ONE of the great feats of the past was the cross Oxford – underground. Brave souls would get in a small boat in St Ebbe’s, paddle or push their way through the narrow subterranean Trill Mill Stream under St Aldate’s and, if they were lucky, emerge into sunlight in Christ Church Meadow.
Numerous people, including many undergraduates, claim to have completed the hazardous journey – dubbed the Sewer Trip – over the years.
Among those said to have navigated the channel are Charles Dodgson, alias Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland and a maths don at Christ Church, and Lawrence of Arabia, while a student at Jesus College.
One intrepid trio, Simon Davis, Bill Orson and Paul Hubbocks, went well prepared – they took two hurricane lanterns, an axe to kill rats and clear vegetation and a candle in a sea shell holder.
And before setting off from the Christ Church end, they gulped down bottles of strong stout to steady the nerves.
Supporters waited above a manhole cover in Rose Place to find out whether the ‘sailors’ were on course – three knocks and a shout from below proved they were.
An hour later, having overcome obstructions, crouched under pipes and passed floating sewage, the crew emerged triumphant to a Champagne reception.
Ray Godfrey, of Meadow Lane, Oxford, made the journey twice as an 18-year-old.
On the first occasion, he and four friends set sail on an old sea plane float, bought for £7 from a scrapyard, got stuck and with no room to use their paddles, had to force the float along with their hands. Three months later, he and a friend negotiated the stream in a canoe without incident.
Bernard Ottaway, in a letter to the Daily Telegraph, said he completed the journey twice, in 1935 and 1936. On the first occasion, he and a friend canoed downstream in 15 minutes, then returned upstream in 30 minutes.
He wrote: “The temptation when passing under St Aldate’s to push up the manhole cover and appear as a sort of deus ex machine (God from the machine) in reverse was only repressed with difficulty.”
It was said to be a popular afternoon trip for undergraduates, encouraged by tutors who had experienced it themselves.
Other successful ‘sailors’ include girls from Milham Ford School, Alan Trinder, a member of the Civil Defence youth club in St Clement’s, who was astonished at the “number and size of rats we encountered”, and Brian Coates, of Botley, who recalled encountering “bends, pipes, manholes with daylight filtering through and a fall of bricks from the roof”, which meant he and his two friends had to get into the water and lift their canoe over the obstruction.
In the late 1980s, the Riverside Centre at Donnington Bridge advertised a Great Adventure – a re-run of the ‘Sewer Trip’ – but abandoned the idea after the threat of legal action from the city council.
Youth worker David Holmes was told that the passages were “full of methane gas, the roof was unstable and the rats and spiders would eat you alive”.
The channel now has bars at both ends to stop any future ‘voyages’.
Did anyone else tackle the ‘Sewer Trip’?