Hawthorn and elder

In April the hedgerows along the river and in Oxford’s open spaces burst out in white blossom. Much of this was hawthorn, but some was blackthorn — a traditional hedging and therefore also boundary-setting resource.

The Oxfordshire Wildlife and Landscape Study notes the prominence of hawthorn in hedges throughout the floodplain.

I’m told young hawthorn shoots are good to eat – but by the time I was told this, the young-bud season was over.

Elderflowers followed. My neighbour made a tasty elderflower cordial, and gave me some.

My grandmother – who grew up in rural Surrey — used to make elderflower wine. Also dandelion and elderberry. It stood in big stone jars on the kitchen floor. My cousin sent me recipes she preserved, in the form of newspaper clippings in her recipe book.

Recipes for elderflower and elderberry wines follow. Also for dandelion wine. My mother remembers: ‘As children we would get a halfpenny for a lb. of dandelion heads (which included the weight of the basket and a few stones that we added).’

Elderflower Wine (1) 1 pint elderflowers,  1 gallon water, 3 ½ lbs white sugar, ½ lb raisins, 3 sliced lemons, ½ oz yeast. Pick the flowers off the thick main stems and put them in a pan with the water and simmer for 15 minutes. Put in a bowl and add sugar, chopped raisins and lemons. Stir until sugar is dissolved. When lukewarm sprinkle the yeast on top. Leave to ferment for 14 days then remove scum and strain very gently into another jar, being careful not to disturb the sediment. Then bottle. It is like champagne.

Elderflower Wine (2) 1 gallon elderflower (no fleshy green stems), 1 gallon water, 3 lbs sugar, rind and juice of 3 lemons, 1 oz yeast.Boil the water and sugar together for 10 minutes. Put the flowerlets and lemon rind into a bowl, pour over the boiling liquid then add the lemon juice. When lukewarm add the yeast by sprinkling it on top. Leave 4 days then strain. Leave to stand for 3 weeks before bottling, corking loosely.

Elderberry Wine 1 gallon elderberries, 1 gallon water, 3lbs sugar.Strip the elderberries from the fleshy stems. Add the water and boil together for 15 minutes. Strain and throw the pulp away. Add the sugar to the liquid and let it ferment for 14 days; then skim and bottle. Keep a year.

Dandelion Wine 1 gallon dandelion flower petals, 1 gallon boiling water, 1 orange, 1 lemon, 3 lbs sugar, an inch of whole ginger – well bruised, ½ oz yeast on a slice of toast.Wash the dandelion flowers as they are always gritty, then cover them with boiling water. Let them stand for 3 days, stirring often, before squeezing all the flowers out. Put the liquid into a pan, add the thinly pared rind off the lemon and orange, the sugar and ginger, and the lemon and orange sliced. Boil for 30 minutes. Let cool. Then spread the yeast on toast and float in the liquid. Ferment for 6 days then strain and bottle, corking loosely until all fermentation ceases.

Elder and copper beech

Meadow Lane Nature Park and Oriel Meadow

Meadow Lane Nature Park and Oriel Meadow lie along the Thames on the south-eastern side of Donnington Bridge, down from the City of Oxford Rowing Club building and Salter’s boat yard. Like the Kidneys and Aston’s Eyot, they have different owners and different characters. Whoever may have owned and managed them when they were meadows, by the mid nineteenth century much if not all of this land had passed into the hands of the city.

The city still owns the Meadow Lane Reserve, which is a tangle of shrubs (including plenty of hawthorn), and blackberry bushes, through which a path loops down to the river and back. Oxford Conservation Volunteers call it ‘an idyllic meadow’ but concede that ‘in recent years the meadow has been allowed to scrub over, which has made survival of rarer species more difficult’. They have plans to recover more of its meadow character. The Boundary Brook, which at one point marked the eastern boundary of the city, runs through in a concrete channel.

Oriel Meadow has a more complex history. Oriel first acquired a share here in 1861, when it swapped its post-enclosure holding in what’s now termed the Burgess Field, alongside Port Meadow, for a slice of the city’s land on the waterfront. This was thirty years before Christ Church bought Aston’s Eyot – but evidently colleges saw waterfront properties as attractive at this time, when organised leisure was becoming a more regular part of college life. Like Christ Church, Oriel did nothing much with its new holding. After the war, the level of the land was raised, and it was used for a while as a rubbish dump – unclear whether this was under the auspices of the city. That use had been phased out by the 1970s, when the college acquired more land alongside (though part of the field remains in other hands). At one point, the college considered developing it as a sports field, but that never came to pass.

