I sometimes stop and talk to anglers about what they hope to catch or what they have caught. None has ever mentioned eels. Though apparently it’s possible to hope to catch an eel. Or to hope not to: ‘To many anglers, it is an unwelcome catch, since its strength means the experience is closer to wrestling than fishing.’
The Canal and River Trust tell you how to catch an eel with a hook and line ‘Early evening or during the night is the best time to target and catch eels. They are not shy feeders and due to a powerful mouth they can bite through fine lines. The best baits are small dead baits or a bunch of lobworms or maggots on the bottom, often close in the margins or around weed beds. Small dead baits, such as roach, rudd or gudgeon, are a favourite and can be fished with a single large hook, such as a size two or size four.’ However, they caution that ‘removal of eels for any purpose is no longer permitted. All eels caught on rod and line must be returned to the waterway, either immediately or in a competition after the weigh in has taken place.’
Historically, though, eels were among the chief fish harvested from the Thames, often being caught in wicker traps or ‘bucks’ — made from willows, so from material conveniently close to hand. There’s a picture of such a trap in the Luttrell Psalter, from the thirteenth century.
Evidence that eels were plentiful — and valued– is provided by medieval requirements that rent be paid in eels. A historian who’s studied medieval practical and symbolic uses of eels has tried to map places recording eel rents. A number of these were round about Oxford, thus Swinford and Thrupp (Thrupp near Abingdon) both owed eel rents in the twelfth century to the Abbot of Abingdon, whose records are the source for the information. Swinford had to pay 325 eels, Thrupp a mere 175. Presumably the abbey had fishponds in which to keep them fresh. Eels were less important after the Black Death, it’s suggested, when more animals were kept, so there was more choice of protein. Still, Mary Prior tells us in her book on Fisher Row that when Cranmer was in prison in Oxford he was served eel broth for dinner almost every day. The need to avoid meat-eating during Lent enhanced the importance of fish.
The nineteenth-century artist William Turner of Oxford in at least two paintings depicted a man ferrying eel bucks in a punt — perhaps for use by mill weirs (one of the paintings is by King’s Mill on the Cherwell) but not necessarily: baited bucks could be placed elsewhere in the river. The other painting is by Hythe Bridge, where the Castle Mill stream runs alongside the canal. George Townsend, noting that the latter painting was completed before the demolition of this bridge (in this form) in 1861, suggests that the figure ‘seems to be shorthand for the city’s less celebrated, traditional ways of life, the days of which – like the ramshackle medieval mill and the doomed bridge – Turner perhaps thought were numbered.’
Though not the only fishers of eels, millers were particularly well placed to catch them, enduringly over many centuries, since they could place traps on their weirs, and even regulate the flow of water to maximise their chances of getting a good haul. A painting showing bucks on a frame by a weir at Iffley in 1782 is reproduced on the Thames Sweet Waters website.
In the 1866 parliamentary enquiry into the extension of the Thames Conservators’ jurisdiction from the lower to the upper river (discussed in my Techno-fix post), there were several exchanges about this practice (There were more mills in the upper than the lower rivers, so how the Conservators would approach the new challenge of dealing with them loomed quite large in discussion). Some who appeared before the committee accused millers of intensifying flooding, or of draining off water overnight at such a rate as to leave the river less fit for navigation, all just to catch a few hundredweight of eels (it was said, dismissively). The hundredweight – 112 lbs, approx. 50kg — seems to have been the unit in which eel catches were generally measured. Eel catches seem to weigh in at about one to ten lbs. So 112lb probably implies dozens rather than hundreds of eels – and only then given that the eels coming down river would be mature eels, coming down to spawn, as opposed to young glass eels, which would weigh in at tens of thousands to the hundredweight. If as claimed at this time the price never fell below 10d a lb, this was (in the prices of the day) not to be sneezed at. No one expressed any concern about the effect on the eels. It was taken as read that they were abundant.
Most eel species live in the sea, burrowing into the silt and coming out to predate at night. ‘European’ eels by contrast spend parts of their lives in rivers – they’re euryhaline fish: they can tolerate both salt and freshwater. They start life as small larvae, become slender elvers, then tougher mature fish, then mate, spawn and die.
Scientists say there’s much they don’t know about these eels. Supposedly they originate in the Sargasso Sea, some way east of Florida, as transparent spores. Atlantic currents then carry them to Europe, in the course of a few years, during which they become more clearly baby eels: ‘glass eels’ or elvers. They can be found all over Europe, though they’re not known on Africa’s Saharan coast, probably a function of currents. While too small to swim, they rely on currents to carry them, and tend not to penetrate much beyond the tidal reaches of rivers. Later they may swim up rivers, though hugging the edge. If they survive, they mature and become ‘yellow eels’, ‘rarely more than a meter long’. They may then live for a several decades, but ultimately, as ‘silver eels’ swim back across the Atlantic to spawn.
They’re predatory fish, and scavengers, liking dead meat. Gunther Grass’s novel, The Tin Drum, about interwar Germany, includes a memorable episode in which a severed horse’s head isn dipped into a river to catch eels. They mainly feed at night, when they may also crawl across land from one body of water to another. Someone who grew p on a lock island on the Thames at Maidenhead remembers encountering them there: ‘It was pretty common to find them slithering across the lawn. Very unpleasant to accidentally step on in the dark.’
