Radley and other gravel pits

Gravel diggings in Oxford and its region

  • Yield evidence of prehistoric land formation, and of early human settlement
  • Have been a feature of Oxford city’s history
  • Perhaps more than ever, provide a focus for clashing interests. On the one hand, commercial interests wanting to exploit the sites in various ways (to service utilities that the population at large uses), and on the other hand, local residents and associated countryside preservation and environmental campaign groups. Around these contending parties, a sometimes precarious series of accommodations have been negotiated.

Origins of gravel

Gravel pits in Oxford, and its region, have generally lain close to the floodplain (though there is also Jurassic gravel on the hills, and a few digging operations have focussed there). In that they are mainly low-lying, gravel pits are distinct from the stone and brick quarries in the hills to the east and west  of Oxford, at Headington and Chawley.

British Geological Survey, Oxfordshire, Mineral Resources. Crown Copyright. Highlights and key mine.

Gravel workings exploit the geological heritage, notably gravel terraces formed by prehistoric river action, which dumped ground stones (in this case especially limestone from the Cotswolds) on the Oxford clay, and in this way created the main base on which central urban Oxford now rests.

A city ‘landscape character assessment’ offers a guide to these terraces. It notes that older (‘fourth’ and ‘third’) river terraces are to be found at some distance from the city centre: in the case of the oldest (‘fourth’ or ‘Hanborough’ terrace) west of Yarnton, at Spring Hill (30 metres above the present river level); in the case of the third’ or ‘Wolvercote’ terrace at Wolvercote itself (10 metres above current river level), and around Oxford airport, en route to Woodstock.

Second and first river terraces lie closer to the heart of the modern city.

‘The second river terrace, or the Summertown-Radley deposit, is the most widespread of the river terraces and forms the level platform upon which central and north Oxford stand.’ There are also areas of ‘second river terrace’ in east Oxford and at Iffley/Rose Hill, associated in the first case with swathes of Oxford clay, in the second case, topped with Kimmeridge clay. This terrace provides the main base for high and dry central Oxford.

‘The flat and uniform first river terrace (sometimes called Northmoor gravel) occurs along the edges of the floodplains of the Thames … and Cherwell.’  Areas of first river terrace include Osney, Grandpont and New Hinksey – ‘all areas vulnerable to flooding’.

Early human settlement was often along these terraces. Accordingly, they’re rich in archaeological remains.

Historic gravel workings

Once small gravel pits were scattered around Oxford. All construction involved digging into and perhaps redistributing gravel (for example, to construct Oxford castle).

Most documentation of pits seems to date from the sixteenth century onwards. Thus, a sixteenth-century map shows gravel pits in St Clements (in what’s now Magdalen College School grounds, perhaps, or the university sports ground?) Gravel digging at Oxford Castle is shown in a 1779 painting. It’s been suggested that the gravel was going to the construction of the ‘New Road’ to the north of the castle (between what are now Nuffield College and Bonn Square) – though the new road was built 1769-70, so that would imply a date earlier than 1779.  

Gravel pits tracked urban development. An archaeological assessment notes their presence at ‘For example … Queen Elizabeth House, St Giles…, to the rear of St John’s College North Quad…, Parks Road…, 3 Beaumont Buildings… and George Street’. There were ‘notable’ pits supporting nineteenth-century urban development in Bevington Road. Cornish’s pit stood by modern Donnington Bridge Road. In the early twentieth century ‘Webb’s pit’ in Summertown was still being exploited.

More distant pits, for example at Wolvercote in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (still visible on Wolvercote common, at the north end of Port Meadow), and at Yarnton (by Gravel Pits Lane) in the nineteenth century, perhaps serviced road-making.

Once scientists got interested in understanding earth and stone, and fossil and human remains embedded in it, they found treasure in these pits – and their accounts provide pointers to where they have stood. in the seventeenth century Robert Plot and in the early nineteenth century William Buckland both mention the gravel pits of St Clements as the location for interesting discoveries. Cornish’s pit yielded to A.M. Bell a magnificent collection of palaeolithic stone tools (now in the Pitt Rivers Museum). Kenneth Sandford, the early twentieth-century researcher into Oxford gravels, mentions Webb’s pit in Summertown. He also mentions Pear Tree Hill as a gravel mound since levelled.

