Fixed charge includes nothing in common (7)
Sunday is a day of rest and care in the community, so I magnanimously agree to accompany Dad on his favourite walk. We don our hiking boots (just in case it’s muddier than usual) and head east from our humble abode, turning right onto the towpath at the Punter. We cross the little network of footbridges at the south-eastern corner of Osney Island and potter along the banks of the Thames as it meanders its way down towards Folly Bridge and the boathouses. We pick over the bones of Sunderland’s latest defeat (to mighty Liverpool) and return to the sea-floor of the Premier League in desultory fashion. Cyclists hurtle along the narrow path and seem to take great delight in locating the largest puddles as they splash by, no doubt notching up double points if both of us are drenched in the process.
But we stick to the towpath only as far as the first meander and the tunnel under the railway line. We climb the bank and stroll across Grandpont Nature Reserve. It’s a grandiose description of a very modest area of common ground, land that was contaminated by the old gas works and will, with luck, never be built upon. There is no sign of the original Grandpont, a medieval stone causeway across the wetlands of south-west Oxford. At the southern tip of the nature reserve, we take the gap through the trees and cross back over the railway. This little path takes us west and then south into our secret place, our Shangri-La – the Hogacre Common Eco-Park.
Of course, we are a little biased. We Hoggs own almost no acres these days. Our plot of land on Osney Island is the size of a large handkerchief. The colleges are the only landowners in Oxford with whole acres to themselves, but these acres are nominally ours. Once we arrive at Hogacre Common, we feel like kings of all we survey. Most visitors to Hogacre arrive from the east and Whitehouse Rd but we much prefer this westerly approach which affords the prospect of Hogacre’s many riches, its orchards, its hazel coppice, its community beehives, wildflower meadow, wind turbines and, best of all, its cricket pavilion-cum-vegetarian café modelled on one of Sir Christopher Wren’s designs for a London club.
In my salad days, I did actually play cricket and football here because this used to be the Corpus Christi College Sports Ground. I remember crossing the bridge from Whitehouse Rd for a 3rd XI football match, only to find the entire ground submerged by recent rains. Somehow the other 21 players from Univ and Corpus had been appraised of this news before setting out and I had no choice but to trudge back to college alone. Come to think of it, that was probably the last time I put my name down for any collegiate sporting activity.
Corpus, being a tiny and rather swotty college, eventually found that it had no further need of its own inaccessible, submersible sports ground and struck a deal with Univ. The Corpuscles, as they liked to call themselves, would play their ballgames at Univ’s equally low-lying ground on the Abingdon Road while Univ would play a part in the management of Hogacre Common. Phil has been a reluctant member of the committee which has overseen the project to turn the common into a so-called ‘Eco-Park’. Phil calls it the Playground for the Loony Left but I love it here.
Despite the recent rains, the common is still passable so we make our way across the old cricket square to the pavilion, now called the Hogacre Café, where we can be sure of a fine pot of tea and the most ethical slices of carrot cake imaginable. It’s more of a summer attraction in truth and this is the last Sunday on which the café will be open before its winter break.
Only one other table is occupied when we arrive but we recognise the man who is hunched over a large mug of tea and a laptop. It is the manager of the common, Ben Haydon, a stockily built young man of about my own age with tiny, rimless glasses that magnify his accusing, dark eyes.
“What’s up, Ben?” I ask, with all the cheeriness I can muster.
“What do you think?” he mutters, not bothering to look up. “What’s the use of a café with no customers?”
“But we are customers,” I remind him.
“So you are, so you are,” he acknowledges. “But aren’t you mates with that Philip Sherborne chap at Univ?”
On an earlier visit, we had got chatting and I’d inadvertently let slip that I worked at Univ. I think this chap is now convinced that I am one of the people involved in setting his paltry salary. If Phil had his way, I suspect he would not be paid at all. I nod apprehensively.
“… only I’ve just had an e-mail from your Dr Sherborne telling me that they’ve decided to phase out the college’s Development Grant for Hogacre over the next five years.”
“Well, five years is a good long time,” I suggest lamely.
“…so there will be nothing in the kitty to pay my salary. Looks like I’ll be back on the painting and decorating.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, you can tell Dr Philip ****** Sherborne that if I see him any time soon, I’ll … I’ll …”
“But you’re doing a great job, Ben!” I reassure him. “That orchard is growing up into a wonderful community resource. I’m sure that if you put a reasonable case, they’ll reconsider.”
It’s clear that we are about as welcome as an outbreak of Dothistroma Needle Blight this afternoon so we slurp our tea a little more quickly than usual and make our way back out into the afternoon sunshine. Heading west once more and resisting the temptation to test-drive the eco-toilet perched on stilts, we leave this enchanted land past a charcoal burner and follow the rudimentary path next to the Hogacre Stream or Ditch. In summer this can be dry as a bone but it’s a bona fide river just now, one of many that cross the floodplain. Just to the south and parallel with the Hogacre is the Hinksey Stream but we prefer to follow “our” river upstream. It may be little more than a ditch but the Hogacre was once the boundary between Oxfordshire and Berkshire and, before that, the northernmost edge of the Kingdom of Wessex in the days when the walled town of Oxford was a Mercian outpost. Did rag-tag armies face each other across this little ditch? Did rival kings squabble over this fertile patch of hog-grazing land?
There is little sign of such history now. We follow the Hogacre until it becomes indistinguishable from the Bullstake Stream and turn left into the grounds of the Fishes, a public house in North Hinksey. Ignoring the attractions of the adventure playground and indeed of the pub itself, we emerge onto Hinksey Lane where Oscar Wilde and his fellow undergraduates once strove to build a road that would join the disconnected villages of North and South Hinksey. It must have been good preparation for life in Reading Gaol. We walk in silence past the church and turn right on to Willow Walk, one of Oxford’s most beautiful paths. But in late November the eponymous willows look bare and brittle as we walk silently back towards Osney. The path comes out at the bottom end of Ferry Hinksey Rd, next to King’s Meadow, and from there it is no distance to the school and the little bridge across to Swan St.
The entire round-trip has taken us a little over an hour and I realise that my father and I have hardly said a word to each other in the whole of this period. We have each been lost in our own thoughts.
It’s too soon after my car crash nearby for me to contemplate driving to Aylesbury for the Marillion gig tonight. I wonder whether Megan will be there, along with all the other pony-tailed 50-something progsters? Instead I settle for watching a documentary on the making of Graceland and devouring all 37 sections of the Sunday Times. With Phil’s comments on The Triumph of Life in mind, I turn hopefully to Shelley’s prognostications on p.121 of the Style section:
JANUARY 20 – FEBRUARY 18
It would be easy to blame recent problems on the careless thinking of others, but, in reality, nobody could have anticipated these sudden and disruptive insane twists and turns.
What, nobody? Shelley insisted on the poet’s role as a prophet in his Defence of Poetry and yet even he seems to have been defeated by the bizarre peripeteias of my final days. Whatever next?