I discovered some new parts of inner Oxford in this second phase (including stretches of the old city wall, about as inner as you can get). Also Anthony Hedges’ orchestral suite , celebrating walking along Willow Walk, through Osney and to Tumbling Bay.
However, autumn and winter have for me been more notable for ventures further afield, especially up in the surrounding hills – prompted partly by the need to rise above winter floods, though below the spring line hills can still be very muddy.
I’ve also extended my reach along the rivers: I’ve now walked much (though not all) of the Thames from Bablock Hythe to Radley, and followed the Cherwell to within sight of Islip (but not to Islip, because a deep ford intervened). In pursuit of eels, I’ve also leapfrogged the Cherwell up to around Kirtlington, and explored part of the Thame around Dorchester.
The hills offer interlocking walk components: there are many routes up and many routes down, especially on what Bob Evans’ has nicely called the ‘Boars’ Hill massif’. So one can ascend via Bagley Wood, or the Chilswell Valley, or the Hinksey Heights Nature Reserve, or Raleigh Park, and down by another. Many of these routes offer at some point great views of the spires and towers of Oxford. Alternatively, one can loop round to the north of the massif along the Thames, or cross it at Wytham or via Raleigh Park plus either the route south of the Farmoor Reservoir or that via Long Leys, or again pass via Bessels Leigh and Appleton (I haven’t done that yet), all these routes offering components of multiple circular walks. Then to the east I’ve walked to Elsfield and Wheatley, but I know there are more routes up there, around Noke and Beckley, that I have yet to explore, but which can all potentially be joined up.
In principle one could also walk from hill to hill through the valley, mainly on open land and footpaths: thus, from the top of the Lye Valley down the line of the Boundary Brook to the Thames, then from the footpath by the Voco Spires Hotel through Hinksey Park to the meadows between the Hinkseys, and up the hill on the far side.
Some walks are well known to those in the immediate vicinity, but much less to those based in other parts of Oxford. The Hinksey Heights nature trail is a walk route up and around a stream that I discovered late and accidentally, and that is I think much less well known that the walk up the Chilswell valley. The Cherwell is very pleasant up around Water Eaton. Also recommended is the walk from Barton Park to Elsfield and back via College Pond – the hillside which drains into the Bayswater brook, and the walk from Shotover via Shotover Park (with its lake) to Wheatley, and back along Old Road (the old road to London, superseded by the turnpike route in the later eighteenth century)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thanks to Liz Frazer for suggesting that I write something about Marston, and to Tony Morris, Rebecca Nestor, Jan Royall and Benjamin Thompsonfor exploring the area with me.
Thanks also to Paul Cadle for correcting me on bridges across the Cherwell.
As it approaches the old city of Oxford from the north, just before it receives the Peasmoor brook from the east, the Cherwell divides. One part loops eastwards, past the Peasmoor brook entry and Parson’s Pleasure. A gravel bank or ait within this braid has been reinforced to serve as a continuous footpath: Mesopotamia. Another parts cuts through to the west, to rejoin the main branch around Magdalen bridge. This western braid is the Holywell Mill Stream. Is it a channel dug as a mill stream?
The stream divides Merton’s Music Meadow from the New College Recreation Ground, then runs under Manor Road as it heads towards St Catherine’s. Just before the stream reaches Magdalen’s north wall is a Magdalen graduate house, Holywell Ford, which stands across it, where the mill once stood. The stream then passes through Magdalen grounds, with first the Grove, then college buildings on one bank, the Water Meadow on the other. It then rejoins two other braids of the Cherwell either side of Magdalen Bridge.
The parish of Holywell sits across these rivers. It’s shaped like a short-toed boot, ready to kick eastwards the buildings along the Marston Road. The back of the boot is Parks Road. At the heel, the boot runs along the old city wall, from Catte St through New College to the bastion where Longwall street meets St Cross st. So Holywell st, the street that leads to the holy well, lies wholly within the parish. The main stretch of the sole then runs along the northern edge of Magdalen grounds: Holywell Ford (not originally but now owned by Magdalen) lies just inside the parish. The sole extends to just before St Clement’s church, then the toe curves up along the main course of the Cherwell, Mesopotamia Walk lying just within the boundary. The top of the boot runs along the top of the Parks, paralleling Norham Road to the south.