Further afield, a gravel pit at Standlake, near Witney, was the site of pioneering Anglo Saxon archaeological research by Stephen Stone from the 1840s.

More recently, gravel-digging around Berinsfield has uncovered a wealth of local pre-history.

Modern exploitation and contestation

Oxfordshire minerals continue to attract commercial interest. So, the British Geological Society map reproduced above provides a guide to mineral ‘resources’ in the county.

Commercial interest reflects the fact that these resources have uses, and that being so, local government has reason to facilitate exploitation. (Conversely, the number of local jobs created doesn’t seem to be huge). Local sites potentially workable are identified and their merits assessed in landscape surveys.

Developers now mainly look beyond the city — though there was a recent proposal to mine gravel in the Oxford floodplain, in the meadows between the Hinkseys. It was presented as a scheme for a boating lake extending from Osney Mead to Redbridge Park and Ride. Gravel excavated to create the lake would have offset development costs. Probably this would have served some local constituencies who don’t profit from the chance to wander around the meadows. But those who like doing that, or were worried about knock-on consequences of this change in land use, were opposed (and perhaps those who might have used the lake are already sufficiently catered for by a combination of the river, Hinksey lake and Farmoor reservoir?) The plan has been set aside.

For the most part, continued urban expansion and developments in transport have encouraged would-be gravel extractors to turn to more distant and ideally remote locations, where work can be carried out at scale, hopefully without too much local resistance.

Though some local resistance is always to be expected.

Still, gravel workings have their upside.

They present scholarly opportunities. Archaeologists initially responded to the scale of post-war extraction and construction activity by mounting ad hoc, individually-negotiated ‘rescue’ operations. Since 1990, however, their participation has been built into planning, and earth-work can in this context be seen as presenting opportunities. A recent overview of archaeological research in the region suggests that ‘The gravels of the River Thames have seen some of the most intense archaeological activity in England… closely (though not exclusively) linked to aggregate extraction’. (The ‘Aggregates Levy Sustainability Fund’ helped to pay for the volume).

This doesn’t mean that the archaeological work environment is ideal. Archaeologists in this context work under pressure. And extraction also destroys opportunities, notably the stratigraphy crucial to the interpretation of findings, at the same time that it may throw up finds.

There is also now a good deal of experience in reclaiming large, exhausted gravel pits for use as leisure sites or nature reserves. As noted in earlier posts, old gravel workings along the railway line currently serve one or both functions: the former gravel pit in Hinksey Park serves both; Wolvercote Lakes and Donnington Pools are now valued as nature reserves. Duke’s Lock Pond, off the Duke’s Cut north of Wolvercote, is described by the Canal and River Trust as ‘a former gravel pit which has developed into a precious wetland habitat). Just a bit further afield, Cassington and Yarnton gravel pits are listed as wildlife sites by TVERC. Local bird-watching sites routinely feature gravel pits high on their list of places to spot birds.  Hanson Aggregates at an unnamed site (perhaps around Kidlington, where they’re based?) are working with ‘Nature after Minerals’ on post-exploitation site-development plans featuring otters.

Duke’s Lock Pond (off the Duke’s Cut), by the juntion with the Oxford Canal

Yet these local-community-friendly uses compete with others, above all, the use of exhausted pits to dump waste – much of which may originate from outside the area.

Increasingly, a planning framework has developed that attempts to adjudicate and insofar as possible reconcile competing claims, and commercial developers have accepted that they need to smooth their path by showing a level of community awareness. That’s not to say that these negotiations flow smoothly.  On the contrary: the mechanisms have developed precisely because interests clash and continue to clash. Formal processes don’t always succeed in channelling conflict– though they can at the very least aim to obtain, more or less improvisationally, some final agreement that can be sanctioned.

Along the Thames north and south of Oxford — around Hardwick/Standlake in the north, and Radley in the south — lie sites where large-scale extraction was given the green light after the Second World War. Plans to create new pits in these already-much-exploited areas sometimes still attract opposition. In Radley, however, the chief source of controversy has been the use made of exhausted pits.

