Walks, more walks

This map traces on Google Earth all the walks I did between 7 April and 23 July, 2020. Walks in red I did wholly on foot, starting at my house in Fairacres Road; in the case of walks in purple, I drove by car to the (purple) starting point. Initially I walked alone; later, often in company.

Map from Google Earth using its path-tracing function; data from Landsat Copernicus.

I warmly recommend all the ‘walk’ walks that I’ve described in this blog: the Castle Mill Stream walk; the Boundary Brook and Lye Valley walk (esp the visit to Lye Valley); and the Ramblers’ Jubilee walk (esp, the Chilswell valley, and the walk up hill from there).

I didn’t find space to record an excellent walk devised by Benjamin Thompson, which I did with him and Nancy-Jane Rucker: starting at Wolvercote Common; going north up the canal and then turning west along the Duke’s Cut; northwards through Oxey Mead to Yarnton Church, then back south-eastwards via Kingsbridge brook (I think) to the canal.

Some other walks have been recommended to me. I will add pointers to them here if I’m so moved when I’ve done them.

Many of my walks have been walks to particular destinations, sometimes pleasant all along the way, sometimes less so. Destinations that I haven’t made the subject of specific posts include Sandford Lock; Kennington Meadows; Bagley Wood; Kennington Pools (a very secret destination this, approached via an unmarked path off the slipway to the ring-road – so here is an Oxford Conservation Volunteers link); Kendall Copse; Heyford Meadow and Simon’s Land; Hogacre Common; Christ Church Meadows; South Park; Headington Hill Park; River Park; Medley Farm and Binsey; the Trap Grounds; Port Meadow – walking up the river to Godstow; Burgess Field; and Cutteslowe Park.

There are many local walks websites and anyone who hunts around a bit will find some. Among those worth checking out are: Mark Davies’ Oxford City Water Walks; Liz Woolley’s Manufacturing Oxford walk; the CPRE Oxford Green Spaces walk, and the Oxford Preservation Trust walks.

Mark Davies and Liz Woolley also offer guided walks.

See also my Envoi and Thanks post, final section on sources, for various published walking/open spaces guides.

Oxfordshire County Council maintains the Oxfordshire portion of a zoomable national map of rights of way.

Gallery of missing flowers

I’ve managed to include many of the wildflowers that caught my eye in the ‘Wildlife’ posts. But not all. Here, for the record, are other flowers I spotted, arranged by month in which I first photographed them, and within that (because this is how an amateur flower-spotter like me thinks) by colour. Prefaced by mentions of flowers I’ve already depicted.

All identifications provisional and open to correction!



White campion and deadnettle, already noted.

Wild buckwheat? Hard to tell. With some kind of dandelion or hawkweed.


Kingcup, cowslips, meadow buttercups.


Bugle and green alkanet, already noted in other posts. Bluebells — a woodland flower, of course. These were in Bagley Wood, with white campion. And hawkbits?



Along with wild roses and ox-eye daisies, already noted, meadowsweet and Queen Anne’s lace (cow parsley) – each depicted twice. Then comfrey and garlic mustard.


Along with yellow daisies and irises, already mentioned, wild mustard.


Valerian and poppies. (I know people who think valerian is purple. But to my eye it’s red. OK, a kind of purpley red).



Umbellifers, the carrot family — I really start to lose the plot at this point. Do they climb?

Bindweed (convolvulus)


Bird’s foot trefoil, mullein.


Wild chicory.



Lots of umbellifers. Who knows what’s what?

I like the ones like this, that curl up to make baskets. Possibly hedge parsley – they’re said to do this when seeding.

I think the these are ground elder.

Old man’s beard. Up on the Chilswell slope.


St John’s wort. Yellow melilot. Ladies’ bedstraw. All from the Chilswell slope, but I’ve seen the first two on the towpath too.

Envoi, and thanks


I had intended to write a last post about blackberries, which I hoped would have ripened at about the time I planned to complete my plan of posts. And so they have, but Who owns the floodplain? turned into a monster that had to be spread over two posts (and still didn’t answer the question – though I hope my later revisions come closer to doing that). As a result, blackberries were squeezed out. So instead I’ve begun this Envoi post with a few photos of blackberries from late May (my first blackberries’ photo) through July. Blackberry-ripening season seems an appropriate point to stop.

Flipped Oxford

The project of this blog has been to explore a flipped Oxford: an Oxford with a focus on the low ground, rather than the high ground where its residents mostly live and work.

My discovery – or invention – of this flipped Oxford was a product of a shaken-up period in national life, when our homes and outdoors took on new functions and acquired new meanings, and we all had in some degree to reinvent ourselves, though largely with the aid of resources we already had to hand, which vary greatly from case to case.

I always meant this to be a finite exercise, and as I realised how much of my time it was consuming, became all the more determined not to spin it out! In any case it’s both a product of and in some respects a record of a very particular period: life under lockdown.

The blog grew out of walks that I began doing in April, after some weeks in which my outdoor life was focussed on overhauling my garden. As I found myself in new (though nearby) places, observing new things, asking myself new questions, and beginning to put together some new answers, I decided to try embodying them in a blog. I started that in May. By June, the blog was beginning to determine the walks, some of which became quests for photos to illustrate particular posts. In any case I was running out of new places nearby to walk to, so the walks were becoming longer, and more episodic. Meanwhile, lockdown was loosening. It became possible to walk alongside friends, even to feel relaxed about driving to the start of a walk. If life isn’t back to normal (and my own regime remains cautious), in terms of options, it’s back to something much more like normal. The last walk post concludes with my first post-lockdown visit to a pub. And I’ve finished the programme of posts that crystallised in my mind after the first month or so of writing. So this is the time to stop.


..especially to:

Sue Clark (leading in the kayak below), who first took me to the Kidneys and Aston’s Eyot on the eve of lockdown, passed on ideas for walks from her friends, shared some of her knowledge of our neighbours and their interests with me, and has been a wonderfully supportive next-door-neighbour throughout. Someone you can talk to over the garden wall: a great asset during a lockdown.

Also to Mark Philp and Lucie Ryzova, for keeping me company on numerous walks (in Lucie’s case, some of my scrappiest and most perverse walks), and for their interest and enthusiasm. Though as Lucie observed, When you’re talking to me, you don’t take enough photos.

Also to other occasional walking companions: Myungsu Kang, Katherine Paugh, John Robertson, and (as a duo) Benjamin Thompson and Nancy-Jane Rucker. Even if Benjamin does have a rather constricting idea of what makes a ‘walk’. Paul Slack girded his loins and went to Cutteslowe Park with me – discovering in the process that it was much larger than he’d appreciated. Rebecca Nestor accompanied me on an after-the-fact walk to see the North Hinksey Conduit House and to inspect Raleigh Park more closely.

Tony Morris was an unknowing instigator of this project, by means of his own blog, Morris Oxford, through which I first heard of the Trap Grounds, and was made to realise that there were hidden places in Oxford that I didn’t know, some of them, as it turned out, on my doorstep. He’s been another enthusiastic supporter, once I revealed to him my own efforts along these lines.

Thanks also to Peter Hill, for advice on the technicalities of blogging, Chris Crocker, for advice on a wide array of tech-y matters (‘I never thought you’d be interested in pylons’), and Dave Marshall for his wonderful topographic visualisations.

For botanical instruction: Liz Frazer and Lucie Ryzova (again). And Felicia Gottmann for her interest, even if she does know only half a dozen flowers. To Steve Poole and Alastair Reid, for encouraging my ventures into eating the neighbourhood. And to Steve also for tipping me off about the VCH’s Historic English Places app.

Also for help and advice in relation to particular topics: Wilf Stephenson, Mary-Clare Martin, Katrina Navickas, Chikashi Sakashita and Otto Saumarez-Smith. To Philippa Brodie, for sharing her observations and photos of badgers; Oliver Tickell for walking around Aston’s Eyot with me and talking about landscape and conservation; Christopher Fance for putting me in touch with Malcolm Graham, and suggesting a flower identification; Malcolm Graham for letting me use his property map.

Since I completed the basic programme of the blog, but while I’ve still been tinkering with it, Tim Marshall and Elizabeth Wilson kindly met with me to talk about planning, flooding and Oxford. Kate Jury took the time to show me round Barracks Lane Community Garden, and talk about how it’s developed. Margaret Thompson gave me a tour of the Fairacres Road allotments, and Wendy Stringer-Smith not only presented me with a copy of the ODFAA centenary history of Oxford allotments, but also talked me through some of her own experiences and perspectives. I’m grateful to them all for their interest, time and trouble.

Thanks finally to my readers, many of them unknown to me, not just the Oxford locals for whom I chiefly intended this, but spread over several continents (Word Press tells me), and comprising more than just my already-acquired friends.


Feet, eyes, brain

Look, ask questions. Why? and How? are good question words; What?, When? and Who? generally have to precede them. Without good questions there are no interesting answers — only facts.

Floodplain map

The map in the Oxford Area Flood Information Guidance booklet — which I found online, by means of a search I can’t remember, and which I’ve used as the main icon for this blog — provided crucial information in getting me started, by suggesting to me that the complex mesh of waterways that I encountered when I started poking around the open spaces outside my door was intrinsically intelligible. The streams even all had names.


Given that, in lockdown, one’s exceptionally dependent on what can be found online, any historian wanting to look into the history of an English locality must then all the more treasure the VCH: the Victorian county-history project, which, after one or more lapses, in some counties continues to this day. It’s more and less good for different counties, but for Oxfordshire, where much of it is recent, it is generally good. I’ve used esp. Oxon vol 4, City of Oxford — though it doesn’t cover all topics and ends in 1979 (and for many purposes, some decades earlier). For the continuing VCH Oxfordshire project, see its website. This gives links to older volumes, freely available online, and to drafts based on ongoing research on areas of the county as yet not written up.


My working method has basically been to triangulate between on-foot observation, maps and texts. Maps have been central – starting with the floodplain map noted above.

As to more general maps: Google maps is an invaluable tool for anyone wanting to find their way around, and ponder the relationships between things. The Google Earth app offers in addition a ‘time slider‘, which gives access to historic aerial photography, back to 1945, though in the Oxford area after that there’s a big leap into the early twentieth century.

The National Library of Scotland provides access to historic OS maps, through a very good interface, which allows smooth switching from map to map. I have used (and acknowledged) this collection extensively in this blog. The Oxfordshire History centre makes available a very detailed 1876 map of Oxford, as I discovered only late in the day: I’ve made no significant use of this. (Yet). It also provides links to a wealth of other local maps. Vision of Britain is a very good local history reference tool, maintained by historical geographers at the University of Portsmouth with support from JISC, bringing together maps, topographical descriptions and statistical data for particular places. It’s most obviously approached by a place search, but it also provides access to an excellent collection of maps, including First Series (circa 1830) OS maps (not found in the NLS collection) and some other maps, such as boundary maps, that I’ve used (and acknowledged) in this blog.

To understand parishes I’ve found useful this city and this county parish map.

After having finished the main tranche of the blog, as I started reading more into the city’s prehistoric, medieval and early modern history, I discovered a useful online collection of historic maps. Digital Bodleian also has zoomable versions of several historic maps of the city. For the same and later maps, and more detailed discussion, Daniel MacCannell, Oxford: Mapping the City.

