AN OKAVANGO IN OXFORD

~ Posted by Caspar Henderson, December 10th 2012

It is 80 steps from my front door in Oxford to the river stairs upstream of Folly Bridge, where I put my kayak on the Thames. Downstream the river flows straight for about a quarter mile and then veers right, left and then right before it straightens out to reach the lock and the Norman church at Iffley. The paddle down to the lock and back takes about 40 minutes, allowing me to be home, showered and at my keyboard again within an hour, so long as the river is in its normal daze.

This has been my space in light and nature for the last five years while I've been writing a book. I have been paddling the route for long enough and frequently enough—up to three times a week—that I see the trees grow as if in stop-motion photography: an ash by the curve at Long Bridges has sprouted from nowhere to nearly ten feet. I know the phases of the day-time moon sliding through the alders, a hundred cloudscapes, and every angle of light bouncing up onto branch and leaf. Herons, kingfishers, grebes, moorhens and the occasional fugitive tropical terrapin are my companions.

Sometimes I paddle up the Cherwell from where it joins the Thames near the University boathouses. Twenty metres across and heavily wooded on both sides, it's a jungle bayou at first. Within three or four minutes, however, the great expanse of Christ Church Meadow opens out on the left. Beyond it are Tom Tower, the Cathedral and the tower of Merton College Chapel.  A little further upstream the spire of the University Church and the Radcliffe Camera slide past each other as I push my kayak against the current. Still further along, the river edges the old walls and gnarled trees of the Botanic Garden and Magdalen tower before passing under the river gods carved on Magdelen bridge.

November brought record-breaking rains to Britain, heavier even than the record-breaking rains of the summer. The Thames awoke and surged, turning Christ Church Meadow into an Okavango, an inland delta. The sandstone towers and domes looked, inevitably, like Venice, although the waters remained some distance from their feet. Bright sunshine followed the rain, and the lake where the Meadow had been, sat there quietly, as if astonished by its own existence. Two roe deer were stranded on a barrow-shaped mound in the Meadow that normally escapes the eye but was now a little island. Then everything froze and the lake shrivelled, turning from silver and blue to olive, brown and grey green. The deer left when no one was looking. Only a man-size log, washed up there by the flood water, remained.

Caspar Henderson is the author of "The Book of Barely Imagined Beings: a 21st Century Bestiary" (Granta)