Radley gravel pits

Tuckwell (also, incidentally, key players in the Hinksey lake scheme), have been active for many years extracting gravel from land south of Radley, though now it’s said that mineral extraction has ceased, and what’s going on are concrete batching and other processes, at the hands of Tuckwell and one other company. On a visit in August, a friend and I had to keep stepping aside on the access road to allow the passage of lorries, vans, cement grinders etc, and there was lots of (not very high-level) mechanical background noise. So the problems are clear.

A local website suggests that small-scale gravel quarrying was common in this area in the nineteenth century, but mostly this terrain was meadow land. Large scale exploitation began in 1947, by a parent firm of Tuckwell’s.

What local residents thought when large-scale extraction started, I don’t know. But the twelve exhausted and flooded pits that came to be known as ‘Radley lakes’ came to be valued. as places to relax and observe wildlife. They were home to ‘sedge warblers, Cetti’s (pronounced ‘chetty’s’) warblers, whitethroats, otters, water voles, firecrests, herons, bats, dragonflies, terns, cormorants, carp and orchids’, They attracted anglers. In the early 80s, there were schemes to develop the ‘lakes’ as a public water park and nature reserve, serving a mix of uses. 

Yet at that point their history took a different turn, as the managers of Didcot’s coal-fuelled power station, in operation from 1968, made the case for using them to dump ash waste, for which they’d exhausted more local options. Permission was granted. They purchased the relevant part of the site, and, by the early twenty-first century, had filled in ten of the lakes.

In 2006-8, plans by the company at that point owning the power station, RWE nPower,  to infill remaining pits, though approved by the County Council, galvanised local opposition. Campaigners adopted the slogan ‘Save Radley Lakes’ . A precondition for the campaign’s success was the identification of an alternative dump site  (one was ultimately agreed, near Sutton Courtenay). Against that background (and perhaps wearied by the struggle) RWE nPower conceded. Their logo is now associated with information boards for the lake.

It sounds from accounts of the conflict and its outcome as if it was nPower’s decision, agreed by campaigners, that custody of Thrupp lake should be vested in a local environmental charity, at first called the Northmoor Trust (after Northmoor Road, Oxford, where its founders lived), later rebranded the Earth Trust, though its activities remain focussed on south Oxfordshire.

Didcot’s coal-fuelled power station no longer operates: it was demolished between 2016 and 2020. And now gravel extraction has also ceased. But of course the legacy of all these activities endures.

There’s nothing spectacular about Thrupp lake, and it couldn’t be shown to be a site of special scientific interest: that was a problem for the campaigners. Moreover, nPower owned (or perhaps leased) the lakes site: local residents had no legal right of access. Still for those who live locally, it was and – thanks to local effort — still is a significant amenity. Use rights won the day. Now it offers a picnic table, a circular trail round the lake and a bird-watching hide.

There’s also (slightly laborious) access to (a narrow and muddy section of) the Thames Path – appropriately enough, via a gravel -strewn trail.

In the autumn of 2020 a new masterplan for the site, commissioned by Radley Parish Council, was unveiled, and put out to public consultation, a process that, it was said, the pandemic had delayed. The proposal is to plan in a more joined-up way for the site as a whole, addressing among other things conflicts between contractor traffic and visitors on the access route, and poor linkage to the Thames Path — two things to which my own visit means I can attest the need. It’s noted that significant further housebuilding is planned for both Radley and Abingdon, so demand for leisure space is likely to increase. The proposal is that paths should be rationalised, and a variety of conservation regimes practised, according to the differing characters of different parts of the site. It’s suggested that volunteers should be recruited to help with maintenance, in an extension of existing practices. This is recommended as a way not only of containing costs but also involving the community; furthermore ‘voluntary input can be monetised for grant purposes and therefore has the potential to generate income in its own right.’

Afterthought: geomorphology

I was much struck by an episode of the hit BBC TV series Walking with Dinosaurs which I watched on its release in 1999. As it opened, a huge dinosaur was shown standing in bright sunlight at the edge of a Jurassic lake, or shallow sea, its head scanning the waters. A voice-over (Kenneth Branagh) told us that this was in the neighbourhood of what’s now Oxford, and that the hunter was looking for its prey. But in relation to the last, we were being misdirected. All of a sudden, an even bigger dinosaur reared out of the water and snatched the one we had thought to be the ‘hunter’, dragging it down (so the sea was presumably not that shallow).

