Waking up to another day of sunshine, we decided to visit Brill to the west of Oxford. It is generally thought that Tolkien was inspired by this picturesque village to create Bree, which plays a central role in both "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings"Tolkien loved languages and he used the name Bree from "hill" in Brythonic, a Celtic language, referring to the fact that the village of Bree and the surrounding Bree-lands were centred around a large hill.Bree was the chief village in Bree-land in Middle-earth, east of The Shire and south of Fornost Erain. Bree-land was the only part of Middle-earth where Men and hobbits dwelt side by side. The hill was burrowed with hobbit-holes housing a large population of hobbits. In "The Hobbit", Bree is where Gandalf and Thorin met and discussed the problem of the Dragon Smaug in the Lonely Mountain. This led to the Quest of Erebor where Bilbo Baggins recovered the One Ring. This in turn set in motion the epic adventure of "The Lord of the Rings". In The Prancing Pony, the largest inn in Bree, Frodo Baggins met Strider (Aragorn in disguise) and was forced on the run by the Ringwraiths. During the War of the Ring, Bree fell on hard times but we learn that upon their return, Frodo and his companions assure the inhibitants that King Aragorn II will venture north to restore order and prosperity.On this sunny Saturday, we happily cycled east through many of the Seven Towns of Otmoor. Noke is still shielding the RSPB Otmoor Nature Reserve where we have observed the extraordinary winter murmurations (komoot.com/tour/295135249).We stopped at Borstall Tower, a 14th century moated gatehouse built by John de Haudlo in 1312 with beautiful gardens. We climbed up to Bree and enjoyed the spectacular views across the Shire from the windmill, which is a post mill dating from the 17th century (komoot.com/collection/967375). Descending into lush green pastures, we cycled past cute newborn lambs celebrating new beginnings before the sun set on a beautiful early spring day.
about 5 hours ago
I walked from the centre of Oxford to Lye Valley in the gorgeous sunshine, greeting Silver Surfer and the penguins being chased by a polar bear on a quiet Oxford side street. I followed the Lye Brook to the 'Bullingdon Bog' which is the old name for the rare environment of the calcareous fen in the Lye Valley Nature Reserve. Only a few weeks ago the greyness of winter had obscured the many unusual plants nourished by the lime-rich springs along the valley walls. Today I heard the deep croaking before I saw the many common frogs (Rana temporaria) frolicking in the ponds. Despite their name, they are not so common any more due to the impact agricultural pesticides and the draining of wetland habitats and filling-in of small ponds.But today I happily watched them enact the age old ritual of spring. The croaking is used by males to attract females. Frogs can breed from between two and three years old and often return to the pond where they were spawned. I observed the breeding process involving the male frog attaching himself to the back of the female by grasping her under the forelegs, where he stays until she lays her eggs. When the female frogs lay spawn, the males fertilise it by spraying sperm over them. As such, more than one male frog can fertilise a female’s spawn.As I walked further to visit my old friend the Shotover Oak and the beautiful C.S. Lewis Community Nature Reserve, I couldn't help but smile at the rites of spring. Somehow I was transported back to the classic Baz Luhrmann movie "Strictly Ballroom" and the unforgettable final scene. After a long, restorative walk, I sat high in South Park overlooking Oxford; green grass and yellow daffodils competing with the deep colours of the sunset. And the song from the film came to me loud and clear: "Love is in the air"
2 days ago
"Many rivers to cross / But I can't seem to find my way over / Wandering I am lost / As I travel along the white cliffs of Dover"
- Jimmy Cliff: "Many Rivers To Cross" Spring is in the air and the sun has started to bring much needed light and warmth. Yet, my heart is heavy; hoping against hope but expecting the worst. To wait is a surprisingly active verb... On this sunny Monday I had to get out and follow the sun; try my best to distract my wandering mind. We walked along the river, using the reflected sunlight to speak of loss and love; of science and turbulence; of Italian poetry and translation; and how best to translate Cesare Pavese's haunting opening line "Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi". In the gloaming, as darkness started to fall in the witching hour; I kept hearing Jimmy Cliff's powerful voice soaring above the strumming of a guitar.
Many rivers to cross
And it's only my will that keeps me alive
I've been licked, washed up for years
And I merely survive because of my prideAnd this loneliness won't leave me alone
It's such a drag to be on your own
My woman left me and she didn't say why
Well I guess, I have to tryMany rivers to cross
But just where to begin, I'm playing for timeJimmy Cliff: "Many Rivers To Cross"
7 days ago
"Pardon,' he said, 'I'm a bit rattled tonight. You see, I happen at this moment to be dead."