Other recent discoveries are:

The Oxfordshire Public Rights of Way map – also gives you zoomable versions of larger and smaller scale OS maps as context.

The Environment Agency’s Main River map. Especially useful for anyone interested in watercourses, since its function is to map those watercourses which have been made the responsibility of the Environment Agency in the context of flood planning. See my Redbridge Stream post for some discussion of related policies and practices.

The Blueskymapshop. They want to sell you online maps, but will also show you a series of maps for free, including lidar maps (showing height data) – type in a postcode, and similarly any specified section of the national tree map.

Finally, just for fun, the City Roads website does both more and less than it says, in that its map of Oxford (derived from Open Street map) shows in skeletal form not just roads but a variety of features, including rivers, footpaths and parking bays. A little puzzle to work out what’s what!

Other websites (and people behind websites)

I did lots and lots of keyword searching on Google.

As anyone following up my links will quickly realise, I’ve made extensive use of Wikipedia for information about both places and people – a source all too often disparaged for its inaccuracies. Please show me a perfectly accurate reference source. When it matters, I’ve preferred to have corroborating evidence from sources lower down the food-chain — but footnotes in Wikipedia articles can lead one to these. And its accessibility makes it a great site to which to point readers.

There are some excellent local websites, which I discovered when they kept showing up in response to my keyword searches: notably Thames Smooth Waters, Oxford History (more miscellaneous than it sounds, but great on some topics), Headington History, South Oxford Community Centre and Dereliction in the Shires, an account of ‘urban exploration’, all of which combine deep local knowledge with great photos and other illustrations. I quickly became aware how beholden I was, as any online local-history researcher must be, to some of the people behind these, like John Eade, Liz Woolley and Stephanie Jenkins. Also Mark Davies – he’s the waterwalks guy. There are lots of very informative pdfs available on line about Oxford history and biology. Freelance ecologist Judith Webb‘s name is all over the latter.

The Oxford Mail online archive (on which I found hits through Google searching) was often informative, not only about new events but also about memories of the past.

Other web resources I have found useful include the Council website, mainly insofar as it provides information about open spaces – and very recently, in July 2020, the Council presented information in a new way, with the object of postively encouraging people to make the most of Oxford’s open spaces. The series of ‘heritage’ assessments also include much historical information, about what used to be and what remains. I’ve also found useful the Oxford Preservation Trust website; the Oxford Conservation Volunteers website; BBOWT website (I was already a subscribing member of BBOWT, whose site information first prompted my search for fritillaries). Also the websites of the Floodplain Meadows Partnership and the Oxford Wildlife and Landscape Society. Oxford Archaeology’s website includes a large digital library of reports on their local and other observations, to which I’ve supplied links at various points.

Listed buildings or places can be surveyed using the map search function on the Historic England website. Clicking on the blue triangles which mark listed sites leads to basic information about the site, and usually a picture. See also their Heritage Gateway, which provides access to a variety of place-specific databases.

I’ve used a number of online guides in trying to identify flowers (often whatever comes up when I type into Google ‘UK wildflower like dandelion’ or something along those lines. The Garden Without Doors weed guide is especially extensive, and supplies many helpful pictures showing leaves and the like.


All the photos in this blog are my own (except the one of badgers in the Badgers post — courtesy of Philippa Brodie, and of Sue Clark, above). Almost all my photos were taken with an iPhone, during the lockdown period. I began (or rather continued) taking photos of things around me weeks before I thought of doing this blog. They form an initially non-instrumental record of things that caught my eye, as I explored, through changing seasons and changing times. Mostly I’ve been able to remember where I took a photo, from its place in the sequence and my memory of walks, but digital photos are geolocated and it’s also possible to locate them retrospectively on a map by searching their ‘Properties’.

I have profited greatly from looking at pictures and photographs online and in books, and have provided links to some. But overall I haven’t made as much use as I might have done of online pictorial resources.

Some into which I have dipped are:

The Britain from Above archive of historic aerial photography, and the more recent, though more local and limited Air Experiences website.

The Oxfordshire County Council’s Picture Oxon site looks like a treasure trove, but I’ve barely penetrated it.

Oxford University Images is keyword searchable. Try eg ‘mill’, ‘ferry’, ‘barge’ ‘wharf’, ‘pump’. I’ve retrospectively included links to a few of these images within posts.

14,043 old photographs of Oxford (and other places) by Henry Taunt can be found on the Historic England website (not where the Picture Oxon site says they can be found – a major problem with digital resources, of course: they move or disappear. And the links in this blog will start dating quite quickly too, for that reason). The Historic England Image Collection can also be searched by place, but the search function is not very powerful.

Books and other less readily obtainable resources

I made some though only limited use of such scholarly resources as the Bibliography of British and Irish History, and Bodleian online resources.  I was, through the Bodleian, able to access some volumes of the multi-volume History of the University of Oxford — though mostly that’s a bit ‘dry land’ for my purposes.  As also some parliamentary reports and the like. Whenever possible, I’ve provided links to generally accessible resources for books, e.g. to that great open resource archive.org.

I latterly discovered that many useful local history examples can be found online through the Oxford Local History Association website and the website of Oxoniensia – resources that I’m far from having exploited to the full.

Although lockdown has made reading for this project difficult, it’s also made it manageable, by allowing me to set limits to what I feel obliged to consult!

Regrettably I wasn’t able under lockdown conditions to get hold of Mark Davies’ Towpath Walk in Oxford or Malcolm Graham’s On Foot in Oxford guides. (Though in August I got hold of a copy of the former from Mark Davies, and have now added about a dozen references to that).

I paid for and downloaded or had sent by post a number of useful local guides: Mayon-White and Yorke, Exploring the Thames Wilderness (which set me on the track of several of my early destinations; Joan Tucker, Ferries of the Upper Thames; Nancy Hood, Oxford Waterways through Time;  Liz Woolley, Oxford’s Working Past and Graham Salmon, Beyond Magdalen Bridge: the growth of East Oxford (the Amazon delivery person told me he thought this was a good book).

Simon Wenham got in touch and very kindly gave me a copy of his book: Pleasure Boating on the Thames. A History of Salter Bros.

I’m glad that I already owned a copy of Mary Prior’s great study Fisher Row: Fishermen, Bargemen and Canal Boatmen in Oxford 1500-1900. Paul Slack did me a service in lending me his copy of Tanis Hinchcliffe, North Oxford. Malcolm Graham’s thesis, ‘The Suburbs of Victorian Oxford: Growth in a Pre-industrial City’ (Leicester, 1985), is a significant scholarly contribution. The demands of my writing schedule mean that I haven’t yet given it all the attention it deserves.

I’ve tried to reference all sources used for any given post within the posts, either via links or by means of notes at the end of posts – though usually not to the extent of specifying page numbers in longer documents. Sorry, scholars.

Jubilee walk in the hills

The last walk I plan to describe in this blog took place in the hills west of Oxford – aristocratic territory, as explored in Who owns the floodplain? I. Of course, these weren’t only, or even primarily, aristocratic hills, but also farmers’ hills, farm labourers’ hills, then professors’ hills and brickmakers’ hills – and now that the peri-urban sprawl of North Hinksey and Botley has crept up them, ordinary Oxford residents’ hills.

We did the Ramblers’ Jubilee Walk – devised to celebrate 50 years since the Ramblers Association was officially launched. True, we did it backwards, got lost at a couple of points and changed the end, but in very broad outline this was the Ramblers’ Jubilee Walk. Lucie, my intrepid companion on some of my more abortive and perverse walks, certainly deserved a proper walk. Door-to-door this walk was probably for me about 12 miles.

What was new to me on the Ramblers’ walk was the part to the west of the western by-pass, so it’s on that that I’ll focus. To get there we walked (as the walk guide suggests) from the towpath through Hinksey Park and over the Devil’s Backbone (as described in an earlier post), on to South Hinksey and over the road bridge that joins South Hinksey to Hinksey Heights Golf Course and the garden centre.

There we made a wrong, though not a bad choice, to follow a sign to a Circular Walk which took us up through hedges on to a ploughed field, whose verges were full of wild flowers, and the top part of which has been set-aside, and is in effect a wildflower meadow.

But this wasn’t where we were supposed to be, so we then headed back down the gentle slope on the other side of the field, to find the entrance to the Chilswell, or Happy Valley.

The Chilswell Valley, like Rivermead and the Lye Valley (both described in earlier posts), has been the site of an Oxford City Council/BBOWT ‘Wild Oxford’ project (for which see especially the Rivermead post). The indefatigable freelance ecologist Judith Webb has again served as consultant on this project, and her reports on wildlife and the progress of restoration can be found on-line (2014-15, 2015-16).

The valley constitutes one among a set of ravines, carved into the slopes of the western hills by water action. It’s strikingly deeply incised into the otherwise stark plane of the slopes, reflecting the underlying geology: this section of the ‘Oxford Heights’ rests on Corallian limestone, rather than clay, on which watercourses leave less of a mark.

It’s clear, looking from the board walk, that much of the ground is wet, also fed by springs. Volunteer workers have among other things built dams to slow the flow of water, and re-coppiced hazel and other trees. Plant and other — especially butterfly – life abounds. We failed to spot any wild liquorice, though (a speciality of the site).

Above the fen, the path leads through woodland, then emerges by the side of Chilswell farm. From here we unintentionally left the Jubilee walk, which tracks along the hedge at the bottom of a field (it’s clearly signposted if you pay attention) and instead followed a bridle path up through the field (containing a magnificent blasted tree) to Pickett’s Heath, where there are good views over the city.

I’ve spent recent months exploring the Oxford of the floodplain. From here, we see a different Oxford, an Oxford of the hills. While the eastwards sprawl of the city is discernible, mainly what one sees looks like a little Italian city state, nestled among arable fields, where hills – Headington, Shotover – are the most distinctive landscape features. But of course, one’s also looking here at the work of rivers: rivers have carved out the valleys in which the city sits.

As I discovered in redoing the walk in October, the route we should have followed would have climbed the hillside a bit further south, through a stretch of ground, now owned by the Oxford Preservation Trust, which was once a golf-course, laid out by the 8th earl of Berkeley, who built himself a grand house just a bit further along, at the end of the nineteenth century. A lot of balls must have been lost on so sloping a course. A site with equally good or indeed better views.

However you ascend the hill, at some point you’ll hit the village of Boar’s Hill. Successive OS maps trace the evolution of settlement in this area. The first (1830) map dramatises the contour lines. The second (1888-1913), following enclosure, shows field boundaries.

For first map, see note at end; for others, nls.maps.uk

I’ve traced the approximate route of the walk (as we did on our first attempt) on the third (1937-61), which shows (as one can see by comparison) how the hamlet of Boar’s Hill became an extended domain of large houses, scattered through woodland planted to fill the space between older copses.

Boar’s Hill became the haunt of an academic and literary elite. An article in the Burlington Magazine for 1913, quoted by Tanis Hinchliffe, arguing for the need to constrain development around Oxford, conceded ‘The married tutor must have his home, and the professor will want to live on the slope of the hills…’ And so they did, both here and around Headington’s Pullen’s Lane and Harberton Mead. Heads of house, professors, academic hangers-on, and literary figures  – including some who had never been students at Oxford, but presumably liked the ambience, like John Masefield — established themselves on Boar’s Hill. (Whereas professors as I know them now are more likely to be living in Botley or other less leafy suburbs, in terraced houses or apartments. But these were other days).

