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 ( 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.

4 thoughts on “Marston on the marsh

  1. Thanks for this interesting piece. The surrender of Oxford by the Royalist forces was negotiated in Marston but signed at Christ Church, I believe

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