Holywell was also a manor, and as rebuilt in the sixteenth century, the manor house survives, though much altered, as Holywell Manor, a Balliol graduate house. But Balliol only lease the house, which, like much of the land round here, is, or was once, owned by Merton. The Parks were originally Holywell Manor’s fields, developed by Merton as a park, then sold to the University in the mid nineteenth century, to serve as University parks and recreation ground. Merton’s Park once extended southwards not only through the current Science Area, but some way south of South Parks Road, to the south edge of Mansfield College’s grounds. Along that edge, in the mid seventeenth century, a defensive fortification was constructed, to allow royalist Oxford to protect itself against parliamentary assault.
Mill stream and wells alike attest to the watery character of the land around the manor house.
It’s said there was a mill on the same site from the thirteenth to the late nineteenth century. It’s called Holywell mill in documents from the fourteenth century. It was rebuilt as a private house after successive occupants apparently struggled to make a going concern of it. The house’s residents have included the historian AJP Taylor and (briefly) as his lodger Dylan Thomas. Now it’s a Magdalen graduate house.
The name of the mill implies that the holy well itself is older. As mentioned in the Groundwater posts (Uses and Meanings), it’s by no means clear which of several springs or wells historically found around here – at intervals between St Catherine’s and Holywell street – was the holy well.
Like so much of the rest of Oxford, this was clearly originally a pretty watery place, lying at a point where the gravel terrace on which the city rests slopes down towards the still shallower gravel base over clay along which the rivers run. Springs and wells presumably marked seepage from the gravel.
This watery resource has been exploited in various ways: not only to form a mill stream but also once a ditch around the town walls, then fishponds. Conduits were run from springs to supply St John’s Hospital (predecessor of Magdalen) and Merton.
Initially this was an out-of-the-way area, outside the walls and not very close to any city gate, the nearest gates being a small gate at what’s now Catte st – at the western end of Holywell st, and the east gate, by the Eastgate hotel. Its relation to the city was ambiguous. Its church – whose oldest surviving portions date back to c.1200 — was once a chapel of the city church of St Peter in the East. The church was appropriated by Merton at the end of the thirteenth century. But Merton leased out the manor, so there was an independent, historically mainly agricultural community. As the town crept beyond the walls, in the sixteenth century, and houses began to be built along the former town ditch, there were boundary disputes with the city.
Magdalen’s wall, which now dominates one side of the approach from the High Street, dates from the fifteenth century, from the early years of the college’s take-over of the Hospital of St John; so the wall antedates the facing houses. Once this route was flanked to the west by the city wall, and adjoining water.
The bastion in Magdalen’s wall, facing Holywell street, marks the entry to Holywell parish. Holywell’s urban spur here shot off to the west – the heel on the boot, as I characterised it. This is clearly an urban street. It gained a touch of gentility, with the construction of Holywell Music Room in the eighteenth century. New College bought out cottages along the street to build a new front here in the 1880s.
But to the north, until the later nineteenth century, the land opened out. Behind the houses in Holywell street there was open land, bowling greens, gardens and meadows; then the Parks.
It was at the point where the urban met the rural that the space was most liminal: housing various appendages to the town, that were oriented to it, but for one reason or another, more easily placed beyond its walls.
Until the late eighteenth century, supposedly (on what evidence? evidence of maps?) a gallows stood by the bastion — in the middle of the road, one map suggests. (Oddly, it seems to me, since a gallows wasn’t usually a permanent construction, but something set up as needed). The gallows is said to have been Merton’s – they having claimed the right in the fourteenth century. But in 1589, it served as a place of execution for four Catholic martyrs, hanged for treason and felony (unlike Oxford’s long-celebrated Protestant martyrs, these have been commemorated by a plaque only in recent years).
