In the Glymelight

Commuting has given me time to read James Attlee’s Isolarion: A Different Oxford Journey. I can’t praise this book highly enough – it’s a psychogeographical meander down Cowley Road, in much the same vein as Iain Sinclair’s explorations in London Orbital and Edge of the Orison, though undertaken in a different way. Attlee adopts the same elegiac tone as the crushing monotony of theme park Britain tries to bulldoze anywhere with real character and vibrancy. He lacks Sinclair’s poetic (or obscurantist) touch, but it’s a very enjoyable read. Attlee approaches his various excursions and incursions along Cowley Road in the spirit of a pilgrimage, and his text is informed and inspired by interesting background reading from, among others, Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy. The history of the car plants, refugees, the Bartlemas leper hospital, drunks in the graveyard, the famous porn shop, takeaways and council meetings – it’s all in here.

I don’t miss living in London, but sometimes I miss London walks, and exploring its palimpsest of history. This is the first time a book about Oxford has given me the same thrill, and I know there’s much more to explore. It’s interesting that he avoids the sometimes stagnant and certainly overexplored history of central Oxford, and heads eastward. If you’re not sympathetic to this sort of project, Attlee could perhaps come across as a smug art-world type at times, but that would be unjust. This is a fantastic and inspiring book.

On Easter Monday, we set out on a pilgrimage on our own, taking the bus out to Chipping Norton to walk the route of the river Glyme as closely as possible from there down to where it joins the Evenlode at Woodstock. It makes for an idyllic walk – though around 14/15 miles, mind. The Glyme begins as a gentle stream alongside the mediaeval Saltway (got this one in your salt facts, ?) and meanders through some truly peaceful and surprisingly hidden countryside, despite the A44 not being far away. The Saltway, lost mediaeval villages, mills and waterfalls and absurdly pretty hamlets all feature along its course. In its middle life, the Glyme gets pretentions – as well as being dammed into a small lake at Old Chalford, it then runs through no less than three grand estates – Kiddington, Glympton and Blenheim (where, as at Kiddington, it forms an ornamental lake). At Radfordbridge, we passed the beautiful spot where my Mini got stranded the other week, and met some puppies. We were too footsore to see it through Blenheim to Bladon, where it joins the Evenlode, but we did follow it pretty closely all along. Spring is making me joyously happy. (Anyone wanting to see pictures and the route can download a 290K PDF here.)