Boar’s Hill residents included the 8th earl of Berkeley, he who laid out the old golf course. He took over and extended what had once been the house of the President of Trinity. Descending from an old Gloucestershire gentry family (whose title he acquired sideways), the earl developed a sideline in crystallography, and worked in the Christ Church laboratory (his house later became an OU campus, and more recently a Peking University business school campus). Another resident was Sir Arthur Evans, who excavated and in part reconstructed the Minoan palace on Crete (which I’ve visited).

The path passes by both these houses, and it would be possible, at appropriate times, to make side trips to the gardens at the first (Foxcombe house), and to see the Jarn Mound, which Evans — with his experience of creative earthworks — directed to be built as a kind of public-works project, and to afford a view over the growing woodland. (I have been there before – and the woodland has now developed further, such that one now gets no distant view even from the top of the mound). But we had a lot of walk still ahead of us, and no great appetite for these distractions.

The path ran through a road (or our path did — I think we unintentionally deviated a little from the official route again), affording glimpses of modern great houses, and the current sites of institutions which have taken over the properties of the old notables: the Scouts now have Evans’ Youlbury Park grounds, while the Carmelites occupy a relatively modest house.

Passing through woodland again, the path emerges into the fields around Cumnor, with Chawley lying invisibly ahead. Chawley brick works appear on the OS by the second edition.

The path heads between Hurst and Cumnor Hills. Hurst Hill is a site of special scientific interest, and where plesiosaurus bones were found in the course of industrial digging. The path turns NE across Cumnor Hill, then down into North Hinksey/Botley (Botley was once a hamlet within the manor of North Hinksey).

Raleigh Park, through which we walked at the base of the hill, provides more, more business-like views over the city, where you can see how much construction work is going on — and the hospital on Headington Hill beyond. I was once taken up to the roof of the hospital. From there, one sees yet another Oxford: the city as forest.

Raleigh Park was a late addition to the list of Wild Oxford sites, and sterling work has been done here too, though it doesn’t have the potential of the Chilswell Valley, and we were in no mood to linger.

An underpass took us beneath the by-pass, and to my first pub since lockdown, appropriately for me, the old ferry pub, the Fishes.

Then, instead of following the walk to the towpath, we marched southwards across the meadows towards South Hinksey, the Devil’s Backbone, and home.

Revised to note my discovery, on redoing the walk in October, that we had wandered even further from the Ramblers’ route than I had realised.

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/

Who owns the floodplain? II

Colleges and university

In contrast to aristocrats, colleges at some point owned large swathes of Oxford. Some of them were also more direct beneficiaries from the Dissolution. Indeed, the Dissolution was, for colleges in general, just another, if relatively dramatic episode in an ongoing story: some had benefited from the more piecemeal redirection of church properties for some centuries.

Here’s Malcolm Graham’s circa 1860s Oxford suburban property-ownership map again, now coloured in to show not only aristocratic but also college holdings. Christ Church (in orange) was clearly a major player, with extensive holdings in northern parts of the Thames floodplain and along the southern reaches of the Cherwell (since the map doesn’t cover property ownership in the old city, it doesn’t reveal the extent of Christ Church and Magdalen’s holdings along the Cherwell, but I’ve indicated the sites of the two colleges, Christ Church in orange, Magdalen in red, to compensate). Otherwise Magdalen, Merton (pink) and St John’s (yellow) along the west bank of the Cherwell; St John’s (commandingly placed across north Oxford) also along the canal. South of the river, different players, Brasenose (brown) and Univ (cream). Corpus (dark red) is represented by discrete holdings behind the railway line and to the north of the Botley Road.

In reconstructing how colleges came by these properties, I’ve relied heavily once again on the Victoria County History.

Christ Church’s position had everything to do with its having acquired the lands of first St Frideswide’s and Littlemore priories (via Wolsey’s intermediate foundation, Cardinal College) and then Osney Abbey and part of the land of Rewley Abbey. Insofar as they were largely in the floodplain, however, they were much less advantageous than the lands St John’s acquired in high, dry north Oxford.

Christ Church cathedral spire – once St Frideswide’s abbey church (with — probably- Hawksmoor’s early eighteenth-century All Saints spire beyond)

Magdalen was the beneficiary of earlier dissolutions, notably of St John’s hospital (1458), which provided its site.

Merton gained its holdings by the Cherwell by its even earlier (1294) appropriation of the church of St Peter in the East, and its manor of Holywell.

St John’s, a new foundation in the sixteenth century, was an indirect beneficiary of the Dissolution. Its founder, the London merchant, Sir Thomas White, bought the buildings of a dissolved Cistercian college, St Bernard’s, from Christchurch, but otherwise gave the college London land, with the advice to sell it and buy locally. Their chief local purchase was St Giles Fields, once largely occupied by manors of Osney and Godstow abbeys, from a family which had invested heavily in Dissolution property. (I’m not sure when the acquired their Botley Road holding).

Corpus’ was among the beneficiaries of the dissolution of Rewley Abbey, which may be how it acquired its land along the Botley causeway. Its first president built the first Bullstake bridge around 1530, which certainly suggests that this land was in the college’s possession very early in its history. When and how the college acquired its holding by Hogacre stream is unclear to me.

Then, south of the river:

University College’s holdings around Grandpont, which remained meadow land into the early nineteenth century, are certainly older – they petitioned king and parliament in relation to a dispute over 17 acres of meadows there in the 1380s. At some point they also owned Folly Bridge Island (sold to permit redevelopment of the bridge 1824).

However, the dissolution of Abingdon Abbey 1538 set the scene for Univ’s acquisition of lands south and west of the Thames (which brought it East Wyck Farm).

Also Brasenose in 1538 acquired land south of Folly Bridge previously held by the abbey. This land and the bridge are shown on a c. 1600 college estate map.  The pub The White House, which stands on this land, was once the residence of the bursar of Brasenose.

Malcolm Graham’s map shows a post-enclosure landscape. Before enclosure (that is, before 1830 in North Oxford and Iffley, and before the 1850s around the Botley Road, old Osney island and Cowley), the picture will have been much more complicated – presumably with the same colleges dominant, but with other colleges and various individuals also holding scattered small holdings (a pre-enclosure listing of holdings in Botley Meadow, reproduced by Salter in the appendix to vol 2 of his Oseney Cartulary illustrates this).

So what did colleges do with the power and opportunities that this ownership gave them?

Much of this ‘suburban’ land, even when amassed into disposable clumps following enclosure, was floodplain land, and topography placed limits on what could be done with it. One would think that some colleges – St John’s, University College, Brasenose – should have benefited from leasing some land as wharves. When the coming of the railway changed the attractions first of the Abingdon Road, then of the Botley Road, Brasenose, Christ Church and Corpus developed their neighbouring property.

But much of the land remained open. Merton sold land to the University to form the Parks. Some kept the character of farmland – as around Medley, north of the Botley Road (which is still farmed), or East Wyck farm east of the Abingdon Road (farmed until the 1990s). Lands surveyed here have figured in previous posts among properties used to site public parks, sportsgrounds, and dumps.

Keeping the land open wasn’t just a matter of the kind of land it was, though. Colleges also had a vision of the sort of place they wanted Oxford to be, and this was not somewhere sprawlingly urban and industrial.

Many colleges owned plots scattered throughout the old city. But St John’s was unusual in moving, from the late 1820s, to obtain an enclosure act for St Giles’ Fields (of which it wasn’t the sole owner), and to develop housing there (and even it had to be spurred into action by the development of the Park Town estate). To the west, by the canal and railway (as Tanis Hinchcliffe explains, in her history of North Oxford), St John’s developed more working-class housing (also in keeping with the existing pattern of building). But in the central and eastern part of their estate – the part closer to the college itself – the college offered land to developers prepared to build large, more socially ambitious houses, aiming to make that part of North Oxford a decidedly up-market suburb.

Other colleges were less adventurous. Christ Church allowed and profited from the development of housing in the part of old Osney island that was on the old urban fringe; sold land to the Great Western Railway, and (after a long pause) allowed the development of New Osney alongside, and of the more socially ambitious Cripley Estate to the north of the Botley Road. In the 1860s and 90s (late in the day) they made some effort to show themselves good urban landlords by sponsoring model housing in the Hamel and along Hollybush Row.

But (Malcolm Graham tells us in his first On Foot in Oxford book – from the castle), they chose to preserve the castle mound, as a ‘venerable Monument of Antiquity’, when the New Road was built, and wouldn’t let railway companies plunder castle stone. They didn’t develop their meadow lands in the way that land in St Ebbe’s, on the other side of Castle Mill Stream, were developed. And they blocked early nineteenth-century attempts to enclose Cowley Fields (Graham, p. 85), motivated ‘by a sense of what is best for the beauty of the entrance into Oxford on the Cowley Road’ and hoping ‘to prevent the building of shabby or unsightly houses within view of [Christ Church] Meadow and path.’ Yet Cowley fields were ultimately enclosed, at the demand of those with a different vision, in 1853; St Thomas followed in 1854. 

In the case of New Hinksey, similarly, private, not corporate or aristocratic owners were to the fore in developing the suburb. According to Malcolm Graham (p 113), Pembroke and University sold land for development only when encroaching urbanism undercut its value as meadow land, and they found themselves repeatedly pestered with offers from (small) developers. By this point they were being advised by surveyors whose advice they sought that sale for development was their best course.

Now — in accordance with new guidelines associated with their charitable status, colleges may pursue development through linked trading companies. Both Christ Church and St John’s have named theirs after founding fathers: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas White.

New Cherwell colleges: Wolfson

A new riverine development from the later nineteenth century was the establishment of new colleges along the Cherwell, whose heavily collegiate character I’ve noted. Some though not all of these were established on land owned by the great-landowning colleges.

LMH’s early property history is traced by Tanis Hinchcliffe. LMH, and the co-eval Somerville, both established themselves on St John’s property in 1879 (though not, she makes clear, on the basis of any great enthusiasm for these ventures on the part of St John’s). Somerville purchased its freehold from the start, but LMH originally took its Cherwell site on lease – at that point St John’s preferred mode of proceeding. LMH acquired its freehold only in the 1920s.

Although St Hilda’s (1893), at the southern end of the Cherwell, stands between different parts of Magdalen College school, its land had – exceptionally — long been in private hands. It was purchased in the later eighteenth century by the then professor of Botany, who acquired ‘a Ham of meadow ground in Milham’, ‘the waters and fishings in the River called Milham from the East Bridge to Christ Church Walks’, and 4 acres of arable land in Cowley Fields, and there built for himself ‘Cowley House’. A series of professors followed him, until St Hilda’s took over.

Catz acquired land from Merton’s ‘Holywell Great Meadow’ for its site, in 1960. The land between the college and the main stream of the Cherwell remains Merton’s recreation ground.

Wolfson College (1966) — the furthest upstream — stands on land that was once St John’s land, and may still have been when acquired.

Pandemic Radcliffe Camera: the return of nature

The University as such emerges relatively late in this story, though as a corporate body it was entitled to own property, and presumably did own its central campus, around Radcliffe Square and the Bodleian. Unlike many colleges, the University does not appear as an acre-ocrat in Bateman’s list.