More cheerfully, the area was a site of recreation. By the eighteenth century, there was a bowling green behind Holywell st, and another up St Cross Road on the other side (near modern Linacre?) There was also a solidly built cock-pit, where cocks were fought (and bets placed on their prowess).
In 1848, a site behind the St Cross graveyard was acquired to serve as one of three relief cemeteries (sister to cemeteries in Osney and Jericho).
1852 saw the establishment in the manor of a Female penitentiary and House of Mercy, run by an Anglican religious order, the sisters of St John the Baptist. In a list of such homes, it’s said to have offered 58 places to ‘Fallen women; [for] a year if possible; remain not less than two years’. It had no age limit. (Twenty years later, another temporary refuge for fallen women was established in St Aldates’, and at the end of the century, the Oxford Ladies Association established various refuges for friendless girls and single mothers). In 1929, this was relocated in Littlemore, and Balliol took over the house.
Until the 1990s, a site by the river was occupied by the Officer’s Training Corps. When its long lease came up for renewal, the university seized the chance instead to use the site for a new Social Studies building.
Since the later nineteenth century, the main trend has been for this once open land to be colonised by the university and colleges. Merton, as the original landowner, has reserved a bit for itself – housing on Manor Road. But other land has been sold off to be developed for new colleges: off Mansfield Road, Mansfield College and Manchester College; off St Cross Road, Linacre College; off Manor Road, St Catherine’s College.
The University Museum was the first outpost in what shortly became a much larger Science Area. Between Mansfield and St Cross Road, there’s a newish University Club building. Balliol and New College have exploited landholdings to construct new student housing: Balliol housing arises even now, in this period of rock-bottom interest rates, favourable to this form of investment.
South of the Parks themselves, such open land as survives mainly takes the form of playing fields – for Balliol, New College and Merton. Merton’s music and great meadows, described by Historic England as water meadows – both now in course of restoration to wildflower meadows — provide the chief remnant (if a re-imagined remnant) of an older landscape, along with trees along the river. For however long they may have been there. Older photos show them, though the further back one goes, the harder it is to be sure….
Despite the sunlight and blue skies in these photos, as the bare branches suggest, almost all of these photos were taken during December and January 2020-21.
Old Cowley marsh was a wedge-shaped area, tilted roughly NNW to SSE, straddling what’s now the Cowley Road, extending to Bartlemas chapel on its NE edge, what’s now Cricket Road to the WSW, and the Boundary Brook to the SE. Or that’s how it’s shown on a 1777 Christ Church estate map.
Now adjacent but variously described portions of this land survive as open land for public use. Cowley Marsh recreation ground is the largest fragment. Other odd parcels survive at the NE and SE edges of the recreation ground, around Barracks Lane. Barracks Lane Meadow lies to the north east. To the south east until recently lay, south of Barracks Lane, a wildflower meadow, now much truncated, and to the north – perhaps historically ‘Lye Hill’ rather than Cowley marsh — a triangular Cowley Marsh Nature Reserve.
Together, these properties occupy a significant chunk of what was once the SE quadrant of the wedge. Much of the wedge northwards on both sides of the Cowley Road has been covered with housing, while Motofix and Elder Stubbs allotments occupy the SW quadrant.
Though a NW part of the marsh was in use as a Magdalen cricket ground by the early nineteenth century, most erosion of the nominal ‘marsh’ area probably followed Cowley’s enclosure in the 1850s. The second series OS map already shows the two northern and the south-western quadrants marked out into plots, though at that date (late nineteenth/early twentieth century) the plots still lay almost entirely open. On this post-enclosure map, what survived of ‘Cowley Marsh’ was a ‘recreation ground’ (not on its current site, but to the south of the Cowley Road), and, on the site of the modern recreation ground, a ‘cricket ground’.
