Writer and waterways historian Mark Davies reveals how the Thames, and Oxfordshire’s waterside watering holes, have, over the years, inspired generations of authors. With original Yellow Hat Tribe illustrations by Irene Tyack.

Few cities have featured more often than Oxford as a setting for fiction. But then, few cities have accommodated quite so many individuals — albeit sometimes for only three or four undergraduate years — possessed of the necessary opportunity and ability.

No particularly strong plot is apparent in most ‘Oxford novels’ — the normal pattern of these many 19th- and early 20th-century books is simply to follow the experiences of a young and inexperienced scholar, and allow the quirkiness of academic Oxford — as alien and mysterious to most readers as the Tropics or the Moon — to dictate its own storylines.

But ‘boys will be boys’ — although of course, Oxford varsity boys are always dubbed ‘men’ —and misbehaviour of some kind is an obligatory ingredient. Inevitably, and in a timeless scenario as true today as it ever was, alcohol plays its part.

This is sometimes due to the copious amounts of usually expensive vintages consumed behind college walls — sometimes, in contravention of college regulations, in one of Oxford’s many public houses, and sometimes on outings on the Thames.

The river is often incorporated as the setting either for an outing to the renowned downstream picnic-spot of Nuneham, or for the competitive excitement of the Eights’ Week rowing races. One riverside public house which is therefore often included, and portrayed with consistent affection, is The King’s Arms at Sandford.

To take one of the earliest tales set on the river, in Peter Priggens the College Scout (1841) by Joseph Hewlett, several undergraduates row to Sandford one evening to take dinner at The King’s Arms, which was ‘in those days as celebrated for its home-brewed and freshwater fish dinners, under the superintendence of the landlady, Mrs Davis’.

With the scholars went one Stephen Davis (a real Oxford boatman whose importance in guiding rowing from a minor Oxford pastime to the pre-eminent Oxford sport is immense).

Davis appears in other tales in this collection, and more Oxford fiction besides. In this story, however, he is depicted as getting so drunk that he has to be rowed back home, while the students get into a drunken altercation over a game of skittles with some ‘snobs’ (townsmen) from the adjacent mill, then stagger back via Littlemore, committing various acts of vandalism en route.

Another visitor to The King’s Arms was Tom Brown, fresh from Rugby School, whose very first solo outing, on a day when ‘the river was as full as it could be without overflowing its banks’, almost ended in disaster when his boat was swept over the lasher (weir) just above Sandford Lock.

Earlier, Tom had safely negotiated Iffley Lock, and, ‘rejoicing in this feat, he stopped at the island, and recreated himself with a glass of beer’. The island in question was Rose (or Kennington or St Michael’s) Island, the private house seen there today having formerly been a public one called The Swan Inn.

Lewis Carroll, for whom the river was an enormous influence on the creation of the ‘Alice’ books, stopped here for ginger-beer and lemonade on the first known river trip he took with any of the Liddell girls, Alice’s older sister Edith, in 1856.

Tom Brown was rescued from drowning at Sandford by a more experienced oarsman, who steered over the lasher in pursuit. They celebrated Tom’s narrow escape with ‘a glass of ale’ at ‘the little inn by Sandford lock’. Despite this scare, Tom becomes part of his college’s crew.

Later, on training rows down to Nuneham, they tended to halt at the same pub, and, ‘after stopping at the bar to lay hands on several pewters full of porter, passed through the house into the quoit and skittle-grounds behind’. This reflects the author Thomas Hughes’ real experiences of rowing on the Thames in the 1840s.

In Memoir of a Brother, he recalls that the crews of which his brother George was captain used to halt for half-an-hour at either Sandford or Iffley, where, in contrast to the rest of the crew, George ‘would generally sit quiet, and watch the skittles, wrestling, quoits, or feats of strength which were going on all about’.

At Iffley, the pub in question would have been The Isis Tavern, now The Isis Farmhouse. Despite its position overlooking the start of the Eights’ races, it features hardly at all in Oxford fiction, although a passing, unflattering, reference does occur in Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night (1935), when Peter Wimsey and his soon-to-be fiancée Harriet Vane take a punt down the Cherwell, resolutely adopting a ‘pre-War standard of watermanship, manners and dress’. When they reach the confluence of the Cherwell with the Thames, the malodorous nature of the nearby Corporation garbage dump compels Wimsey to accelerate, stating: ‘The Isis for me. There is no romance left on this river.’ It is presumably the River Isis he meant rather than the pub of that name, but they nonetheless continue down the river to Iffley, where they are provided with a sub-standard meal.

The Cherwell is featured much less often in Oxford fiction than the much more famous Thames (or Isis), and its one remaining waterside pub likewise. Indeed, even when The Victoria Arms at Marston is included, in Renée Haynes’ 1928 Neapolitan Ice, it is more by allusion than direct reference , when Sylvia Verney — simultaneously breaking the mould of five centuries of male authors of ‘Oxford novels’ and of male undergraduate protagonists – walks there with her friend Crispin.