― John Buchan, The Thirty-Nine Steps Except for the fierce wind, spring was in the air as we walked north on a day of meaningful coincidences - or what Carl Jung called "synchronicities". As always our conversation was flowing like a river: from the poetry of Cesare Pavese and the guitar composition of Agustín Barrios to the turbulent brain basis of improvisation and eudaimonia.The backdrop to this endlessly fascinating stream included the rooftop sculpture "Untitled 1986" by John Buckley. Commonly known as the Headington Shark, this sculpture was erected on the 41st anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bombing on Nagasaki and currently serves as an AirBnB:
airbnb.co.uk/rooms/31345904We crossed over the A40 and walked up hill in the company of a magnificent red kite, criss-crossing the turbulent skies in search of prey. We came out of the wind and entered the delightful Sydlings Copse Nature Reserve; home to rare Oxfordshire heathland, ancient broadleaved woodland, limestone grasslands, reedbed, fen and a stream. The reserve supports over 400 plant species and is home to butterflies including the purple hairstreak, brown hairstreak, marbled white and common blue.
Approaching Elsfield Village from the east, we spotted a beautiful, yet mysterious cubic building north of the local Church of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. Upon return, careful research revealed it to be a dovecote, a grade-II listed building. Two peacocks crossed the road and we followed them to Elsfield Manor with its extraordinary views of Oxford. It was home of Francis Wise, the Radcliffe librarian in Oxford whom Dr Johnson visited in 1754. He built not only ponds and cascades, but also scale-models of a triumphal arch, a pyramid, a Druid temple, and the tower of Babel.Just after the Great War, John Buchan, author and sometime Governor General of Canada took up residence in Elsfield Manor with his family. He wrote over 100 books of which "The Thirty-Nine Steps" is probably the most well-known and formed the inspiration for Hitchcock's 1935 film.As we descended into Oxford, following the Cherwell via Old Marston, our conversation continued to sprawl like the iridescent blue and green plumage of a peacock. Yet, we were still astounded by the sudden, unexpected appearance in Mesopotamia of a long lost friend who only minutes earlier had made an important appearance in our discussion. As Sherlock Holmes tells Dr Watson in Conan Doyle's "The adventure of the second stain": "A coincidence! ... The odds are enormous against its being coincidence. No figures could express them."
February 21, 2021
Grey skies in the deepest of winter in Oxford - a harsh wind chill factor made it feel like 7 degrees below zero. But as always, we soon forgot about the weather and passed the hours in deep, pleasant conversation. With the flooding in retreat we were able to follow the twists and turns of the river. We spoke of many things and how the philosopher and theologist Søren Kierkegaard spent his hours cruising the streets of Copenhagen. It is safe to assume, however, that Kierkegaard would not have used Komoot. In "Fear and trembling", he rather pointedly wrote "People commonly travel around the world to see rivers and mountains, new stars, birds of rare plumage, queerly deformed fishes, ridiculous breeds of men – they abandon themselves to the bestial stupor which gapes at existence, and they think they have seen something". And added "...this does not concern me". We, on the other hand, found joy in wonders like Ancient Yew trees, Morris Minor, wild geese, pleasure boats, clown graffiti, and much more. As we were coming up to Iffley Lock, people were out on the ice, reminding us of the wonderful painting from 1565 by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. And then Billy Joel's song from his final 1993 studio album suddenly came to me:...
In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
From the mountains of faith
To the river so deep
I must be looking for something
Something sacred I lost
But the river is wide
And it's too hard to crossEven though I know the river is wide
I walk down every evening and I stand on the shore
I try to cross to the opposite side
So I can finally find out what I've been looking for
...In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the desert of truth
To the river so deep
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We're all carried along
By the river of dreams
February 14, 2021
Unexpectedly, like a subtle knife, mid-week the winter sun started to shred the iced flood plains of Oxford. She is vulnerable to flooding given her fragile geographical position at the confluence of seven rivers (River Thames and tributaries of the River Thames; River Cherwell, River Swere, River Dorn, River Glyme, River Windrush, River Evenlode, River Ray, River Thame). On this bright day, our walk felt like visiting a parallel world akin to that described so vividly by Philip Pullman in "His Dark Materials". Flooding hindered us in following the river but eventually we found ourselves at the large Port Meadow lake. The wild horses had congregated on the southern bank, near the gyptian boats moored along the river. In Lyra Silvertongue's Oxford, the nomadic Gyptians are abundant around the Fens of Brytain and travel with their boats on canals and rivers; making their primary source of income from trading goods. Perhaps with the pandemic they too are stuck in one place, unable to take up their usual coming and going with the spring and autumn fairs? Perhaps the Horse Fair in Oxford in July will be cancelled too?We watched the wild horses on the banks of the large Port Meadow lake; unperturbed by a locked down world. Walking through Binsey we were able to follow the river back to East Oxford, deep in meaningful conversation. Along the way we passed more gyptian boats and barges before traversing the river and taking moment to enjoy the sun in the hidden Nature Reserve Aston's Eyot.As I sat on the sunkissed banks of the mighty river, Jon Batiste's striking new version of an old song resonated deeply:
February 12, 2021
In the middle of a global pandemic, it is difficult, yet essential to think beyond the here-and-now. Yet, if we are to have a future on this planet, we must stay focused on the long now. In the words of the philosopher Roman Krznaric, we must become good ancestors; engage in long-term thinking and be ready to act now for the benefit of future generations. His new book offers important ideas and thoughts.