When it did begin acquiring more Oxford land, it often acquired it from colleges: thus, land for the Parks and the University Museum from Merton; for sportsfields between Iffley Road and the Thames, from Christ Church. The Science Area was initially constructed on Parks land, but in the twentieth century the University emerged as a snapper-up of city properties to house other departments, including, for example, the old powerhouse at Osney (along with many high-and-dry land properties).

Its vastly increased financial heft has also — in symbolically resonant fashion — allowed it to emerge as successor to the aristocrats. It acquired Wytham Woods in  1942 and Nuneham House at Nuneham Courtenay in the mid 50s, in each case, developing them partly as study centres. In the case of Nuneham, the Harcourt Arboretum has been built around what was once the Harcourts’ tree-planting enterprise, its pinetum. In the early twenty-first century, a neighbouring acquisition at Nuneham took the form of arable land, now in the process of conversion to woodland and meadow. The University sold land around Nuneham in 2016, occasioning local controversy.

Oxford City as landowner

The land held longest in continuous possession in Oxford must be Port Meadow – though precisely in whom title is now vested is said to be unclear: notionally the freemen of Oxford, in practice the City Council.   There are said to be three owners of the ponies grazing on the meadow. Not clear if they are they freemen.

The 1835 Municipal Corporation Commissioners report suggests that over half the city’s income at that point came from property: from renewals of leasehold estates and quit rents within the city bounds, and also from estates at Garsington and especially Eynsham (purchased 1611 with the proceeds from the sale of what was later Wadham College’s site; subsequently enlarged).  But cities – which did not, as such, have rating powers until this point – did not have huge turnovers. Rating powers were bestowed by the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act and thereafter, though initially frugality was urged.

Only in the later nineteenth century did cities’ ambitions and powers significantly expand. It’s from that date we find Oxford City purchasing recreation grounds and allotment sites.

Overall though the City was notably loathe to spend, resisting such pressure as there was to build municipal housing when that became possible in 1890. Malcolm Graham suggests that the role played in City affairs by some of the largest local landlords may help to account for this.

The City’ did embark on some council-house building from the 1920s, with (to focus on riverine regions) developments at Cold Harbour and Weirs Lane from the 1920s, and at Rose Hill (initially to rehouse people from St Ebbe’s and Jericho) from the 1930s. The Donnington estate — judging from successive maps — was developed by the 1960s (preceding the construction of the bridge); St Ebbe’s was reconstructed under a slum clearance rubric from the same decade.

By 1980 Oxford City Council possessed a significant portfolio of open-space property, in addition to large swathes of council housing. The 1980 Housing Act set in train the erosion of the latter — though the Council does continue through intermediaries to provide social housing. Constraints on council budgets that have made both the acquisition and maintenance of open spaces difficult, meanwhile, mean that there’s little if any recreational land in the City’s possession that wasn’t already there by 1980.

Rise of the private freeholder

Historically, people generally didn’t own their own homes. Landowners who sponsored development on their lands often sold off leaseholds, retaining the freehold: that is, the ownership of the land, and reversion of the property at the end of the leasehold period (perhaps 99 years). Those who bought the leaseholds and developed the land often then rented out dwellings or parts of dwellings – though small builder-developers might take one house for themselves and rent out a few others (as was the pattern in St Ebbe’s); middle class investors might also sink their money in a few houses.

Over the last century and more two major trends across the country have been a shift from leasehold to freehold and from renting to owner occupation. The rise and decline of council housing aligns with this: those who occupied council houses would probably previously have been private renters; it was possible for them to acquire their own homes, and from the 80s there was more encouragement to do this, though there remains a significant ‘social housing’ rental sector.

This chart from the English Housing Survey captures the long-term shift across the nation in favour of owner occupation, though also a more recent change in pattern, back towards renting. Legislation in recent decades has increased the attractiveness of buying to rent (by strengthening landlords’ hands), as has the availability of buy-to-let mortgages. As has been widely remarked, the shift is concentrated in the younger age group: they’re the ones who are now more likely to be renting than were their peers in the recent past.


According to the Office of National Statistics, there’s been a sharp swing against leasehold in recent years, building on longer term trends. They estimate that only 7% of domestic houses are now held on long leases, and mainly in the north. In the SE excluding London (the district in which Oxford sits), the proportion is only 2.6%. The story is different for flats. The ONS estimates that, across the nation, 94% of owner-occupied flats are leased (having an overall freehold owner offers one answer to the question who is responsible for maintaining common facilities?) But opinion is swinging against leasehold in this context too, and new forms of ownership are being developed, such as the condominium.

All these trends have left their mark on Oxford – though the distinctive (but by no means unique) presence of a mass of short-term student renters adds a further element to the mix.

As Malcolm Graham tells the early part of the story, ‘suburban’ development in later nineteenth-century Oxford took place through the activities of a mix of corporate and private sponsors. Corporate bodies, esp. the colleges, tended to prefer to offer their properties on lease, being able to take the long view — though they sometimes sold freeholds when pushed for cash. They also let some properties at rack rents – by the year. Tanis Hinchcliffe tells us that St John’s judged this more appropriate at the lower end of the market, in Walton Manor and Jericho. By contrast, private developers tended to want to release their capital, so were readier to respond so a rising tide of interest in freehold purchase, which is where much of the later nineteenth-century action was. Freehold-land societies (set up to provide access to property needed for the vote) served as intermediaries for some such developments. Freehold purchases by not very wealthy individuals were financed in important part by building societies (this included financing small building-to-rent). In the later nineteenth century, particularly vigorous activity by these societies allowed levels of owner occupation in Oxford to outstrip those found in numerous other towns, yet still it remained a minority practice. In Oxford as elsewhere, not until the twentieth century did owner-occupation become truly widespread.

Some larger developers held on to houses they built. In her history of the pre-eminent local building firm Kingerlee’s, Liz Woolley writes: ‘Kingerlee kept many of the houses that he built, rather than selling them, and by 1905 he owned 186 houses, far more than any other individual in Oxford. Most of them were in west oxford, where they accounted for almost 20% of the suburb’s tenanted properties’. N. Moss and Sons built houses in various parts of Oxford in the 1920s and 30s; their Florence Park estate was built to rent. Wimpeys the builders were building flats on leasehold in Rose Hill in the 1960s.

In the third quarter of the twentieth century (Tanis Hinchcliffe again), St John’s at least moved away from leasehold, as century-old leases moved towards their terminus, and new, pro-tenant legislation made leasing less attractive from a landlord’s point of view.

The upshot of this long-sustained and complex series of developments was that, viewed in the long term, houses in Oxford came to be more commonly on the one hand freehold and on the other hand owner-occupied.

In terms of the freehold/leasehold divide, possibly only a few dozen houses in Oxford are now held on leasehold. By contrast, in the apartment sector, leasehold has remained common (the freehold perhaps being held by the builders, perhaps by a finance company).

A comparison between national and Oxford census data shows recent changes of trend in Oxford in terms of the mix of owner occupation and various forms of renting broadly comparable to the national picture (with some differences of timing and scale):

The census also documents a shift within Oxford in favour of apartment-living.


How do new floodplain developments fit into this picture? New floodplain developments offer a mix of houses, apartments and student accommodation. Houses are probably usually sold as freeholds (though may then be rented). But floodplain apartments are owned in very diverse ways. Some are sold freehold – judging from property adverts, this is the case in Osney Lane and perhaps Rewley Road (though many there seem to be rented). Lion Brewery apartments are however sold on leasehold, while Lucy’s remain the owners of their Jericho development, and rent these and other properties directly (that is, not through letting agents).

And then there’s building for student accommodation, by the two universities, other colleges and also private companies. Oxford University’s students were originally housed in colleges. Accommodation in lodging houses was officially permitted only from 1868, when a delegacy was established to monitor their quality, and respond to complaints about student conduct: the university and the town grew symbiotically. Numbers of students living in city lodgings may have peaked after the Second World War. But in the 1950s and 60s colleges started building more housing; in parallel (and encouraging this form of expansion), old-style lodging ceased to attract either landladies or students. St Catherine’s College, which had started life in the 1850s as an institutional base for ‘unattached students’, joined the mainstream by becoming residential — on a site that it acquired amidst the braided streams of the Cherwell — in 1962. In 1970 the Delegacy was reconfigured as an ‘Accommodation Office’. Though students continue to rent rooms, this is proportionately less common, and now usually on a basis of self-sufficiency.

Keeping institutional provision in line with swelling numbers of students — now at two universities, and diverse other institutions — remains a challenge. (The city estimates that, in 2017, 37% of students at Oxford attended institutions other than the two universities). Though students continue sometimes to rent privately – for lack of options or by preference — institutional provision is now generally preferred, not least by students who in this context are charged only for periods of residence required by their courses. Those who live in institutional accommodation are omitted from the statistics cited above. Their total continues to grow; it rose from 14,000 to almost 18,000 between 2001 and 2011; undoubtedly this growth has continued. The City favours institutional accommodation, so that student renters don’t occupy potential family homes; but of course new building for students also potentially competes with new building for homes. The City therefore aims to confine such building to particular kinds of site.

Overall and in the longer term, the headline story in Oxford, as elsewhere, is the rise of the private, owner-occupying freeholder. But that’s evidently not the only story, nor is it currently the main direction of travel.

The rise of a multitude of petty private owners entails a fragmentation of power. In that context, the role of planning authorities potentially takes on additional importance. The planning powers of local authorities developed from the later nineteenth century (initially, under sanitary auspices). In recent decades, following late-twentieth and early-twenty-first century floods, planning for flooding has been given special emphasis in its own right. But there’s a constant tenstion between injunctions to plan more collaboratively and holistically and the government’s (especially Conservative governments’) appetite for liberating development.

This series of developments has made the locus of power over property increasingly elusive.


I have now revised the final section in the light of further reading. Malcolm Graham’s thesis, ‘The suburbs of Victorian Oxford‘ and Tanis Hinchcliffe, North Oxford remain key sources.

But I have also now used data from the Office of National Statistics and the English Housing Survey, as indicated. For larger trends, I also found useful two government-commissioned articles published in the journal Land Use Policy (2009): Robert Home, ‘Land ownership in the United Kingdom: Trends, preferences and future challenges’ and Tim Dixon, ‘Urban land and property ownership patterns in the UK: trends and forces for change’. I’ve sourced local census data chiefly from Oxford City Council’s occasional reports. I have also consulted the Oxford City plan: https://www.oxford.gov.uk/info/20067/planning_policy/1311/oxford_local_plan_2016-2036.

Information on college-linked property companies from Stephanie Jenkins.

See also now the new and developing website Who owns Oxford? (part of a larger Who owns England? project. https://www.whoownsoxford.org/

Who owns the floodplain? I

‘Owning’ is no simple matter: the word suggests something simple, but in fact we’re always talking about a complex cluster of claims and constraints. Lordship of manors still mattered through to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Several parts of greater Oxford – including the parish of St Thomas (which comprehended Osney and the Botley Road) – weren’t enclosed until the mid nineteenth century, meaning that land rights there functioned within complex land-management systems. Layered ownership — involving leasing, renting, or forms of devolved management – is quite common now, as we saw e.g. in the post on flood meadows.

