Updated: Aug 22
The weather was hot enough to want to murder someone. Early summer 2020 was the hottest on record for the UK, and after a day inside of lock down work, at the computer, at meetings, of slow frustrations in a room that was boil-in-the bag hot, I was ready to kill. The last day before self-isolation ahead of my knee replacement surgery. Ready to murder, or to swim. With murderous thoughts on my mind, the evening drive to Wallingford to swim under its historically wonderful bridge seemed about right. Wallingford is where Agatha Christie lived for the last 42 years of her life, in a big house that backed down to the Thames a few hundred meters downstream of Wallingford Bridge. Her home was the model for Danemead, the fictional Miss Marple’s house in the fictional village of St Mary Mead. Wallingford was Miss Marple’ murder-central. About twenty years ago, Claudio and Vita (and Zelda and Marco; and their housekeeper) came to Eynsham while we went to Bologna and the first of several house-swaps. These good friends from Bologna are as cosmopolitan as they come, and Vita now a very glamorous lady of seventy-plus, decided that they should all go to church in Eynsham – they turned heads then, and on their nightly passeggiata around the village. Claudio and Vita love the opera, the old Teatro Communale in Bologna being their local. Claudio swims everyday, but only when in Sardinia. It is good to have a routine, and it is good that their in-laws are in Sardinia. Beyond that, he is a legend of an immunogeneticist of aging, who runs the largest research project in the world on octogenarians. They both have a love of Oxfordshire. Vita still recounts their first encounter with our own hobbit-village of Eynsham – “straight out of Agatha Christie, a Miss Marple around every thatched-cottage corner”. She should have gone to Wallingford, then she would have a deeper story to tell. Maybe for next time, I will suggest it. Vita was Professor of English Literature at the University of Bologna and dealt in topics like primitivism in nineteenth century writing, different waves of feminist writing, but she has fond space for Miss Marple. Agatha Christie was President of the Wallingford Amateur Dramatic Society for a quarter of a century, but most importantly she had been a life-long swimmer, and one of the first women to take up surfing. How could she not resist a dip in the Thames when the bathing platform at the bottom of her garden allowed it so?
Midsomer Murders is also set, in part, in Wallingford, one of the locations of composite-fictional Causton, home to main character Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby, who in the series is sometimes seen wandering around the central Market Place or driving across Wallingford bridge. Looking across the river, I imagine a body floating down, under the bridge, Barnaby accidentally breaking down in his car at rush-hour, traffic piling up at each end of the bridge, Barnaby looking over the bridge casually while waiting for the AA to come, seeing the body, floating down. I look up – no Barnaby. I look across the water – three dark forms floating under the bridge, one after the other. Three – the usual number of murders per week at Midsomer. Reality displaces my imagination as the three dark forms turn out to be wetsuiters swimming back down the river with the flow, finishing at this very beach by this very Wallingford Bridge.
As I muse on Agatha Christie (Miss Marple, Poirot), Midsomer Murders, Inspector Morse, Endeavour, all set in Oxfordshire, or Oxford, it seems surprising that there are any people left living in this The Shire of Tolkien (who had a thing for it too). Decade upon decade of murder, singular, plural, serial, should have depopulated this fair and beautiful county, homicide as primary risk of death. Wallingford seems to be Murder Central then, by a close edge over Oxford, largely because there have been so many more fictional serial killings there. This evening, now, in hot, sweaty murderous mood, I have come to swim at Murder Central, because if I don’t, quite simply, I might murder someone. Perhaps in a novel way - not by poisoning, or blunt instrument or sharp instrument, but by tow-bag. The tow bag gets tangled around the legs, which stop kicking, while the swans in breeding season, no longer deterred by the flapping-kicking of a swimmer take the tangled swimmer as a perch, like a log in the water, and sitting there, three swans in a row, cause the hapless swimmer to drown. Or maybe it takes a little alcohol to get the swimmer tangled in the first place. This is getting too complicated, too unlikely, even with a novel and unlikely bright orange murder-device. I put this in my back-pocket, the one marked 'murder mysteries yet to be written'.
As is oft said, “you never regret a swim”, and the sight of cool Thames water alone brings down the risk of murdering someone, while growing the impatience to get into togs and into water. Here at Murder Central, Pauline and I went from the car park by the river, by the bridge, to a well-trodden well-used beach where there were people lounging on the grass, paddling with toddlers, swimmers gone upstream and down, many murders averted just this evening, just by the coolness of the water. It was warm, it was humid, and the water called, cool, gently flowing from Bridge to Miss Marple’s house. It’s a classic scene, this beach by The Bridge, a biscuit-tin image. Wallingford Bridge was built and rebuilt and reconfigured between the eleven hundreds to the eighteen hundreds, St Pauls Church was built in the seventeen hundreds and completed the sky-line perfectly on the other side of the river. The Thames was welcoming, calm, and steady. Swimming under the bridge, dunking my head, cooling it and making it sane again, stroke after stroke under the central arch, cooing out for the 'echo – echo – echo' of bridge-arch acoustics, looking right and left to the historic banks of this great town, once known for so much more than fictional killings.
William the Conqueror, no less, chose Wallingford in 1067 to build a castle here, one that gave the town royal status across the Middle Ages. The bridge was the first major public work here, documented in 1141. For over 600 years, Wallingford was a hub of England. Now the castle is a beautiful ruin, with fine gardens and tightly-clipped lawns. What else remains? The curfew bell rings every night at 9pm to the present day, the curfew it marked being put in place by William the Conqueror to quell sedition against the French colonisers. And The Bridge of course, having undergone several rounds of building, rebuilding and restructuring; still as beautiful as ever. The fictional murders in and around Wallingford and The Shire and City of Oxford abound and multiply, the fictional bodies pile up, but the water of the Thames keeps flowing, stays just as delightfully swimmable as ever.