At dusk, we strolled the streets of East Oxford, deep in conversation; discussing the future and the imminent dangers of climate change. We passed the street side "freelittlelibrary"; where people swap books during the epidemic. As always we were on the lookout for science fiction but came away empty handed. We soon found ourselves on Bartlemas Lane, a small hamlet where time seems to have stopped several centuries ago. Once the site of a leprosarium founded by Henry I in 1126 and rebuilt in 1329, this is where lepers were segregated from the medieval community of Oxford. In those days, the "Brethen of Bartlemas" were thought to be unclean, untrustworthy, and morally corrupt. In fact, people with leprosy were often forced to wear special clothing or even carry a bell announcing their presence.On this evening, St Bartholomew's Chapel, the old farm house and the almshouse looked serene in the fading light with little evidence of past suffering. Returning to the present day, we scaled the urban streets, catching a glimpse of Silver Surfer travelling faster-than-light through space on his surfboard-like craft. Hitching a ride, we made the spectacular winter sunset in South Park, wondering how to become good ancestors before the end of days.
February 11, 2021
One year ago a young man, known to many as the campaigner and activist Iggy Fox, passed away. Honouring his memory, on a misty Saturday morning we ventured deep into the woods surrounding Oxford. Following the river, we traversed Aston's Eyot and the Kidneys before making a stop by the ancient Iffley Yew. We marvelled at the TARDIS in Rivermead Nature Park before crawling under the Southern By-Pass Road into the woodlands beyond. The terrain was difficult to navigate, slippery and wet. We found scarlet elf cup (Sarcoscypha coccinea) and suddenly in the distance glanced the outline of a roe deer. Quickly grabbing my telephoto lens, I saw him - a beautiful roe deer buck with velvet antlers. He looked at me calmly for what seemed like a very long time before turning and slowly sauntering off. Stunned we walked on, following the overflowing river before making it across at the barely passable path near Sandford Lock. We ventured into Radley Large Wood and visited the magic ancient Ash Grove in Radley Little Wood. By now, the sun had finally won the battle with the mist. In the glorious spring-like sunshine, we traversed the splendours of Bagley Wood. A glorious hike but what will the future hold if we do not act now against climate change? Iggy Fox wrote, "What matters is that we keep moving on until we get there". It is a simple question "What will you tell the future?":
February 8, 2021
"We done a lot of living / We working overtime / Don't need another million / You got that gold mine / I love the way you're livin' / 'Cause you so genuine / You got that something special / Didn't you know? / I just need you, you, you!"
One of those February days with endless rain - where the only remedy for beating the winter blues is to get out and dance. I put on my headphones, and let me be transported by the groove into Nature. Stepping into the beat, the music made me get up-close with the hibernating plants. In a topsy-turvy world, I was skipping and jumping through the Lasker Rose Garden. Suddenly I saw a strange sword planted in the rich soil. For a brief moment it looked like Excalibur, the legendary sword of King Arthur. And the music-induced visions continued: further on, Merton College was clearly reflected upside down in the flooded playing fields. I couldn't help but laugh and dance as the soul turned into funk; 120 beats of joy. Of course, spring will come, and what lies beneath will blossom into new beginnings.I heard the voice of Jon Batiste: "Oooh! They was cookin' back then, wasn't they? Whole lotta soul! "
In this world with a lot of problems
All we need is a little loving
Thank you, thank you, oh, you make me
Thank you, thank you for your love
February 5, 2021
Satchel on hip / the postman goes / from doorstep to doorstep / and stooping sows // each letterbox / with seed. His right / hand all the morning makes / the same half circle. White // seed he scatters / a fistful of / featureless letters / pregnant with ruin or love...
'The Postman' Jon Stallworthy (1980)Deep in winter, the relentless rains temporarily stopped and once again Oxford turned into a large flood plain under a dark sky. Unable to follow the river as planned, our Sunday walk instead took us north to Old Marston in search of solace from the pandemic. Some of the discoverers of penicillin would have taken the same route as they hurried home from the long hours spent in the lab in the Oxford science area in the midst of the second world war. Largely thanks to the ingenuity of Dr Norman Heatley, Lord Florey's team was eventually able to synthesise and purify penicillin in sufficiently large doses to help mankind. We stopped outside the small cottage on 12 Oxford Road, where the largely unsung, gentle gardener Heatley lived with his family for over 50 years. We then walked to the much larger family home of Florey on 4 Elsfield Rd. Despite being an avowed atheist, Florey is commemorated by a plaque inside the entry to the St Nicholas Church. Perhaps one day we will commemorate the Oxford Vaccine team too? On one of my other walks, nearby I came across the grave of the great poet Jon Stallworthy (1935-2014). He was Professor of English at the University of Oxford and wrote a wonderful biography of the great war poet Wilfred Owen. I couldn't help think how this pandemic often feels like a war too, with a featureless virus scattering ruin and very little love, primarily to the old and frail. Yet Wilfred Owen's powerful poem rings all too true:Anthem for Doomed Youth
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
. — Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
. Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
. And bugles calling for them from sad shires.What candles may be held to speed them all?
. Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
. The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
January 31, 2021