Eels

I sometimes stop and talk to anglers about what they hope to catch or what they have caught. None has ever mentioned eels. Though apparently it’s possible to hope to catch an eel.  Or to hope not to: ‘To many anglers, it is an unwelcome catch, since its strength means the experience is closer to wrestling than fishing.’

The Canal and River Trust tell you how to catch an eel with a hook and line  ‘Early evening or during the night is the best time to target and catch eels. They are not shy feeders and due to a powerful mouth they can bite through fine lines. The best baits are small dead baits or a bunch of lobworms or maggots on the bottom, often close in the margins or around weed beds. Small dead baits, such as roach, rudd or gudgeon, are a favourite and can be fished with a single large hook, such as a size two or size four.’ However, they caution that ‘removal of eels for any purpose is no longer permitted. All eels caught on rod and line must be returned to the waterway, either immediately or in a competition after the weigh in has taken place.’

Historically, though, eels were among the chief fish harvested from the Thames, often being caught in wicker traps or ‘bucks’ — made from willows, so from material conveniently close to hand. There’s a picture of such a trap in the Luttrell Psalter, from the thirteenth century.

Evidence that eels were plentiful — and valued– is provided by medieval requirements that rent be paid in eels. A historian who’s studied medieval practical and symbolic uses of eels has tried to map places recording eel rents. A number of these were round about Oxford, thus Swinford and Thrupp (Thrupp near Abingdon) both owed eel rents in the twelfth century to the Abbot of Abingdon, whose records are the source for the information. Swinford had to pay 325 eels, Thrupp a mere 175. Presumably the abbey had fishponds in which to keep them fresh. Eels were less important after the Black Death, it’s suggested, when more animals were kept, so there was more choice of protein. Still, Mary Prior tells us in her book on Fisher Row that when Cranmer was in prison in Oxford he was served eel broth for dinner almost every day. The need to avoid meat-eating during Lent enhanced the importance of fish.

The nineteenth-century artist William Turner of Oxford in at least two paintings depicted a man ferrying eel bucks in a punt — perhaps for use by mill weirs (one of the paintings is by King’s Mill on the Cherwell) but not necessarily: baited bucks could be placed elsewhere in the river. The other painting is by Hythe Bridge, where the Castle Mill stream runs alongside the canal. George Townsend, noting that the latter painting was completed before the demolition of this bridge (in this form) in 1861, suggests that the figure ‘seems to be shorthand for the city’s less celebrated, traditional ways of life, the days of which – like the ramshackle medieval mill and the doomed bridge – Turner perhaps thought were numbered.’

Though not the only fishers of eels, millers were particularly well placed to catch them, enduringly over many centuries, since they could place traps on their weirs, and even regulate the flow of water to maximise their chances of getting a good haul. A painting showing bucks on a frame by a weir at Iffley in 1782 is reproduced on the Thames Sweet Waters website.

In the 1866 parliamentary enquiry into the extension of the Thames Conservators’ jurisdiction from the lower to the upper river (discussed in my Techno-fix post), there were several exchanges about this practice (There were more mills in the upper than the lower rivers, so how the Conservators would approach the new challenge of dealing with them loomed quite large in discussion). Some who appeared before the committee accused millers of intensifying flooding, or of draining off water overnight at such a rate as to leave the river less fit for navigation, all just to catch a few hundredweight of eels (it was said, dismissively). The hundredweight – 112 lbs, approx. 50kg — seems to have been the unit in which eel catches were generally measured. Eel catches seem to weigh in at about one to ten lbs. So 112lb probably implies dozens rather than hundreds of eels – and only then given that the eels coming down river would be mature eels, coming down to spawn, as opposed to young glass eels, which would weigh in at tens of thousands to the hundredweight. If as claimed at this time the price never fell below 10d a lb, this was (in the prices of the day) not to be sneezed at. No one expressed any concern about the effect on the eels. It was taken as read that they were abundant.

Most eel species live in the sea, burrowing into the silt and coming out to predate at night. ‘European’ eels by contrast spend parts of their lives in rivers – they’re euryhaline fish: they can tolerate both salt and freshwater. They start life as small larvae, become slender elvers, then tougher mature fish, then mate, spawn and die.

Scientists say there’s much they don’t know about these eels. Supposedly they originate in the Sargasso Sea, some way east of Florida, as transparent spores. Atlantic currents then carry them to Europe, in the course of a few years, during which they become more clearly baby eels: ‘glass eels’ or elvers. They can be found all over Europe, though they’re not known on Africa’s Saharan coast, probably a function of currents. While too small to swim, they rely on currents to carry them, and tend not to penetrate much beyond the tidal reaches of rivers. Later they may swim up rivers, though hugging the edge. If they survive, they mature and become ‘yellow eels’, ‘rarely more than a meter long’. They may then live for a several decades, but ultimately, as ‘silver eels’ swim back across the Atlantic to spawn.