In 2018, Oriel found a new use for the land as a memorial to the college’s First World War dead. To that end, it’s been planted with small trees, which, with the passage of time, will give this strip of ground a more distinctive character. It may return to use as pasture.

A nettle-strewn path runs along the edge of the field and gives views over the river.

Edited to add information about the Oxford Conservation Volunteers’ interest in Meadow Lane Nature Park. Information about the history of Oriel Meadow from Oriel College.

Flood meadows

Meadows are fields laid down to grass, for hay or pasture. Narrowly understood, meadows are for hay, though they were customarily opened for grazing after the hay harvest. The term is sometimes more loosely applied to pastures, and also to places that were managed as meadows in the past. Flood meadows, along rivers, have existed for centuries. By contrast, ‘water meadows‘, irrigated by specially dug channels, were established especially across southern England in the early modern period, Water meadows need lots of technology to support them, but flood meadows too need enough but not too much water, and can decline if changes in water use or inadequately maintained drainage mean that the land becomes either too dry [Andrea McDowell report] or too wet. There are local examples of both.

Oxford’s multiple rivers and streams made flood meadows a good option. Archaeologists suggest that, in the late Iron Age, the Thames floodplain was grazing land, but, under the Romans, parts were managed as hay meadows (and some parts were ploughed — though less so as flooding became more common, with land clearance).

With many centuries of history behind them, flood meadows remain a prominent local landscape type — unusually prominent, by national standards. The map shows (in light green wash) floodplain areas that may have been meadows or pastures as late as the early nineteenth century, and – by means of name tags — areas either still called meadows, or managed as meadow or pastureland today. (The names we give meadows now are often not their historic names, which were in many instances less generic, more particular).

Rough indication of extent of meadowland, 1830, plus current meadows (maps.nls.uk). Colour-scheme explained below.

The map highlights current systems of management. Some of the ‘meadows’, variously owned, are recognised as SSSIs (sites of special scientific interest), and are managed with an eye to preserving certain kinds of biological habitat (though they may be grazed and indeed commercially let). Their names are in green.  Some are owned and managed by the Oxford Preservation Trust, or in the case of Iffley Meadows by the BBOWT (Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust) with similar objectives, though they lack SSSI status. Their names are in bright light blue.

Some, variously owned, are managed by the City Council essentially as public amenities (thus Oxpens Meadow, Angel and Greyhound Meadow, and see also the Kidneys). Their names are in brown. Management regimes in meadows directly controlled by colleges (in maroon) are diverse: Magdalen’s are treated as part of college grounds (though normally accessible to the public); Christ Church’s are grazed, but surrounded by a public walk – though its Long Meadow is not open to the public, while Oriel’s has been planted as a memorial field. Merton has recently committed to managing their Music Meadow and Great Meadow so as to promote biodiversity. Wolfson’s North and South Meads appear to be being managed as meadows. (Christ Church in the summer of 2020 also committed to a ‘Meadow Restoration‘ scheme.) Ownership patterns and management regimes criss-cross in complex ways: Magdalen, for example, also owns Angel and Greyhound Meadow, but has vested management of that in the City Council.

Oxpens Meadow (beside the ice rink): a public amenity

In Botley, the name ‘meadow’ survives only in the names of allotments: ‘Botley meadow’; ‘Twenty pound meadow’, ‘Cripley Mead’. Osney Mead is now an industrial estate. The name of King’s Mead is ingloriously preserved in commercial buildings on the Oxpens Road and in Osney Mead estate.

Meadows once formed part of the manorial economy, and some were allocated to tenants by lot, a practice preserved in old field names. Others though were managed as part of desmesne land. The trend was towards letting them to single tenants. Enclosure – meaning in this context reorganising common lands in severalty – proceeded piecemeal, and led to more concentration of ownership, and sometimes conversion to pasture. Victoria County History entries on Port Meadow and other meadows attached to the city, to Marston and to Cowley document some of these developments. Colleges appear variously in the history as participants in the lot system; as owners leasing out meadows to tenants; and as nineteenth-century purchasers of recently enclosed meadow lands – in some instances then converting these to sports fields. Hogacre Common was purchased by Corpus for use as a sports field, but is now run as an eco-park. Pembroke’s adjoining land still serves as a sports ground. Floodplain meadows don’t on the face of it make good building land, but their elevation varies, and some, wisely or not, have been built upon: thus Iffley Fields was once the‘High Mead’.

