A winged gryphon is playing a ukulele on Broad Street. At the nearby Bodleian Library, a caterpillar dispenses nutritional advice to children in pinafores. In front of the Pitt Rivers Museum, a Mock Turtle leads a lobster quadrille dance. Me? I’m taking in this annual celebration of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written by Oxford University lecturer Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll).
I lived on St. Barnabas Street from 2009 to 2010, when I was an undergraduate at Oxford University. Every day was a cultural shock as I tried to reconcile English reserve with my American exuberance – a balance that I still am not sure I’ve struck.
But today I’m looking at Oxford, which sits 85 km northwest of London, from another angle entirely.
Eager for an adventure, a British friend, Sarah Heenan, and I have hired the Hertford, a canal boat, to spend one week cruising the Oxford Canal, an 18th-century waterway that runs from Oxford north 126 km to Hawkesbury Junction. The experience, we’re discovering, is hardly that of Oxford University, with its Gothic towers. Nor is it of Oxford the city, a staid, prosperous place that is unfailingly polite and invariably aloof. For narrowboaters such as us, the Oxford Canal embodies a different, less straitlaced, way of English life.
“Along a canal,” explains Heenan, who grew up in a nearby Cotswolds village, “you say hello to everybody.”
As Heenan and I rev our engine – we’re our own captains after a boat-handling tutorial – we spot an elderly twosome strolling the canal’s towpath. They spy Heenan’s glass of Pimm’s. “And very good, too!” the woman calls out as we pass.
We raise our glasses to toast her.
Cruising along, I find myself peering into back gardens, wondering who tends them. Who owns the stone bust of Napoleon? The carving of a rabbit shooting a frog?
I ask Heenan if I’m breaking some fundamental rule of Englishness by looking.
She bursts into laughter. “That’s the most English thing of all!” she says. “Deep down, we’re all really nosy.”
Near the village of Wolvercote, we are preparing to dock when an agreeable man dressed in a white vest and jeans leaps onto our narrowboat and grabs the tie-up rope.
“Don’t worry,” he says, when we have secured the vessel. “You’re no worse than I was my first time.”
Priced out of property in Oxford, Mike Pitman – a filmmaker and musician in his 20s – bought a boat and has lived ever since along the water. “Before living on a boat, I never knew any of my neighbours by name,” Pitman shares. “We look out for each other,” he adds, by monitoring mooring spaces when one of them is away or helping with boat repairs. Another boater, a photographer named Jeff Slade, ambles over. He and Pitman trade news: two buzzards have taken up residence in a canalside tree; one of the moorhens has five chicks.
At first these boaters’ attention to nature’s details surprises me. So far on our cruise, the landscape has been overwhelmingly green. But as we wend past bend after identical bend, thatch-roofed village after thatch-roofed village, the landscape’s uniformity breaks apart like a kaleidoscope. At 6.5 km/h, the speed limit of the canal, it’s impossible to not look at every branch, every leaf, a little longer, a little more carefully. I start to notice the difference between Japanese and giant knotweed, elderflowers and Queen Anne’s lace. A few days ago, all this was a vague notion I had of ‘countryside’. Today, each branch, each bush, each bend of the canal contains universes.
In The Wind in the Willows, Rat tells Mole “there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s novel featuring animals dwelling by a river was inspired in part by his school days on the Oxford Canal.
Aboard the Hertford, there always is something to do: piloting, mooring, unmooring, filling the water tank. The routine of locks is the most ceaseless of all. Every hour or so we stop to open one gate, cruise into the lock, slide up the panels (called paddles) to let water flow into the lock and make the boat rise (we are heading upstream), open the exit gate, then reset everything.
The locks, Heenan and I soon realise, double as social hubs, where strangers exchange travel advice or boating gossip, or help less-experienced boaters.
It takes a few days before I understand what ‘canal pace’ means. We’re speeding as quickly as we can to make the village of King’s Sutton by nightfall. Dusk glints golden on the water as we cruise past Upper Heyford. Sheep nip at long grasses in the shadow of its Gothic church tower. It’s the most idyllic spot we’ve seen on the canal so far, but it’s not on our schedule. I turn off the engine anyway.
A few minutes later, a young man appears on the towpath, walking his dog. As he gets close, the dog scampers onto our deck before its owner can stop it. Mortified, he stutters out an apology.
We laugh it off, retrieve the dog, make conversation. Kevin, we learn, is a local. I invite him to join us for a drink. For a moment, Kevin looks surprised, even nervous. Then he takes a deep breath and steps on deck. We hand him a Pimm’s and clink glasses.
Our last night, we moor in north Oxford, a short walk from my old university quarters. I feel almost regretful. What else did I miss when I lived here? How did I fail to explore this path that started in my own backyard?
A thrush flutters down to my feet. Once, I might have scared it away. But a week on the water has left me slower, more careful in my movements. The bird lets me photograph it at close range before it vanishes.
EDITED FROM NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE (FEBRUARY/MARCH 2016) © 2015 BY TARA ISABELLA BURTON. WWW.NATIONALGEOGRAPHIC.COM/MAGAZINE