Country Diary: Port Meadow

In his recent book of poetry inspired by Port Meadow, David Atwooll allows that “It’s a peopled place / of course: painted landscapes often need, somewhere, a red smudge”.

One would struggle to describe Port Meadow as a “wild” place. Flanked by a busy railway track and surrounded on all sides by the physical presence of city life, Port Meadow is hardly a remote natural spot; it acts rather as an oasis close to Oxford’s centre. But perhaps it’s this human element that adds to its sense of place.

Most students who feel the pull of natural places have soon exhausted the charm and tidiness of their college gardens or Christ Church meadows; often their first destination in search of a slightly more rugged, remote place is this seemingly endless expanse of grass and mud.

Port Meadow is steeped in myth; it’s the unploughed landscape, the land earned from resisting the Danes, a sacred spot where the Freemen graze their cattle.

It is, nevertheless, a changing landscape, an idea which is captured in Atwooll’s poetry, collected in his pamphlet Ground Work. Illustrated by Andrew Walton, the collection explores the various phases of Port Meadow, from “veiled in mist and frost” to an “archipelago of pools” as the flood which mantles the flat land for months on end begins to recede.

Ash, willow and Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Binsey Poplars (“All felled, felled, are all felled”) stand scatterred along along the grassy edges.

To the West, the Isis soaks its banks on the meadow, tempting an intrepid swimmer to be carried gently down the water by a strong current as a sunny day comes to its lengthy close. 

Just across the thick grass, to the East, lies Burgess Field, a small forest which has regenerated on a reclaimed landfill site. The young forest stands immutable as a poignant reminder of the visitor’s transcience.

The meadow is alive. Birds rise in throngs or poke about alone — herons picking the puddled grass for small fish, dunlin with their long arched beaks, as well as geese, gulls, godwits, warblers and the occasional glide of a peregrine or a buzzard.

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Horses and cattle share the flat, undulating land at alternating times of the year, allowed only when the creeping waters of the flood don’t leave them stranded.

Port meadow: a meadow turned habour by the winter floods; a field made jolly on sunny afternoons by sweet wine. At night, across the water, Wolvercote flickers in the distance like a seaside town.

And yet it remains, in Atwooll’s words, a “peopled place”. For this landscape is not all sunny walks and natural beauty. Open spaces like this have always attracted questionable activities after nightfall. Such sites are as often places of enjoyment and pleasure as they are sites of reflection, sorrow, despair.

Only the other day, a pink princess outfit, with white frills on the shoulders, glinting glitter, hung from a hawthorn on the edge of the railway track. As a train rushed past, the wind lifted the dress and it blew listelessly, light, to and fro on the tree’s side. The remnants of a moment, opaque, unfinished, vanished.