The following is a drawing made by John Malchair showing the causeway of what is now Abingdon Road. The rather unusual building is Friar Bacon’s Study which was demolished in 1779. Beneath the drawing is a photograph showing the same causeway, with two arches, a little bit like the arch which can be seen in the drawing.
The old church of St. Clement, built around 1122 is a principal character in our story. It was described by the antiquary Thomas Hearne as “a very pretty little church,” but unable to serve the growing population of the parish, it was demolished in 1828 and a new church built on Hacklingcroft Meadow in Marston. The church’s three bells (one of which is the oldest bell in Oxford, dating to the 13th century) were taken to the new building. The church’s graveyard remained until 1950, when it too disappeared with the construction of The Plain roundabout.
The toll house in front of the tower remained until the construction of the Victoria Fountain in 1899. The photograph below, taken in 1868, shows the old toll house and the churchyard behind.
Looking closely one can see the gravestones…
…and the ghosts of those who walked too fast.
It’s interesting to compare the image above with the text of the newspaper notice. Both contain the likeness of a man on the same stretch of road, and yet that created 100 years earlier with words is, somehow, all the more clear. With the image above, we feel the same sensation as when we look at other very old photographs; a kind of vertigo which links – through a ‘carnal light’ – two poles of simultaneous existence and non-existence. We look at the image of a man in a time when he doesn’t exist, while he looks back from a time when we have yet to be born. Here we both are, and aren’t at the same time. The light, captured in the image, is, like an “umbilical cord” which as Sontag says, “links the body of the photographed thing to my gaze – light though impalpable, is here a carnal medium, a skin I share with anyone who has been photographed.”
In truth, we share this skin with anyone who’s ever been and it’s through our bodies that we identify with those who’ve gone before us. With the text, our sense of the man comes not only through that which the words describe, but through the questions it asks and leaves unanswered. Furthermore, there is a sense of movement in the writing. We not only get a snapshot, but a full few minutes of this anonymous man’s life – a seemingly insignificant moment which serves, ironically, to make him all the more clear. It’s as if the blurs in the photograph above, caused by the long exposure and the movement of those in view, were instead a piece of film, one in which we don’t see a ghost, but a living, breathing individual.
This sense of movement is of course something we also share, and it’s this kinaesthetic aspect of the text which seems to count the man – whose more than likely been dead for more than two centuries – among us. Because I’ve walked and experienced the insignificant, ‘everydayness’ of moments on the bridge, I seem to know him better than, for example, I do the man who stands against the toll house in the photograph. The man and the toll house have both disappeared. But the line of movement, the narrative line, and therefore the stranger of our tale, persists to this day.
With my GPS, I traced the route we know the Gentleman’s Servant took across Magdalen Bridge up into modern day Cowley Road. It was hard to imagine the scene in 1770 when the road would have been much quieter. Cars, buses and motorbikes were everywhere, the sound of their engines blocking out almost everything else.
But nevertheless, as I walked, I tried to take in everything around me, to capture all that made the present moment what it was, for even though the same place in 2010 is light years away from what it was 240 years ago, nevertheless, when the stranger rode over the bridge on December 12th 1770, it was something which for him was happening in the present. Now this might sound an obvious thing to say, but often when we read about the past, it’s almost as if we’re reading a fiction – a story which has a beginning, a middle and an end, and in which the characters follow a proscribed route laid down by the author: the narrative line in this instance comprises the text which makes up the tale. Of course life isn’t like this. When we walk, even if we’re going somewhere particular, we walk without knowing what may lie ahead of us. We might well know where we’re going, but how we’ll get there exactly, and what will happen as we travel, is something we only discover in the present moment.
As I wrote as part of a recent exhibition:
The Past is Time without a ticking clock. A place where paths and roads are measured in years. The Present is a place where the clock ticks but always only for a second. Where, upon those same paths and roads we continue, for that second, with our existence.
I want to read history in terms of its seconds – the small spaces within which life really happens. Every second in the present day – every moment – is a lens through which we can glimpse the past, no matter how distant it is. The more we know about the past (in particular the ‘geography’ of whatever we’re researching) the better the picture. But something in the space of every second reminds us, that what happened in the past happened in what was then a present just like ours; something as a simple, for example, as trees blowing in the wind.
The narrative line is like a piece of text; we follow it as we follow the words of a sentence, putting one foot in front of the other. But reading between the lines, we fill the gaps with what we see and experience around us. We are reminded that the stranger was moving all those years ago, unaware of what might lay before him. We become aware that he could feel the wind on his face, that he could see the sky, the river flowing beneath the bridge. And as we think, we realise that he himself was thinking, as was everyone around him – and this is the key to answering the questions I posed at the beginning of this project.
Every second the stranger rode along that line, he was part of a complex web of connections. These moments comprising his story were moments in many others – countless stories in a plot more complex that we can imagine. The more we know about these moments, the more we can picture the scene and all who lived at the time, the better the chance we have of finding answers.
As I walked the length of the line, I looked to my right and glimpsed the 17th century gateway to the Botanic Gardens, and in that gesture, I found a connection with the stranger. The gateway is a witness to the moment I’m researching, and looking at it is one way of asking it for an answer.
Whilst looking through some old research I did a few years ago, I came across the drawing reproduced below of Magdalen Bridge and its environs taken from John Gwynn’s survey of 1772.
It shows the route we know the stranger took – the narrative line of this story – on December 12th 1770 along with the names of those who lived or owned properties bordering the street in 1771/72. Interestingly, my namesake – at least as far as my surname goes – owned property just in front of the old church of St. Clement which was demolished in 1828.
The image below is a drawing of Magdalen Bridge made around 1772 by the German artist John Malchair. Following the passing of the Mileways Act in 1771, Malchair made a number of studies of the old bridge so as to record it for posterity.
With various parts of the mediaeval city threatened because of the Act, Malchair drew a number of views of buildings and structures including the North Gate and Bocardo Prison and Friar Bacon’s study which eventually fell in 1779.
This then is the bridge over which The Gentleman’s Servant crossed with two horses on December 12th 1770.