The Zoological Society of London’s ‘Eel barrier assessment tool’ provides more information about the mid-life behaviour of eels than I’ve found elsewhere. They say that ‘After the first year or two, two behavioural strategies are apparent: home-range dwellers (establish in a given area for a number of months or years) and nomads (shift within and between water bodies, including fresh and saline environments).‘
Eel migrations are seasonal, and temperature driven. The assessment tool again notes, citing a scientific study, that ‘A threshold for enhanced migratory behaviour peaks at 14-16°C, no or little migration occurs beneath 10-11°C’. Young eels ascend rivers from April or May through to September or October . Downstream migration of silver eels takes place from August to December, peaking between September and November. In winter they dig into river banks and hibernate.
In recent times, within Britain, eels have been especially numerous in the Severn estuary and tributaries of the Severn, and perhaps that was the case historically too. But there were also lots in the Thames, especially around the estuary and up past London, a source of cheap but tasty food, much eaten until the last century the form of ‘jellied eels’. By the seventeenth century, London’s appetite had outstripped local supply, so eels had to be imported from Holland
The recent ZSL study found striking variability in elver numbers between different tributaries of the Thames, and thought that interesting and hard to explain – but couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t due to the different efficiency of the traps set from place to place.
Eels disappeared from the Thames as it became increasingly polluted, but returned from the 1960s against a background of attempts to reduce pollution. Systematic monitoring of numbers seems to have taken place only since the 1980s, so previous longer term trends are unclear.. What is clear is that numbers have fallen cataclysmically during the early twenty-first century: most estimates suggest falls of more than 90%, decline being most marked among glass eels, though also notable among yellow eels (it seems possible that decline in numbers of young will keep feeding through to affect older numbers.
The Financial Times, in an informative article of 2010, summarised speculations about the causes of decline: ‘The ocean currents of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Drift that carry their larvae back to land from their place of birth out in the Atlantic are shifting direction as sea temperatures rise, and so many of the larvae are missing European shores altogether. In addition, our rivers are increasingly blocked by manmade structures and punctuated by hydro power intakes whose turbines act as mincing machines. Commercial trawlers take millions of glass eels a year from the Bay of Biscay, wetland habitat has decreased dramatically, and a parasite introduced from Asia has infected the European population. Or perhaps something else entirely could be causing the population crash. No one knows for sure.’ The Pisces Conservation website carries a still more detailed and thorough discussion of the challenges.
One might worry about this for general ecological reasons. Eels fill a particular niche in the freshwater food chain, both as scavengers and as prey. The forces responsible for their decline affect other fish too. In July 2020, the World Wide Fund for Nature reported that migratory freshwater fish species declined by 76% on average over the previous four decades; in Europe alone, by 93%.
There’s also a commercial angle — which has concerned the EU, and helped to spark reportage in the Financial Times. In Britain in recent decades, there’s been onlyone industrial-scale eel company, Glasseel UK. And taste for eels seems to have declined, so conosumers mainly don’t mourn their loss. But on the continent, they’ve been caught annd eaten on a larger scale, and also exported in huge quantities to Asia, especially to Japan.
In 2009, the EU instituted an Eel Recovery Programme, which was implemented in member countries, including the UK. The European Council Regulation set targets for the recovery of European eel stocks and required the development of management plans to improve stocks; the Eels (England and Wales) Regulations gave the Environment Agency powerr to act.
Broadly, responses have taken three forms:
- attempts to gather more data, to understand what’s been happening;
- attempts to tackle sources of decline that are readily susceptible to human action,
- attempts to sustain numbers artificially, through breeding programmes (the first task here is to work out whether eels can be bred and raised on fish farms – not achieved yet; there are eel farms, but they’re restocked from the wild).
Under the first head, the Zoological Society of London established a ‘citizen science’ monitoring programme, focussing its efforts on the tidal Thames and its tributaries.
Under the second head, energy has been directed into the construction of fish and eel passes, to help them bypass weirs and other such obstacles. Of course, neither weirs nor indeed fish passes are new. In John Blair’s collection on Waterways and canal-building in medieval England, it’s suggested that some historic channels around mills may have been constructed in the first instance to let fish pass. Still — it’s suggested — old weirs were wooden and imperfect; modern barriers pose a new order of challenge. So more and better passes are needed. Because young eels are poor swimmers, passes that are going to help them need to have special characteristics, like brush-covered surfaces they can wiggle their way up (this has been determined by giving eels a choice of different kinds of pass, and observing which they choose).
There have also been experiments with high-tech approaches, for example, tagging certain eels so that their movements can trigger suspension of power-station operations during the relatively brief periods in which eels are on the move.
In terms of the redirection of commercial effort, the British company Glasseel UK explain on their website the changes they have gone through in trying to find a niche for themselves in a rapidly changing environment over fifty years, to 2012: ‘In the late 1960’s [there was] a non sustainable rush of exports to Japan, followed by a strong demand for glass eels for aquaculture in Europe. Then in the 1990’s there was an unprecedented demand for glass eels from Asia. … In 1983/1984 there was a very marked stepped reduction (60% in one season) in glass eel recruitment. By the late 1980’s … we lost a substantial market share to … French suppliers….[but then] in the early 1990’s new customers appeared from China. Then fortunately for the eel, in 2010, the Eel Management Plan for the UK had been implemented and all exports outside of the EU was made illegal. In 2012 we moved to our current site supported by the European Fisheries Fund on the banks of the River Severn and we have continued to introduce sustainable fishery practices and solutions. [We aimed] to reduce capacity from 15,000kg to 1,500kg… not only to protect the fishery for future generations but also to maintain the economic, cultural and social values for the local community. The majority of our eels are now sold to Europe for restocking projects. With a proportion for sustainable aquaculture.’
