Photograph copyright ©1999 Denis Waugh.
The bridge at Swinford on the A4040 is currently owned by Mr Michael Hawley, and you will be required by him to pay the small matter of 5p in order to cross one of the few remaining toll bridges in England. Not by Mr Hawley personally, but by the bridge managers, David and Sue Jackson, who have been here since David was made redundant from Fareham Council some years ago and who have never been happier.
There has been a toll crossing at Swinford for close on 1,000 years. Originally, as the name suggests, there was just a ford. For pigs, presumably, so the toll of a mere 2p in order to cross in style would have been a small price for the more elegant traveller to pay. The present delightfully balustraded bridge was built in 1767, by the Earl of Abingdon, and even then, apparently, only because King George III, travelling at a time the river was in flood, almost came to grief here. The fourth Earl was reluctant, pleading poverty. `Nonsense!' cried good Farmer George, `Charge tuppence a vehicle to cross and it will pay for itself!'
And 2p remained the price until 1994. Even then, the increase to 5p was granted only after lengthy debate and a special Act of Parliament, and is strictly to pay for necessary repairs over the next twelve years. After which the price will supposedly revert to 2p. So I am told.
The first vehicle over the new bridge in 1767 was a water wagon, bringing fresh drinking water to the residents of Eynsham. Why, you may ask? An outbreak of plague, perhaps? The official records do not talk about reasons, only numbers. In 1785 there were about five stage coaches a week crossing the river here and the present traffic is something like 3 million vehicles a year.
Conducting a formal interview with David is fraught with interruption. It is rush hour, and as I perch on my bike at the roadside wall firing questions, David collects tolls from intervening motorists. Archers devotees have latterly been making pilgrimages to Eynsham, as the village where the late and much loved Mollie Harris (`Martha') lived most of her life. Her last book, The Stripling Thames, with watercolour and line illustrations by local artist Gary Woodley, is a personal record of her journeying in all weathers along the upper reaches of the river.
The remains of a thirteenth-century abbey and a twenty-foot-high medieval cross testify to Eynsham's significance in the past, but it is now chiefly important as an up-market commuter town for those involved in keeping the twenty-two historic colleges of Oxford flourishing.
I think David and Sue Jackson must have one of the most enviable jobs on the Thames in their eighteenth-century cottage with walls four feet thick. Until I meet Adrian, the duty lock keeper, mowing the grass and oiling the gates at Eynsham Lock.
Adrian used to be a bank manager until 1988 when he finally admitted to himself that banking had changed. He doesn't want to be a salesman and could no longer face the stress of setting and achieving targets and trying to sell pensions and special financial packages to customers who just wanted a bank.
He is not too concerned about the harmful effects of tourism. `I see my job as helping people to have a nice time,' he says. `I don't want to make them feel silly because they can't handle the steering gear very well. And I don't want to come down heavy on them about what they can and can't do. They've paid a lot of money for their holiday. I want to help them make the most of it.'
So do I. So I thumb a lift with Ron, Leslie, Fred and Chas who are taking their annual holiday together. They are experienced lock users, having been taking boating holidays for the past twenty years. They have hired a ten berth narrow boat.
`Because we all snore,' says Ron with an honesty disarming enough for me to admit that I do too. `Anyway,' he says, `you have to have enough room to spread out during the day.'
How right he is. Narrow boat hire companies, like any concern, are naturally intent on maximising profits, and anyone considering a canal or river holiday would be well advised to take with a pinch of salt claims about how many a vessel `sleeps.' There is more to life afloat than sleeping.
I am treated to a cup of tea up for'ard where Leslie wants to know what my angle is on the river. Bother this angle. `Probably historical,' I say tentatively. Leslie mentions his interest in Lawrence of Arabia and then he, Chas and I have to spend some time working out which war it was in which the great man featured. `I wish I hadn't mentioned it now,' says Leslie sadly.
The threat of rain is still in the air, and the river this evening is teal coloured. Beside Wytham (pronounced White Ham) Great Wood the may trees and the abundant riverside Queen Anne's lace (cow parsley sounds less romantic) fill the bank with a froth of white.
A heron stands motionless, intent on supper, a grebe poses thoughtfully and swallows and martins dart ceaselessly hither, thither and yon, and you can't help hoping that they find somewhere to nest soon and have some babies just so they can let up for a bit. Living on the wing must be absolutely exhausting.
There is a field station here for Oxford University, and researchers keep an eye out for animals such as the red blooded Planorbis acronicus, a rare species of ram's horn or trumpet snail.
Our huge craft is expertly steered into Godstow Lock by Fred and I jump ship having exchanged names and addresses and promised to meet up at the book launch. `If we find a publisher,' I hedge.
`You will,' says Chas. `It's going to be great.'
I lift my bike over a stile and loiter over supper at the Perch, a seventeenth-century thatched inn, for so long that I have to make indecent haste along the tow path, over two hump backed bridges and past two startled students to the station. I hoist my Hercules over my shoulder, hurtle up the stairs and along the platform to the guard's van and just make the last London train.
Text copyright ©1999 Priscilla Waugh.