11. The Punts, the Kingfisher and the Otter

Photo: John Cairns

The harbour, with its punts, has been at the heart of Wolfson College since it opened on the Cherwell in 1974. Part of the architectural genius of the College is that, though the initial impression on arriving along Linton Road is of a low building with only two storeys, by the time you get down to the water’s edge at the harbour it has become five storeys high. The ground slopes sharply down, but the lines of the building, the flatness of the lawns, and the groundwork which preceded the construction all give a sense of horizontality which supports the atmosphere of calm in a college full of researchers.

The first three punts launched into the harbour were not numbered 1,2 and 3, but instead 15, 47, and 60. This was a nod to the first homes of Wolfson College: on 15 Banbury Road from 1966 (what is now the IT Centre), and then from 1968 47 and 60 Banbury Road (now part of Kellogg College). The punts are now one of the most striking features of the College, launched into the water each April and pulled out every October. They are overseen by that most ancient of the College offices, the Admiral of the Punts.

Photo: George Mather

The harbour hosts our very own kingfisher and in recent years we have also seen otters come down the river and enter the harbour.

In the long hot summer of 2022, the harbour dried out almost completely, as pictured. There is now much less risk of a complete drought in the harbour, providing the sluice gates down stream are correctly managed at the University Parks in Mesopotamia, at Magdalen College’s King’s Mill, and at Holywell Mill.

Photo: Tim Hitchens

Late winter regularly sees flooding, with the island disappearing under water. The meadows across the river are a natural flood plain (part of the reason they are so rich and biodiverse, since every year they received alluvial deposits). So far there have never been floods so high that they threaten the residents of the College. When the College was designed the architects raised the building 60cm above the 1947 flood level which is the highest ever recorded flood on the Cherwell to date. This has so far never been superseded.

Tim Hitchens