What I’m chiefly interested in is who was in a position to make long-term, strategic decisions about land use (under whatever legal and practical constraints), not (in this context) in who had responsibility for managing land-use at any given moment. Ownership can be transitional, as when a developer acquires land and then sells if on in freehold parcels. But transitional ownership can still be crucial in giving land use strategic direction. And in general who once owned the floodplain still often shapes the current order of things.

Patterns of landownership in England have undergone three major upheavals during the last 500 years First, with the dissolution of the monasteries. That had major effects in many places, but regionally especially in the Midlands, where much land was held by abbeys and monasteries. Second, as a result of ‘enclosure’, which in the sixteenth century sometimes meant someone asserting his ‘landowership’ rights to throw others off the land, later more often involved the unpicking of complex systems of distributed and communal ownership, to create a set of single-owned territories, a process also often associated with sales of land,  because people couldn’t afford to do the conversion, or because they seized the chance to make windfall gains. Again, non-coincidentally, parliamentary enclosure – enclosure sanctioned and organised by and under local acts of parliament – was especially big in the midlands, where former ecclesiastical ownership left a long-term legacy in the form of complex land-right systems. Thirdly, much land that had been held as part of big estates was sold off in a few years following the First World War, because (it seems) of a combination of debt building up over generations, several decades of depressed agricultural prices, and shocks administered by death duties and loss of heirs in the First World War.

All these upheavals were associated with local upheavals in Oxford and its floodplain. The first put much land into college (and sometimes into aristocratic) hands; the second exploded the territorial expression of village communities – detaching meadows and fields from manors and parishes, and thereby opened up land for development; the third prompted local aristocratic families to sell off landholdings to the west of Oxford. Urban growth and development interacted with these changes in a more sustained though episodic fashion. The growth of the city and university put pressure on land; some changes in landownership facilitated responses to that pressure.

I’ll consider first, the role of aristocratic landowners; then that of colleges and the University; then the role of the city and of ordinary freeholders.

Aristocratic landowners

To the west of Oxford, and up to the fringes of the city, from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries, much land was held by a few aristocratic landlords. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the big families in question were the Harcourts (earls Harcourt), the Berties (earls of Abingdon) and the Churchills (dukes of Marlborough) — all political families, who most notoriously squared up to one another in the hotly fought county election of 1754, said to provide the basis for Hogarth’s election series.

Their names live on in, in the case of the Harcourts, Harcourt Hill (site of a Brookes campus), Harcourt House on the Marston Road; and in the pub the Harcourt Arms (in Jericho – there are also pubs of that name in Stanton Harcourt and in Witney). In the case of the Berties, in two streets in New Hinksey and Cold Harbour: Bertie Place (running between Hinksey playground and the old Abingdon Road), and Norreys Avenue (another Bertie family title, running from the Abingdon Road to the lake in New Hinksey). And finally, in the case of the Churchills, in the form of Marlborough Road, running north-south in New Hinksey, and Blenheim Drive (North Oxford) and its Marlborough House Hotel. There once were, but are no longer, pubs in Oxford called the Abingdon Arms (Market St, behind the covered market), the Marlborough Arms (St Thomas High St) and Marlborough House (Grandpont).

From Malcolm Graham thesis (as below), with his kind permission. Bertie/Abingdon holdings in light green, Churchill/Marlborough holdings in dark green

Malcolm Graham’s map of landholdings in the city of Oxford (in his 1985 thesis on The Suburbs of Victorian Oxford), which is not specified as relating to any particular date but roughly 1860s, shows the Berties (earls of Abingdon) and Churchills (dukes of Marlborough), though not the Harcourts, holding small plots of land on the city’s western edge (the Harcourts may have owned small parcels in this area, but not qualified among his ‘major landowners’). The extent of the map, though, doesn’t capture the scale of their power and influence in the wider neighbourhood. Small Marlborough holdings to the north and Abingdon holdings to the west need to be seen in relation to their larger holdings in Wolvercote, Botley and North Hinksey, while the Harcourts’ holdings hover just beyond the limits of the map.

John Bateman’s analytical summary of the 1873 return to Parliament on the owners of land (vol. 1 includes Berkshire; vol. 2 includes Oxfordshire) shows the scale of these families’ holdings in the two counties at that point (Berkshire is included because, until 1974, the spur of hilly land that run up to the west of the city lay within Berkshire, as did most land on the west bank of the Thames below the city).

All these families were based outside Oxford, and their view was essentially that of major country gentlemen, interested in cultivating local standing and electoral influence.

Magnate bases (nls.maps.uk)

None seem to have been great movers of urban development. They neither went out of their way to acquire land in the Oxford urban and urbanising area, nor pushed to develop the land they held, or only – in the case of the Harcourts – along prestigious, rus in urbe, lines (though they were perfectly happy to encourage industry within largely rural settings).  The floodplain location of much of their land of course wasn’t conducive to intensive urbanisation. But such development as there was mainly followed from their sales of land. The Marlboroughs, who didn’t sell out during the 1920s to the same extent as the other families, did, nonetheless, sell or lease land for development in the eastern part of Wolvercote in the 1930s, as noted below.

No doubt much light is shed especially on the activities and strategies of the Harcourt and Bertie/Abingdon families in particular by W. J. Hanson, A Thousand Years: a study of the interaction between people and environment in the Cumnor, Wytham and North Hinksey Area (1996) but I haven’t been able to get access to a copy of this under lockdown. By default, this account is largely constructed from the VCH, and Wikipedia searches on people and places.

The earls of Harcourt

The Harcourt family claim to have come over with the Conqueror. They were long established around Stanton Harcourt (and in the middle ages once briefly held the manor of Wytham). They were a moderately successful political family. Simon Harcourt was created Baron Harcourt in 1711, as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, later Lord Chancellor, and (for his services to Whigs and Hanoverians) made Viscount Harcourt in 1721. His grandson, who raised a regiment to oppose the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, was made Earl Harcourt in 1749. Sons served in the Commons, and continued to do so through the nineteenth century. Their political interests gave them a reason to cultivate local standing. No doubt they spent much of the year at their grand house in London.

The first viscount inherited land at Nuneham Courtenay in 1727: Earl Harcourt began work on building a villa there in the 1750s – after all, one needed somewhere to spend the summer. His destruction (and rebuilding) of the village supposedly prompted Oliver Goldsmith to write The Deserted Village. Though the poem can be read as a protest against ‘enclosure’, what was at issue here was not parliamentary enclosure: no enclosure act was obtained at this time. Presumably the Harcourts owned enough land to achieve their desires without needing to seek further authority.

In 1772, the earl’s son George, a man of artistic leanings, set about remodelling the garden at Nuneham, with the aid of Capability Brown.

Nuneham Courtneay from the Thames

In the same year, the family extended its holdings in and around Oxford, acquiring the manor of North Hinksey, including land around Harcourt Hill – a way station between Stanton Harcourt and Nuneham Courtenay. North Hinksey was enclosed in 1777. Berkshire Record Office has made available a facsimile of the award.

A bridge at Babelock Hythe would have facilitated connections between the Harcourt family’s various holdings, but the earls of Abingdon (who were lords of the manor of Cumnor, on the eastern side of the river) opposed any such construction, fearing loss of income at their Swinford toll bridge (to the north), so the Babelock Hythe route remained ferry-dependent (as discussed in the post on ferries).

In the early nineteenth century the direct Harcourt line died out (a common incident in the lives of aristocratic families), but the title and property passed to a cousin, and descended from there. In the nineteenth century, the family was associated with various development plans around North Hinksey. It was in the service of such an aborted plan – designed, as Malcolm Graham puts it (p. 149), to create ‘Oxford’s Belgravia’ — that they established what was intended to be a carriage drive at Willow Walk in the 1870s.  But this came to nothing. They also left their land within the bounds of the city, to the south of the Botley Road and west of Abingdon Road, undeveloped, even as housing spread in the latter neighbourhood.

Willow Walk

In the early twentieth century, the family sold off land, opening the way to development around Botley. After the Second World War (during which Nuneham Courtenay was requisitioned), they also sold off that house to the University, and moved back to their old base in Stanton Harcourt (though supposedly little remains of the original house).

Between 1959 and 1979, Viscount Harcourt — same family, but the second to hold the re-established title — chaired the Oxford Preservation Trust. In this role, as Tanis Hinchcliffe notes, in her history of North Oxford, he encouraged moves to densify settlement in North Oxford, in furtherance of the OPT’s essential aim: preserving open space around the city.

The titled line has now died out again, though the family survives. It’s unclear to me if anything identifiable remains of the estate.

The Berties, earls of Abingdon

The Berties also claim very ancient descent (by the usual zig-zag, find-an-heir-when-you-need-one route). They jostled for position with the Harcourts on the terrain west of Oxford, even in one instance sharing the presentation to a living. Some of the lands they ultimately acquired had once formed part of holdings of the great abbey of Abingdon (e.g. Wytham, Cumnor — where the last abbot lived out his days, also Seacourt and South Hinksey), but the Berties weren’t immediate beneficiaries from its break-up: rather, there were several intermediate owners. Still, if there had been no dissolution there would have been much less scope for such gentry families to develop their power bases.

The Berties’ local fortunes were boosted in the sixteenth century, when the failure of another family’s male line brought them (through marriage) Rycote, a grand Tudor house to the east of Oxford, beyond Wheatley, and to the west, old Abingdon Abbey properties at Wytham and Seacourt. Later they briefly acquired the manor of Godstow before selling it off to the Duke of Marlborough (1702-10).

The Berties, who descended from earls of Lindsey, and married into the Norreys title, acquired their earldom (as earls of Abingdon) earlier than the Harcourts (1682). But this was a mark of their closeness to the later Stuarts, their continuing loyalty to whom didn’t help their political fortunes under the Hanoverians, though they continued to put family members in the Commons as well as the Lords and were clearly significant local players. They don’t seem to have had a permanent base in London, probably joining many other members of the political classes in renting rooms in classy districts for short runs of years.

In 1745, Rycote was badly damaged by fire (a coincidence, in a year when they’d declined to rally against the Jacobite invasion?). Though they continued to use Rycote as their burial place, the family thereafter made Wytham their base. Through to the early nineteenth century, it’s reported, the road between Wytham and Godstow was a private road used only by this family: other travellers intent on crossing at this point had to cross the Thames by Wytham mill. The 4th earl did fund the construction of the Swinford Toll Bridge near Eynsham – giving access to a southern route through the hills to Botley. He also attempted repairs at Rycote, but this probably didn’t help his finances (horse-racing was another sink for funds). He died insolvent, having sold off most of his Wiltshire estate. The 6th earl married a Harcourt.

The Berties acquired the manor of Cumnor, adjacent to Wytham, during the eighteenth century – this gave them authority from Swinford southwards to Botley and North Hinksey, and over land eastwards across the river from Stanton Harcourt. (Parish and tithing boundaries in this neighbourhood are shown in this map).  At the same time they acquired land and other rights in South Hinksey as well as some in North Hinksey. In the early nineteenth century, the then earl plundered the Cumnor Manor house to rebuild Wytham church. (This kind of asset stripping seems to have been a habit: in the eighteenth century they sold a staircase from ‘a country house in Oxfordshire’ to Humphrey Sibthorp who was building a house at Cowley Place, later the nucleus of St Hilda’s).