Redirection of commercial effort only works up to a point, though – not least since there’s a large eel smuggling sector.
Knowing something about the life-cycle and habits of the eel helps to make sense of the millers’ strategies in deploying their bucks — which, when elevated in the photo above, were not in use. They were lowered into the water for use.
What millers were well-placed to catch was eels heading down river, that is migrating silver eel. So presumably their efforts will have been concentrated in the autumn – except (someone who fished for eel in Somerset in recent decades has said) in flood time, because ‘the fish will migrate at any time of year if the river is in flood’. Hence particular worries about the millers’ self-interested conduct in times of flood. Since eels are normally nocturnal, millers’ activities were concentrated at night – their habit was to pull up the mill sails and leave bucks attached to one weir at night, while other weirs were stopped up, to canalise traffic.
Eel bucks have given their names to various places in Oxford’s neighbourhood. Wikipedia instances as sites on the Thames, Buck Ait and Handbuck Eyot. At Dorchester-on-Thames there’s a ‘Buck Mead’ and a ‘Buck Pool’ on the Thame at the millstream, beside the abbey. As we have seen, abbeys took a lively interest in eels,as a food source for their monks.
‘The floodgate near Flights Mill [Kirtlington] has an eel trap incorporated in its structure’ to this day. Elsewhere memories of such fishing endure. According to the VCH, at Islip, the fisheries continued to be valuable until the late 19th century and gave rise to the local industry of making osier cages or ‘weels’ for catching eels’. ‘The famous Islip eels,,,at one time were sent to London pubs’
Traps continued in use until recently, even if not attached to mill weirs. In 2010, the FT talked to a Somerset eel fisher, who ‘under cover of darkness [because that’s when eels move, not because he was hiding anything], [the fisher] operates his rack, which throws eels up from the water on to its wooden staging and allows them to be kept alive within the structure’s submerged baskets. Early in the morning he checks the success of his fyke nets, often braving icy floodwaters to bring them in. “It’s cold, wet and uncomfortable,” he says, “but it is very exciting.’
When I crowd-sourced memories of eel-fishing around Oxford recently, some remembered eel trapping – around Wytham and Godstow (by family report) and at the north end of Hinksey Lake in the 1960s. One can trap without blocking off the whole stream, if bait, such as meat, is put in the baskets.
Other local memories of eel fishing, mostly from childhoods or early lives, involved hook and line: ‘My father used to catch them, He used to cast the line from the Port meadow side towards lock island [Godstow]; they used to take shelter by the island.’ ‘We lived on Osney and [my Mum] would always tell the story of [my Dad] taking her fishing just around the corner near Osney lock and catching eels, one of which wound itself around her arm when my Dad was trying to take the hook out of it]. ‘I remember as a small child [living in Granfpont House, by Folly Bridge] being intrigued by the eels which the fisherman hung on the wrought iron fence on the towpath.’ ‘Being an angler I caught a couple of eels at Port Meadow by the old bathing huts area around the mid 70s’. They’re remembered as formidable: ‘I lived in Buckingham Street as a boy and fished in the river. Eels could be caught under Folly Bridge, the towpath side, if we caught one we took it home threw it in the bath and our dad sorted it for eating after he came home from work.
Mid 70s is as recent as most of the memories get. One man wrote: ‘I’m .. a fisherman and have been aware of the enormous decline in eel numbers just over the past three decades. I have not caught or seen anyone catch an eel for many years on the Thames. They used to be a pest’. But one man who responded to me – exceptionally, it seems — catches eels still: ‘I catch some lovely eels at a couple of nice hidden spot in Oxford . Nice light running gear. Air injected lob worms hair-rigged popped up from the bottom about 2 inches. I then bait up with a mixture of pure black mole hill soil and a very fist groundbait with dead maggots and worm amino additives. Last year we had 17 in total. And every single one was treated with utter care and RELEASED!!’
Now the area is a site for recovery efforts. The Environment Agency has been associated with several fish-pass projects around Oxford in recent years, thus at Godstow, Tumbling Bay (in association with Low Carbon West) and Hinksey Weir (in association with the River Restoration Centre). The issue has also arisen in relation to hydro plants at Osney and Sandford. In write-ups about these projects, only the account of the projected pass at Godstow specifically mentions eels among beneficiaries: :it’s said that the projected fish pass ‘will allow fish and eels to make their way up river.’
Concern about the cataclysmic fall in eel populations in the early twenty-first century led to lots of writing on the subject, so there’s an embarassment of material, including articles in the Financial Times and The New Yorker. All the sources I’ve used are linked somewhere in the post.
Thanks also to followers of the History of Oxford facebook group, who gave me useful links and shared their memories.
