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Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.

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`You have a lot of work to do,' smiles the plump, elderly lady sitting beside the slipway at Radley. I'm never all that gracious when people throw this line at me, in total ignorance as to how much work I have done. `We may not be able to buy your book if it's too expensive,' she simpers. `But we'll order it from the library.'

I'm no more gracious to people whose support is carefully cool and whose inevitable criticisms come from a depth of self seldom fathomed in kindness. `Why don't you go jump in the river,' I say sweetly and shove her in. Oh, the power of the imagination.

From Iffley to Abingdon is not a long distance, but it is a hard one along a track too bumpy to cycle comfortably. Across the river is the stately bulk of Nuneham Park, manor house of Nuneham Courtenay. The Nuneham means `new village' and the Courtenay comes from the Curtenay Family, who lived here in the thirteenth century. It has been new any number of times. In the Domesday Book it is listed as `Newham' and as recently as 1760 the whole village was rebuilt in nice modern semi-detached cottages because the existing houses spoiled the view from the First Earl of Harcourt's new house.

But, a very fine house it is, with landscaping by Capability Brown. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert spent their honeymoon here, according to the couple taking the balmy evening air outside Radley College's impressive modern boathouse. They remember the late Earl cycling down the hill to Radley railway station every morning, on his way into London to work in the city.

The estate now belongs to Oxford University and on the skyline is visible an elaborate monument dating from 1616. The Carfax Conduit was the cistern in the middle of Oxford from which the city's water was drawn: a primary cistern for university folk and a secondary one for the townspeople. A monument to the past indeed.

Why do we grow so much oilseed rape? With a such a wealth of sweetness, brilliance and delicacy to choose from - here in the bright red mini-globes of wild arum, the palest-pink florets of yarrow, the exquisite coral-and-lime sprays of water dock, the regal purples of thistles and knapweeds and the tiny yellow snapdragons of toadflax; with the plethora of blue speedwell, white archangel, wild marjoram, water mint, comfrey, forget-me-not, pimpernels, poppies, balsams and loosestrife; with rosebay willowherb, enchanter's nightshade, musk mallow and sun spurge, dovesfoot cranesbill, strawberry clover and meadowsweet; all with their specific hue or scent or form, not to mention the beauty of the names - why, oh why do we suddenly have all these fields of the unspeakable rape? The overwhelming smell in spring of the garish yellow flowers, then the reek of the seed pods... Yet even as I write synchronicity is at work. Rape is out and linseed in, for commercial rather than aesthetic reasons, but one day soon, perhaps, this sea of acid yellow will be a haze of subtlest blue.

The hour is late when we reach Abingdon. Back to Oxford by road, we decide. The A4183 looks suitably cycle-friendly, and so it proves until we have to cross the A34 and temporarily lose our bearings. A couple with a tandem wait to cross from the Oxford side and rather than meet halfway across the slipway, up which the cars speed ceaselessly, we wait on the comparative haven of the traffic island to ask directions. The woman is delighted to help. Her voice, though, is barely intelligible to us. Haltingly, using a minimum of words but a maximum of smiles, it is left to her gentle, kindly and cultured white-haired companion to interpret while she nods emphatically. A companionship of mutual respect and affection.

`A battleground,' he says, gesturing to the traffic beating up from the trunk road. We all four stand and look for a minute at the combat zone and beyond, to where the great orb of the setting sun spins, huge and silent and ruby red. Along the A34 and past us up the slip road the mechanized army hurtles headlong into endless battle, heedless.

Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.

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