They’re predatory fish, and scavengers, liking dead meat. Gunther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, about interwar Germany, includes a memorable episode in which a severed horse’s head isn dipped into a river to catch eels. They mainly feed at night, when they may also crawl across land from one body of water to another. Someone who grew p on a lock island on the Thames at Maidenhead remembers encountering them there: ‘It was pretty common to find them slithering across the lawn. Very unpleasant to accidentally step on in the dark.’

The Zoological Society of London’s ‘Eel barrier assessment tool’ provides more information about the mid-life behaviour of eels than I’ve found elsewhere. They say that ‘After the first year or two, two behavioural strategies are apparent: home-range dwellers (establish in a given area for a number of months or years) and nomads (shift within and between water bodies, including fresh and saline environments).‘

Eel migrations are seasonal, and temperature driven. The assessment tool again notes, citing a scientific study, that ‘A threshold for enhanced migratory behaviour peaks at 14-16°C, no or little migration occurs beneath 10-11°C’. Young eels ascend rivers from April or May through to September or October . Downstream migration of silver eels takes place from August to December, peaking between September and November. In winter they dig into river banks and hibernate.

In  recent times, within Britain, eels have been especially numerous in the Severn estuary and tributaries of the Severn, and perhaps that was the case historically too. But there were also lots  in the Thames, especially around the estuary and up past London, a source of cheap but tasty food, much eaten until the last century the form of ‘jellied eels’. By the seventeenth century, London’s appetite had outstripped local supply, so eels had to be imported from Holland   

The recent ZSL study found striking variability in elver numbers between different tributaries of the Thames, and thought that interesting and hard to explain – but couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t due to the different efficiency of the traps set from place to place.

Eels disappeared from the Thames as it became increasingly polluted, but returned from the 1960s against a background of attempts to reduce pollution. Systematic monitoring of numbers seems to have taken place only since the 1980s, so previous longer term trends are unclear.. What is clear is that numbers have fallen cataclysmically during the early twenty-first century: most estimates suggest falls of more than 90%,  decline being  most marked among glass eels, though also notable among yellow eels (it seems possible that decline in numbers of young will keep feeding through to affect older numbers.

The Financial Times, in an informative article of 2010,  summarised speculations about the causes of decline: ‘The ocean currents of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift that carry their larvae back to land from their place of birth out in the Atlantic are shifting direction as sea temperatures rise, and so many of the larvae are missing European shores altogether. In addition, our rivers are increasingly blocked by manmade structures and punctuated by hydro power intakes whose turbines act as mincing machines. Commercial trawlers take millions of glass eels a year from the Bay of Biscay, wetland habitat has decreased dramatically, and a parasite introduced from Asia has infected the European population. Or perhaps something else entirely could be causing the population crash. No one knows for sure.’ The Pisces Conservation website carries a still more detailed and thorough discussion of the challenges.

One might worry about this for general ecological reasons. Eels fill a particular niche in the freshwater food chain, both as scavengers and as prey. The forces responsible for their decline affect other fish too. In July 2020, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported that migratory freshwater fish species declined by 76% on average over the previous four decades; in Europe alone, by 93%.

There’s also a commercial angle — which has concerned the EU, and helped to spark reportage in the Financial Times. In Britain in recent decades, there’s been onlyone industrial-scale eel company, Glasseel UK. And taste for eels seems to have declined, so conosumers mainly don’t mourn their loss. But on the continent, they’ve been caught annd eaten on a larger scale, and also exported in huge quantities to Asia, especially to Japan.

Hitsumabushi, a Nagoya specialty: eel eaten three ways, first straight, then with some relish, then with a kind of gravy. Initially servants’ food, eaten thus for variety because they got tired of eating eel all the time. Nagoya, 2004.

In 2009, the EU instituted an Eel Recovery Programme, which was implemented in member countries, including the UK. The European Council Regulation set targets for the recovery of European eel stocks and required the development of management plans to improve stocks; the Eels (England and Wales) Regulations gave the Environment Agency powerr to act.

Broadly, responses have taken three forms:

  • attempts to gather more data, to understand what’s been happening;
  • attempts to tackle sources of decline that are readily susceptible to human action,
  • attempts to sustain numbers artificially, through breeding programmes (the first task here is to work out whether eels can be bred and raised on fish farms – not achieved yet; there are eel farms, but they’re restocked from the wild).

Under the first head, the Zoological Society of London established a ‘citizen science’ monitoring programme, focussing its efforts on the tidal Thames and its tributaries.

Under the second head, energy has been directed into the construction of fish and eel passes, to help them bypass weirs and other such obstacles. Of course, neither weirs nor indeed fish passes are new. In John Blair’s collection on Waterways and canal-building in medieval England, it’s suggested that some historic channels around mills may have been constructed in the first instance to let fish pass. Still — it’s suggested — old weirs were wooden and imperfect; modern barriers pose a new order of challenge. So more and better passes are needed. Because young eels are poor swimmers, passes that are going to help them need to have special characteristics, like brush-covered surfaces they can wiggle their way up (this has been determined by giving eels a choice of different kinds of pass, and observing which they choose).