This was the context in which the geological raw material of the Oxford region was laid down. Oxford clay (from sea silt); limestone coral reefs (‘Corallian limestone’).

Corallian rag on view in a former quarry: Rock Edge Nature Park, Headington

Later — after the globe had moved on its axis, continents had moved around a bit, and after water had been first locked in ice, and then (repeatedly) melted out of it — water drained through the region, riving through the land cover, incising valleys and layering them with broken stone: gravel. Successive discharges (over extremely long periods) carved diverse channels through landforms, creating a series of gravel terraces. Rivers might also carry silt, and in periods of lower discharge, this settled to form surface soil.

This kind of story about landscape formation was developed in broad outline, in Britain and Europe, between the late seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries, out of a combination of practical observation of soil and rocks by people who wanted to make use of them, and speculative interest in understanding formative processes on the part of scholars and others scientifically inclined. Robert Plot, in his 1677 Natural History of Oxfordshire, catalogued different soil and rock types discretely, but interest in the patterns in which they occurred was developing, to the point where Martin Lister could in 1684 already conceive of (though not yet execute) a geological map. (Plot, who was by then first keeper of the Ashmolean – in its early form, a science museum — edited the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions, in which Lister’s proposal appeared).

During the eighteenth century, ‘geology’ gained its name, and the respective contributions of volcanic and water action to the formation of landscape were debated. In the early nineteenth century, these theories were synthesised with the fruits of an increasingly broad range of empirical observation (aided by a good deal of cutting into the earth in the making of roads and canals).

Insofar as the Oxford region attracted close attention this was not so much because of its mineral resources as because it was a hive of scholarship. William Conybeare, who had studied there, author of a pioneering 1822 textbook on the geology of England and Wales, and mentor to William Buckland, Oxford’s first reader in geology, delivered a paper to the (London) Geological Society in 1829 ‘On the hydrographical basin of the Thames’.  (Of course such a major river basin was bound to attract interest). Conybeare was especially interested in a debate as to whether valleys could have been formed by rivers such as those then visible, or whether it was necessary to posit more ‘violent’ flows in the past. On several grounds, he favoured the latter hypothesis. Had it not been for such violent action, he said, the Corallian limestone  which narrows the floodplain south of Oxford – in the form of what he called ‘Oxford chain’ – might never have been breached, in which case the site of Oxford would have lain beneath a lake that would probably have drained into the Ouse.

Geological maps compared: Conybeare 1822, Phillips 1871 Compare the modern British Geological Society map
Phillips 1871: the geology of city and neighbourhood (marking gravel deposits). For a modern geological map of the region, see Oxford Landscape Character Assessment, p. 18.

John Phillips, nephew and protégé of renowned geological mapmaker William Smith, himself one of Buckland’s successors, and the first Oxford geologist to hold the title of professor, half a century later published a book-length Geology of Oxford and the Valley of the Thames, which drew on material he had given in lectures.  Phillips profited from the extension and refinement of knowledge that had resulted from the launching of a government-sponsored Geological Survey of England and Wales, from 1833. He was especially preoccupied with using the geological record to illuminate the fossil record, and the reverse, using the collections in the Oxford Museum (the current Natural History Museum, which he helped to found). He had previously used its feeder collections, such as the comparative anatomy collection of Henry Acland (last encountered mapping the physical and social context of Oxford’s mid-century cholera epidemic).

Nineteenth-century geologists were commonly interested in base rocks and their interrelations with the fossil record (though also in gravels, inasmuch as they illuminated formative processes). In the twentieth century, more attention came to be directed towards more superficial deposits, and to their interaction with the archaeological record (archaeology gained scholarly definition later than geology: the name came in the 1840s, cf. geology 1750s; the first Oxford professors were appointed in the 1940s, cf. geology 1860).

