To travel from where I live in East Oxford to the city centre or further to West Oxford, using the towpath along the river is frequently the most convenient route. Although the journey does not involve much contact with the picturesque scenery provided by Oxford University itself, the route does touch on aspects of the University as well as non-University life.
“Edgelands” is a rather slippery term, being often defined by what it is not rather that what it is. One of the agreed characteristics is as an interface, generally between urban and rural landscape. In that sense the river through Oxford doesn’t fit; it is very much inside the city, and doesn’t much act as a physical boundary. I suggest however that it can be considered as a sociological interface, a space unclaimed by a particular group.
I want to explore the idea of the river here as ‘shared space’; a place where all those who live or work in Oxford can use with little distinction. Although the phrase “Town vs. Gown” no longer has any sense of conflict, at an institutional level the University and the City are two very distinct entities. For the individual however the distinctions are much less clear, and the river is one place where they more or less disappear.
Before I begun this work I had in mind Nadav Kander’s project “Yangtze, the Long River”. Although he uses the river as a basis for his work, his focus is on the dispossessed, those left behind by the rapid economic growth in China. Apart from the occasional rough sleeper the river in Oxford has nothing in common with Kander’s view. Alec Soth has also used a river as the basis for enquiry, although his work “Sleeping by the Mississippi” concentrates much more on the people. He is more interested in those who reject traditional society and use the river to make a place of their own.
Both projects describe how people make a place from an available space (more in Soth’s work, and the merest trace in Kander’s). The towpath here though is a place of its own already; people are largely transient. Even those with permanent moorings who call it home do not affect the place very much. In the sense that “place” is just a space affected by the people using it, the towpath can be seen as both a place and a space.
I have tried to use images that evoke this sense of shared space. All – apart from one- were taken in sunny conditions. This was a deliberate choice as I wanted to emphasise the positive aspects of this part of the river as an interface. Two are of objects seen along the way rather than of the landscape itself as I feel these are still helpful in describing the environment. Not all specifically depict the river itself; individually these may not demonstrate the required context but as part of the overall group they still get across the idea I wish to illustrate here.
Alec Soth | Sleeping by the Mississippi (s.d.) At: https://alecsoth.com/photography/projects/sleeping-by-the-mississippi (Accessed on 27 August 2019)
Yangtze, The Long River – Nadav Kander (s.d.) At: https://www.nadavkander.com/works-in-series/yangtze-the-long-river/ (Accessed on 27 August 2019)