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A hundred and fifty million years ago the Cumnor Hills were coral reefs being laid down in a Jurassic sea, and one of the reasons why Oxford is where it is: the coral is so hard that it forces the Thames to loop northwards; Oxford faces it across the river. In some parts of the world the Cumnors would barely be noticed. They are perhaps five miles long, two miles wide, 500 feet high at the most. Four slightly higher points could be called peaks — Cumnor Hill, Hirst Hill (which are in line with each other), and Boar's Hill, which is separated from them by a low saddle or col. Farther west, Beacon and Wytham Hills overlook that bend in the river.

As an undergraduate in the 1840s Matthew Arnold walked there with his friend Arthur Clough. Two of his poems — "Thyrsis" (text, 1862/4) and "The Scholar Gipsy" (text, 1852-53) — are set there. The story, apparently true, he found in Joseph Glanvil's "The Vanity of Dogmatising" (1661). It tells of a student of Oxford who, too poor to pay his way, joins a band of gipsies to learn their lore, which gives them power to control people's minds at a distance and through walls. This knowledge however is quickly forgotten, and the scholar turned gipsy is soon wandering the Cumnor Hills and Berkshire Downs waiting for a spark from heaven.

Outwardly, in places, the landscape must look much as Arnold left it. Rural poverty has gone (the 1870s farming slump was very bad in this area), and most people are well-heeled, which in turn means things are well-preserved; a roses-and-honeysuckle-kind-of-place with healthy yellow lichen on grey garden walls. Hedges between fields are thick with mature trees. Away from the roads there's a great silence save for the rustle of leaves and birdsong in season. The hills are of the gently rolling, folded kind with no timberline — corn can grow over the rounded summits. As you'd expect it's almost as rich in wild flowers as in Arnold's day: elder, campion, foxgloves, dog daisies, cow parsley, convolvulus, wild roses, primroses, blue bells, snapdragons, dead-nettle. By the river you still find purple loosestrife, meadowsweet, and bed straw.

Arnold is at his most graphic in describing the river and the plain fringing the hills. Bablock Hythe in particular won't have changed too much. In the summer of 2008 the ferry was beached, but not abandoned. The Ferry Boat Inn's name is the same, though not the building. A bell for calling the ferryman is still nailed to a willow. Today's ferry, like the old, is essentially a broad beamed punt. Back then, the ferryman hauled on an overhead rope made fast to either bank. Arnold has the Scholar Gipsy reclining in the boat, trailing his hand in the water. This is unlikely: the gunwale was only a few inches high and the crossing couldn't have taken more than three or four minutes (the river really is a stripling here as Arnold says).

Godstow bridge and a lasher — a dialect word for a weir and its pool — appear in the same stanza, though it's unclear how they're related geographically. To start with, the lasher by the bridge is downstream, not upstream as in the poem. On the right bank stand the ruins of Godstow Abbey. On the left is the Trout Inn, again unmentioned although it's prominent and in those days must still have served the rivermen working the upper reaches of the Thames. Here, the river is split by an island, one half pouring over the weir, the other flowing smoothly by on the other side. From down here, too, you can see how exactly right is Arnold's line about 'the warm, green-muffled Cumner Hills'. (The spelling has changed.)

"Thyrsis," which was written as a memorial to Clough, begins with the changes ten or twelve years had made to the Hinkseys on the flank of the Cumnors. Climbing the scarp today would astonish both writer and written-about: a major A-class highway follows the contour of the hill at the same level as East and West Hinksey. Whether you can still see 'the line of festal light in Christ-Church hall' through the snow at Christmas time I doubt. This is no dark Victorian city but a place of light pollution like everywhere else.

It's a November afternoon. The poet takes the path to Childsworth Farm — now Chilsworth — on the northern flank of Boar's Hill looking for the Signal Elm. If it still lives, so does the Scholar Gipsy and the quest goes on. Today a tree, dramatically stark against the sky, is said to be it. Unfortunately it's dead, and in any case is an oak. Of all the hills this one will have changed most. It's densely wooded and dotted all over with very expensive real estate: this is a millionaire's hill (Cumnor is for the merely extremely comfortably off). On the southern flank, preserved for all time, is Arnold's Field, richly green and sloping down to a hollow with a view across the plain to the blue Berkshire moors, the other haunt of the Scholar Gipsy.

Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who uncovered Knossos, lived here in the 1920s. Nearby he built the Jarn Mound as a monument to the poet and the poem and to to give a better view. He was more experienced at excavating than building earthworks: his Mound is too conical, its base too narrow for its height and is therefore, at thirty or forty feet high, a bit unstable. Concrete steps and an iron hand rail get you to the top. (The etymology is obscure as well: a corruption of the French le jardin is one suggestion.) John Masefield lived there and Robert Graves visited when he was up at Oxford after the Great War. For the elderly it's like stepping back in time, particularly walking down the lane, with guelder roses by the wayside, to Wooton on the plain. Only Didcot power station, built to generate electricity for the high energy physics lab, intrudes.