Of course methods, and conclusions, have changed over time. In the 1920s Kenneth Sandford tried to date Oxford gravel terraces, in part from archaeological evidence, and in the process bestowed on them the names they still officially bear, including ‘Wolvercote’ and ‘Summertown-Radley’ (though his ‘Peartree Hill gravel’ seems to have gone the way of all rock). In the 1980s, Lambrick and Robinson argued (on the basis of Oxford-region studies) that more attention needed to be given to the effects of human action on the environment during the Holocene (post-glacial period). Conversion of woodland to pasture increased run-off, they suggested, initiating occasional flooding; meanwhile conversion to arable, when and where it happened, determined that rivers and floods, carried silt, producing ‘alluviation’. In 2010, Macklin, Jones and Lewin riposted, on the basis of accumulating Carbon 14, drift-ice and peat-bog data that this story needed rebalancing to give more weight to climate change. Changes in flooding, in their account, had less to do with ground-cover changes than with background temperature shifts. They argued also that it was not until the early middle ages (more precisely, from the tenth century) that farming – using ploughs, hay and manure — promoted significant alluviation.

Meanwhile, practical concern with flooding has stimulated modelling work on the exact distribution and depth of local gravel beds.

If the gross picture that arises from recent accounts – setting aside differences over mechanisms and timing — is one of increasingly significant human impacts on the formation of the rock and mud environment, evidence of historic small-scale interaction is all around us. The earth has been quarried for building stone – on display across colleges and other Oxford buildings; later increasingly for brick. Less obvious but often underfoot is evidence of its quarrying for gravel, also manifest in the various gravel-pit lakes to be found especially alongside the railway line which the gravel now supports: thus Wolvercote Lakes; Hinksey boating lake; Kennington ponds. Seepage from the gravel can now be seen as a nuisance, threatening some householders’ basements, but, in former times, scattered springs and subterranean watercourses running through water-friendly gravel supplied wells and pumps.

Read into the history, and it becomes ever clearer that the most basic and taken-for-granted features of the local physical setting embody, in direct ways, the effects of human actions over the course of centuries, as people have reshaped for their own multifarious purposes the mud, gravel and water constituents of the floodplain: channelling the waters; deepening the waters; cutting new routes for the waters; digging into earth and gravel to extract building material or to lay foundations, and then relocating that earth and gravel, as opportunity has presented itself, or to make other terrain more usable; levelling the land here and raising it up there.

Mark Davies’ and Catherine Robinson’s A Towpath Walk in Oxford provides lots of pointers, if it’s read with this theme in mind. For example, p. 21 ‘It was over Aristotle Bridge between 1849 and 1852 that thousands of tons of gravel were taken by tramway from Cabbage Hill (later to become Kingston Road) and Lark Hill (later to become Chalfont Road). The gravel was used for the construction of the Great Western Railway…The removal of the gravel bank [the destruction of these ‘hills’] cleared the way for the eventual development of this part of north Oxford’.

Run the history backwards in your mind’s eye and substantial chunks of land crumble away, resolving themselves back into chaotic assemblages of mud and gravel. The railway embankment is disassembled; the western edges of Jericho sink and becomes watery and flood-prone. The braided strands of the Thames sometimes gain, sometimes lose water, but what’s now its deepest course becomes shallower, and prone to dry up in summer. Christ Church meadow walks disappear back into the foundations of Christ Church, exposing the soggy Frideswide flood meadow. The fields of Medley, the urban-fringe parishes of St Thomas’ and St Ebbes are seamed with petty streams. Humanity clusters on larger and smaller gravel ‘islands’: scattered across north, central and parts of east Oxford, in Osney, Grandpont, and north eastern parts of Port Meadow. As time is put into reverse, the landscape becomes ever less made, ever more given; ever less analytically understood, ever more intimately known.

Still a long long long way back to the dinosaurs.

For photographs of Oxford’s layers, see The British Geological Society’s Geoindex map, and click on the camera icons at Wolvercote, Littlemore and Headington.

Modern articles cited are:

Kenneth Stuart Sandford,’ The River Gravels of the Oxford District’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society, 1924

M.A. Robinson and G.H. Lambrick, ‘Holocene Alluviation and Hydrology
in the Upper Thames Basin’, Nature, 1984

Mark G. Macklin, Anna F. Jones and John Lewin, ‘River Response to Rapid Holocene Environmental Change: Evidence and Explanation in British Catchments’, Quarternary Science Reviews 2010

See also a vivid and well illustrated talk by Bruce Levell on the geology of the region with special reference to Iffley.