Illustration by Yii-Jen Deng
Tucked away in a corner of University Parks awaits a tranquil escape. Although not far from the road, and next to a cycle path where bikes go whistling by every other second, Parson’s Pleasure offers a sense of peace and connection with nature that is challenging to find elsewhere in Oxford. Each time I make the pilgrimage, I feel as if the dew-specked grass and the wisps of trees embrace me. It is a world outside the Oxford bubble, and the perfect spot for reading.
I first visited Parson’s Pleasure to read in Michaelmas 2020. I had a copy of Louis MacNeice’s Autumn Journal, the burnt orange cover complementing the tarnished leaves underfoot. It was a cold, dank day, but the occasional shafts of sunlight dazzling against the Cherwell made my numb fingers worth it. That term, it felt as if a pandemic-shaped sword dangled over us all, and MacNeice’s haunting evocation of an autumn approaching calamity felt a fitting accompaniment. Parson’s Pleasure seemed to sense the mood. Between poems, I would catch glimpses of geese nestling down for the winter in the overgrowth on either riverbank. They pulled sticks, leaves, and other bits of the environment around them, kindling warmth against the inevitable chill. A few days later, a new lockdown was announced and the winter air on my allotted daily exercise seemed to turn to daggers. The memory of reading at Parson’s Pleasure became the shelter I would pull around me, knowing when I returned to Oxford, the world would be a little brighter.
Hilary 2021 was spent in lockdown at home, with my only trips to Parson’s Pleasure in daydreams. In the bleaker moments, I would google the spot’s history for a chuckle. Until 1991, the field was frequented by members of the university as a scene for male-only nude bathing! One story, from Carr-Gorman’s A Brief History of Nakedness, tells that several dons were sunbathing naked when a female student floated by in a punt. The dons raced to recover their modesty, apart from one who instead placed a towel over his head. His explanation? ‘I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but I, at least, am known in Oxford by my face.’ Though a relic of a bygone world, this snippet of folklore speaks to the sparkling charm of Parson’s Pleasure. I found myself all the more eager to go back.
At last, Trinity 2021 arrived and with it the long awaited return. Much had changed since last I was there. A canopy of greens and yellows stretched overhead, so that the trees sang as soft eddies of warm breeze passed by. Where before the ground squelched with mud, now the apple grass flourished and welcomed me to lounge. I spent many happy afternoons nestled within the crook of a tree, slipping between Becky Chambers’ stories of other wondrous worlds and the wondrous world around me. Occasionally my gaze would wander, out across the watercolour portrait of a bright summer’s sky in the Cherwell, interrupted only by picturesque (or more accurately, clumsy) punts meandering along. The laughter and chatter of that summer, the creak of the punt rollers, the zip of bikes, the chirp of birds; there at Parson’s Pleasure, I think I heard the world exhale after a very strange year. My strongest memory of those blissful reading trips was looking up from my book, glancing across the river, only to make eye contact with a deer that had approached the water’s edge. We watched one another for a while – a silent, contemplative exchange – and then the deer returned to the overgrowth and I to my book, a smile hidden behind the pages.
Now, I am glad to spend my first Hilary at Parson’s Pleasure. As snowdrops sprout between the enclaves of tree roots and the days grow longer, it offers the same blissful escape from the hurry of Oxford life as a good book – it is this quality that keeps bringing me back. A favourite reading spot must elevate the book you read, must ring like a tuning fork to the writer’s piano. For me, Parson’s Pleasure offers the exact same wonder, colour and possibility as my favourite books do. I hope this reflection might encourage you to give it a try too.