Some meadows were ploughed at some point before acquiring a long-term role as meadows. Old ploughing practices, on land not ploughed by modern methods, may leave their mark in ‘ridge and furrow’. There are several patches of ridge and furrow in Marston Meadows, and – to my eye, and satellite views suggest – in the field on the Thames that lies between University College and Hertford boathouses.

Ridge and furrow in pasture opposite Aston’s Eyot?

Given growing concern to preserve and indeed increase biodiversity, loss of meadowland across Europe (associated with changes in ways of producing animal feed, as well as building and other development), has prompted efforts to preserve those which survive and to manage them in ways that foster diversity of plant, insect and other wildlife. One by-product of this has been lavish documentation of both the history and the biological features of some Oxford meadows, especially those with SSSI status, such as Port Meadow and New Marston Meadows, though see also the Oxford Preservation Trust’s Hinksey Meadow.

Hay mowing, Pixey Mead, July; cows on the meadow, Iffley meadows, August

This post incorporates [in the form of the 1830 OS map] historical material provided by the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth through their web site A Vision of Britain through Time (http://www.VisionofBritain.org.uk). It’s used under this licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ I have edited the map to identify the locations of meadows.

This post has been revised to incorporate more material about Cherwell Meadows, arising from my Cherwell walk. Also to include pictures of hay mowing and cows grazing, as observed summer 2020.

The Kidneys and Aston’s Eyot

Though I’ve lived in my house for over thirty years, and the Kidneys and Aston’s Eyot are about five minutes’ walk away, until the pandemic hit, I had never visited them. I walked along the towpath, but that took me somewhere. By contrast, these were dead ends, and I saw no reason to enter them. Shortly before lockdown, my neighbour took me on a distanced walk through them. Completely disoriented (above all in Aston’s Eyot, where sightlines are too short to help), I was amazed by their vast extent (they’re a decent size, but probably we also went round in at least one circle without my realising that). During the lockdown period, I’ve taken my exercise in them many times, and become less bewildered.

The Kidneys and the Eyot adjoin, and a small footbridge joins one to the other. But they’re differently owned and managed. The plural form Kidneys reflects the fact that historically there were two, this being the Great, with the Little across the river. But I’ll follow modern usage in applying the plural to erstwhile Great Kidney. ‘The Kidneys’ (in this sense) are owned and managed by the City; the Eyot is owned by Christchurch, though managed by the ‘Friends of Aston’s Eyot’. The City supplies relatively little information about the history or current character of the Kidneys – one reason it took me a while to figure it out;  the Friends have lots to say about the Eyot.

Physically, they’re now very different kinds of space. The Kidneys is mainly open space, with ranges of trees. The Eyot is largely wooded, with lots of shrubs and small trees. There’s no grass in the Eyot: the main ground cover is nettles (though there are well-marked paths). From the river, they’re also distinguishable. The Eyot presents to the river a continuous strip of trees, such that it’s known to rowers as ‘Green Bank‘. The Kidneys are more patchily fringed with trees, and look more open.

Green bank’

The difference in their aspects is striking because, two hundred years ago, they were probably very similar. They were both meadowland, in the loose popular sense, that can include pasture (so Port ‘Meadow’ is actually pasture). Access to both is still through ‘Meadow Lane’. The 1830s OS map (which is short on detail) shows them both as open land.

Kidneys and Eyot OS map 1830s (see note at end for source)

The 1830s OS map suggests the size of the stream around Aston’s Eyot (then the main course of the Cherwell). It’s hard to separate roads and watercourses around Great Kidney on this map, but the 1830 Iffley enclosure map shows a watercourse surrounding it too. By contrast, the 1880s-1914 OS map, compiled after the making of the New Cut which reduced the flow round Aston’s Eyot, suggests that by that point part of this watercourse had been filled in, though a significant southern inlet remained. That was further truncated in the twentieth century, to allow for the establishment of allotments on the site).