On all but the east side of the pre-enclosure marsh, as shown on the 1777 map, lay the strip fields of Cowley parish (it’s not reported what lay to the east, because that was St Bartholomew’s extra parochial area, to which the map doesn’t extend). There’s some indication in place names that westwards – below the marsh — there were further soggy areas. The fields to the west are called ‘The Lakes’. If this is to be understood in the old sense of ‘ditches’ (there are no evident lakes in the modern sense), then it may have been drainage ditches that kept this land dry and cultivatable. Further along the course of the Boundary Brook, as it ran westwards from the marsh towards the river, we find Sanders Marsh. (I first thought that ‘Meers’ in the same area were pools, but in fact they were embanked boundaries. There were more than a dozen other meers scattered across the parish. Boatmen apparently knew underwater ice ridges as ‘ice meers’.)
It’s not hard to see from the topography why Cowley Marsh was marshy ground, though I can’t myself distinguish between ways in which the landscape shaped the flow of water and ways in which the flow of water shaped the landscape. Still, the main outlines seem clear. To the east of the marsh, the land slopes up towards Headington. Lying at the bottom of the slope, the marsh occupies a depression (the result of past, more voluminous water action?) with a base of ‘mudstone’. The lower slope above is sandstone. To the SE, there’s another small sandstone slope that raises Church Cowley and Temple Cowley to a greater elevation. Geologists call this sandstone ‘Temple Cowley member’. On the higher slopes lies ‘Beckley sand’.
To the NW, as one follows converging roads towards St Clements, gravel terraces also slightly raise the level of the land– on the 1777 map, ‘Ridge Field’ lies NW of The Lakes (around modern Ridgefield Road). Above the sandstone on the slopes up towards Headington lies limestone, capped, as you keep ascending, by other rocks.
So water falling on the hills would soak through the limestone and sandstone and then issue out. The Boundary Brook and Lye valleys take their rise in Headington, run their course down the sandstone slopes, fusing with one another above the marsh and then running on towards it.
Paralleled, no doubt, by more diffuse seepage from across the limestone/sandstone front. Robert Plot, the first Ashmolean curator (in its early, science-museum days) characterised such seeping waters thus: ‘of so slow a Pace, that they seem rather to sweat than run out of the Earth…. [they] are stopt upon the very Surface.’
This 1868 British Geological Survey map does not precisely anticipate modern geological mapping, but it does suggest something about the situation of the marsh.
Bartlemas chapel and hospital, at the NW end of the marsh, and not historically included in it (they formed a little extra-parochial area of their own) lie broadly within the same zone. There was once a spring or well around there, probably at the point where the sandstone gives way to Oxford clay, in what used to be the northern part of the Bartlemas extra-parochial enclosure, now some way into Oriel’s playing field. Meanwhile, the allotments which now spread out beneath the chapel are moistened (and sometimes more) by water seeping from the ground.
In principle, another spring line should lie along the edge where the sandstone which underpins old Cowley encounters Oxford clay. Crowell Road seems not to extend sufficiently far down this slope to hit this front – but it may of course once have headed in the direction of a well frequented by crows. If the ‘Catwell’ rose where Catwell Close now stands — it serves new housing that’s recently intruded on to the west side of the recreation ground — then that may mark a point at which water seeped out of a gravel bank.
The marsh’s physical characteristics have long given it a distinctive role.
As I’ve already noted, Cowley common fields were historically distributed around three sides of the marsh, bordering on, and to some extent mixing in with, those of St Clements to the NW. The marsh provided common pasture land – as riverside land (most notably Port Meadow) sometimes also did. On a 1797 map, the marsh is termed ‘Cowley common’. St Clement’s parishioners shared rights in a chunk of this marsh-pasture.
Cowley’s initial areas of settlement – Church Cowley around the parish church of St James, and Temple Cowley — lay on the sandstone to the SE. Church Cowley is an ancient settlement, listed in Domesday. Temple Cowley developed around the Templars‘ preceptory in the twelfth century.