Both Wytham and Cumnor were enclosed during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: there are beautiful 1814 enclosure maps on the Berkshire Record Office website for Wytham and Cumnor showing which lands were allocated to the earl of Abingdon at that point. (The site has an index site to all maps and awards).

In 1879, the family took over a brick and tileworks and sawmill at Chawley – behind what’s now Norreys Road — which operated until the Second World War.  A plesiosaurus skeleton was once found there. The abandoned brick pits have attracted attention for their rare mosses.The Berties’ South Hinksey holdings extended across territory that was in due course traversed by the railway into what became New Hinksey. They were not, Malcolm Graham tells us, active in seeking to develop this land, though other, private owners were, and the railway line supplied a reason to act, so the area urbanised regardless.

Like the Harcourts, they sold off land in the 1920s, disposing of their Cumnor holdings; development followed. In the 1930s, they sold off the land on which Bertie Place and Norreys Avenue were built. At some point before the Second World War, they abandoned Wytham abbey (members of the Bowes-Lyon family lived there during the war). They did however inherit back the old family title of earls of Lindsey and as such are still extant, though the family seat is now in Scotland.

The Churchills, dukes of Marlborough

The Marlborough family’s fortunes were in major part the creation of John, first earl and later first duke of Marlborough, stellar general to the post-revolutionary Stuarts. He was awarded land and a grand house was constructed for him at Woodstock in 1705, but fell from favour amidst court in-fighting a few years later. Their grand London house also dated from this period of political ascendancy. During the rest of the eighteenth century the family were significant local political players but didn’t hold high office, though younger son Randolph brought them back into the political limelight in the later nineteenth century. A spendthrift duke ran through lots of the money during that century, until in its final decade the 9th duke married a millionnairess Vanderbilt and re-established the family fortunes.

Under the first duke, Wolvercote was one of the areas targeted to build up the estate. He acquired the manors of Godstow (from the Abingdons) and Wolvercote in 1710; also land at Cutteslowe, which was sold off 1811 (when he also sold Godstow bridge to the Abingdons). He initially owned and managed Wolvercote paper mill, but later leased this to William Jackson, editor of the Oxford Journal. The mill also supplied paper to Oxford University Press, and from the mid nineteenth century was for a hundred years owned and managed by the Press.

In 1789, the then duke of Marlborough built the Duke’s Cut, to link the Oxford Canal (which hadn’t quite reached Oxford at that point) to the Thames, and to facilitate the transport of coal to the mill. In the nineteenth century the family sold land to the railway.

The enclosure of Wolvercote in 1845 changed the form of some of the family’s holdings. From 1902 onwards, but mainly during the 1930s, the dukes of Marlborough leased or sold their land in the east part of Wolvercote, ‘Upper Wolvercote’, for building — at the same time that others were selling off land around Cutteslowe. Presumably modern Blenheim Drive marks that site. Houses were also built in Lower Wolvercote.The family remained patrons in the neighbourhood: in 1930 the then Duke helped to facilitate the building of the village hall; in 1982 the then Duchess planted a tree to celebrate its jubilee.

Quite when and why the family acquired land in what became New Hinksey is unclear to me, as also if and when they sold it (other than to the railway company). The 9th duke opened St Matthew’s infant school in New Hinksey in 1893 – but the school, like the church, stood on land given by Brasenose College.

Purple flowers

This post is in large part a joke on me. Through the lockdown spring, I tried to develop my meagre botanical knowledge, at least to the extent of learning what name to attach to the wild flowers and the trees that I encountered. This became more difficult as time moved on and flowers proliferated. In that context, I discovered in myself a particular blind spot in relation to purple flowers. I found it hard to persuade myself to take an interest in identifying them. I enlisted the help of friends to rise to this challenge. My adverse reaction to purple flowers became proverbial.

Imagine my dismay, therefore, when, towards the end of June, it seemed that purple flowers were taking over, had become the dominant colour of flower! Fortunately, in the second week of July, their dominance was challenged by yellow daisies (which however proved challenging in their own way).

This post records my progress, and lack of progress, in identifying purple flowers. ‘Purple’, for this purpose, spans quite a wide range, from bright pink through mauve to a deep, imperial kind of purple. I report the flowers in the order in which I first photographed them.

April set the purple year off to a resounding start, with snakes-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows – the flowers that pulled me out of seclusion.

Otherwise April was short on purple flowers, though I think there may have been some Herb Robert and other venturesome plants around that I didn’t photograph. Certainly that made an early appearance in my garden.

May brought lots of red, white and occasionally the hybrid pink campion. And also ragged robin.

June saw a purple explosion. Mallow, rosebay willowherb, vetch, and purple deadnettle made their appearance.

Also scabious and great burnet.

And cranesbill (wild geranium), not to be confused with mallow (I’m still learning to tell them apart — they both have veiny flowers, but different leaves):

Buddleia bloomed at various points along the towpath:

And thistles (which I didn’t spend a lot of time photographing) and similarly flowered but not-spiky knapweed were joined by majestic teasels.

By early July, Iffley Meadows, which in late April and May had been awash with buttercups, turned (if less vibrantly) purple, with thistles and vetchm while Heyford meadow bloomed with vetch and scabious, along with classic ivory and white meadow flowers meadowsweet and Queen Anne’s lace.

July also brought lesser burdock, and herb agrimony – which I first learned to identify in Rivermead Nature Park and now find prominent on the towpath.

Yet other July flowers remain to be identified: the first is the one that I saw in abundance in Iffley Meadows in early July. Is it a pink knapweed? The second is everywhere late July: ordinary willowherb?

Yet, meanwhile yellow daisies, especially what I’ve tentatively identified as yellow camomiles, have sprung up all the towpath. So – by the standards of June, at least – purple is in recession.

Revised to include identification of cranesbill.

Osney island

Osney Island has moved.

The term used to refer to the large body of land demarcated by what’s now the main stream of the Thames, formerly Osney Mill Stream; Castle Mill Stream and the Sheepwash Channel to the north. Now it refers to the small area of land that lies west of the Thames, and is demarcated on the west by Osney Ditch. Another ditch, with its own weir, runs between the small grid of housing and the Botley Road.

This and other maps from nls.maps.uk

The original Osney Island hasn’t ceased, in some sense, to be an island. It’s still bounded by these channels. But it’s ceased to be ‘legible’ as an island. It was probably never very legible: too large an too flat for the eye to see its limits all at once. The causeway towards Botley, turnpiked in the eighteenth century, split it, in effect, into two peninsulas. Yet each by itself may for some time have retained something of an island feel.

During the middle ages, Osney Abbey, with its towering church, was the beating heart of the southern part of the island. The mill was linked to the abbey. The abbey foundered with the Dissolution. The mill continued to operate, and its operations made the watercourse relatively unattractive to navigation. That changed only with the construction of a pound lock in the 1790s. The north had its own abbey, Rewley, which stretched across what are now the grounds of the Said Business School to the Castle Mill Stream. Only a much diminished stretch of its river frontage now survives.

The 1830 OS map shows the whole ‘island’ dominated by fields, with the church and some houses of St Thomas on the east, oriented towards the city, though the parish itself also stretched westwards from the church.

The construction of new transport arteries changed experience of the site. In 1849-52, a railway line was driven through the centre of the island, to the new GWR station on the Botley Road, opening up N-S railway traffic. Railway lines and yards came to occupy large parts of the northern section of the island. Then in the 1920s Oxpens Road was driven through the southern part of the island, linking Hollybush Row in St Thomas to Thames Street in St Ebbes. Intervening meadow land began to be built over. So first the railway had bisected the site, and then the construction of the road and road bridge across its southern part began the work of eliminating the Castle Mill Stream as a physically evident boundary, which infill building completed. The island became for all practical purposes illegible.

Christ Church had taken over the lands of Osney abbey and some Rewley Abbey land – in the later nineteenth century, much of the land within the old island of Osney, at least to the south, was still Christ Church land. The coming of the railway coincided with the enclosure of St Thomas’, providing both incentive and opportunity to develop the old abbey grounds and the adjacent district. On its land, Christ Church signalled its desire to develop a new suburb, to the south of the Botley Road, New Osney, which might accommodate railway workers. Across the Thames to the west, the town clerk, who had purchased the lands, similarly encouraged the development of ‘Osney Town’. And adjacent and across the road to the north, the Cripley estate and New Botley were brought into being. Increasingly, as the Botley Road headed towards the railway and the city, it became an urban strip.

Osney island, 1888, 1937-6. Oxpens Road is built, infilling of the meadows begins

The eastern side of old Osney island was always more oriented towards the city, though marginal to it. That area has been covered in my account of the Castle Mill Stream walk.

Head further west, and you enter an area not fit so much for walk-type walking, as for urban-fringe exploration, a probe into the character of a watery bit of the city.

To the north, one finds late nineteenth-century (and some recent) housing to the north, running towards and halting at the Sheepwash Channel — and more recent housing to the east, in Rewley, in what were once railway yards.

A recurrent theme in the development of the area is the siting of builders’ yards along the river, good locations for the delivery of heavy supplies for use in local construction. Kingerlee‘s, perhaps the most successful local firm, who developed Abbey Road to the north-west of the island, had its initial yard between the road and the river, and later rented another yard to the south. Thomas Kingerlee (who was at one time mayor of Oxford), built his own home by Osney bridge, access point to the island. It’s now the River Hotel.

Approaching the southern ‘peninsula’ from the city side, there’s been miscellaneous housing and office development along Hollybush Row. The section nearest to the railway is now being developed as commercial student accommodation.

Looking back from the footbridge, with new student housing on the right

Cross the railway line by the footbridge and you’re in what was once the heart of old Osney, the area within which the Abbey once stood.  

Up against the railway line is more student housing, in this case linked to a private pre-university tutorial college, Cherwell college.

The abbey site is occupied by a graveyard – established 1848 as an overspill graveyard, and in use until 1929 — and also by housing along Mill Street and Mill Bank, over to the old mill (now also converted for residential use). The only surviving fragment of the abbey is hidden away somewhere around here.

From here you can head in various directions, but always towards dead ends.

Southwards down Mill Street is newish housing, beginning with Bishops Gate, a former office building, commercially developed and then sold to All Souls

Then at the southernmost end, exploiting what was once part of the water system for the mill, Osney marina, offering 40 moorings equipped for residential use, and also selling boats.

Osney Marina, from the bridge by the lock

Alternatively, heading westwards from Mill Street to the river, you come to the former electricity-generating station, Oxford Power Station. Acquired by the university in 1971, it initially served as an engineering lab but is now being developed by the university as an adjunct to the Said Business School: offering residential accommodation and teaching facilities for short courses for business people.

It is clear that this site has been put to miscellaneous use, sometimes involving the repurposing of old river-related facilities.

Much of it, though, is occupied by housing: older terraced family housing, and newer, often multi-story apartment housing.

In the 1861 census, New Osney and Osney Town were observed to form an area of major housebuilding activity. The ground landlords – Christ Church and the town clerk respectively – encouraged development. Local builders fleshed these plans out, operating from builders’ yards located (as noted) within the neighbourhood. The West Oxford Heritage Character statement saysof this formative period in the life of New Osney (p. 75) ‘The river and frontages to it are hidden from the main streets, suggesting it was not regarded as a desirable outlook at the time…’  Possibly not, but equally possibly it was judged even more important to exploit the river bank for industrial and commercial purposes. Osney Town, by contrast, more frankly confronts its watery setting.