There have also been experiments with high-tech approaches, for example, tagging certain eels so that their movements can trigger suspension of power-station operations during the relatively brief periods in which eels are on the move.

In terms of the redirection of commercial effort, the British company Glasseel UK explain on their website the changes they have gone through in trying to find a niche for themselves in a rapidly changing environment over fifty years, to 2012: ‘In the late 1960’s [there was] a non sustainable rush of exports to Japan, followed by a strong demand for glass eels for aquaculture in Europe. Then in the 1990’s there was an unprecedented demand for glass eels from Asia. … In 1983/1984 there was a very marked stepped reduction (60% in one season) in glass eel recruitment. By the late 1980’s … we lost a substantial market share to … French suppliers….[but then] in the early 1990’s new customers appeared from China. Then fortunately for the eel, in 2010, the Eel Management Plan for the UK had been implemented and all exports outside of the EU was made illegal. In 2012 we moved to our current site supported by the European Fisheries Fund on the banks of the River Severn and we have continued to introduce sustainable fishery practices and solutions. [We aimed] to reduce capacity from 15,000kg to 1,500kg… not only to protect the fishery for future generations but also to maintain the economic, cultural and social values for the local community. The majority of our eels are now sold to Europe for restocking projects. With a proportion for sustainable aquaculture.’

Redirection of commercial effort only works up to a point, though – not least since there’s a large eel smuggling sector.

From C.J Cornish, The Naturalist on the Thames. Henry Taunt photo of eel bucks, ? Hurley, Great Marlow.
Reproduced from the Project Gutenberg copy of the book http://www.gutenberg.org/files/8682/8682-h/8682-h.htm see also note at the end of this post

Knowing something about the life-cycle and habits of the eel helps to make sense of the millers’ strategies in deploying their bucks — which, when elevated in the photo above, were not in use. They were lowered into the water for use.

What millers were well-placed to catch was eels heading down river, that is migrating silver eel. So presumably their efforts will have been concentrated in the autumn – except (someone who fished for eel in Somerset in recent decades has said) in flood time, because ‘the fish will migrate at any time of year if the river is in flood’. Hence particular worries about the millers’ self-interested conduct in times of flood. Since eels are normally nocturnal, millers’ activities were concentrated at night – their habit was to pull up the mill sails and leave bucks attached to one weir at night, while other weirs were stopped up, to canalise traffic.

Eel bucks have given their names to various places in Oxford’s neighbourhood. Wikipedia instances as sites on the Thames, Buck Ait and Handbuck Eyot. At Dorchester-on-Thames there’s a ‘Buck Mead’ and a ‘Buck Pool’ on the Thame at the millstream, beside the abbey. As we have seen, abbeys took a lively interest in eels,as a food source for their monks.

Buck Pond from the weir, Dorchester-on-Thames

‘The floodgate near Flights Mill [Kirtlington] has an eel trap incorporated in its structure’ to this day. Elsewhere memories of such fishing endure. According to the VCH, at Islip, the fisheries continued to be valuable until the late 19th century and gave rise to the local industry of making osier cages or ‘weels’ for catching eels’.  ‘The famous Islip eels,,,at one time were sent to London pubs’

Traps continued in use until recently, even if not attached to mill weirs. In 2010, the FT talked to a Somerset eel fisher, who ‘under cover of darkness [because that’s when eels move, not because he was hiding anything], [the fisher] operates his rack, which throws eels up from the water on to its wooden staging and allows them to be kept alive within the structure’s submerged baskets. Early in the morning he checks the success of his fyke nets, often braving icy floodwaters to bring them in. “It’s cold, wet and uncomfortable,” he says, “but it is very exciting.’

When I crowd-sourced memories of eel-fishing around Oxford recently, some remembered eel trapping – around Wytham and Godstow (by family report) and at the north end of Hinksey Lake in the 1960s. One can trap without blocking off the whole stream, if bait, such as meat, is put in the baskets.

Other local memories of eel fishing, mostly from childhoods or early lives, involved hook and line:  ‘My father used to catch them, He used to cast the line from the Port meadow side towards lock island [Godstow]; they used to take shelter by the island.’ ‘We lived on Osney and [my Mum] would always tell the story of [my Dad] taking her fishing just around the corner near Osney lock and catching eels, one of which wound itself around her arm when my Dad was trying to take the hook out of it]. ‘I remember as a small child [living in Granfpont House, by Folly Bridge] being intrigued by the eels which the fisherman hung on the wrought iron fence on the towpath.’ ‘Being an angler I caught a couple of eels at Port Meadow by the old bathing huts area around the mid 70s’. They’re remembered as formidable: ‘I lived in Buckingham Street as a boy and fished in the river. Eels could be caught under Folly Bridge, the towpath side, if we caught one we took it home threw it in the bath and our dad sorted it for eating after he came home from work.