Routes to London traditionally passed either side of the marsh, flanking the side of Rose Hill or climbing through what’s now South Park to proceed along Old Road through Shotover.The marsh could be skirted, wandered across, or crossed via a causeway that presumably provided the most reliable route, being elevated above the sometimes wet land.
Of the two historic Cowleys, Temple Cowley most nearly adjoined the marsh, which lay between it and the city. In the eighteenth century, there was a peat-digging industry focussing on the marsh, run from Temple Cowley.
In the early nineteenth century, William Turner of Oxford painted the view towards Oxford from Bullingdon Green (now the eastern end of the Oxford Golf Course), looking over an open and watery Cowley marsh.
Following enclosure in the mid nineteenth century, as building moved outwards from St Clements, a new NW Cowley urban area emerged, around the St Clement’s end of the Cowley Road, which was in 1868 organised into a distinct parish, Cowley St John. Cowley Marsh was allocated to this new parish. But it and the area to the west of it were relatively slow to be built upon, wedged between the old settlements and new suburbs, and moreover marshy.
Reclamation of the marsh started in the middle ages. The VCH suggests that there was drainage in the thirteenth century, probably organised by the abbey of St Frideswide’s, releasing some formerly soggy land for arable — would that be the Lakes Field? A new round of drainage probably accompanied mid-nineteenth-century enclosure. The Boundary Brook – which is now a complex stream, sending out offshoots in various directions, seems to have provided the main drainage artery. One branch runs along the top of Cowley Marsh recreation ground, presumably channelling seepage from the hillside above.
There’s a long history of sport and competitive games in and around the marsh – up the hillside to the SE, that is on Bullingdon Green (now part of the Oxford Golf Club) and on the marsh itself. Colleges, University, the City and local people divided and shared the space. Already by the early nineteenth century Magdalen was using land on the NW edge of the marsh as a cricket ground. That also served 1851-81 as the University Cricket Ground (before that was relocated to the Parks). Old marsh land to the SE (in and around the current recreation ground) was used for cricket and golf by the 1870s: various colleges had cricket pavilions on the ground, and the University Golf Club also played there, as did the Cowley St John neighbourhood cricket club. The Cricketers Arms in Junction Road (which continues Temple Road towards Barracks Lane) and Cricket Road (along the south edge of the old marsh) commemorate the game and its players. In the 1890s the City appointed land adjoining Magdalen Cricket Ground as its first ‘public recreation ground’ (as authorised by legislation from the 1870s, on which they’d been slow to act). In the 1920s, the University purchased Southfield Farm, on the hillside above the marsh, and this provided the basis for a more extensive golf course.
Erosion of the green space has continued, as pressure for housing makes land that once looked suitable for utilities look too good to waste. A bus depot that was placed along the Cowley Road in the 1920s has been replaced (since 2004) by housing. The evidence of maps suggests that the waste depot that now occupies the SE end of the old marsh wedge was first established there between the wars.
Intensified interest in preserving a green environment has seen both wins and losses. The Cowley Marsh Nature Reserve occupies a water-bounded triangle extending from the SE corner of the old marsh; on post-war aerial photos, this seems bare. According to the Council, it now ‘combines wet grassland with small patches of wildflower meadow’. It has increasingly been treed over. Henry Taunt’s photograph of the boundary stone on the marsh in 1914 places it on relatively open land, backed at a few yards’ distance by a line of large trees. Now the setting is completely different. Along Barracks Lane run a row of mainly small trees and bushes, while behind stand a series of coppices: hazel and birch.
In 2009, the Council sowed wildflowers alongside a children’s playground at the Barracks Lane side of the depot. But in 2015, it moved to extend the depot site over this space, and prevailed against vigorous local opposition.