CJ Cornish, The Naturalist on the Thames can be accessed on the Thames Smooth Waters website or via Project Gutenberg. It’s a condition of use of Project Gutenberg books that this statement is reproduced This eBook is for the use of anyone anywhere at no cost and with almost no restrictions whatsoever. You may copy it, give it away or re-use it under the terms of the Project Gutenberg License included with this eBook or online at http://www.gutenberg.org.
The Historic England website also includes several other photos of eelbucks, including one that possibly gives a different perspective on that shown above.
Otters have returned to the Thames and Cherwell valleys in recent years. They’re harder to spot than badgers, because they don’t raid dustbins. When someone recently posted a video of an otter she had seen swimming near Magdalen Bridge, after the Boxing Day floods, one viewer exclaimed ‘Amazing. I have been waiting years to see an otter – and I live on a boat.’
If not in the flesh, you can see local otters on a webcam, because there are some who live by Magdalen meadows, watched by college webcams, some sequences from which have been posted online. LMH has also posted otter footage. They seem to be reported on the relatively quiet Cherwell more than on the Thames,
That otter numbers are increasing seems to be agreed, with a reduction of pesticides in water generally credited. The fifth national otter survey, 2009-10, told a story of change.
In the upper Thames region, revival is dated from the 1990s. The Oxford Mail reported their return in 2010. The Thames Valley environmental records centre illustrates their return with maps of spottings across the two counties of Oxfordshire and Berkshire.
Our otters are Eurasian otters. They mainly eat fish. They have fishing territories which they defend. They are solitary, and get together only to mate. Though cubs hang around with their mother for more than a year, learning the ropes. ‘A male otter may use more than 20km of river/stream.’ So are there several otters on the Cherwell, or the same otter(s) sighted in several places?
Their activities may concern anglers (or fishkeepers) In 2018 a petition to Parliament suggested that numbers had bounced back to the point where non-lethal measures to control them were needed. The petition attracted 12K signatures, esp in counties north and east of Oxford, but less so in Oxford and Oxford East. The government declined to act.
Anyone spotting one is encouraged to report the sighting to the Environmental Records Centre.
(The Madwoman turns, watching the flight of the birds.) Ferryman, there the wild birds float! I see the wild birds fly! What are those birds?
Ferryman Those? They’re only common gulls.
In the Japanese Noh drama from which Britten took his plot line, the birds are gulls. His version locates them on the ‘Curlew river’. But curlews don’t fly and float around the water: they’re wading birds. The birds the madwoman sees are surely gulls, as the ferryman tells her. But for her, gulls it seems are not resonant enough. She wants them to be curlews. Humouring her, her auditors are gradually drawn into her world.
There are always gulls around the Thames. Commonplace birds: one doesn’t register them much, though in the summer I took some footage of them swooping around – wild birds flying — presumably catching insects over the water.
It’s in the winter that whole gull flocks appear around Oxford rivers, as they leave their summer haunts along the coast to take refuge in the warmer interior. I first started noting their growing numbers in October.
A friend in Exeter told me that, at the same time, their numbers had noticeably shrunk in his neighbourhood.
It seems some gulls change their colouring in winter. Here are some black-headed gulls in their winter dress: as if with snow hoods on.
The arrival of gull flocks puts gull behaviour more noticeably on display. Mainly one sees them floating or flying.
Their habits are their own: contrasting with the habits of the more enduring swans and geese. Just as on a jungle safari you can watch different animals living out their different lifestyles (they do this in real life, not just on TV programmes) so around the Thames in winter you can contrast a whole series of avine sociabilities
Geese spend at least as much time on land. Not so gulls. They seem to spend as much time on the water as they can. Though they also like perches just above the water. (Geese like to eat grass; gulls are omnivorous, and also like insects, fish and small marine life, which they may stir up from the water with their feet).
And whereas geese have accustomed territories (even though not all local residents; some are winter immigrants), gulls seem contrastingly opportunistic, rapidly colonising any new stretch of water that rain and flooding bring into being.
Though gulls often rest immobile on their perches, or float around placidly on the water, they are also easily roused to flight, pursuing rumours of bread, then falling back disappointed; or swarming above some incident on the land.
Watch geese and you realise there’s some goose soap-opera going on, with lots of short-term drama, though the plot may be opaque. Gulls don’t seem to row with one another as much. Floating, they don’t seem to socialise: they’re lonely in crowds. But they excite in groups. They’re not prima donnas but the chorus, responding, commenting.
In default of flowers, I’m trying to learn to identify trees – though leafless trees are a special challenge. I acquired a tree app, but it’s often unpersuasive. It suggests a tree might be eucalyptus when I’m sure it’s not. It thinks that a tree, which I ultimately identify as lime, must be hornbeam, or if not hawthorn. Perhaps I’m not answering its questions in the right way.
Some trees hang on to their leaves for a long time: even into December. And some of these are anyway easy to identify: oak; silver birch. Some willows hang on to their leaves, others less so. The pollarded ones seem to lose leaves earlier.
I read that beech and hornbeam hang on to their leaves late, but the trees I think are beech don’t have leaves now. Apparently trees have a special process for cutting off their leaves, but oak and others don’t do this to the same extent.
In a row of limes in the Queen’s playing field by Folly Bridge one tree only still has green leaves. Perhaps because a little ditch flows right by its roots?