Mid 70s is as recent as most of the memories get. One man wrote: ‘I’m .. a fisherman and have been aware of the enormous decline in eel numbers just over the past three decades. I have not caught or seen anyone catch an eel for many years on the Thames. They used to be a pest’. But one man who responded to me – exceptionally, it seems — catches eels still: ‘I catch some lovely eels at a couple of nice hidden spot in Oxford . Nice light running gear. Air injected lob worms hair-rigged popped up from the bottom about 2 inches. I then bait up with a mixture of pure black mole hill soil and a very fist groundbait with dead maggots and worm amino additives. Last year we had 17 in total. And every single one was treated with utter care and RELEASED!!’

Oxford eel-fishing memories, and sites of modern fish passes

Now the area is a site for recovery efforts. The Environment Agency has been associated with several fish-pass projects around Oxford in recent years, thus at Godstow, Tumbling Bay (in association with Low Carbon West) and Hinksey Weir (in association with the River Restoration Centre). The issue has also arisen in relation to hydro plants at Osney and Sandford. In write-ups about these projects, only the account of the projected pass at Godstow specifically mentions eels among beneficiaries: :it’s said that the projected fish pass ‘will allow fish and eels to make their way up river.’  

Tumbling Bay fish bypass Google Earth view, imagery CNS/Airbus/

Concern about the cataclysmic fall in eel populations in the early twenty-first century led to lots of writing on the subject, so there’s an embarassment of material, including articles in the Financial Times and The New Yorker. All the sources I’ve used are linked somewhere in the post.

Thanks also to followers of the History of Oxford facebook group, who gave me useful links and shared their memories.

CJ Cornish, The Naturalist on the Thames can be accessed on the Thames Smooth Waters website or via Project Gutenberg. It’s a condition of use of Project Gutenberg books that this statement is reproduced This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at http://www.gutenberg.org.

The Historic England website also includes several other photos of eelbucks, including one that possibly gives a different perspective on that shown above.

Marston on the marsh

The name supposedly derives from marsh-ton: a TON set in a marsh. And indeed, Marston, like much of Oxford, is raised, though only slightly raised, above the level of the floodplain, in this case the Cherwell floodplain. It sits on a bed of gravel resting on clay, and this is surely what made it attractive as a site of early settlement.

It has particular sources of wetness inasmuch as it’s flanked eastwards and southwards by hills. Eastwards by hills that ascend towards Elsfield and then extend south east towards Shotover; southwards (or south-south-eastwards) by the relatively steep ascent to Headington. From which, waters drain in its direction.

This landscape makes for topographical complexity, creating patterns that don’t immediately make sense to the eye scanning a map. On this LIDAR map, shaded in accordance with contour lines so bringing out the lie of the land, I’ve indicated the directions of watercourses.

Marston, showing contours and directions of water-flow. Thanks to Dave Marshall for this impressive visualisation, which draws on LIDAR data and Google Earth satellite imagery.

  • The Cherwell snakes around to the west of Marston, heading south
  • To the east, behind Barton, running along the base of the hills around Elsfield, Stanton St John etc, runs the Bayswater brook, heading northwards into the Cherwell, down the slope of the land on Marston’s right flank. It originates with a spring, but is presumably also fed by run-off from the hills
  • To the south of Marston run two parallel brooks. The Marston brook runs through the shallow clay dip between Marston and Headington, running along the side of Marston’s slight rise, and presumably collecting run off from it. Hitting a rise in the ground on its way west,it curves round a part of New Marston (much of which lies in this valley/floodplain) – or rather, New Marston here curves to accommodate it. It then heads down to the Cherwell.
  • Paralleling it to the south is the Peasmoor brook. Older maps show it starting by Peasmoor Piece (and taking its name from that? Or the Picce from the brook?), Now a ditch runs north from there towards the Bayswater Brook, and it may be that some water from that area is carried into this brook. In any case, it must also pick up water that heads down from Headington Hill, then passes, though the clay dip, to join the Cherwell furthest to the south, by Parson’s Pleasure. It’s now discontinuous above ground, starting as a ditch behind the Oxsrad sports ground, then disappearing into a culvert, until it re-emerges immediately south of the Old Marston Road. An early seventeenth century map shows it flowing unculverted above the Old Marston Road crossing – the culverting seems to have come quite late, with housing development around Marsh Lane.

Made habitable, if not highly attractive, by its location, Marston is an ancient village. It was once an appendage to the royal manor of Headington, which extended far beyond modern Headington, including land north and west of the Cherwell, towards Binsey and Botley. Marston‘acted as a subsidiary settlement, providing specialist resources including fisheries, seasonal pasture and mills’. It’s conjectured that Headington manor was responsible for early drainage works.