If one consider the whole swathe of land that runs up and down the hill from the marsh — passing through the depressed land on the LIDAR map, including space once occupied by Lakes Field on the way to the river — it’s striking how much of it remains open, if not always open to the public. On the hillside above the marsh lie the golf course and the grounds of Oxford Spires Academy (preceded on this site, from the 1930s, by Southfield Grammar School). Then comes the recreation ground, then Motofix and Elder Stubbs allotments (established here by way of compensation when Elder Stubbs up above the woods was enclosed). Then St Gregory the Great school and East Ward allotments (and on the other, SE side of the Boundary Brook, Florence Park). Then the Iffley Academy; then various boating sites, meadows and nature reserves. All interspersed with patches of housing. This pattern no doubt testifies in part to the late development of this space between old Iffley and Cowley and the expanding city, but also to the wateriness of the ground, suggesting the wisdom of leaving much of it open.
I’m not sure how much it reflects an older pattern, and to what extent it points to the success of mid nineteenth-century drainage efforts, but current flood-prone areas lie not squarely on the line of the marsh, but ratheron both sides of the Boundary Brook.
With thanks to Robert Quick for the loan of his camera when the cold weather froze my iPhone.
A friend whose house backs on to the Redbridge Stream tells me that an official arrived at his house one day and told his wife that he wanted to see their COW. Confused, she said they didn’t have a cow. Probably what he wanted to see (did he use the acronym as a tease?) was their ‘critical ordinary watercourse’ — though confusingly, when he had explained further and been shown It, he said it wasn’t a COW. Confusingly because, according to the Oxford Floodplan (as reviewed 2008), the Redbridge Stream was allocated to that category.
Minor Oxford watercourses are distinguished by their names into streams, brooks and ditches. A stream seems to be a braid: a watercourse that emanates from and then returns to the main river, the Thames or the Cherwell. Thus, the Seacourt Stream, Hinksey Stream, the various mill streams. A brook starts in the hills, at a spring, and runs downhill: thus Marston Brook, Boundary and Lye Brooks, Littlemore Brook, the Chilswell Brook, the Barleycote Brook. Ditches are straight cuts, artificial drains, that may cut across the lie of the land: like the East Wyck Ditch. (Though, a recurrent theme of this blog, it’s no simple matter to decide what constitutes an ‘artificial’ watercourse).
Back in the early years of the century, under the stimulus of a Treasury spending review, it was decided that the established English practice of leaving to local authorities responsibility for the maintenance of such ordinary watercourses wasn’t working well in the context of flood prevention. It was resolved that instead, a ‘whole systems approach’ should be adopted. Allocation of reponsibility for water courses would relate to function, not form. If judged to be ‘critical ordinary watercourses’ – critical for flood prevention – they were to become the responsibility of the Environment Agency. This sounds more like a reconfiguration than an abolition of dysfunctional ‘administrative divisions’. (There are other aspects of the plan too, eg involving data collection and monitoring: ‘Through a range of initiatives, the EA is developing a more comprehensive and consistent approach to data acquisition and storage.’)
The task of distinguishing between different kinds of watercourse was addressed, during a few years following, by the compilation of lists. A list of ‘main rivers’ was compiled, and another list of ‘critical ordinary watercourses’, with some 1800 members across England and Wales.
The Oxford Floodplan reports that six COWS were identified in Oxford: Boundary Brook, Littlemore Brook, Northfield Brook, Wareham Stream, Redbridge Stream and Holywell Mill Stream. Responsibility for these watercourses was transferred to the Environment Agency on 31 March 2006. Among these watercourses, though the brooks seem major enough (as local brooks go), the streams are all tiny, presumably because the larger streams were already categorized as ‘main rivers’. The Holywell Mill Stream is about 1km, the Wareham Stream at most 0.3km.
The Redbridge stream is one of the larger in this category, ‘compris[ing] 0.7km of earth channel’. It begins ‘at a confluence with Hinksey Stream north of the old Abingdon Road and rejoins Hinksey Stream adjacent to Abingdon Road Bridge’. The category COW was transitional. Watercourses designated COWs thereafter joined the ranks of ‘main rivers’ for regulatory purposes, and Oxfordshire COWs accordingly feature on the EA’s main rivers map (also available in other formats) The Redbridge Stream is therefore now a ‘main river’.
