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Alice journeyed in Frideswide's wake
Alice and Frideswide were two girls who took boats along the same stretch of the Thames, both rowing past Osney where this newspaper office stands today. One started her journey from where the other finished it. They could almost have met as they were sculled along — probably in both cases by clergymen — except for one small point: the timing was wrong; by about 1,200 years.
Frideswide arrived at the place that Alice Liddell later called home — namely Christ Church — in about 703 AD; and there she founded her priory next to the oxen ford (around which the city of Oxford was to grow). Alice set out from the same spot — though by then a bridge had been built to replace the old ford — about 300 years after St Frideswide’s Priory had been dissolved.
In a way both river journeys celebrate anniversaries this year: a city grew up around that oxen ford, namely Oxford, and that city was mentioned for the first time in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 912; and the 150th anniversary of that Golden Afternoon of July 4, 1862 — when Alice joined a boisterous boatload of girls and parsons, and first heard of her Adventures in Wonderland — fell yesterday.
Alice was, of course, the ten-year-old daughter of Dean Henry Liddell of Christ Church. Fellow travellers aboard the boat, hired from Salters Boatyard — which still exists in the shadow of Folly Bridge — were her sisters, Lorina, 13, and Edith, eight; the Rev Robinson Duckworth, a fellow of Trinity College; and, of course, Rev Charles Dodgson, otherwise known as Lewis Carroll, who responded to the children’s constant refrain of “Tell us a story” by producing the tales that later featured in the famous books. Alice said much later that the stories “lived and died like summer gnats”, implying that some had flickered alive, caused girlish laughter, and then died, forgotten forever.
The concept of time fascinated Dodgson, whether it was the millennium-and-a-bit that separated his journey upstream from Frideswide’s downstream, or the split-second existence of an absurd idea. At the mad tea party for instance, where Alice first heard the story about the three little sisters who lived at the bottom of a treacle well, the Hatter told Alice: “I dare say you never even spoke to Time!!” “Perhaps not”, Alice cautiously replied: “but I know I have to beat time when I learn music.”
“Ah! that accounts for it,” said the Hatter. “He won’t stand beating. Now if you only kept on good terms with him, he’d do almost anything you liked with the clock.”
Then, later, when Dodgson had become rich from the proceeds of the Alice books, he became intrigued by the new but expensive technology of photography, freezing Alice, for instance, as an eternal little girl with the click of a shutter. Perhaps photography even inspired Through the Looking Glass, since he saw a back-to-front world through the lens of his camera.
But the shade of Frideswide did visit their boat that afternoon. For as their craft passed Binsey, on the way to the ruins of Godstow nunnery, Dodgson told that story of the Treacle Well, and of course there really is a treacle well in St Margaret’s churchyard at Binsey, with treacle here meaning “healing balm”. And the well was allegedly brought into being by St Frideswide in order to restore the sight of a Danish prince who had been struck blind while paying her amorous but unwelcome attention.
Alice, too, looking back along the river of time, gave St Frideswide material form. Her art teacher was none other than John Ruskin and she was a competent wood carver. She carved the door, now in St Frideswide’s Church, Botley Road (built between 1851-1861), showing Frideswide arriving at Binsey. She originally carved the door for the mission church of St Frideswide at Poplar, London. It was badly bombed in the Second World War and closed in 1953.
Both girls knew princes, too. Frideswide, her Dane; and Alice, the Duke of Albany, fourth son of Queen Victoria who was an undergraduate at Christ Church, with whom she had an intense friendship. She called her son Leopold after him, and he called his daughter Alice, after her.
As Dodgson asked: “Life. What is it but a dream?”
Alice’s Day — see food and listings pages