Fording Streams – Oxford, UK

by Graduate Theological Foundation • January 23, 2020
Guest Post from Dr. Jim Keating, GTF alumnus

Can you believe it?  In England, not far from Oxford, there are still places where drivers “ford” streams.  What exactly is “fording,” you might ask, and this is a good question.  Although we don’t use the term much in everyday speech, a ford denotes a shallow place in a river or stream where a person can easily walk across.  In today’s world we might more accurately say a person “drives” across the stream.  This is without the aid of a bridge.

In England, in centuries past, it was common for communities to place large flat stones over the creek so pedestrians could walk from one side to another without having to wade in the water.  

Today it can mean that, but it might also mean a place where the water is sufficiently shallow for cars to drive through without being swept away by the current.

In previous times, perhaps stretching back over 1,000 years, these fords were places where farmers could drive cattle, or carters could take produce in a cart from one side of a river to another.  English place names note where such shallow spots were located.  Therefore, we have names such as:  Bradford, Chelmsford, Hereford, and of course, Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare’s hometown.  And, naturally, for those interested in study at the Oxford Summer Schools, we cannot forget the name of the city, Oxford!

The city was once known as Oxenford which meant, of course, a place where oxen could ford the river Isis; that is, it was the place the animals could walk through the shallow water from one side to another.  About one thousand years ago, Oxenford was the name of the area we now know by its world-renowned name, Oxford. (Incidentally, the River Isis is the name of the Thames from its source north of Oxford to a spot south of the city where it meets the Thame, and thereafter it is known as the Thames, with the final “s” added.  To confuse the matter further, the ancient name for the river was the Thamesis and this might be an invention of the Romans who were trying to make sense of the confusion, but only added to it.  The history of the English Language presents us with many oddly-derived place names and it makes the study of etymology so much fun to do.)

As noted above, many fords have stepping stones so it is possible to walk from one side of the stream to another.  In England this makes great sense because walking in the countryside is a common and popular activitiy.  Naturally, people out walking would not want to return home with soggy boots, so such fords along footpaths are pretty common.

You won’t have to go too far from Oxford to see fords and I would especially recommend going to the Visitor’s Center in the Broad Street opposite Trinity College, and taking a tour with one of the drivers who offer their vans.  These tour operators will take half a dozen tourists or so on day- trips to small villages, through the country-side, and to many locations that a regular tour bus could never go.  (The roads are quite narrow in the country so the big busses don’t fit…a mini van is perfect.) My experience is that the drivers are wonderful and the other tourists  you meet (from all over the globe) are invariably friendly.  Such a tour would make an interesting break from studies and it is a delight to see the countryside.

Anyway, there are not many places left where “fording” is an accepted and normal process for crossing streams.  So it is interesting to see fords in places they have existed for centuries and where you today and also ford the streams or walk across the stepping stones.

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