Whether or not British policy was developing along sensible lines, in its stately way, the issuing of an EU flood directive in 2007 impelled possibly unhelpful haste. In order to conform to EU guidelines, the Brits punched out new regulations (2009) and legislation (2010) .
A submission by a Windsor and Maidenhead councillor representing the ‘ National Flood Prevention Party’ identifies several problems that (in his view) remain unaddressed:
‘The Thames – … continuous River Thames dredging took place after the 1947 flood event. Unfortunately since responsibility for the Thames transferred from the National Rivers Authority to the Environment Agency in 1995, the specially designed and built equipment has been disposed of, operators terminated and disposal sites closed, all without consultation….
Critical Ordinary Watercourses – To make matters worse, since the Critical Ordinary Watercourses were re-designated as Main Rivers in about 2005, the responsibility for management of those watercourses was transferred from the Local Authority to the Environment Agency who then abandoned maintenance.’
Whatever the arguments for and against this approach, it does seem to characterise what’s happened in relation to the Redbridge stream.
The Redbridge Stream has quite recently been sectioned off from what was once a longer stream – as can be seen if any OS map up to 1961 is compared with the modern Main Rivers map. Once it flowed from the Hinksey stream to the west of the railway – presumably being culverted under it – then continued on under the Abingdon Road to a junction with the Hinksey Stream (as that flowed south from Hinksey Mill) to join the Weirs Mill Stream, at a point where the stream split to encompass a little island, before proceeding on to join the Thames.
The whole water system there has since been reorganised, probably in conjunction with the building of the ring road. Now the Hinksey Stream has been diverted alongside the railway, till, following an older course, it curves round to join the Thames at a point to the south. The Weirs Mill Stream now joins the Hinksey Stream on its new course shortly before its junction with the Thames. Meanwhile, the Redbridge Stream has been bound more tightly into the reconstructed Hinksey Stream, swerving abruptly westwards to join it just south of the Abingdon Road. Where once the rivers joined and the island was is now the Redbridge Park and Ride.
Wytham Street was developed for housing north to south through the first half of the twentieth century. The land once formed part of the earls of Abingdon’s estate, and takes its name from their base at Wytham. The street backs on to a line of water that has consistently formed the Redbridge Stream. The road gradually converges on the stream (such that back gardens get shorter as Wytham Street heads south). It curves at its southern end to join the Abingdon Road, but a footpath continues towards the recreation ground by Bertie Place.
The railway parallels the road. At the southern end of the street, Redbridge Stream lies between; at the northern end of the street, Hinksey Lake interposes. The neighbourhood is a child of the railway in several senses. The laying down of the railway line prompted the development of housing. And the construction of the railway shaped the topography to the west (including, presumably, having some influence over how the watercourses have evolved).
The railway did not always run along its current line. In the 1840s, the GWR line terminated at Grandpont, having run along what’s now the footpath between Wytham Street and Lake Street; then along Marlborough Road. Another line, the Oxford and Rugby Railway, maintained a ‘[Hinksey] Millstream Station], on what’s now the main course of the track. In the 1850s the GWR began also to use that line. The Millstream Station site came back into use briefly in the 1910s, when a a ‘railmotor’ service was established — operating in carriages into one of which a little steam engine was embedded. The old station site became one of two local mini-stations, ‘halts’: Hinksey Halt. The site can still be reached from the north end of Wytham st, via what’s now a tarmacked path, succeeded by a muddy causeway across the tip of Hinksey lake, where, when I went to investigate, I found some boys fishing and larking around.
My friend further notes: ‘During the 30s and 40s [when his house was built] there were quite extensive railway marshalling yards beyond our garden [linked to the larger complex which runs along Hinksey lake]: the people who first lived in this house moved out at the outbreak of war as they thought this part of Oxford might be bombed.’