Marston’s church was once dependent on Headington, and the two parishes were united from the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries. Clergy were not necessarily resident (some held posts in Oxford colleges).

Old desmesne land – the land directly farmed by the lord of the manor — stretched through the marshy area to the east, between Court Place and Headington Hill, so across Court Place allotments and the sports ground.  (‘Court’ means the manorial court.) Colleges acquired property here from the fourteenth century: Brasenose held Court Place Farm. Magdalen College helped to prompt enclosure of some common lands in the 1520s. Christ Church also owned property. Development of the village may have been constrained by landholding patterns, though there also wasn’t much to do locally other than work on the land.  Further enclosure followed after the Civil War (when Marston served for a while as HQ for Parliamentary forces besieging the royalist city). Enclosed land was chiefly used for pasture – probably the best use, given its tendency to wetness, but not generating much employment.

In the eighteenth century, landowners ceased to see the village as a desirable place of residence, and it became a community of farmers and labourers. Unton Croke’s mansion, where the royalist surrender was negotiated, became the village poor house. Only from the later nineteenth century, did the village start to regentrify. The survival of former farmhouses – dating from reorganisation at enclosure — and of limestone rubble walls, continue to give it a rural air – an attraction once countrified living could be combined with access to Oxford over improved roads.

A rural air

There was once more visible water within the village, presumably from rainwater held in the gravel. A pond in Ponds lane; a brook that ran through Boults Lane, both now culverted. One mill is suggested to have stood within the village, as well as the one on the Cherwell to which Mill Lane led.

Old settlement patterns and roads responded to the topography, and in turn made that topography relatively transparent.

The city of Oxford, Headington and Marston, patches of higher ground, were all early settled. The Cherwell marked the ‘riding’ boundary (the relatively extensively defined boundary) of the city, and cut Marston off on the far bank – though of course it was reachable by ferry (a ferry is first mentioned in the thirteenth century), by boat or perhaps ford. (In the nineteenth century, there were fixed ferries at Ferry Lane — by the modern Up at Arms Pub — and at the Victoria Arms, as well as other freelance ferry-ers). Heading northwards, there was a bridge, which survives as a footbridge, linking Wood Eaton and Water Eaton, and then one at Gosford — though the bridge at Islip across the Ray also opened up routes north.

The road layout as hown on a 1767 map of Oxfordshire was largely still in place when the second series OS map, 1888-1914, was compiled

The land route from Oxford to Marston crossed the Cherwell at Magdalen Bridge, and turned  along St Clements High St to Headington Hill. At the foot of the hill (as now), one road climbed upwards towards Headington, another, the Marston Road, curved around  the hill heading northwards, keeping its distance from the Cherwell floodplain, until the point at which, having ascended a little way, it had to cut across the clay dip to Marston (along the line of the modern ‘Old Marston Road’).

From Marston one road led northwards, first heading eastwards towards what’s now Marsh lane, then over the Bayswater Brook, then the traveller could either branch off along by the Brook to Wood Easton, or continue up the hillside to Elsfield. (Mill Lane, heading towards the mill on the Cherwell, appears on the OS but not the older map). Crossing the Bayswater Brook probably wasn’t always easy. Looking down as the Marsh Lane overpass crosses the bypass now, the area beneath is full of ditches, sometimes overflowing in winter. And around the brook the ground is clay which gets muddy. Elsfield is up on the limestone, so drains well, which you’ll note if you ascend through the fields.

From around the point where the Elsfield Road crossed the Bayswater Brook, one could also head southwards towards Old Headingtondown Marsh Road and along Peasmoor Piece (which survives as a footpath),

Routes marked as footpaths on the OS map, now footpaths and rights of way, supplement these routes, cutting earlier up the hill towards Elsfield, and across the allotments to Marsh Lane.

One could also start from Oxford, head up the Marston Road and turn off to Headington before reaching Marston, via what’s now Copse Lane, which climbed gently up the flank of Headington Hill, then joined up with the Peasmoor-Piece route, at which point the two combined as the Headington Road, now Saxon Way.

When the OS map was drawn, construction of New Marston had begun, but it was, at this point, was a little swathe of houses,  spread out, like the Angel of the North, around the foot of the Marston Road, at a point just far enough away from the Cherwell to hope to escape flooding: modern Ferry Road, Edgeway Road, and, across the Marston Road, William St. The ferry presumably served people living here, giving them a lateral route towards Oxford.

The chief topographical point is that the Marston Road basically followed the curve of the hill that lay to its east. To the west, the land dropped gently away across flood meadows to the Cherwell.

OS 1945-7 (maps.nls.uk) and current from Open Street Map © OpenStreetMap contributors CC BY-SA 2.0

Over the next century, this topographically-oriented pattern of development was progressively overlaid by new building and roads which imposed a different logic on the landscape.

