The Ox-idental Tourist: Parson’s Pleasure, The University Parks

An early twentieth-century a walker in the outskirts of Oxford would have been met with an unexpected sight. Not Tumnus the fawn,  or hairy hobbits, but something decidedly  less magical: bathers in the buff. What’s more, these were no ordinary folk… these were Oxford dons, themselves!

Though defunct since the nineties, Parson’s Pleasure was a popular male-only swimming spot at a quiet bend of the Cherwell in the University Parks—close to a small of an island named Mesopotamia. This bizarre business was at least all very carefully thought out. Female pedestrians on course to the sins of sight were encouraged to take a roundabout path, while those passing in punts were directed to shut their eyes or asked to get out because the men needed to take the punt over the rollers, far too dangerous a task to finesse with delicate ladies still on board. It wasn’t just men though doing the deed, though: women once had a nearby space called the Dame’s Delight to call their own—though by all accounts patrons of this particular watering hole maintained more rigorous codes of dress than the bevies of bathing Brasenose and Balliol men around the corner.

Of course, this being Oxford, there is the obligatory tale of a witty don, true or not who knows, to accompany the quirks of Parson’s Pleasure. Innocently taking in the waters one fine afternoon, a group of bathing tutors suddenly looked up to discover their idyll being disrupted by an encroaching punt— full either of mischievous students, says one account, or of camera-toting Japanese tourists yearning for their killer Kodak moment, says another. While most of the dons scrambled to shield their birthday gems from the measuring gazes of the interlopers, one calmly covered his head with a towel, remarking: ‘Well, gentlemen, my students know me by my face’!

Though the skinny-dippers are now a thing of the past in these parts, their legend lives on. In recent years, Parson’s Pleasure has inspired both the Oxford University Beer Appreciation Society’s Parson’s Pleasure Ale (1996), and a bell-ringing method called the Parson’s Pleasure Surprise Maximus, introduced at the Christ Church Cathedral in September 2010. The incompatibilities are fitting, for in its way Parson’s Pleasure encapsulates the bizarre union of high and low that is so often found beneath the surface at Oxford. Yes, it is a city of robes and gowns, but even here the most formal of attire and attitudes are sometimes shed very easily…

Alice Tsay