Kidneys and Eyot 1880s (maps.nls.uk)

Distinct patterns of ownership go back centuries. Aston’s Eyot was long owned by All Souls. It seems they leased it out, because in 1799 a Thomas Glascow advertised in Jackson’s Oxford Journal that the meadow was available for those who wanted to ‘depasture’ horses or cows on it from 20 August (that is, after the hay harvest) until 1 January — at a price. Christ Church acquired it when housing development to the west gave it strategic importance in warding off any threat to the environs of the college’s sacrosanct Meadows.

The Kidneys, by contrast, was meadow land for the parish of Iffley. Little Kidney lay at the tip of ‘Iffley island’; it was the islet in what’s now Longbridges. Both Kidneys lay within Berkshire (as did what’s now called Iffley meadows ). Iffley parish extended northwards up alongside the Greater Kidney to somewhere around Daubeny Road/Bedford St. North of that, and east of what’s now the Iffley road, was Cowley parish, lying within Oxfordshire. Cowley Meadows, after their enclosure in the 1850s, were fairly quickly developed for housing. The enclosure of Iffley’s common fields had been sanctioned earlier, by an act of 1830, but this northern part wasn’t much developed until later. In any case, these waterfront meadows needed flood-compatible use.

Differences in ownership don’t suffice to explain the (greater) Kidneys’ and the Eyot’s subsequently different trajectories, none the less. Because by the early twentieth century, both were under the control of the City Council. The City had become the owner of the Kidneys (on the OS map, note the associated ‘Corporation Bathing Place’); it later sited allotments alongside Great Kidney. Meanwhile Christ Church, having abandoned its original plan of extending meadow walks over the Eyot, decided to let the Council determine its use. The City used both as dumps — but whereas the Kidneys took builders’ waste, the Eyot became a depot for household rubbbish – much of which survives, despite the depradations of bottle diggers, under a thinnish layer of soil. As this photo suggests, as a result of the dumping, the Eyot came to stand higher than the Kidneys, so to be less prone to flooding. In the photo, the Eyot stands above the floodwaters, joined to the land by Jackdaw Lane, demarcated to the right by water in the New Cut. The different dumping uses, the ravages of bottle diggers, and then the actions taken by those who set out to save the Eyot between them produced the differences in ground cover that are so notable today.

Thames from the Kidneys, early May 2020

It’s taken me a while to work out historic boundaries and patterns of ownership around here, and I’ve changed the detail a few times, but I think (Feb 2021) that I’ve got it right now. Thanks to Stephanie Jankins for the JOJ reference.

This post incorporates [in the form of the first map] historical material provided by the Great Britain Historical GIS Project and the University of Portsmouth through their web site A Vision of Britain through Time (http://www.VisionofBritain.org.uk). It’s used under this licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/ .

Ferries

Where there are many watercourses and not so many bridges, fords and ferries can provide alternatives. For centuries, fords and ferries served travellers coming in and out of Oxford, and moving around in its hinterland. It seems, though, that as main routes came to be better equipped with bridges, ferries acquired a new purpose, to serve ramblers and attract them to waterside pubs. They came to be fun rather than functional.

Because Oxford sits amidst a Y-shape of water, travellers to and from the east, south and west all have to reckon with river crossings. Originally Oxford itself was a community served by fords, but by the end of the middle ages, main roads immediately around the city were all equipped with bridges. Starting from the centre and heading westwards, Hythe bridge offered a route across Castle Mill Stream, after which Osney Bridge carried the route across Osney Mill Stream; a sixteenth-century bridge took it also across the Bullstake stream and on towards Botley, avoiding the need to veer southwards via a ford. Folly Bridge spanned the Thames to the south, and gave access to the route towards Abingdon, The old causeway that proceeded onwards by fords across the Hinksey and related streams was in the sixteenth or seventeenth century improved by the building of three bridges across these streams.  To the east, Magdalen Bridge offered passage across the Cherwell.

Medieval/early modern bridges in and out of Oxford

Further out, though, bridges were fewer and came later. To cross the river at Marston, to the north-east, the traveller needed a ferry, commemorated in the name of Marston Ferry Road. (Oxford University Images holds a photograph). A bridge was supplied only in 1971. At Donnington, a ferry operated until a footbridge was constructed in 1937; a road bridge followed in 1962. Immediately prior to the opening of Marston Ferry and Donnington bridges, these ferries were not in heavy use: most traffic and all car traffic favoured roads with bridges. The new bridges changed the way people moved around the outskirts of the city, and facilitated suburban development. Meanwhile, southwards along the Thames there were ferries at Iffley and Sandford (where now there are footbridges over locks).