In any case, by contrast, new accommodation in New Osney, constructed on the longer-surviving of the builders’ sites and within the old mill building, does overlook the waterway.

Across the old island, it’s evident that an important customer for residential and other space is the modern city’s great, multi-faceted industry: education.

Meanwhile to the south of Osney Town, the former King’s Meadow, Osney Mead, has from the 1960s been developed as an industrial estate, providing space and facilities no longer available in the urban core.

Living and dying in the floodplain

Many of us live and some of us will die in and around the floodplain. In this post, I’ll consider only a few aspects of this topic: communities where people lived and worked in and around the rivers and canal; modern forms of housing on and around these watercourses;  contagion and isolation, and graveyards in the region.

Living and working communities

In Oxford there are four main sites along the river and canal where communities have lived many of whose members’ working lives have been oriented towards the water.


Let’s consider them in the sequence in which they emerged:

Around Fisher Row

Here fishermen lived in the later middle ages, some of whom became boatmen, or carried goods around wharves, or financed the river trade from the west that terminated here, and associated industries and enterprises – as represented for example by this eighteenth-century malthouse.

Mary Prior, in her book Fisher Row, explains that the mix of occupations among residents of Fisher Row shifted towards canal work from 1813. The Oxford canal trade was not very industrial, so not attractive to large companies. She suggests that owner boatmen probably loomed large in Oxford enterprise, and inhabitants of the neighbourhood included a mix of such men and working hands (some of them owners’ sons). While a wife might live normally in a house — this community, she suggests, was matrilocal — the men might be only occasional residents. And some families lived on their boats: among those sometimes resident, there were probably more boat-dwellers than house dwellers. In the 1830s, when the trade was at its peak, she suggests that some 300-400 boatmen and their families may have seen Fisher Row as their base.

Among those who organised the trade, sometimes owning small fleets of boats, were publicans — so pubs doubled as commercial and social centres. One such pub was The Nag’s Head, so called into the twenty-first century, but now called The Oxford Retreat. Another such pub, The Running Horse, used to face it across Hythe Bridge Street (the names presumably nodding to the role of horses in pulling the boats).

A ‘floating chapel’ was established in 1839 to cater to the spiritual needs of this community. Later (when that had aged and sunk) it was replaced by a land-based chapel and infant and night school. Now it’s the site of a Thai restaurant, the Bangkok House.

Former boatmen’s chapel

In the later nineteenth century, as the canal trade declined, and those who didn’t feel compelled to sink their capital in it pulled out, boatmen became poorer, more often permanently quit their houses for life on boats, and tended to base themselves in settlements further up the canal.


This suburb of Oxford was inaugurated by speculative builders. When Oxford University Press located its print works there in 1828, that gave a boost to the area (and the Press bought one block), but because it backed on to the canal, it also came to house boatmen and wharf workers. An 1850 sketch shows Jericho Meadows with river traffic in the foreground and the Press smokestack belching away.

The building of Oxford’s two main stations nearby further contributed to Jericho’s role in transport-related industry. Jericho’s ‘many railwaymen’ were ferried across the canal to work.

After the canal basin was closed in, in the 1930s, wharfs in Jericho and further up the canal continued in use for some decades. The Anchor pub was so named because it served workers associated with the Hayfield wharf.

Two films made in 1974 and 2019 offer portraits of Jericho at different ends of an (incomplete) process of gentrification. A striking feature of both films, it seems to me, is that the canal doesn’t feature as a place of work.

St Ebbe’s, and Grandpont

These two communities are sited on opposite sides of the Thames around Folly Bridge. St Ebbes’s was the earlier to be developed — as the historian R.J. Morris explains — from the 1820s.  Previously what had been open country to the south west of the city had hosted market gardens, builders’ yards and a tan yard. Development took place both on the fringes of the city and by the river, where the city’s first gasworks were established in 1819. He traces how it came to be built up (in a way quite common at the time, though this was not the only possible pattern of development): through a hierarchy of actors, in which better capitalised investors laid out roads and plots, and tradesmen and others – including college servants and labourers — purchased often several plots, by way of investment, and built on them, or had them built upon. These small investors commonly themselves lived in houses they had built. Morris emphasises that it was an area of mixed housing, including people on the borders of the middle classes. The houses had small gardens. But the bigger investors did not operate on such a scale as to feel that their reputation hinged on the quality of what they built. They did not impose building covenants, and the small landlords who bought the freeholds could scarcely afford and did not want to do too much by way of improvement, so services failed to keep pace with rising standards, and poor drainage assisted the spread of epidemic diseases, including cholera (which also raged in Jericho).  

New Hinksey, including Grandpont, developed later, around the early railway line and terminus, originally sited in Grandpont. 

Riverside parts of these two these were among other things areas of wharves – such as Friar’s Wharf (‘the largest wharf and wet-dock in Oxford’) and Baltic Wharf — and of wharf- and river-workers: of people who worked with river-borne freight, and also in urban and leisure water-trades, as ferrymen or boat builders.

New Osney and Osney Town.

These were not river-oriented to the same extent, but were affected by the river’s passage. When the area was subject to enclosure in the 1850s, the land on which New Osney was built was acquired by Christchurch; that on which Osney Town was built, by the town clerk. Both were intended especially to house railway workers, in demand after Botley Road became home to both Oxford’s main stations.  Osney Town also provided a focus for boatmen, whether they were passing through Oxford, or bringing local supplies, notably coal to the city power plant, the Oxford Electric Light Station (established on the east bank here in the 1890s). The Waterman’s Arms (now the Punter), Osney, flourished as a  pub for these river workers.

Of course there were also scattered river- and canal-oriented enterprises up and in the case of the river down-stream, some of them distributed outwards from the core: boat-building at Medley and towards Iffley; punt-renting on the Cherwell, still more widely scattered millers and ferrymen. But Jericho, around Fisher-Row, and St Ebbe’s/Grandpont housed the main clusters.

It’s probably partly a reflection of the decline of these forms of work, but also of their perceived marginality to the life of the city, that C. Violet Butler, Social Conditions in Oxford (1912), in her survey of patterns of work, doesn’t mention wharfs, boats, barges, river or canal as sites of work at all (though it may be significant too that her focus was on what she recognised as skilled trades; she was much less interested in ‘casual labour’)

Nancy Hood  in her book Oxford Waterways assembles many old pictures and photos of these old river- and canal-oriented working communities, and of the remains they’ve left.

Water work

It’s hard now to imagine the extent of the river and later canal-related activity that took place from the sixteenth into the early twentieth century around Fisher Row and the canal basin. Two colleges have succeeded to parts of this property. St Peter’s lodge was once the canal company office, while Canal House, built for the chief engineer of the trust, now houses the college’s Master. A striking photograph in the Towpath Walk in Oxford (p. 58) shows the Canal House and St Peter’s College buildings looming over the New Street wharf in the 1930s, when the college itself was just a fledgling (it accepted its first students in 1929 — and Oxford University Images have a more narrowly focussed but otherwise similar image). The birth of Nuffield College marked a further stage in the dissolution of the canal enterprise: it occupies the site of this wharf and the canal basin, purchased by Lord Nuffield in 1936. The car park, formerly the site of other bits of canal and wharf, is Nuffield College property.

Canal basin and environs, from 2nd series OS map, 1888-1914 (nls.maps.uk)

Elsewhere wharf activity and associated industries have left legacies in buildings, names, sites. I’ve previously included pictures of some of these in the ‘Navigation’ section of my ‘Managing the Waters‘ post.

Among related industries, brewing looms large. There used to be a number of breweries around the castle section of Castle Mill Stream. Access to water, both as raw material and as power source may have been important in determining their location originally. Perhaps raw materials, corn and malt, were also brought by boat. Later Morrell’s brewery ran on coal brought via the canal.

Energy is a recurrent theme in the history of Oxford watercourses. Flowing water is of course itself a power source, which mills have historically harnessed.

But the rivers and canal also carried fuel, in the form of coal – in fact coal (originating from Newcastle) was one of the main cargoes carried up river from the Thames in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and down from the Midlands, via the Thames and Severn canal, or the Oxford canal, from the 1790s. A key argument for the Oxford canal was that it would cheapen the price of coal. Mary Prior suggests that one function of the pubs that played a nodal role in the canal boatman’s world related to the coal trade: publicans might be coal merchants themselves, or agents for coal merchants. Boats were sometimes dedicated to the carriage of coal, and some wharves specialised in coal. Note the number of coal-related sites on the map above. According to evidence given to Parliament in 1865, it was the cusstom to stockpile coal in the canal basin in summer for use in winter. Woolley, in her pamphet on Oxford’s Working Past, tells us that Park End Street is named after Parkend colliery in the Forest of Dean, which had its wharf there. A photo of Hayfield wharf in 1890 shows stacks of coal and ‘coal carts’. Both Mary Prior’s Fisher Row and Nancy Hood’s Oxford Waterways includes a photograph of two women, Rose Skinner and Jean Humphries, unloading coal on the Juxon Street wharf, Jericho in 1956 (the picture is also reproduced on the canalworld website).

A reminder of the scale of the move away from coal that has taken place in the past sixty years is provided by the report that, in 1961, 76% of homes used solid fuel, whereas, in 2015, less than 1% relied on it. Just over half a century ago, not merely the winning but also the unloading, storage and distribution of this key resource employed a great many people.

Coal fuelled, and probably helped to determine the location of riverine industries. Malcolm Graham suggests (p. 134) that it may have been a factor in the University’s 1825 decision to site its printing press in Jericho. The Towpath Walk in Oxford tells us that Wolvercote mill, originally water-powered, switched to coal in 1811, and to oil only in 1952.

Coal also fuelled other energy-generating plants, such as gas works: the first Oxford gasworks was located on the river by St Ebbe’s; the second, over the river by Grandpont. (it’s been suggested more generally that the construction of canals, and consequent cheapening of coal, was a necessary condition for the development of gas generation and supply in Britain). Electric power stations also depended on coal. The Osney power plant became oil-fired only in the 1940s.

Among considerations encouraging the location of these plants near rivers, ready access to river-borne coal supplies was probably one. Of the gasworks (in its original location), it has been said that it mattered that ‘[t]he raw material – coal – could be delivered by boat, and residual by-products (coke, tar, sulphur and ammonia) despatched via the same route’. However, by the 1880s, when the gasworks was relocated across the river, the railway was the preferred means for delivering coal.

Gasworks railway bridge

Now we’re using water power again: the Osney Lock Hydro, which began operation in 2015 harnesses water power. In a now-generally-privatised energy market, it’s notable that this project rests on a mix of private and community investment. ‘Surplus revenue’ is devoted to community projects.

New residential communities

In a modern urban setting, it’s less common for people to live right by their work place, and in that way to form working-and-living communities. In recent decades, new forms of living have developed in and around the river, for people who probably don’t work on the river. These include residential narrowboats and new apartment housing.


Some canal workers and their families lived on their boats. Mary Prior suggests that the practice was facilitated and even encouraged by the fact that manoeuvering a canal boat was a kind of work that women could quite easily do or help to do, so a family was a possible working unit — less the case with the older barges. She finds evidence of families living on boats trading to Oxford by the 1820s. There were early efforts to make it possible or to encourage boaters to take part in organised religious life. Adaptation of regulation of conditions of life to boat-life was a feature of the 1870s and 80s — to ensure, for example, that children had a formal education. Meanwhle life on the canal became harder with the decline of trade; boating families might lose their houses ashore — in which context, she tells us, Oxford boating families often seem to have moved their bases higher up the canal.

