win you heaven, or to die upon your pikes. And touching our Society, be it known to you that we have made a league—all the Jesuits in the world, whose succession and multitude must overreach all the practice of England—cheerfully to carry the cross you shall lay upon us, and never to despair your recovery, while we have a man left to enjoy your Tyburn, or to be racked with your torments, or consumed with your prisons. The expense is reckoned, the enterprise is begun; it is of God; it cannot be withstood. So the faith was planted: So it must be restored!

Returning from our pious reveries, we will recall that here is buried Rosamind Clifford (Fair Rosamund), longtime mistress to King Henry II. She retired to the nunnery shortly before death and was buried here directly (and scandalously) before the altar; a later visiting bishop ordered the "harlot" be moved outside to the grounds.

The Abbey was burnt to the ground in 1645 when the Roundheads laid seige against the city and surrounded Charles I; the Cavaliers had it destroyed to prevent their enemies' shelter here. One naturally sympathizes with the royalists, but it's a shame this ancient edifice was razed, even if at the time it no longer served its holy purpose.

Fastforward some centuries to return to the present, and, walking further along the footpath, we encounter more fields, more fauna, until we see a little bridge crossing the Isis. There, fellow travelers, is the last leg of our brief journey. Traverse the wooden span and one sees across the way the fenced terrace of the Trout Inn, where peacocks wander amidst the legs of dining patrons and the rush of water sounds against the stone embankment. After ordering a pint inside (although the women tend to like the sweet alcoholic cider), one can go back into the sunshine, rest one's weary legs, and await the coming meal.


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