New roads cut through some old ties, and opened the way to new developments. The A40, which had once run through the centre of Oxford, down the Botley Road and through Eynsham, was rerouted in the 1930s to run NW of Marston and to loop round north of Eynsham; this was an early section of what would ultimately be the city’s ring road. It separated Elsfield, and to the east, Barton, from the outskirts of the town. From the 1950s, the Council began to build housing in a new suburb of Northway, named after the road.

The development of New Marston – which had been creeping northwards, spreading out alongside the Marston Road and by Copse Lane —  was boosted by the construction in 1971 of an inner ring road, the ‘Marston Ferry Road’, which crossed south of the old ferry over a new bridge, then becoming ‘Cherwell Drive’. Once access had been improved by this means, further development bot institutional and residential was further boosted by the progressive relocation on the hill top, from 1972, of the city’s hospital  the John Radcliffe.

Finally, Marsh Lane was extended to the south to link the now dualled by pass road to Cherwell Drive.  Old Marston became marginal, surrounded on three sides by major roads, and no longer itself an important through route.

The continuing need to respect the floodplain of the Cherwell means that the middle, riverine section of the Marston Ferry Road, and indeed of the bypass, is still occupied by fields. But beyond the floodplain both roads have increasingly been developed with schools and housing. In the case of the bypass, most recently with a new development between the ring road and the brook, Barton Park.

Barton Park exemplifies new interest – partly prompted by the desire to command good prices for houses – in locating housing in a landscape.

But the once visible topographical logic of the Marston Road itself, passing between the hill and the river, is no longer evident to the driver. Glance to the right as you drive north up the Marston Road and you’ll see that the roads slop upwards; until at the junction with Cherwell DrIve it becomes very clear that the road ascends to the right. But until that point one has to look for it to notice it. And there is no hint from the road of the meadows that still fall away from behind the houses towards the river.

The landscape has become illegible.

Side road slopes up the hill: Crotch Road, names after the musician William Crotch

And yet, topography will out. Waters continue to drain from the hills downwards, and attempts to channel them continue to work only up to a point.

Land around the Peasmoor Brook, and the tributaries which feed from Headington Hill into the Peasmoor brook remain especially flood prone.

One traditional way of dealing with this has been to leave at least the land adjoining watercourses open, to receive and hold flood waters. The Oxsrad sports ground by Marsh Lane plays that function, sporting ditches on both its western and its eastern boundaries, the eastern ditch landscaped a little to form a feature, and endowed with a pond. The field itself sprouts large puddles in wet weather.

Peasmoor Piece survives today as a causeway, with ditches down both sides. Beyond its southern end, another sports field is officially designated a part-time flood meadow: overflow waters from the Headington Hill tributary discharge on to it.

On the slope down from New Marston to the Cherwell, where the Peasmoor Brook issues from its culvert, the land remains open. Here is a recreation ground and college sposrts ground..

Only the oldest part of New Marston, the part ending in Ferry Road, approaches more closely to the Cherwell itself.

So far so deferential to the water’s imperatives.

Still, the Oxford floodplan map suggests that water from the Cherwell floodplain and descending brooks press hard up against the backs of the houses that have sprouted west of the Marston Road, sometimes overspilling the end of Ferry Lane. Local campaigners cite historic floods and prophesy worse to come

No longer is Old Marston surrounded by marsh: water has to some extent been tamed and channelled. But it’s not possible entirely to detach Marston from the marsh.

Marston cycle path Jan 2021

Thanks to Liz Frazer for suggesting that I write something about Marston, and to Tony Morris, Rebecca Nestor, Jan Royall and Benjamin Thompson for exploring the area with me.

Thanks also to Paul Cadle for correcting me on bridges across the Cherwell.

Place names and topography

Many place names have topographical elements. They provide a kind of verbal map of the landscape.

Since, until the last century or so, (and to some extent even now), the nature of the landscape has mostly determined what places were settled, settlement names often include within themselves a clue to their own rationale — as Margaret Gelling notes in the introduction to her Place Names of Oxfordshire. This doesn’t always work equally well: Oxford is situated where it is because it sits on river gravels, nicely defended on two sides by rivers, not just because the river could be forded here (the Thames, once full of shallows, could be forded in many places). Sandford provides a better example: Sandford’s rationale was that it was one among other places where the Thames could be forded.

Wikipedia provides a convenient list of generic forms in place names, Though note that different interpreters offer slightly varying interpretations of these forms.

Place names with water-related elements (maps.nls.uk)

Some names are quite river-specific. One example is –hythe, landing place. Oxford-area examples are

Hythe Bridge (and its street), across the Castle Mill Stream;

And Bablock Hythe – south of Eynsham, where there was once a ferry over the Thames as it headed north to Wytham; a crossing point for those who wanted to follow the route to Oxford over the hills by Cumnor.