Trees with fruit or seedpods might be easier to identify in winter than at other times.
Limes, I learn, combine berries and single, winged seedpods. That’s how I identified the Queen;s limes.
By this means, I’ve also discovered that the towpath is full of ash trees, now identifiable because of their dense clusters of seedpods: ‘keys’.
Also lots of alder, easily identifiable when male catkins and hard little female seedpods, like grenades, combine on the same tree. These catkins and seedpods hang so thickly that from a distance you might think the tree was still in leaf. These trees also look reddish from a distance in the right light.
It’s not surprising to find a lot of alder around the river, since it’s said to be a tree that likes water, and can cope with having its roots soaked.
A recent national tree survey established that most English trees are urban. Though there are patches of woodland in the countryside, and trees on some field boundaries, rural England is relatively treeless. Whereas town streets are often lined with trees, and they’re also well scattered across suburban gardens.
Maps based on the survey can be seen on Bluesky’s website. Write in a placename or postcode, and you can see an overview of yellow-highlighed trees in your area. It’s a landscape management tool. In the case of Oxford, patches of woodland stand out: Shotover, Open Brasenose, Bagley Wood, Wytham. Trees are scattered across colleges and suburban gardens. And they line many suburban streets, and parts of the bypass, and along the rivers. They’re especially thickly clustered on the east bank of the Thames from Christ Church meadows to Sandford, and on the Cherwell side of the University Parks. Also up Boundary Brook and the Lye Valley.
How does the modern pattern of tree cover compare with the past?
My guess is that in the eighteenth century, there would have been fewer trees overall than now. There existed the same woodlands; their peak lay rather further back: when Shotover was disafforested in the late seventeenth century it was already much diminished. There were trees in college grounds: in Merton’s parks; walks in Magdalen and Christ Church meadows. But few other trees within the compact city centre. Perhaps, as now, some by city churches.
Probably there were trees along some, perhaps most of the rivers. Traces of poplars have been found along local rivers dating from Roman times. Religious houses, or grounds once occupied by religious houses along the rivers, may have maintained planted trees by rivers. Early maps are suggestive. A 1675 map of Oxford shows trees planted along most but not all of the rivers and streams, though not by the Cherwell at St Clements. In Taylor’s 1750 map of Oxford, there are trees regularly spaced along most river and stream banks, but again not all, suggesting in both cases that, though no doubt there’s a formulaic quality to what we see, it’s more than just a representational reflex – so in Taylor’s map not along the Thames in the St Ebbe’s stretch, or on the St Clement’s side of the Cherwell, or on the Cherwell as it comes down towards the Thames after Milham. Other maps based on Taylor’s show the same thing (no doubt they just copied Taylor’s trees).
As to fields around Oxford, early eighteenth-century prospects from the south show meadows or fields there parcelled out by hedges and scattered with hedgerow and other trees. But the town quickly gave way to open fields, probably relatively un-treed. The land was densely settled and cultivated, so when not woodland, or wood pasture, it was largely bare, and quite possibly barer than local farmland today. Once more extensive medieval tree cover may have been reduced also in non-forest places in the early modern period: thus the once large groves on the hill by Iffley.
A 1777 Christ Church estate map in the Bodleian map collection is suggestive here. The map shows the then parish of Cowley, extending from St Clements in the north-west to St James church, Cowley in the south and Horspath in the east. It marks both hedges and trees, though it’s hard to tell what’s formulaic. It shows Cowley Marsh with a fringe of hedges and a few, but not many hedges along other field boundaries. It shows ‘Lye Hill’ (between what’s now the Oxford Golf Course and Cowley Marsh) with a fringe of hedges dotted with trees. It shows strips of common woodland roughly corresponding to Open Magdalen and Open Brasenose, current Brasenose Wood. It shows some hedges along streets and the occasional tree, notably a tree in the street where Temple Road leaves the Oxford Road. A couple of plots around houses near St James are shown with trees, but others not. Overall not many trees!
A prospect towards Oxford from Ferry Hinksey by the local musician and painter John Malchair around 1800 shows meadows stretching away until trees hug around the city (perhaps along the Thames?). The second series OS map, a century later, suggests similar bareness. The map probably doesn’t show all the trees there were, let alone hedges, but it does show some patches of woodland (thus, on the left margin of the map below). Yet it shows little woodland in the hills above the Hinkseys: no equivalent of today’s Raleigh Park, where the growth of trees has almost obscured the view towards the city even from a height, nor does it show any clumps of trees on the meadows. (Tree cover varies across Malchair’s various renditions of this view, however – so it’s hard to be sure of the larger picture),
An 1892 photograph of beating bounds by the ferry shows trees dotted along the river bank But now they’re denser than that around there (and the stream is scarcely navigable). The old causeway between Ferry Hinksey and Osney Mead runs through trees today.
For similar past bareness, see Malchair’s view from Shotover Hill, over what would be Headington and South Park today.
Or – better protected against charges of artistic licence — this 1891 photograph of a flooded Botley Road, at a point when building along it had just begun, and it lay largely open to meadows on either side, especially in this photo to the north. The road itself is shown as largely bare of trees. Now much of the same, built-up road has tall suburban street trees dotted along it.
