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.
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.
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).
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.
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/ .