In a chapter on ‘Place name evidence for water transport in early medieval England’, Ann Cole also instances Eaton, from ea-tun, settlement by the river. Since there are only a few dozen such across the country, she suggests this means not any old river settlement, but one with some special function, perhaps to keep upper reaches of a river or its tributaries open to navigation, or to maintain fords or later bridges.

The Oxford provides several examples of this relatively uncommon name element.

Eaton by Bablock Hythe.

Wood Eaton and Water Eaton, of which Anne Cole notes that they ‘are situated on opposite banks of the Cherwell just below the confluence with the River Ray at Islip, itself the crossing place of an old route between London and Worcester’.:

John Blair in the same volume finds it suggestive that they were shortly down river from Islip, where there was a mill and mill dam,  and other ea-tun places were similarly located; he suggests this is evidence for such structures having effects on the river bed and banks

-ey, or island/gravel bank is also an element in several Oxford riverine place names

So Binsey, Hinksey, Osney..  (Echoed in the waterland around Cambridge: Ely .And see also Athelney, where King Alfred hid from the Danes).

Then there are the fords of course, more ambiguously located, since the name may come to attach  to the  place reached by the ford:

Oxford (where the eponymous ford was is uncertain – perhaps by Folly Bridge , where the ‘grand pont’  was later constructed, or alternatively by Hinksey, subject of the earliest locatable such reference, and where the river had a nice firm base. It’s been suggested that there may have been changes over time in what ford people had in mind).

Also Heyford Hill (now perhaps best known  as the site of a Sainbury’s. Apparently originally a ford to an ait in the river near Kennington; the name was then taken by a house and a lane, and more recently other features in the neighbourhood)-

Sandford.

There is marshland too: Mars(h)ton rests on a gravel base but with marshy surrounds.

-mor is said also to have meant marshy ground running alongside rivers. So Littlemore, little marsh (by the Littlemore brook), Peasmoor (Piece and brook), Farmoor.

And the occasional spring-related place: Sunningwell.

Place names with clearing or pasture, farm and hill elements (maps.nls.uk)

It doesn’t seem inevitable – and the pattern isn’t invariable – but round about Oxford, –leys, that is clearings, or wood pasture, tend to be in and around the floodplain, though slightly raised above it.

Botley, Cripley, Cowley, Iffley. Blackbird Leys.  (But not Rewley, which is Loco Regali, a royal place)

For a counter example, see Beckley. Perhaps it’s just that around Oxford, lots of pasture land was by rivers. 

And see also mead, as in Sunnymead – otherwise preserved more in field or open-space names.

Whereas on higher ground we find –tons or –hams: homesteads, farms or enclosures, though in some cases the -tons are thought to be corruptions of something else, like -dun, meaning hill – which would explain why they’re concentrated on higher ground

Marston, Barton, Kennington. Wootton. Walton manor  – which gave its name to Walton st.

(Also Stanton St John, Yarnton, Cassington)

Headington – suggested to be a corrupted -dun.

Norham manor – gave its name to Norham Gardens. Wytham.

For an instance in which an elevated -ley is higher than the nearby -ton, see Bagley Wood behind Kennington – though Kennington is also elevated, at a point along the Thames  where the limestone surrounds close in.

Risinghurst is elevated woodland. Shotover is suggested to mean steep slope.

To say nothing of the more obvious ‘hills’: Forest Hill (attested from the eleventh century), Boar’s Hill; Sandhills.

Up at the northern end of Port Meadow (port as in portreeve, alderman – nothing to do with a maritime port) we find the locally more anomalous –

Godstow. Stow is place of assembly, possibly holy, according to Wikipedia. Godstow sounds pretty holy.

Cote, as in Wolvercote, is a cottage.

Then there’s Cutteslowe, where Cut(?) lies buried.

Wolvercote seenn from Port Meadow

Wicks are outlying settlements or dairy houses. Around Oxford we have Butterwyke Place off Thames St, East Wyke farm (now part of Oxford Spires Hotel) and associated ditch, and Wick Farm above Barton.

Most such elements in England derive from Old English. The Saxon invaders not only occupied but named the landscape. In the north east, some Old Norse is mixed in, but not around Oxford. Celtic survivals in local place names are rare, but Kidlington – Cydela’s -ton — provides one instance.

A website under development at the University of Nottingham provides county maps – including one for Oxfordshire   – which identify place names according to their language of origin.

Non-topographical elements in such names are often interpreted as the names of early settler leaders.  Thus (conjecturally) Osa’s -ey (Osney); Bina’s -ey (Binsey); Cufa’s-ley (Cowley); Hedena’s dun (Headington). -ing names may be early Saxon names, the -ing element relating to a band: thus Sunningwell, the well (spring) of Sunna’s ing.

Otherwise name elements often relate to other natural features or functions, thus Walton, farm by the city wall, or possibly by the well or spring; Barton, part of a farm with a grange where grain (bar) was stored; Stanton, farm on stony ground.