Nineteenth-century urban expansion may not originally have been good for trees: one imagines relatively bare new streets. But nineteenth-century suburbs favoured trees: the wealthier the suburban neighbourhood, the more trees. Trees appear in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century photographs as features of streetscapes: in 1922 there were trees by Catte street that are not there now A 1914 photo shows large trees lining St Giles. The Plain 1922 is well planted with trees. Heading further out (and back in time), an 1890 view from Magdalen Tower over St Clements shows large trees dotted around near East Oxford. Tanis Hinchcliffe’s history of North Oxford regrettably has no entry for ‘trees’ but late nineteenth and early twentieth century photos in her book show them, eg. scattered around front gardens in Chalfont Rd.
In some cases we know when trees spread. In my post on the Jubilee Walk, I noted the tree-ing of Boars Hill as it developed as a district of grand houses. Now the trees have grown to such a point as to obstruct views from Arthur Evans’s Jarn Mound, which was intended to provide a prospect over the city. The similarly grand-house district of Harberton Mead and Pullen’s Lane, on the slopes up to Headington, is equally heavily planted, with many majestic trees. In this case, the second series OS map shows some woodland in the neighbourhood, but not covering as extensive an area as now.
First series OS maps appear to show trees with obsessive concern for detail. How reliable they are I can’t say, but they would bear further study from this point of view.
Evidence for what was the case around the rivers increases in the era of photography – at this point we start to be beholden less to cartographers’ choices and more to photographers’s notions of what made a good picture. Insofar as we can trust them, early photos suggests that trees were a common feature of river banks, adjacent to and further beyond the city, if in varying density. On the Thames, they were to be found not only by Christ Church meadows (a location often to the fore in photos of boats on the river), but also on the opposite bank and stretching down river. Thus 1860, 1922.
Heading up the river, this photo c1880 probably shows the stretch of river between the Botley Road and the southern end of Port Meadow. Here the trees on the bank look newly planted, but there will no doubt have been felling and planting cycles Trees are abundant in an 1895 photo on the west bank of the Thames at Medley, though, as now, Port Meadow looks treeless along its bank.
An 1880 photo labelled as showing the Thames at Binsey surely doesn’t show that, but a lesser stream/ditch, but that has pollarded willows along it, perhaps to help give structure to the banks.
Heading south along the Thames, trees are much in evidence in old photos, not always in exactly the same patterns as now. An undated image shows some huge poplars by the weir at Iffley
Aerial photos even from the post war period — accessible eg through Google Earth’s timeslider — suggest that some now treed areas adjoining rivers, the kinds of areas that showed up as densely treed on the national tree map, weren’t so in the past. Aston’s Eyot was bare (but, having been a city dump, had during the war been used for some military purpose); Rivermead had tree fringes but was less treed than today – a case where trees seem subsequently to have self-sown; tree cover has been thinned in recent conservation efforts. A belt of trees now masks Osney Mead industrial estate from the towpath walker; post-war photos suggest they didn’t exist when that was open land.
Focussing on rivers alone, before the age of photography, maps tell us more about the immediate neighbourhood of the city than further out. But they already suggest a management regime, or aesthetic, in which it was thought good to line the banks and immediate surroundings of rivers with trees. Hard to say how far around the city this pattern extended before the mid nineteenth century – or who would have done the planting further out.
I’ve been thinking about the tree cover issue for a while, but it’s engaging me especially now, as, in default of flowers, I’m turning my attention to trees.
Thanks to Stephanie Jenkins for allowing me to use the Botley Road flood postcard from her collection. In relation to early maps, I have linked to an online source, but have myself relied in the first instance on Daniel MacCannell, Oxford: Mapping the City.
Thanks to Nick Daisley for drawing my attention to the Christ Church estate map, and for noticing the tree in the street at the end of Temple Road.
There are still dinosaurs in Oxford.
But now they’re fossils in the University Museum, along with other once animate life. Many fossils on display haven’t moved far from their lifetime haunts. We find Jurassic sea creatures from Cowley – an ammonite, a pleiosaurus; a giant plesiosaurus from Cumnor; a sea urchin from Bullingdon; a shark’s tooth from Shotover, reminders of the shallow seas that rose and fell through Jurassic eons.
And later land-based creatures: a woolly rhinoceros from the Iffley Road; a bear from Magdalen College Grove (‘275-70 thousand years old’). Together with evidence of human life: a flint tool from Wolvercote. (Flints themselves, we’re told in the museum, in two senses embody past organic life: they’re formed when silica from dead creatures such as sponges gathers in burrows made in chalk by, for example, worms. Flints found in Oxford must have been imported, perhaps from local chalk beds in eg the Chilterns — evidence of mobility in people or goods).
Some were once items in personal collections, including the personal collections of Oxford dons, before the museum was founded. We find nucleolites collected by the geological mapmaker William Smith, from ‘near Oxford’, 1816, and various items from the collections of his nephew, John Phillips, reader in geology, who was also the first keeper of the museum. Their collections weren’t all local in origin: many of these men also fossicked abroad. We’re not always told where their finds originated, probably because it wasn’t always recorded. (There are also quite a large number of items originating from vague ‘British seas’).
And some of these men are themselves memorialised in statues around the central court: alongside high-status luminaries such as Galileo, Kepler and Darwin we find locals such as William Buckland, John Phillips and Sir Joseph Prestwich (they’ve all figured previously in this blog).