To cross the river, they take the ferry from which the pub’s earlier name of The Ferry Inn derived.

Back on the Thames, upstream of Oxford, lies The Trout at Godstow, a favourite destination for countless generations of Oxford residents, visitors, and undergraduates, not to mention a certain fictional detective of more recent times — E Morse, of course.

D L Murray set a fatal encounter from his Georgian novel Folly Bridge (1945) at Godstow Nunnery, the result of an eloped couple having secreted themselves at The Trout.

An oblique reference to the to The Trout’s age-old reputation at more or less the time which Murray describes comes in the lengthy poem The Village Curate (1797), where James Hurdis writes of ‘My evening voyage, an unskilful sail, To Godstow bound, or some inferior port, For strawberries and cream.

One-hundred years later, Gascoigne Mackie, in Charmides captured the timeless appeal of the place: ‘An Inn with willow bowers: - it is a spot Where still the flavour of old Merry England Lingers: And softly flowed the silver Thames.’ The Trout features too in one of the most famous of all fictional stories of Oxford, Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), which is set in 1923. After Charles Ryder’s first visit to Brideshead House, he and Sebastian Flyte stop at The Trout and walk back to Oxford along the river. In so doing the two men would have passed near The Perch, which, although much less lauded than The Trout in fiction, has certainly enjoyed the custom of many famous writers.

An episode based on fact is described in Warrior Bard: William Morris by Edward and Stephani Godwin. It tells of a walk made by Morris and Edward Burne Jones to Wytham in the spring of 1854.

‘Let’s stop at the Perch and drink a bottle of red wine – they have fine old Stilton, too, as a rule’, Morris is portrayed as saying.

But there is a hint too of why respectable Oxford men might consistently have preferred The Trout: ‘The air inside the dark, low-ceilinged parlour was conscious with hoary ancients, so they carried their bottle and cheese out to a seat in the garden.’ C S Lewis’s diary records that he made his first visit to Binsey on November 21, 1922, and in later years The Perch became a favourite destination for Lewis.

It seems likely too that another ‘Inkling’, JRR Tolkien, had the place in mind when he included the ‘Golden Perch’ in The Fellowship of the Ring (1954). Another literary giant known to have frequented The Perch (and, sad to say, far too many other pubs in addition!) is Dylan Thomas, who was often to be seen there with his wife and children on Sunday mornings while the Welsh poet was living in South Leigh in the late 1940s.

Closer to the city is the waterside pub of The Waterman’s Arms at Osney. A pub where the author and poet John Wain liked to drink, it is incorporated into his trilogy of novels which follow the fortunes of an undergraduate unlike any other in the long list of fictional students.

Because Peter Leonard was from Oxford, and working class Oxford at that, having been born at the pub renamed in the opening book, Where The Rivers Meet (1988), as The Bargeman’s Arms. Peter’s father’s connections — inevitably he sold Morrell’s beers at his pub — gain Peter a vacation job at the Morrell’s brewery in St Thomas’ parish, the hub of Oxford’s historical brewing activity, and the location therefore of many a pub.

Unlike the others so far referred to, these were ‘town’ pubs, of course, and therefore generally out-of-bounds for scholars and treated by invariably ‘gown’ authors as either unsavoury, unruly, or unsafe.

The Nag’s Head on Hythe Bridge Street, now named The Oxford Retreat, is a case in point. This pub, a favourite of river bargemen and canal boatmen, was selected as a favourite by Ryder and Flyte in Brideshead when they ‘formed the taste for lower company’. Evelyn Waugh was writing from experience, having liked the place himself as an undergraduate in 1924.

Finally, despite the many changes St Thomas’s parish has undergone, it is pleasing that a pub remains which features in the very earliest example of the ‘Oxford novel’ genre.

The pub’s name now is The Brewery Gate, situated adjacent to the Thames backstream called the Wareham Stream, on which the now-defunct Morrell’s brewery was dependant for its water supply. Formerly called the Shoulder of Mutton, the pub was notorious as probably the last in Oxford to host badger baiting, in the 1850s.

But it was ‘scholar baiting’ that the unknown author of The Adventures of Oxymel Classic Esq, which was published in 1768, attributed to it. When Oxymel and his collegiate friends run into trouble with some bargeman on the river, they set off for St Thomas’ intent on revenge. Finding that ‘the foe was lodged, to a considerable number, at the Shoulder of Mutton, an house of no very honourable reputation’, they enter, somewhat unwisely, and mayhem ensues.

Thankfully, nowadays students, townspeople, and visitors can drink under the same roof safe from the imminent danger of fisticuffs!

Mark Davies is a freelance writer, publisher, guide, and speaker with a special interest in the history and literature of the city’s waterways and the adjacent suburbs. www.oxfordwaterwalks.co.uk.