Those who advise on urban landscapes sometimes talk about these landscapes being more or less ‘legible’, which I take to involve clarity in the relationship between the place and its surroundings, and perhaps in relation to its history and formation (the latter is surely easier to clarify for those on foot who can potentially read descriptive notices, but even large street signs can help to inform).
The Botley Road used to be legible. It was an open country road, with meadows on both sides. An 1848 map of these meadows, made just before enclosure, was reproduced in Salter, Oseney Cartulary II, Appendix, and, conveniently in an Oxford Archaeology report (figure 15). It’s thought to show how the land was parcelled up for haymaking between those with common rights before Lammas (1 August), when the meadows were opened to cattle. (Interestingly, many of the parcels were leased by the solicitor/brewer, James Morrell).
‘Fairs and circuses….[also] used these larger open spaces’. St Giles Fair used to move there after closing in the centre of Oxford, and Butlin’s set up a semi-permanent funfair there during the Second World War.
Now, by contrast, the traveller — by car, bus, bicycle, or foot — experiences it as an urban route, characterised by ribbon/strip development, though brightened by tree planting. It’s far from obvious, though it’s the case, that it’s still surrounded by great open spaces on both sides, or that it traverses multiple streams of the Thames. It’s because it lies in the floodplain that the spaces around it remain relatively undeveloped. A photo from Air Experiences looking south from Godstow over Port Meadow towards the Botley Road — the straight line cutting across the shot in the distance — dramatises its continuing vulnerability.
This is not immediately attractive territory for a ‘walk’ – not only because of its urban, strip character, but also because of the way that the land is divided up. It is possible (with a bit of willingness to improvise in the face of obstacles) to cross the land that runs behind the built-up strip to the south, at least across terrain west of Osney island. This is mainly meadow land, plus Oatlands Road recreation ground. But to the north, the land behind the road is broken up to serve a variety of functions. Boundary security and unbridged streams make it impossible to traverse. Getting the lie of the land in this direction has to involve a lot of dipping in and out. Still, even if it’s not a ‘walk’, it’s an interesting space to explore.
The VCH tells us that the medieval Botley causeway was short. For those heading out from the city, it branched off to the south where Binsey Lane comes in from the north (between the T and the H of St Thomas on the map above), passed over the Bulstake stream by ford, and proceeded to Hinksey ford or ferry. Oxford archaeologists (in the report cited above) recently tried to trace the track of that causeway from cartographical and other evidence. It seems roughly to have followed the course of the modern Ferry Hinksey Road, and then the footpath which heads towards the Fishes beyond that. Following the building of Bullstake bridge, originally in the sixteenth century, it became possible to extend the Botley causeway due west, toward Botley village by a more direct route. But it remained a causeway: ‘a Causey of a Mile in Length, across the Meadows abovementioned, which consists partly of Terra firma, and partly
of Stone Bridges over the different Branches of tne Thames’ (as the 1764 Pocket Companion for Oxford put it). This causeway was too narrow to support carriage traffic. An act of 1767 directed that the route be turnpiked. In 1769, the passage of the first coach along the new route was celebrated in the local paper. It seems that several of the bridges were renewed in this context.
The road still crosses many bridges, though now one less than is shown on the 150-year-old map. If one moves from the station, at the eastern margin of the map fragment above, and heads out westwards, first one crosses Osney Bridge, over what’s now the main course of the Thames. The current bridge replaced another which collapsed, while people were crossing over it, against a background of flooding, in the late nineteenth century.
Next to be crossed is a stream that I’ve seen described as Osney Ditch. It has only a short-lived identity of its own, branching out from the Bullstake stream to the north and heading for the Thames to the south (on a modern map it doesn’t seem to arrive there, but perhaps it does underground). Once crossed by a ford, this has been since the eighteenth century been stradded by an impressive, seven arched bridge — too impressive, one might think, for the small flow that runs through the middle arch. But I dare say this was once generally boggy ground, and is still flood-prone. The VCH calls this St Frideswide’s bridge, appropriately since it lies right by St Frideswide’s parish church — but though the church, and parish, have taken the name of a venerable local saint, they’re both late nineteenth-century creations, responses to the extension of settlement around this road.
Next to be crossed is the Bullstake stream, a simpler bridge for a more impressive watercourse — perhaps more effectively channelled? This was once a navigable stream — and, once a bridge was erected here, initially in the sixteenth century, it offered clearer passage than the current course of the Thames, since that passed by Osney Mill. Interestingly, though Osney Lock helped to make ‘our’ Thames more navigable from the 1790s, the 2nd series (1888-1914) OS map still shows a ‘wharf’ alongside the Bullstake stream. The stream can still be navigated in a punt. Where the wharf was is now Prestwich Close, named for the professor of geology who picked up on local concerns about the difficulties of safely disposing of sewage in this watery, flood-prone neighbourhood, and helped to secure the extension westwards of the city’s mains drainage.