Western approaches presented more challenges. From the 1750s, the major artery circled a little above what’s now the A40: the road through Eynsham and Yarnton was turnpiked at that date. That route avoided a Thames crossing by maintaining a course north of Wytham, after which access to the south could be had via the Woodstock or Banbury Roads. But if one sought to make the passage further south, things became more difficult, because the Thames looped around the hills of Wytham and Cumnor, flowing S-N up to Wytham, around the high ground, and then N-S through Medley and Port Meadow. So anyone coming from the west and seeking a more southerly passage had to cross the river twice, and the hills between to boot, and this at a point when the south-flowing section of the Thames ramified into multiple streams and streamlets (not the same set of streams and streamlets as today: the modern waterscape is the work of a 1790s Navigation Commission. Before then, the main course of the Thames at this point ran via the Bullstake stream.)

Despite the challenges, it was not uncommon for travellers heading towards Oxford to strike south-east across the Thames from Eynsham to Swinford, on the river, there to cross, by ford or ferry as they chose, then either to surmount the hill at Wytham, or to pass on its southern flank and head towards Botley. From the road over Wytham, one could head to Wolvercote, or there were fords at Godstow or Binsey which gave access to Port Meadow (The Towpath Walk in Oxford identifies three different fording points around Binsey). Alternatively, from the sixteenth century, a causeway ran from Botley towards the city. In the 1760s, the Eynsham-Botley route, through the hills, was itself turnpiked: a toll bridge was established at Swinford (which still operates). After crossing the hills, the turnpike road ran south to Botley and then across seven bridges into the city.

Two routes from Eynsham to Oxford, from the 1830s OS map (maps.nls.uk)
Surviving milestones chart the two routes in to or out of Oxford – The Milestone Society https://www.msocrepository.co.uk/google-earth-maps-new/ Visualisation from Google Earth 2016 using Landsat Copernicus imagery.

From Stanton Harcourt to Oxford, also showing Botley road (maps.nls.uk)

A still more southerly option involved taking the ferry after Stanton Harcourt, at Babelock Hythe, then passing via Cumnor to ‘Ferry Hinksey’, where a ferry offered passage across the most formidable of the streams. The modern pub The Fishes stands by the right of way to the ferry. The ferry has been replaced by a footbridge across a stream, whose now usually slight flow is the legacy of the work of the Navigation Commissioners. Ferry Hinksey is now North Hinksey – renamed, not when the ferry ceased to exist, but when it ceased to be important — but Ferry Hinksey Road preserves the name.

Site of former Hinksey ferry

The best fords crossed rivers on stone causeways and required serious maintenance work. Ferries were usually rafts – well suited to animal traffic – or shallow punts, also called ‘static punts’, pulled across the water by an overhead rope. Some ferries were served by a ferryman, but others were self-operating. Ferries were often associated with pubs: thus The Ferryman at Babelock Hythe, the Fish (precursor to the Fishes) at Hinksey, the Isis by what’s now Donnington Bridge, and the Ferry (now the Victoria Arms) at Marston. A surviving photo of the Victoria Arms publican (who had grown up in the pub, started life as a boatbuilder, then took over from his father) shows him posed as if to operate the punt ferry. Ferrymen might work at the pub, or be employed by the pub (there’s also mention of ferry lasses).

As longer-distance travel was redirected through more convenient, bridged routes, ferries came mainly to serve very local communities and people at leisure. The association with pubs encouraged the latter. The ferry at Babelock Hythe became the end point of rambles from Oxford (it’s perhaps telling that it had once been called the Chequers but was renamed the Ferryman, advertising its selling point). The ford at Binsey, by the Perch, was replaced by a ferry in the later nineteenth century. Self-operating punt ferries operated at some point across the Cherwell by Christchurch Meadows and again at Ferry Road, Marston, but these too may have been modern conveniences, rather than markers of traditional routes.

The Victoria Arms at Marston Ferry – old postcard

Such simple ferries could serve more mundane functions, however. A self-operating punt ferry departing from Ferry st (now Combe st) in Jericho carried workers across the canal to various industrial employments on the other side.

