Aston’s eyot in literature

Aston’s Eyot features in a few books. You can read some excerpts here.

The Book of the Thames

The Eyot does not feature very frequently in published books, the earliest we’ve found being in The Book of the Thames by ‘Mr & Mrs S.C.Hall’, published in 1859 by Arthur Hall, Virtue, & Co. of London, reprinted several times in the 1970s & 1980s by Charlotte James Publishers, Teddington, Middlesex. It includes the earliest known image of the Eyot (before the New Cut channel of the Cherwell was dug), showing quite large trees on what is now ‘Boathouse Island’, which had disappeared by the 1890s.


At the termination of Christ Church Meadow occurs the junction of the Cherwell and the Thames: the river [Cherwell] … on its arrival at Oxford surrounds an island appertaining to Magdalen College (where it is crossed by a bridge of great beauty), running beside “Addison’s Walk”, waters the bank of the Botanic Gardens, passing by the side of Christ Church Meadow and its tree-embowered walks, and loses itself in the great river [sic] in whose company it journeys to the sea. Our noble old topographer [William] Camden takes the opportunity of this locality for an eloquent praise of the city in his “Britannia” [1586]. He says, “where Cherwell is confluent with Isis, and pleasant aits [=eyots], or islets, lye dispersed by the sundry dissevering of waters, there the famous University of Oxford showeth itself aloft in a champion plaine” [translated from the Latin by Holland, 1637].


The current carries us gently to Iffley Lock, distant about two miles [sic] – rich flat meadows on either side, but the landscape receiving grace and beauty from the hills of Shotover, Bagley Wood and the slope on which stands the fine and very venerable church.

Gaudy Night

Written by Dorothy Sayers 1935, this book contains the only contemporary published mention of the use of Aston’s Eyot as a tip, the ‘corporation dump’. Born in Oxford, Dorothy Sayers was tutored at home in Christ Church college until 15, before returning after boarding school as a student at Somerville College from 1912-1915 and afterwards briefly working for Blackwells – so her memory of the ‘corporation dump’ next to the New Cut may have been from 20 years before the book was published, and the current vegetation does suggest that this area was the first to be dumped and capped.

p.6 (author’s note):

Certain apologies are, however, due from me: first, to the University of Oxford, for having presented it with a Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor of my own manufacture and with a college of 150 women students, in excess of the limit ordained by statute. Next, and with deep humility, to Balliol College-not only for having saddled it with so wayward an alumnus as Peter Wimsey, but also for my monstrous impertinence in having erected Shrewsbury College upon its spacious and sacred cricket-ground. To New College, also to Christ Church, and especially to Queen’s, I apologize for the follies of certain young gentlemen, to Brasenose for the facetiousness of a middle-aged one, and to Magdalen for the embarrassing situation in which I have placed an imaginary pro-Proctor. The Corporation Dump, on the other hand, is, or was, a fact, and no apology for it is due from me.


She was punctual at the bridge, but found Peter there before her. His obsolete politeness in this respect was emphasized by the presence of Miss Flaxman and another Shrewsburian, who were sitting on the raft, apparently waiting for their escort, and looking rather hot and irritable.

It amused Harriet to let Wimsey take charge of her parcel, hand her ceremoniously into the punt and arrange the cushions for her, and to know, by his ironical eyes, that he perfectly well understood the reason of her unusual meekness.

“Is it your pleasure to go up or down?”

“Well, going up there’s more riot but a better bottom; going down you’re all right as far as the fork, and then you choose between thick mud and the Corporation dump.”

“It appears to be altogether a choice of evils. But you have only to command. My ear is open like a greedy shark to catch the tunings of a voice divine.”

“Great heavens! Where did you find that?”

“That, though you might not believe it, is the crashing conclusion of a sonnet by Keats. True, it is a youthful effort; but there are some things that even youth does not excuse.”

“Let us go down-stream. I need solitude to recover from the shock.” He turned the punt out into the stream and shot the bridge accurately.


“Good God!” said Peter, suddenly. He peered with an air of alarm into the dark green water. A string of oily bubbles floated slowly to the surface, showing where the pole had struck a patch of mud; and at the same moment their nostrils were assaulted by a loathsome stench of decay.

“What’s the matter?”

I’ve struck something horrible. Can’t you smell it? It’s scandalous the way corpses pursue me about. Honestly, Harriet…”

“My dear idiot, it’s only the Corporation garbage dump.”

His eye followed her pointing hand to the farther bank, where a cloud of flies circled about a horrid mound of putrefaction.

“Well, of all the-! What the devil do they mean by doing a thing like that?” He passed a wet hand across his forehead. “For a moment I really thought I had run across Mr. Jones of Jesus. I was beginning to be sorry I had spoken so lightheartedly about the poor chap. Here! Let’s get out of this!” He drove the punt vigorously forward.

“The Isis for me. There is no romance left on this river.”


There was a laugh, and a momentary silence. Harriet could feel a nervous tension in the room-little threads of anxiety and expectation strung out, meeting, crossing, quivering. Now, they were all saying to themselves, now something is going to be said about IT. The ground has been surveyed, the coffee has been cleared out of the road, the combatants are stripped for action-now, this amiable gentleman with the well-filed tongue will come out in his true colours as an inquisitor, and it is all going to be very uncomfortable.

Lord Peter took out his handkerchief, polished his monocle carefully, readjusted it, looked rather severely at the Warden, and lifted up his voice in emphatic, pained and querulous complaint about the Corporation dump.

Pride of the morning: an Oxford childhood

Written by Phyl Surman in 1992, the book doesn’t mention the rubbish tip, which presumably had not reached the Kidneys by the early 1920s. Her ‘two small islands’ appear to have been Aston’s Eyot (her Great Kidney) and what is now simply The Kidneys (her Little Kidney) – the camping referred to must have been only on the ‘Little Kidney’, as the Eyot was by then an active dumping ground.


We preferred to swim at the Long Bridges bathing-place. This was reached from our house by crossing the Iffley Road, walking down Fairacres Road, turning right into Parker Street and Warwick Street, then left down Bedford Street which led to Meadow Lane and a cinder track, at the bottom of which lay the free ferry across the Thames. The fields surrounding this track flooded during the winter months but the soggy earth was greatly appreciated by the animals which inhabited a nearby pig-farm. Later an orchard was cut through, giving direct access from Fairacres Road to Meadow Lane, which considerably shortened the journey.

Near to the ferry were two small islands, the Great and Little Kidneys – ‘Ketneys’ in the fourteenth century – separated from the mainland by a backwater. These islands were a favoured spot for campers and for most of the summer the banks would be lined with bell tents, each in its roped enclosure, and identified from its neighbour by an inscribed name-board such as ‘Krushen Villa’ or ‘Seldom Inn’.


Almost without fail, every year [ca.1920], fields beside the river approached by Meadow Lane froze over and offered a fine opportunity for skaters.


I have recently been back to my old haunts to find many changes, some for better some for worse. The Withy brook [Cowley Brook, later Boundary Brook] no longer sparkles and ripples over stepping stone and pebble, but flows dully and uninterestingly through culvert and channel. The lane to the ferry [by Ferry house on Meadow Lane] is completely overgrown and lost to this generation, though it would serve no purpose, for the ferry-boat has been replaced by the Donnington Bridge [in fact it was originally replaced in 1936 by the Free Ferry Footbridge].