What’s marked on the OS map as ‘Seven arches bridge’ is no longer distinguishable — or at least, we failed to distinguish it. This was another device to carry the road over boggy ground.
Finally one arrives at the Seacourt stream, which has given more prominent modern local features — the Tower, the Park and Ride — its name. Once this was the Botley mill-stream. Had the late eighteenth-century bypass canal-planners had their way, this or something close to it would have marked the course of a canal carrying traffic that might have started on the Severn-Thames canal. It doesn’t now look like much, though on the OS map the mill and its watery and built apparatus are all arrayed.
This stream marked the old county boundary — it was also the ‘Shire Lake’, so what’s beyond was once Berkshire. That was an attraction for those who wanted to defy Oxfordshire law enforcement, like the organizers of a bare-knuckle boxing match in 1828.
Follow the pylon line south from near the Seacourt stream and you’re crossing a not-very-distinguished-looking nature reserve towards Hinksey Meadow, broken by the odd discrete parcel of land, and Oatland Road Recreation Ground (on land bought by the City Council in 1937). From here you can walk on open ground, between the ring road and the railway line, to North or South Hinksey, or cut across to the Thames by the railway bridge, or at Grandpont, or at New Hinksey, or head on down in the direction of Kennington – not easily accessible from this direction, though. You need footbridges to cross the streams, but so long as you find them you can wander freely.
To the north there are two sets of allotments, ‘Twenty pound meadow’ and ‘Botley meadow’ – the first probably among the city’s earliest (‘Osney’ allotment) — both figure in my Allotments post. Also a relatively early recreation ground, now Botley Park, bought by the city in 1922.
Hidden away behind Botley Park is Tumbling Bay (the name is also given to a path and café within the park). A ‘tumbling bay’ is a device to improve the navigability of a river: it discharges water from the river, controlling this flow by means of weirs. There’s a ‘Tumbling Bay playground’ in the Olympic Park in East London, presumably with similar origins. The Botley Road Tumbling Bay was once one of the city’s open air bathing spaces, formally abandoned, like other such spaces, in 1990, but still clearly identifiable – inhabited, when I dropped by, by a young mother with a stroller and a cavorting child, an angler, a swan and a duck family.
This tumbling bay intercepts the course of the Bullstake stream, the artery through which some river traffic passed before the late eighteenth-century planners organised the river around an alternative route south — and made it possible for their successors to coopt this stream as a bathing place. Now, diminished as it is, it cuts off movement to the north – except that, by returning to the Botley Road, you can access a bridge via Binsey Lane. Take this and you’re en route to Medley and Binsey.
Mary Prior, in her book Fisher Row, describes the stretch of ground to which you gain access by Binsey Lane as ‘a wild, amphibious region, where a boat was an important piece of equipment’ (pp. 124-5). Modern large-scale maps suggest that it’s been to some extent tamed, at least at its southern end, by a gridwork of drainage channels, but in the north, streams run along all the hedges and when there are floods, much though not necessarily the central portion of the farmland disappears beneath the waters. Medley (or Midley) was once reckoned an island, as was Cripley (or Cropley), across what’s now officially and formally The Thames. Travellers could ford or sometimes ferry across these streams, and farmers navigated them by punt. Even around the Port Meadow section of the Thames, at the end of the eighteenth century, the towpath was still underdeveloped, and boatmen had to carry their horses back and forth across the stream to find a footing.
Yet it is now farmland. Medley Farm has a café and gives visitors a chance to pick their own fruit and veg. The farm has existed since the late eighteenth century, replacing a whimsical grand house — whimsical because the land flooded in winter — which in its day also offered entertainment to boaters.
The inn at Binsey, once a ferry inn, is an old landmark, and still a favourite port of call for walkers across Port Meadow (crossing by the bridge south of Medley), now adjoined by swish self-catering accommodation.
Two features of the route between Binsey and the rainbow bridge link to Port Meadow represent functions redistributed from downriver. The Medley sailing club became a resting place for sailing boats when they moved north from Folly Bridge to ease congestion there. Bossom’s boatyard remained until 1945 in the hands of the Fisher Row Bossom family; it was established here in 1830. Early Bossoms here lived in boats, perhaps because the land itself was too often flooded to provide an attractive base. The firm now specialises in boats called ‘river launches’. Their latest line is the Windrush line – named after the local river, one assumes, and not the famous emigration ship.
There’s more natural landscape to both south and north than is apparent from the Botley Road, but it is, of course, very much a human and not just a natural landscape.
Revised to include information from and a link to the recent Oxford Archaeology report, completed in the context of the Flood Alleviation Scheme, 2017. Also to add material on the causeway before and after turnpiking, which I collected while working on the More Commodious Entrances post.