And now scientific women with local connections receive a belated ‘shout out’ too, like John Phillips’ sister Anne.
The museum is in effect not just a museum of palaeontology and its sister science geology, but also of the history of these sciences, and key figures (especially key local figures) in the early history of these sciences, and of the history of collecting and museums, and of teaching on the basis of collections.
Geology and the related study of fossils date, in forms that recognisably anticipate the modern sciences, back through the middle of the eighteenth century — from a century before the foundation of the museum. By the middle of the eighteenth century, they were coming to be conceptualised as essentially historical sciences, concerned not just with remains from some ancient time, perhaps before the flood, but with the succession of things through long ages of time. The Cambridge scholar William Whewell, in 1839, glossing the new term recently imported from the French, ‘palaeontology’, explained its fundamental importance for geology: ’in order to learn the history of the revolutions which the earth has undergone, we must seek for general laws of succession in the remains of organic life which it presents’.
The museum in effect picks up the story of the development of these lines of study in the early nineteenth century, early in the lifetimes of its founding generation. At that time, knowledge, and conceptual schemes making sense of that knowledge, increased and developed at unprecedented speed, on the basis of international collaborations, which are themselves memorialised here. A cast made for the university’s first reader in geology, William Buckland. reveals his interest in French discoveries from the very late eighteenth century. Another exhibit records exciting discoveries in the course of mining excavations in Germany.
The museum is in its own right a notable exhibit. An excellent series of videos recounts the circumstances of its foundation, in the 1850s, at the instigation especially of Henry Acland (who’s also previously figured in this blog) and Charles Daubeny (after whom I guess Daubeny Road off the Iffley Road is named). John Holmes, author and presenter of the video, explains that its external decorative scheme reflects its founders’ avowed aim of reconciling religion and science, in the tradition of ‘natural theology’, that is, they said (whether mainly to overcome opposition or not) that they aimed to illuminate God by the study of his work. Above the main doorway, accordingly, an angel holds a Bible in one hand, and a cell preparation in the other. Adam and Eve flank the base of the decorative arch. Building on a contemporary understanding of Gothic architecture as having evolved from the representation of natural forms, the building’s designers seized every opportunity that its construction presented to represent current knowledge of the natural world, for example, forming different pillars out of different (labelled) rocks, so that they could be (and according to the videos, still are) used in teaching.
Interestingly, the scientific luminaries commemorated in sculptures round the central court include James Watt and George Stephenson, best known for their contributions to railway engineering. The decade in which the museum was built also saw the first railway line to extend north-south across Oxford. Locally, this was very novel applied science.
The museum is undergoing a reorganisation, so it’s unclear which parts of its current display scheme will endure, but at the time of my visit, early October 2020, Oxfordshire geology and the fossils enshrined in particular local deposits of earth and stone are introduced in a series of display cases around the north and east perimeters of the central court.
From the city of Oxford itself, fossil remains are mainly Jurassic, legacies of the ‘shallow seas’ period.
The most eye-catching among these are dinosaur (or at least ‘saurian’) remains. In the early nineteenth century, William Buckland showed the French scientist (and pioneering palaeontologist) Georges Cuvier the remains of a monstrous creature, apparently a kind of giant lizard, found a couple of decades before in a slate quarry in Stonesfield, to the west of Woodstock, and subsequently acquired for the university and displayed in the Christ Church anatomy lab. The two scientists agreed to name the creature ‘megalosaurus’ (literally, giant lizard). This is said to have been the world’s first named dinosaur (though the more generic category, ‘dinosaur‘ was not invented until the 1840s — so this was presumably the first named instance within an as yet unnamed category). Interestingly, in relation to the role of women in science, it was Buckland’s wife, Mary, who made the drawings of the megalosaurus which he included in a report to the Geological Society of London.
One of the museum staff told me that, along with unique remains from a dodo (a bird made famous by Lewis Carroll), what’s left of the megalosaurus is the museum item in highest demand. Accordingly, a cast of the jaw is displayed, along with information about the dodo, in a display case near the entrance. More of this creature may be displayed in the central court in the near future.
More immediately striking in terms of what the visitor can see now are pleiosaurus remains: remains of large marine reptiles, including the jaw of a giant pleiosaurus, from the Chawley brickworks near Cumnor, and a complete skeleton from a gravel pit at Yarnton. The first was identified by Joseph Prestwich in the later nineteenth century, and was among a number of finds made at Chawley.
A short video evocatively describes the much more recent finding of a complete pleiosaurus skeleton, and how the bones were lugged out of the gravel pit and hauled back to the museum.
Though these finds are of later date, identification and naming of the species came early, hot on the heels of the identification and naming of megalosaurus. In 1824, William Buckland, then newly elected as president of the London Geological Society, presided over an exciting meeting, in which his work on the megalosaurus was discussed alongside work by his fellow cleric WB Conybeare, in Dorset and the southwest, on a marine reptile which he had just named the ‘pleiosaurus’ – near-reptile. Michael A. Taylor, who discusses this meeting in his essay ‘Before the Dinosaur’, reports that just the previous year, 1823, the Anning family of fossil collectors had uncovered the first complete pleiosaurus skeleton (Mary Anning is now the best known of those who carried on that family business — it becomes apparent that women in the field were often involved through male kin. Though in fact, it was also not uncommon for men’s involvement in science to run in families). According to Taylor, the category ‘dinosaur’, even once coined, did not quickly catch on. Dinosaur connotes especially a land animal, and technically means only that, though in common understanding it often includes more. In the nineteenth century, people often spoke generally of ‘saurians’, including such marine reptiles.
