Author and historian Mark Davies follows in the footsteps of Charles Dodgson and his young companions on the trips along the River Thames which inspired a famous book.

The Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of ‘wonderland’ is, unambiguously, ‘a land or place full of wonderful things’. It is a term which might therefore be aptly applied to the River Thames in the vicinity of Oxford, where ‘wonderful things’, both natural and manmade, abound, and other ‘wonderful things’ can occur around every gentle meander or mysterious bend.

Yet the river also reveals glimpses of another, more specific wonderland — that of Alice’s famous adventures.

A century-and-a-half ago the Oxford don Charles Dodgson (better known as the author Lewis Carroll) enjoyed frequent rowing trips with Alice Liddell and her sisters on the river up and downstream of Oxford, and clues to the specific riverside inspiration for many well-known episodes and characters can still be discerned.

In the first place, it was on the bank of the Thames near Godstow, some three miles north of Oxford, that the phenomenon of ‘Alice’ had its birth. Here it was, on Friday, July 4, 1862, that Carroll enjoyed a picnic with the Liddell sisters, when Alice was aged ten, Ina was 13, and Edith eight.

He entertained them with impromptu stories, as he had on many other occasions, but this day became enshrined in the history of children’s literature as the one when Alice persuaded him to write the stories down for her.

On the journey to Godstow, Carroll and the girls would have passed within sight of Binsey, a hamlet of a dozen or so houses on the western side of the Thames. The place was familiar to Carroll through his life-long friendship with another Christ Church don, Thomas Prout, who was the vicar.

It was Prout who in 1874 restored a well in the graveyard which had been revered for centuries as the site of the spring miraculously summoned by Oxford’s patron saint, Frideswide, early in the eighth century.

The reputed healing properties of the well’s waters attracted huge numbers of pilgrims, and it is this well to which the Dormouse refers at the ‘Mad Tea-Party’ in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (published 1865). The notion of a treacle well seems at first preposterous, yet is based on an early meaning of the word as a healing liquid or medicine.

So there was indeed a treacle well at Binsey, and the fictional Alice — who at first declared: ‘There is no such thing!’ — was wise eventually to admit that ‘I dare say there may be one’.

As the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, Alice Liddell enjoyed many privileges in her life. One such was to have as a tutor the famous and influential artist, and patron of artists, John Ruskin (1819–1900). Alice evidently reaped the benefit.

She became an accomplished amateur artist, and her skill as a wood-carver is displayed today in Osney’s church of St Frideswide. Appropriately enough the scene shows Oxford’s patron saint arriving at Binsey by boat, prior to the events which led to the miracle of the ‘treacle well’.

Below Osney Lock the Thames flows eastwards as far as Iffley. At Folly Bridge, today and in Carroll’s time, Salter Brothers dominate the boating scene, and are the most likely source of the rowing boats in which Carroll regularly entertained the girls over a period of seven years, from 1856 to 1863.

A short distance from Folly Bridge is 83 St Aldate’s, the only real Oxford location which can be identified from the illustrations Sir John Tenniel provided for both books.

The chapter in Looking-Glass (published 1872) called ‘Wool and Water’ is an episode as apparently illogical as any, with a sheep as a shopkeeper and an unexplained transformation of the scene from the shop interior to a river.

But again, logic lurks within the apparent fantasy: Oxford’s age-old vulnerability to flooding. In December 1852, Carroll’s second winter as an Oxford undergraduate, the city suffered a particularly severe flood.

The London Illustrated News reported that ‘The Cherwell and Isis are, in extent, more like seas than rivers’ and noted numerous drowned carcasses, including those of sheep.

Another account tells of the discomfort of ‘those Christ Church men whose ground-floor rooms were towards the meadows’.

If the waters reached as far as Christ Church, then ‘Alice’s Shop’, at the bottom end of St Aldate’s, would certainly have been flooded that winter, and doubtless on many other occasions too. The ‘plaintive tone’ of the sheep saying ‘Things flow about so here!’ surely echoed the laments of many a flood-affected Oxford resident of the time!

Carroll was an avid walker all his life, and his diary has many references to walking in Christ Church Meadow and elsewhere by the river with the Liddell girls.