Nonetheless, this form of living and working on boats continued well into the twentieth century. Memories collected by the Oxford Canal Heritage project (online summaries only) include one with Jenny Glyn, who until the age of 10 lived with her family on a coal boat.

There may be families in which the habit has passed down the generations. But the vast majority of those who live on boats now acquired the know-how involved in doing this at some point in their adult lives.

Modern boat-dwelling is in most respects a modern phenomenon. It developed with the decline to near extinction point of the old river trades, and with the rise of leisure boating, and of boats developed for short or long term living under those conditions. It was nurtured by the quest for alternative lifestyles in the 1960s – which of course continues to hold appeal in various social sectors. The Residential Boat Owners’ Association was founded in 1963, to lobby for boaters’ rights. It continues to operate, and has a magazine, Soundings.

Pioneers helped to establish facilities and developed practical wisdom that they could pass on to newcomers, making this a more evidently possible mode of life. Now it can look like a short-term, life-cycle option for those daunted by high rents payable to live on land — though those who think that may be warned that it’s both more expensive and more challenging than it might look.

Boaters or liveaboards are a diverse bunch. But overall it’s been noted that the community has both gentrified and aged, and ways of making narrowboat living safer for seniors is now a subject of discussion. To what extent this ageing community will renew itself is unclear.

In Oxford, anyone walking around the watercourses will discover plenty of more or less inhabitable and often inhabited boats. Boatdwellers are both various and variously perceived, as online summaries of oral testimonies collected by the Oxford Canal Heritage project suggest. The current City Plan acknowledges that residential boats ‘contribute to the cultural and housing diversity of Oxford and provide a type of accommodation that can be more affordable.’

Residential boats are distributed along the Thames and its offshoots, as well as the canal.

Between Donnington Bridge and Iffley Lock

It’s up to the owner of land to decide whether to allow mooring. Some sites are owned by the Council (especially near locks), and some by the Canal and River Trust. Some private owners try to prevent mooring, others encourage it (though may offer either visitor or residential mooring). Some marinas maintain it as a commercial enterprise: thus in Oxford at Osney and Medley.

Rights to moor and mooring charges can be subjects of contestation. Around Oxford, moorings are in high demand, and prices can seem exorbitant to those aiming to live if not off at least at the margins of the grid. Rules may be ignored, or loopholes found, and clashes ensue, with the authorities or other river users. There have been recent attempts by boaters in negotiation with the City Council to address some of these problems by establishing new moorings. In their latest Plan, the Council recognises that, insofar as it recognises boat-dwelling as a valid option, it needs to find new space for moorings. The plan offers various ideas as to where these might be sited.

In the context of the pandemic, residential boats have presented both an opportunity and a challenge. They offered one possible resource for housing the homeless. Still, being medically vulnerable on board a boat by a public towpath has its downsides, quite apart from the usual boatdwellers’ problem of accessing services.

Reconciling the irreconcilable?


Another solution to/way of responding to pressure on housing is to built apartments, and that has been a favourite pastime in Oxford in recent years. Of course, not all new apartment blocks are in and around the floodplain — they’ve been shooting up, for example, in and around the Banbury Road, while specifically student accommodation has proliferated in (among other places) the Iffley Road. Still the floodplain has been full of buildings ripe for repurposing, and open land, and that has helped to determine that much new apartment construction has taken place in and around the watercourses.

Post-war floodplain rebuilding had a different character, whether it involved close-to-wholesale razing and rebuilding (St Ebbe’s, the riverside section of Grandpont) or something more selective (Jericho). The object was typically to replace modest housing that didn’t meet modern standards with improved modest housing, sometimes under Council auspices. (Though also the geography of provision was rethought, in the context of the new importance of the car industry and its plants to the east: so Rose Hill was expanded and Blackbird Leys built).

The game is different now. There’s more single living, on the part of young and old; Oxford has become part of the London commuter-zone; house prices have shot up; the Council plays a smaller part in the game. New apartments aim on the one hand to pile them high, on the other hand to be aspirational, and therefore to offer a good return on investment. Mod cons may now include gyms.

In that context, sites in and around the floodplain have various positive attractions. Some of the buildings can be presented as having heritage appeal; some offer water views, now prized, and propinquity to open land may also be an asset.

Legacies’ of past industrial and other uses of the floodplain therefore resurface in our narrative as bases for housing projects. Old industrial sites may be inconvenient, and offer a poor return relative to other opportunities. Better in that context to do what Lucy’s did: move the industrial operation elsewhere, and develop a new sideline as a residential landlord.

Other brownfield sites include former railway property at Rewley (once including coal wharves), wharfland at Grandpont and the grounds of the old isolation hospital, latterly a geriatric and rehabilitation centre, at the southern end of the Abingdon Road (including a refurbished isolation hospital building).

Of course, attempts to develop apparently marginal land can have wider repercussions than developers initially anticipated — as the University of Oxford found when it built new graduate housing inbetween Cripley Meadow allotments and the railway, precipitating a storm of protest both outside and inside the University because of the development’s impact on hallowed views across Port Meadow.

Contagion and isolation

Traditionally, enclosing institutions were sited at the edge of towns: workhouses, hospitals, lunatic asylums (in Oxford, many hospitals are on high sites, in Headington). One rationale was to give the enclosed fresh air; another was to protect townsfolk from epidemic diseases that might incubate in institutions. How much more reason, then, to put isolation centres for the contagiously ill at the edge of the town.

In Oxford, the twelfth-century leper hospital dedicated to St Bartholomew is the oldest such institution, distanced from town down what’s now the Cowley Road. The chapel survives; the old hospital, in which lepers initially lived as a separate community, was destroyed in the Civil War. Before then, in the fourteenth century, the chapel and hospital had passed into the hands of Oriel, so that its scholars could enjoy ‘the use of wholesome air in times of pestiliential sickness’. In the sixteenth century it was converted to use as an almshouse for freemen of the city. The old building was destroyed in the Civil War, but Oriel rebuilt it. It declined from use in the nineteenth century, offering too little to residents. In 1833, it was used to isolate cholera patients.

In a recent account of archaeological work on the site, it’s noted that it lies below the spring line, and that the ground is well-watered, even marshy (as holders of local allotment plots have found). It’s suggested that, since bathing was thought important for lepers, such water sources may have played a part in recommending the site.

Other temporary isolation refuges have been sited in the floodplain. According to the Towpath Walk in Oxford, a herdsman’s hut at the gate to Aristotle Lane – link road to Port Meadow — was used to house people with plague in the seventeenth century. The workhouse farm, along the canal, was redeployed as a cholera hospital and dispensary in the 1830s.

The southern end of the Abingdon Road had a cottage used to isolate smallpox victims in the 1770s. A century later, a permanent isolation hospital was constructed on the Weirs Lane side of the road, replacing a short-lived such hospital in north Oxford, displaced by housing development. Until the 1950s, the Cold Harbour isolation hospital served to house patients with untreatable tuberculosis. It then became a psycho-geriatric centre, and has now been absorbed into new housing.


Sanitary concerns gave Victorians special reason to worry about overflowing graveyards, precipitating a search for new ground in which to bury people. In Oxford in 1848 three new cemeteries were established, each serving a cluster of existing parishes: one at Osney — on the former site of Osney Abbey, by Osney mill (subsequently boxed in by the railway line and housing in New Osney, aimed especially at railway workers); a second by the canal in Jericho, ‘St Sepulchre’s‘, and a third at Holywell. They in their turn filled up with bodies or at least with plot reservations, and in the 1880s an outer ring of new municipal cemeteries superseded them. Some burials continued to be made until the Second World War, but in the 1950s all were closed to new burials.

Osney cemetery

Detached from parish churches, not in continuing use, they became, in effect, orphaned graveyards.

St Sepulchre’s — approached by an obscure passage at the northern end of Walton St (by the bicycle shop) — is surrounded on two sides by what was once the Lucy’s ironworks but now are new apartments. In a 1974 film about Jericho, it features as a place in which family members of local are buried. In a sequel, 2019 it has by contrast become the focus for a community effort to preserve a resonant open space. The Friends of St Sepulchre’s maintain an informative website.

St Sepulchre sounds like a very appropriate saint to be celebrated by a graveyard. There was in fact no such sainted person: it’s Latin for Holy Sepulchre. Though as such, still appropriate. But perhaps telling us something about the religious leanings of those involved with this cemetery that they chose the least prosaic, most resonant name.

Revised to include a map of the canal basin and environs, and a bit more detail on coal; also to include a new section on Contagion and isolation. Also now with pictures from Holywell cemetery.


Daisies, the plant family Asteraceae, are a very common and globally widespread plant, ‘with species ranging from subpolar to tropical regions’. A common feature is their star-like shape (aster is Greek for star). They’re more complex than they appear: what we perceive as a flower being, according to the botanists, in fact a whole bunch of flowers (hence another name for the family: ‘composites’): ‘Nearly all Asteraceae bear their flowers in dense heads (capitula or pseudanthia) surrounded by involucral bracts. When viewed from a distance, each capitulum may have the appearance of being a single flower. Enlarged outer (peripheral) flowers in the capitula may resemble petals, and the involucral bracts may look like a calyx.’ Indeed, they do.

Large daisies started to draw my attention in May, and for a while during May and June they were some of the most prominent plants along the towpath, often in eye-catching clusters, sometimes with other plants. I may still be underestimating the range of daisies I’ve seen, but I think I’ve distinguished a good handful of different types.

First, not along the towpath, but in more lawn-like spaces, the common lawn or English daisy. These appear from as early as March and may continue till September.

Second, on a quite different scale, the eye-catchers along the towpath, ox-eye daisies – presumably so-called because the central core is the size of an ox’s eye. These are the ones I began to notice in late May. ‘Our largest native member of the daisy family’, says the Woodland Trust. Said to flower from May to September and to like grassland and woodland edges. My first photo of these dates from 20 May.

North Hinksey, May
Hospital field, by Boundary Brook, June

Thirdly, from about the same period, wholly yellow, somewhat smaller daisies. These have peaked later. By the second week in July, the towpath was awash with them. I think these might be yellow camomile.

Then, fourthly and fifthly, there are more dandelion-like plants, but leggy, and growing several heads to a stem, and also small, more delicate yellow flowers. The first are surely hawkweeds: some variety of hawkbit — ‘members of the dandelion tribe within the sunflower [ie asteraceae] family’.   Blooming from May to October. The smaller and more delicate ones, I’m not so sure.

Towpath, July

Sixth and seventh, appearing a bit later, some bunched, long-legged white and yellow daisies, perhaps camomile daisies. In the case of the ones which appear yellow, the outer petals have bunched up round the core. Said to have more frond-like leaves. And/or feverfew – the leaves in the third photo here look more like feverfew. Both have medicinal uses. My photos are from July.

Towpath, July

Finally, once spotted by the towpath in mid-June, some white and pink daisies which a friend suggests are Spanish and garden escapees.

Daisies and other flowers, towpath between Grandpont and Iffley Lock, June