More interesting, maybe, is what Arnold air-brushed out — two whole villages and their churches to begin with. The Scholar Gipsy tells his story, and shows his mind-controlling skill, to two chance-met former comrades in an inn on the hills. In the 1840s there would probably have been a number of ale houses up there; small places of the kind called jerries selling only beer or ale, often brewed at the back. But the demonstration took place in a house with several public rooms which points only to Cumnor village (population around one thousand in the 1840s) and Cumnor is not mentioned in the poem at all. Today there are two pubs there: The Vine and The Bear and Ragged Staff. Either would do.

The etymology of Cumnor is uncertain; perhaps it means 'Cuma's hillside' after an eighth-century Abbot of Abingdon. The abbey owned the hills for centuries. If Cumnor village dominates the summit of the hills, it is in turn dominated by St Michael's, a solid church with a confident tower, on its own hillock. It's eleventh century, if not earlier, in origin but thirteenth-century in construction. Did Arnold ever go inside? In the nave you can hear the ticking of the clock in the tower. The last stroke of the hour reverberates for a good thirty seconds before fading back into the deepest silence. The walls are so thick that the midday summer sun never reaches the floor but stays along the slope of the sills. It insists on nothing; just offers the kind of serenity which comes with time.

In the fourteenth century the Abbey built a big house called Cumnor Place as the abbot's summer residence (the Thames valley was notoriously sultry in summertime). After the Dissolution of the Monasteries the first secular owner was the last abbot. Later Amy Dudley, wife of the Queen's favourite and future Earl of Leicester, was a tenant. In 1560 she was found dead at the foot of the stairs. Foul play? The authorities said not. The villagers thought otherwise: Amy's ghost is said to have haunted the hills for centuries until nine vicars of Oxford drowned her in the village pond, which hasn't frozen over from that day to this. The story's told in Scott's Kenilworth. (Cumnor is also the Lumsdon in Hardy's Jude the Obscure .)

By Arnold's time seven thousand acres of the hills belonged to the Earls of Abingdon. In 1814, the 5th Earl, still in his mid-twenties, enclosed the land hereabouts thus creating the landscape in which Arnold placed the Scholar Gipsy. The Earl lived in Wytham House (renamed Abbey in 1850 for no known reason) at the foot of the escarpment at the western end of the range. Arnold airbrushed all of this out as well.

Wytham is a winding village, without a pond or green, of Oxfordshire stone and thatch. The inn is called the White Hart and probably has connections to Richard II whose badge it was. There's a dove cote, now birdless, but presumably alive in Arnold's day. The village, and the woods and hills behind, are now owned by the University of Oxford and so are a bit lifeless and time-stopped, but over the centuries the parish register records sawyers and millers, shoemakers and cowmen, shepherds and grooms, hurdle makers, butlers and coachmen (in the big house).

All Saints at first sight looks Tudor with a stumpy tower not much higher than the roof, and a bright blue clock face with golden hands and gilded Roman numerals. It was built, in fact, in 1811 by the 26-year old 5th Earl to replace a ruinous church on the same spot. Partly it was built with material from the old church, partly of stones from Cumnor Place, which also sent down some stained glass. The faces are pure Queen Anne, while other figures have unmistakable Victorian — Pre-Raphaelite — features. In front of the first pew is a triangle of organ pipes. Under the belfry is a grey painted gallery with a bright Royal Coat of Arms. The clock chimes tinnily. It's a thoroughly homely little place. Did Arnold not stand there in the silence and look at the corbels with the faces of a nun, a bagpiper, a playing-card king, a man in a mitre? The man in the mitre might even be the young Earl himself. (He was still alive, then in his sixties, when Arnold and Clough passed that way.) The hedge around the churchyard is draped in ivy and the grave stones are lichened into unreadability.

The mill on the Seacourt Stream was also unmissable, although missed out from the poem too. For a couple of miles, this little river flows very rapidly parallel to the Thames. Out on the Wytham flats a leat led out and back to it in a loop. The mill and the miller's house stand on either side while the water wheel would have turned in between. A stone bridge spans the leat, joining two great wooden barns, now like the house and mill abandoned. Self-sewn willows grow everywhere in the damp earth.

In reality, then, the Cumnors are smaller than they seem in the poem and were more up to date and dynamic than Arnold admitted. Robert Graves called him the last of a line of pastoral poets that began with Virgil, and there is something eighteenth century about "The Scholar Gipsy," influenced as it was by Gray's "Elegy." Besides which, Arnold was pre-Victorian by birth. All the same, this is a quest poem, not a pastoral. It fails because Arnold couldn't find what he was looking for. Nevertheless for some, with a different kind of sight, an answer of sorts is in that landscape, and they can see it through the verse, even if the man who wrote it couldn't.


Arnold, Matthew. The Complete Poems. Ed. Kenneth and Miriam Allott. Longman. London. 1987.

Evans, R J W. St Michael's Cumnor. The Church Publishers. Thanet, 2008.

Graves, Robert. Collected Writings on Poetry. Ed. Paul O'Prey. Carcanet Press. Manchester, 1995.

Sparks, Margaret. The Parish of Wytham . Available from The Village Stores, Wytham. 2008.

11 August 2008