(Joan Tucker’s Ferries of the Upper Thames [2012] is the source of most of the information here, though she doesn’t cover the Cherwell, and some of the interpretation is mine).

I have revised this to incorporate the map using Milestone Society/Google Earth data, and links to the image of Marston Ferry from Oxford University images. Thanks also not to Stephanie Jenkins for the Victoria Arms postcard.

Nettles

Unlike bluebells, which like undisturbed woodland, nettles flourish in disturbed ground. You don’t find them much in meadows, but they’re all over former landfill sites and dumps. Not in Port Meadow, but in the Burgess Field; not in Iffley meadows, but in Oriel meadow (a former dump). They’re particularly profuse in Aston’s Eyot, which in the early twentieth century was the Corporation dump. Aston’s Eyot boasts a ‘Nettle Plain’. But they’re also plentiful around Mesopotamia walk.

Nettle glade, Aston’s Eyot

Nettles may have green or red stems. In Aston’s Eyot, sometimes nettles with different coloured stems oppose one another on different sides of the path.

Not all flowers with nettle like leaves are nettles. ‘Dead-nettles’ are often found with nettles, but tend to be smaller, have bulbous white flowers and don’t sting. Green alkanet or bugloss has blue flowers.

Young nettles are good to eat or drink. A very abundant and under-used superfood that is very easy to identify if a little painful to collect without gloves.’  I can recommend this soup.  I’m told they make good omelettes, and can be used to make crisps or wine. They taste a bit like spinach. Dead-nettles and bugloss are also edible, though less tasty. From about June, not only are nettles less tender, but it’s said they may have a laxative effect.

Nettle soup, with cheese and wine from Oxford Cheese and Oxford Wine companies

Iffley meadows and island

What first drew me out of my house after some weeks of sheltering in (and working on) my house and garden, at the start of the pandemic, was a desire to see the snake’s head fritillaries which – as one of my neighbours posted on the Residents’ Association Facebook page – had come into bloom in Iffley Meadows. Alerted to their existence by BBOWT, I had in a previous year tramped around the approximate area looking for them, but probably I had the timing wrong. It seemed best to seize the moment.

A review on Trip Advisor  suggests that Iffley meadows ‘are a pretty dull expanse of muddy (even flooded) grassland much of the year, too damp and too exposed for most recreational activities’, though concedes that they come alive in fritillary season. But they have other attractions too. Fritillaries give way to a sea of meadow buttercups; there are splendid pollarded willows, a river frontage, and an open landscape, with many subtly coloured reedy views.

In the middle ages, the area bounded by Weirs Mill Stream to the west and the Thames to the east, that is, the long strip of land across the river from Iffley village, was called ‘Berry Mead‘. The original spelling suggests that this meant barley mead. Oxford Conservation Volunteers call it  ‘Iffley island’. It’s a good example of one of the many eye-of-the-beholder ‘islands’ of the region. Though the bridges which join it to the ‘mainland’ north and south (at Longbridges and on the outskirts of Kennington), two humped bridges, are obvious enough when you cross them, it doesn’t feel like an island, so much as a bit of river frontage with another stream at the back. The term ‘Iffley meadows’ is applied to the meadows south of Donnington bridge. Though in fact historically they mostly belonged to Wootton, three miles off and up the hillside to the west, to which hay had to be carted on the old ‘hay road‘. The Longbridges nature reserve in the northern part of this ‘island’, did belong to Iffley, as can be seen from the Iffley enclosure map: this was once the ‘Little Kidney’, partner to ‘Great Kidney’ across the river It is rougher and more unkempt than the meadows to the south, though includes a bathing place and attracts open-air parties.

Mills and their legacies

Flowing water can be harnessed to power mills. Various Oxford streams, lanes and walks commemorate Oxford mills: thus Weirs Mill Stream; Castle Mill Stream; Mill Street (Osney), King’s Mill Lane (off the Marston Road beneath Headington Hill), and Mill Lane Iffley. Some names commemorate mills long defunct, like Milham (the island in the Cherwell south of Magdalen bridge), Milham Ford Nature Park (which, obscurely) commemorates the fact that the school that once occupied this site was initially established at Milham) and Mill Lane, Marston.