Antiquaries were showing interest in what place names might reveal about the history of English places by the sixteenth century, when speculations along these lines figure in Camden’s Britannia. Places with -chester/-cester/-caster elements provided an easy way in, being suggestively Latinate: therefore names of Roman forts or settlements (like, locally, Dorchester). Many early speculations haven’t stood up to subsequent scrutiny.

One challenge is the corruption of names. The form in which we know a name may not perfectly reflect ancient usage (thus Headington being corrupted from early forms that seem to derive rather from Hedena’s dun, to give an example already cited). It’s necessary therefore to check guesses by referring to ancient documents, the most ancient usable for this purpose often being charters. Historical studies of charters, insofar as they yield name evidence, provide a basis for more informed speculation. Scholars have revealed thus that the older form of Bullingdon is Bulseden – dene meaning narrow valley. Moor can be a corruption of mere, or pond. Thus it’s not clear whether Peasmoor Piece originates from its marsh/moor state or from it’s having a mere, pond.

Blackbird Leys was recorded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as Blackford Leys – so that’s a name with two topographical elements.

Frozen pond/meer at Peasmoor/ ?meer Piece

In the later nineteenth century, with the development of more technically rigorous medieval history, this line of enquiry was more systematically and discriminatingly pursued. In the early twentieth century, a professor of the English language, Alan Mawer, teamed up with medieval historians James Tait and Frank Stenton to establish the English Place Name Society, which set out to survey river, village and town names, and to publish toponymical gazetteers on a county basis. (Now accessible also in a digital version).

Aggregated evidence was also used to ground other insights: into historic patterns of settlement, Anglo-Saxon dialect boundaries, and the like.

These volumes also probe the etymology of river names.

In Oxford, Thames is a rare Roman survival, from Thamesis (not surprising in a river, though: ‘Compared to most other toponyms, hydronyms are very conservative linguistically, and people who move to an area often retain the existing name of a body of water…The names of large rivers are even more conservative than the local names of small streams.’) Already by the fourteenth century the false notion had developed that this was a compound of two elements: Thame and Isis. Hence the designation of the upper river, around Oxford, as ‘the Isis’, that survived in general use into the early twentieth century, but now chiefly in a rowing connection.

At Henley bridge, two faces carved by the eighteenth-century sculptor Anne Seymour Damer depict Thame and Isis, as man and woman.


19th century reproduction from Mary Craven, Famous beauties of two reigns (1906); engraving of reliefs by Anne Damer
https://archive.org/details/famousbeautiesof00craviala, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17664113

The Place Name volumes don’t dig much below the level of the parish or manor: the compilers were primarily interested in administrative units. Some attempt was made to survey field names, but it was noted that much more could be done on them from modern records.

In fact, much subsequent work has been carried out on more localized place names, including field and associated names as they appear on more recent (early modern to nineteenth-century) estate or enclosure maps. In Oxford, the ArchEOx project team has published separately and in their general report several studies of east Oxford field names, including studies of Cowley, Iffley and Rose Hill and Headington.

There has equally been much work on street names — I’ve instanced many to illustrate lines of enquiry in this blog.

And name studies continue to find new applications. Anne Cole, in the chapter mentioned above, used place name evidence to try to build up a picture of activity on medieval rivers.

And now a Leverhulme-Trust-funded project, ‘Flood and flow‘, involving the universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton, and Wales, proposes to use place name evidence to provide a context for understanding flooding. As they explain on the project website ‘Place-names (particularly those that are over a thousand years old) might feel a strange place to start to look for answers and solutions to modern flooding. But place-names were originally designed to say something about the places they were attached to; and very often what place-namers chose to describe was the local environment. These names, many familiar to us but which we rarely stop to think about, are one of the most valuable records we have when it comes to mapping the presence, characteristics and behaviour of water in the landscape. We are interested in exploring the value of these names for our own times. .. Can we learn from the information they contain? What warnings do they hold for us in terms of where we might build? Might they be useful in guiding where we might restore wetlands or replant woodland in order to Slow the Flow? It is these aspects of place-names that we want to explore..’ The great name-giving age, they suggest, potentially has much to teach us, because ‘The period 700-1000AD was the last major episode on record of rapid global warming before the present day.’

The site includes a list of water-related name elements. It’s suggested that ‘The spectacularly rich water vocabulary that particularly speakers of Old English (the Anglo-Saxons to you and me) had at their disposal, really reveals them to have been not just acute observers of their surroundings but masters of it, possessing the kind of profound knowledge of their environment which today should be much envied.’

Oxfordshire specifically hasn’t at this moment — Feb 2021 – been studied in the context of this project, but several regional, river-catchment-focussed studies are in progress.

Anne Cole’s chapter can be found in John Blair ed, Waterways and canal-building in medieval England (2014)

Thanks to Roey Sweet and Benjamin Thompson for discussing the history of place-name studies with me.