Outdoor activities with a healthy dose of curiosity, brought to you by Laure Latham
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Did Alice Liddell fall down a rabbit hole or did she not? Whatever the case in 1862, a 10-year old girl’s imagination was captured by the crazy story of a white rabbit running late to mad tea parties, a Cheshire cat grinning up in a tree and a dormouse mentioning three sisters living at the bottom of a treacle well. Alice Liddell was the girl who inspired the book’s Alice and the story’s author her father’s friend Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Caroll. Researching a fun hike for my girls, I discovered that the book Alice in Wonderland had been inspired by the countryside and colleges around Oxford (in the UK) and decided to track the story’s origins on my own terms. Here is the beginning of the adventure.
Photo gallery – click to enlarge:
The first book I purchased in London is Adventure Walks for Families in and around London by Becky Jones and Clare Lewis. Having read a few hike descriptions, I couldn’t wait to get started and the Alice in Wonderland walk at Port Meadow sounded just the right thing for us. The morning of the hike, I spent an hour gathering supplies for an impromptu unbirthday party and then we were off (with our heads on). The book assumes you drive to your trailhead but since we don’t have a car, we’re learning all about trains.
At Paddington Station we realized we just missed the Oxford train (that’s part of learning), that we could buy cheaper tickets than we thought (thank God, they were godawful pricey) and boarded another train to Reading where we transferred to another train to Oxford. That train system is a maze but traveling by train is so novel for us we love it – especially munching on sausage rolls as a mid-morning snack.
From the Oxford train station, we walked out onto the main street, under a bridge and turned right on the Thames Path, a grand 186-miles long footpath that follows the river Thames. It didn’t seem so grand then. The Thames river even seemed quite small and unimpressive given how much larger it is in London but it was really the Thames river, no contest. Following a trail along the river in a city was quite unexpected and we enjoyed passing red brick houses, picturesque houseboats, tidy gardens and lazy duck families. Reading my guidebook, I guessed we’d be catching the walk from its middle and southernest point at Rainbow Bridge so I watched for a bridge within the next couple miles or so. We did find one but it wasn’t the right bridge. This one went over the Oxford canal. What I didn’t know then that I know now is that Oxford is a city crossed by a long twisty narrow canal. That canal there – I’ll save it for another adventure.
Finally we reached a fork in the river with two bridges on either side. The first one was a plain concrete bridge leading (north-east) to cow pastures and Port Meadow. The second one was a red arching bridge – the Rainbow Bridge! We were now officially in Alice in Wonderland territory. I opened my book to page 128 and read. “Alice in Wonderland is the story of a little girl who falls asleep by the riverbank and disappears into a fantastical world through a rabbit hole.” Meandering along the river Thames, our goal was to find the Treacle Well making up silly rhymes and picking up feathers to make quill pens. My 7-year old became very absorbed by her search for the perfect feather while the 8-year old announced she wouldn’t touch bird feathers because they were disgusting and full of germs.
When colorful sails weaved their way across the smooth river waters, we knew we’d reached the Sailing Club and continued until we reached a left fork leading to the hamlet of Binsey. Our green grass path turned to a dirt road and a few blackberries later, we reached Binsey where party flags still showed there had been an Alice in Wonderland festival the day before. Binsey is where Alice’s governess, Miss Prickett (the Red Queen folks, the Red Queen!), lived. Remember the name Prickett because it comes back when we reach the graveyard of St Margaret’s church.
Once at Binsey we were stricken by the gorgeous thatched roof of a pub called The Perch. What a roof! Had we we not been pressed by train times, I would have loved a pint inside the pub. Nonetheless we followed the paved road through lovely countryside, Granny Smith green pastures followed by blackberry and elderberry bushes. My little blackberry lover was beside herself – all these treats within arm’s reach! When we come back, I promised, first we need to find the well. A half mile later we opened the wooden gate leading to St Margaret’s church and were greeted by three miniature billy goats smelling like a truckload of goat cheese. Hmm, goats? We love goats, they were friendly.
Where’s the well? my girls asked. Behind the church, said the book. To reach the church, we crossed the graveyard and I looked for the name Prickett, indeed engraved on many a tombstone. The church’s door was open and we ventured inside, finding a beautiful 12th century Norman chapel with arched doorway, whitewashed interior and wooden benches. An oasis of tranquillity. Just around the church, the well!
In chapter 7 of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Dormouse tells a story of Elsie, Lacie and Tillie living at the bottom of a well, which confuses Alice, who interrupts to ask. “The Dormouse again took a minute or two to think about it, and then said, ‘It was a treacle-well.'” This is an allusion to the so-called “treacle well”, the curative St. Margaret’s Well at Binsey. In mediæval times the term “treacle” meant an antidote to poison, so a treacle well was a healing well.
Hiding at ground level, the Treacle Well is a square stone staircase leading to a small dark pool of water below a Latin inscription. My daughters hunched over to look inside the well. They were probably half expecting a white rabbit to pop out! Interestingly enough, the well is still the site of yearly blessings. There might be some truth to that treacle business after all.
Leaving the well behind, I asked the girls to leave me alone a few moments so I could set up the unbirthday party. If you want to spice up your next hikes too, here is how to organize your own unbirthday party hike.
Back along the Thames, we continued north and entered vast green expanses dotted with blooming thistles, blackberry brambles and the occasional rabbit hole. Yes, rabbit holes! I photographed one for you. On the river, more boaters were rowing or sailing the afternoon away and I understood why the book said this was the best spot for an unbirthday party or picnic. The flat meadows couldn’t have been more suited for a blanket or table cloth.
Up north, the Godstow Lock and the lock keeper’s house gave way to the haunting ruin of the Godstow Abbey. In the 12th century, the abbbey was founded on an island and boasted magnificent cloisters, chapter house, a church and a nunnery. The island is no more. Only the outside walls and the frame of a roofless chapel remain on the shores of the river – and the ghost of Rosamund Clifford, known as the Grey Lady. Mistress of Henry II, she was believed to have been poisoned by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Of Grey Lady we saw none but I see how the nunnery could spark a romantic poet’s fire. It’s quite desolate.
Now at the middle point of our hike, we made a right on the bridge that leads past the Trout Inn to the three-arched Godstow Bridge and onwards to a parking lot where we made a right to walk south on the Thames Path. From there, we could see the tall spires of the chapels and colleges of Oxford. This is where Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson rowed up the river to and from Oxford in July 1862. I like to imagine that not much has changed in the cityscape since they rowed and that perhaps they, too, admired the magnificent spotted grazing cows and blue-eyed horses we saw along the way.
We walked until we found the concrete bridge at the fork of the river and easily retraced our steps to the train station where – o marvel – we had time to buy a hot tea and hot chocolates before boarding a train 10 minutes later.