He continues: ‘The piece of open ground lying to the north of the caravan and camping site behind Go Outdoors… was also a dump [additional to the ones noted in my Dumps post] – walking there one comes across bits of bicycle, bottle, cans etc. There are occasional fires (methane?). I don’t know what its name is (I guess it was part of the farm at Cold Harbour?)’
In keeping with my argument in the tree cover post, the tree cover across this rough ground is all recent: on the evidence of aerial photographs, post 1945.
If once you’ve taken the bridge from behind the children’s playground over the stream, my friend instructed me, you turn to the right, ‘you can walk along rough paths (much used by dog walkers) and see the stream at various points. Some householders have put little wooden bridges over the stream and onto the rough ground from the bottom of their gardens. The rough ground is largely brambles and nettles: we pick elder flowers there in the spring and blackberries in the autumn.’ But when I went to see for myself, this rough ground was so overgrown one couldn’t track the stream, merely wander across the terrain of the old dump.
My friend continues: ‘It’s good to have a stream at the bottom of the garden but the river authorities no longer dredge it so it’s dried up the last few hot summers. When we first moved here (1978) it was much deeper, with fish, voles, kingfishers etc and was kept dredged by the Thames Conservancy. The garden is really flood plain and does flood from time to time – last major flood in Dec 2013 I think, which flooded the whole hundred yards up to the steps that lead down into the garden from the house. The Envt Ag has not been much of a guardian since 2006 – I don’t think they’ve done anything at all. There was talk of an EU Directive discouraging dredging to protect wildlife (except those that live in water, when the stream dries up?). … Reeds have begun to spread over the streambed.’
In her book, Landscape: Politics and Perspectives, Barbara Bender writes: ‘struggle over a waterscape is indeed not only about its material resources, but also about the different meanings and values generated by it’. Though in this case the ‘struggle’ remains implicit, I think the tension between (what I take to be) the Environment Agency’s cost-benefit approach to the stream’s role in flood prevention, and the homeowner’s more immediate and vivid perspective has at its heart just such differences over value and meaning.
Thanks to Glenn Black for information and for all the best photos.And to Antonis Hadjikyriacou for the cultural geography reference.
March 2021 update: the Council have been clearing the land along the stream to make it possible for the Environment Agency to dredge.This significant stretch of land has for some time been identified as potentially the site for a new school — another favourite use for floodplain-ish sites in Oxford.
An ephemeral name – a civil war name, of unknown origin. But the only one we have for this bit of ground. (Though now I find that Fred Thacker, in his book The Thames Highway, claims that in older maps it’s called George Island).
It’s the triangle where the Castle Mill Stream debouches into the Osney Mill Stream, aka the Thames. As you approach the river through Oxpens Meadow, you can swerve left into it.
Geese like it. There are goose gang-hangouts on either side of the Castle Mill stream, one tucked beneath a willow. Round here live about the most mixed set of geese I’ve seen. In other places, either Greylags or Canadians usually predominate, but here it just seems to be a mix.
On older maps it shows as a set of islands, or later an island, within a set of watercourses more extensive and complex than we see now: the Osney mill stream was once flanked to the north by streamlets feeding into the Castle Mill stream, lined with trees, and to the south, by the Shire Lake, the county boundary, joining the Thames around where Cobden’s Crescent now is, and then (if one follows the name) looping north, by Shire Lake Close towards Christ Church Meadow. And Folly Island was bigger and surrounded by complex water courses (some of which survive at the southern end of the bridge). So a messy, watery area.
In the Civil War, there was some kind of fortification on the island, and apparently trenches in St Ebbe’s in the grounds of the old Dominican Priory, Blackfriars, later built over and then built over again. These trenches appear on some eighteenth-century maps, though archaeologists have failed to find traces of them.
Later this area became the first of the City’s open air swimming pools, 1846, serving the new suburb of St Ebbes. The stream around the island was partitioned off with weirs to create a smooth stretch of water in between, according to a design still visible in the remains of a similar pool at Tumbling Bay. The pool was closed in 1938, the waterway filled in, and now it’s just a little nook at the bottom of Oxpens Meadow.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.