According to the Victoria County History, the late middle ages was the heyday of Oxford mills. Only six survived into the seventeenth century – seven if one counts Iffley too. In any case, that was far from the end for mills. All mills surviving in the seventeenth century survived as working mills into the nineteenth century, and most into the twentieth century. Weirs Mill was first established as late as 1797. The flour mill at Osney operated until it was destroyed by fire in 1946. There were also outlying mills at, for example, Wolvercote, Wytham, Headington (on the Bayswater brook, which drains into the Cherwell) and at Sandford.

Oxford nineteeth and twentieth-century mills (nineteenth only in italics)

Among late- surviving Oxford mills, two operated on the Cherwell, the remainder on the Thames or its tributaries. Passing north to south in each case, King’s Mill and Holywell Mill were on the Cherwell; Osney Mill, Folly Bridge Mill and Iffley Mill on what’s now the main course of the Thames. Botley Mill stood on the Seacourt Stream (the Botley Road crosses this on the way to or from Seacourt Towers); New Hinksey Mill on Hinksey Stream (opposite what’s now the Redbridge recycling centre). Castle Mill and Weirs Mill stood on their eponymous streams.

Many of these mills were at some stage corn mills, but not all were, and mills often changed function. The Osney Mill made gunpowder during the Civil War; in the nineteenth century there were saw mills and bone mills on the site. Hinksey and Weirs Mill became paper mills in the 1820s, and later made cardboard. John Towle, who ran both Weirs and Hinksey Mill also leased the Grandpont (ie, Folly Bridge) mill from the city in the 1860s and 70s; this then powered the City’s waterworks. Ultimately the City bought him out when a new waterworks was established in New Hinksey. Osney and Castle Mills were operating as corn mills at the point of their twentieth-century demise (the first was relocated after the fire; the second demolished to make possible the widening of a road).

Mill owners and tenants had a vested interest in a flow of water with which they also interfered. They were accordingly sometimes at odds with other river-users: Iffley Mill, linked with fisheries and also the lock, experienced a series of difficulties of this kind. The braiding of the rivers around Oxford helped, in that a mill might occupy one braid while leaving others free for traffic; still, mills affected water flow and water levels elsewhere.

From the 2nd series Ordnance Survey map (c1888-1914), it is possible to see what complex watercourses usually existed around them – and how varied in size and design mill-building assemblages were.

(nls.maps.uk)

Pictures of some of these mills — e.g. Castle Mill Weirs Mill , Botley Mill— preserve their memory. Otherwise names, elements of complex watercourses and a few buildings are what’s left now. Some private houses occupy mill sites or buildings: Holywell Ford; King’s Mill House; Osney Mill apartments.

Weirs Mill Stream, early April 2020

Revised to include maps of mill sites.

Water, people, other people

The Oxford waterscape is clearly not just a natural landscape. It’s been shaped by a protracted and continuing interaction between people and water. The water has its own logic. People try to harness it to suit theirs.

From a human point of view, water sustains, fertilises, transports, powers, cleans, diverts, and demarcates. It also submerges, drowns, destroys, overwhelms, erodes, pollutes, and blocks. Which it’s doing sometimes depends on your point of view. One person’s demarcation is another person’s blockage.

Consider the brooks and ditches which are everywhere you look across the Oxford landscape. They carry off water, in ways that people have shaped to varying degrees. Some are small enough to step over. Others you’d have to leap. Or ford, ferry. Many small bridges span them, sometimes footbridges, sometimes road bridges. Sometimes you barely notice them: as a traveller, at most you see the road or path being tunnelled under by water. But if you move along the watercourse, it’s an obstacle by your side: you depend on the bridge (if the bridge is open to you).

Sometimes there’s a history of contestation. A story from a noticeboard in Hinksey Park. The park was once the landscaped grounds of the Lake Street Waterworks, first opened to the public as a park in 1856.

Hinksey Park, from OS map 1920s (https://maps.nls.uk/os/)

‘In 1905, local residents asked the waterworks committee for access to Hinksey Park via a footbridge at the end of Marlborough Road. At that time there was only one entrance into the park, from Lake Street, so children from Marlborough Road had to walk all the way round on to Abingdon Road and around. Later, an entrance was opened from Abingdon Road (where the car park is), but Marlborough Road children still felt it was unfair. They placed a large plank of wood across the ditch so that they could climb over. The plank was taken away regularly, but the children kept replacing it until eventually the waterworks erected a wooden footbridge at the southern end of Marlborough Road’.

Eastwyck Ditch at Hinksey Park