A novel feature of early nineteenth century study was not just the identification and naming of particular categories of extinct animal — categories that were then projected backwards on to past finds — but also, attempts to imagine these past creatures as living beings, and even to reconstruct the eco-systems in which they had flourished.
In my ‘Geomorphology’ post, I recalled a scene in the hit TV series ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’, the key to whose appeal was that it reported on dinosaurs in the manner of any other nature programme. I recalled how, at the edge of a shallow Jurassic sea, around what’s now Oxford, a hunting dinosaur was shown as being (to the viewer’s surprise) reframed as prey to an even larger dinosaur which suddenly reared out of the water. I now think that maybe this scene showed our local megalosaurus being hunted by a local pleiosaurus.
I’m indebted to Michael A. Taylor, Before the dinosaur: the historical significance of the fossil marine reptiles, in J.M. Callaway and E.L. Nicholls (eds.) Ancient marine reptiles, 1997.
I’ve managed to include many of the wildflowers that caught my eye in the ‘Wildlife’ posts. But not all. Here, for the record, are other flowers I spotted, arranged by month in which I first photographed them, and within that (because this is how an amateur flower-spotter like me thinks) by colour. Prefaced by mentions of flowers I’ve already depicted.
All identifications provisional and open to correction!
White campion and deadnettle, already noted.
Wild buckwheat? Hard to tell. With some kind of dandelion or hawkweed.
Kingcup, cowslips, meadow buttercups.
Bugle and green alkanet, already noted in other posts. Bluebells — a woodland flower, of course. These were in Bagley Wood, with white campion. And hawkbits?
Along with wild roses and ox-eye daisies, already noted, meadowsweet and Queen Anne’s lace (cow parsley) – each depicted twice. Then comfrey and garlic mustard.
Along with yellow daisies and irises, already mentioned, wild mustard.
Valerian and poppies. (I know people who think valerian is purple. But to my eye it’s red. OK, a kind of purpley red).
Umbellifers, the carrot family — I really start to lose the plot at this point. Do they climb?
Bird’s foot trefoil, mullein.
Lots of umbellifers. Who knows what’s what?
I like the ones like this, that curl up to make baskets. Possibly hedge parsley – they’re said to do this when seeding.
I think the these are ground elder.
Old man’s beard. Up on the Chilswell slope.
St John’s wort. Yellow melilot. Ladies’ bedstraw. All from the Chilswell slope, but I’ve seen the first two on the towpath too.
This post is in large part a joke on me. Through the lockdown spring, I tried to develop my meagre botanical knowledge, at least to the extent of learning what name to attach to the wild flowers and the trees that I encountered. This became more difficult as time moved on and flowers proliferated. In that context, I discovered in myself a particular blind spot in relation to purple flowers. I found it hard to persuade myself to take an interest in identifying them. I enlisted the help of friends to rise to this challenge. My adverse reaction to purple flowers became proverbial.
Imagine my dismay, therefore, when, towards the end of June, it seemed that purple flowers were taking over, had become the dominant colour of flower! Fortunately, in the second week of July, their dominance was challenged by yellow daisies (which however proved challenging in their own way).
This post records my progress, and lack of progress, in identifying purple flowers. ‘Purple’, for this purpose, spans quite a wide range, from bright pink through mauve to a deep, imperial kind of purple. I report the flowers in the order in which I first photographed them.
April set the purple year off to a resounding start, with snakes-head fritillaries in Iffley Meadows – the flowers that pulled me out of seclusion.
Otherwise April was short on purple flowers, though I think there may have been some Herb Robert and other venturesome plants around that I didn’t photograph. Certainly that made an early appearance in my garden.
May brought lots of red, white and occasionally the hybrid pink campion. And also ragged robin.
June saw a purple explosion. Mallow, rosebay willowherb, vetch, and purple deadnettle made their appearance.
Also scabious and great burnet.
And cranesbill (wild geranium), not to be confused with mallow (I’m still learning to tell them apart — they both have veiny flowers, but different leaves):
Buddleia bloomed at various points along the towpath:
And thistles (which I didn’t spend a lot of time photographing) and similarly flowered but not-spiky knapweed were joined by majestic teasels.
By early July, Iffley Meadows, which in late April and May had been awash with buttercups, turned (if less vibrantly) purple, with thistles and vetchm while Heyford meadow bloomed with vetch and scabious, along with classic ivory and white meadow flowers meadowsweet and Queen Anne’s lace.
July also brought lesser burdock, and herb agrimony – which I first learned to identify in Rivermead Nature Park and now find prominent on the towpath.
Yet other July flowers remain to be identified: the first is the one that I saw in abundance in Iffley Meadows in early July. Is it a pink knapweed? The second is everywhere late July: ordinary willowherb?
Yet, meanwhile yellow daisies, especially what I’ve tentatively identified as yellow camomiles, have sprung up all the towpath. So – by the standards of June, at least – purple is in recession.
Revised to include identification of cranesbill.