Alice recalled these walks in later years, remembering also that a ‘special pleasure was to be allowed to take Rover out for a walk’.

Rover was a retriever belonging to a well-known Oxford tailor, called Randall, who lived in a house built on arches over the Isis. Thomas Randall’s home, Grandpont House, still stands opposite Christ Church Meadow.

He was indeed a tailor (and a famous one at that) but preferred himself the designation ‘hatter’.

Carroll never positively identified any of the real-life inspirations for his characters, but from his acquaintanceship with Alice and various other clues, Thomas Randall does seem a very likely model for the Hatter, arguably the most iconic of all of Carroll’s creations.

One-and-a-half miles below Folly Bridge is the lock at Iffley. This was the destination on the first outing that Alice is known to have taken on the river with Carroll, on May 26, 1862 — although she undoubtedly did accompany him on earlier, unrecorded, trips too. (Carroll’s diaries for the period April 1858 to May 1862 are missing.) Meanwhile, the first river trip that Carroll made with any of the Liddell family, on June 5, 1856, was to Rose Island, a little farther on. He rowed Alice’s older brother, Harry, and sister, Ina, to the island that day, where they bought gingerbread and lemonade at The Swan Inn (now a private house).

The episode of ‘The Pool of Tears’ in Wonderland was inspired by what happened at Sandford on June 17, 1862. We know from Carroll’s diary that he had gone out rowing that day with the three girls and Robinson Duckworth of Trinity, and that two of his sisters were also part of the party.

As they neared Sandford Lock it started to pour with rain, forcing them to abandon the boat and seek shelter at the home of the Sandford schoolteacher (pictured), Mrs Boughton, with whom Carroll was acquainted.

The downpour of rain is commemorated in Wonderland by way of Alice’s tears, which are so copious that several animals are in danger of drowning in the salty pool. Some of these animals are clearly identified from the journey of that day — the Dodo is Carroll (as an abbreviation of ‘Dodgson’), the Duck is Duckworth, and the Lory and Eaglet represent Alice’s sisters Lorina (Ina) and Edith.

In Wonderland this episode concludes with everyone getting dry by running the Caucus-race. Carroll’s original handwritten manuscript (not published until 1887, as Alice’s Adventures Under Ground) adhered much more closely to the reality of the day: the Dodo leads the way ‘to a little cottage, and there they sat snugly by the fire, wrapped in blankets, until the rest of the party had arrived, and they were all dry again’.

Nuneham, some six miles downstream from Oxford, was a favourite destination for picnic parties during the 19th century, thanks to the public-spirited attitude of the owners, the Harcourt family.

Alice recalled in 1932, at the age of 80, that one of her ‘favourite whole-day excursions was to row down to Nuneham, and picnic in the woods there’ where Carroll would sometimes tell ‘stories after luncheon that transported us into Fairyland’.

The excursion to Nuneham on June 25, 1863 turned out to be the last that Carroll ever took with the girls.

Rather than row back, as they normally did, Carroll was permitted for the first and only time to travel back on the train alone with the three girls.

One of the abiding mysteries in the real-life story of Alice Liddell and Lewis Carroll is why, after what Carroll had evidently thought of as a highly enjoyable day, the next few pages of his diary were removed after his death, and why no further boat outings took place.

Whatever, there is no doubt that over those eight summers of 1856 to 1863 the river trips provided the ideal circumstances and inspiration for Carroll’s imaginative story-telling.

The tales which had their printed genesis at Godstow, at the upper range of the river trips, concluded for ever at the downstream extremity of Nuneham. Carroll’s imagination was not inhibited, as the books themselves followed some years later, but with that final trip to Nuneham in June 1863, the role of the Thames as Alice’s ‘water-wonderland’ was over and for Carroll it was, in the words of the White Knight, ‘the end of my move’!

Mark Davies is a freelance writer, publisher, walking-guide, and speaker with a special interest in the history and literature of the city’s waterways and adjacent suburbs. His most recent book is Alice in Waterland: Lewis Carroll and the River Thames in Oxford, praised in The Oxford Times as “a lovely book, simultaneously scholarly and fun”.