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)
I’ve found the County Council’s Rights of Way website useful on these explorations:
For walks between Oxford and Berinsfield, Brill, Thame, Standlake and Abingdon, see the Slow Ways website — currently in its beta version.
And this is not to imply that I’ve exhausted the lowlands. I’m looking forward to following the Blackbird Leys fieldname walk (link from the Oxford Preservation Trust website).
Although I do have some more posts in mind that I could write, I seem to have run out of steam on blog-writing for now, so I think I’ll set it aside for a second time. Having done that in July 2020, I later resumed, so I’ll take it up again in the same way if the mood takes me.
I began this blog as I started coming to terms with the new life forced on us by the pandemic, one year ago, 17 May 2020. I wrote at a Stakhanovite pace for three months, wound it up, added a couple of afterthought posts in August, then resumed more consistently, at a slower pace in October, prompted by my continuing curiosity about some aspects of the story, and by continuing constraints on movement and sociability, which put a premium on motivated local walks. It now totals over 100,000 words.
This second leg of the blog differs somewhat from the first in that it has been less observation-driven and more book-driven: reading has more often prompted the walks, though I’ve always checked out and refined my notions about what I’m talking about on the ground. In that context, I’ve also read and written more about archaeology and medieval history. I’ve profited from contacts in the local history community that I made partly through the blog, and especially as a result of giving an online talk about ‘Blogging the Floodplain’ for the Oxford Preservation Trust in October – thanks to William Whyte for the invitation to do that. Thanks especially to Stephanie Jenkins for her generosity in answering questions and sharing things she thinks might interest me.
It’s always great accidentally to encounter moving spirits on walks.
Thanks equally to all those who’ve taken an interest in the blog, which routinely attracts a dozen or so visitors a day, and sometimes more (especially if I write and publicise new posts). Readers have mostly come from the UK but also more widely. The map below sets out WordPress’ current report on my ‘All Time’ stats: over 14,000 ‘visits’, distributed over much of the map. (Of course you only need one reader each from Canada and Russia to sweep up large stretches of the globe). The blog currently turns up high enough on searches for much routine traffic to come via searches. The Guardian did its bit to arouse interest by printing my account of the Castle Mill Stream walk as one of its ‘riverside walks’, which it has then proceeded to disseminate on through endless travel outlets. Thanks to my cousin Katy Parnell for suggesting I send it in.
Thanks finally to all those who’ve taken an interest in the project and accompanied me on walks. I’ll probably forget one or more people, but they include in this second period Glenn Black (to whom thanks for information and ultimately a tour of the area around the Redbridge Stream), Sue Clark, Chris Crocker, Andrew Edwards, Robert Evans (to whom thanks for the introduction to Sunningwell) Liz Frazer (to whom thanks for the introduction to marshy Marston), Judith Herrin, Andrew Kahn, Tony Morris (to whom thanks for the introduction to the Devil’s Quoits), Rebecca Nestor, Juan Neves, Katherine Paugh, Mark Philp, Robert Quick, John Robertson, Jan Royall, Lucie Ryzova (for whom thanks for the introduction to the Tree Lane route to old Cowley), Hamish Scott, Benjamin Thompson & Nancy-Jane Rucker. I also enjoyed having lunch with Graham Harding and wish him well with his proposed book on Port Meadow. In my experience, while lockdown has stifled some kinds of sociability, it’s promoted other kinds.
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.
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 Thompson for exploring the area with me.
Thanks also to Paul Cadle for correcting me on bridges across the Cherwell.
Many place names have topographical elements. They provide a kind of verbal map of the landscape.
Since, until the last century or so, (and to some extent even now), the nature of the landscape has mostly determined what places were settled, settlement names often include within themselves a clue to their own rationale — as Margaret Gelling notes in the introduction to her Place Names of Oxfordshire. This doesn’t always work equally well: Oxford is situated where it is because it sits on river gravels, nicely defended on two sides by rivers, not just because the river could be forded here (the Thames, once full of shallows, could be forded in many places). Sandford provides a better example: Sandford’s rationale was that it was one among other places where the Thames could be forded.
Wikipedia provides a convenient list of generic forms in place names, Though note that different interpreters offer slightly varying interpretations of these forms.
Some names are quite river-specific. One example is –hythe, landing place. Oxford-area examples are
Hythe Bridge (and its street), across the Castle Mill Stream;
And Bablock Hythe – south of Eynsham, where there was once a ferry over the Thames as it headed north to Wytham; a crossing point for those who wanted to follow the route to Oxford over the hills by Cumnor.
In a chapter on ‘Place name evidence for water transport in early medieval England’, Ann Cole also instances Eaton, from ea-tun, settlement by the river. Since there are only a few dozen such across the country, she suggests this means not any old river settlement, but one with some special function, perhaps to keep upper reaches of a river or its tributaries open to navigation, or to maintain fords or later bridges.
The Oxford provides several examples of this relatively uncommon name element.
Eaton by Bablock Hythe.
Wood Eaton and Water Eaton, of which Anne Cole notes that they ‘are situated on opposite banks of the Cherwell just below the confluence with the River Ray at Islip, itself the crossing place of an old route between London and Worcester’.:
John Blair in the same volume finds it suggestive that they were shortly down river from Islip, where there was a mill and mill dam, and other ea-tun places were similarly located; he suggests this is evidence for such structures having effects on the river bed and banks
-ey, or island/gravel bank is also an element in several Oxford riverine place names
So Binsey, Hinksey, Osney.. (Echoed in the waterland around Cambridge: Ely .And see also Athelney, where King Alfred hid from the Danes).
Then there are the fords of course, more ambiguously located, since the name may come to attach to the place reached by the ford:
Oxford (where the eponymous ford was is uncertain – perhaps by Folly Bridge , where the ‘grand pont’ was later constructed, or alternatively by Hinksey, subject of the earliest locatable such reference, and where the river had a nice firm base. It’s been suggested that there may have been changes over time in what ford people had in mind).
Also Heyford Hill (now perhaps best known as the site of a Sainbury’s. Apparently originally a ford to an ait in the river near Kennington; the name was then taken by a house and a lane, and more recently other features in the neighbourhood)-
There is marshland too: Mars(h)ton rests on a gravel base but with marshy surrounds.
-mor is said also to have meant marshy ground running alongside rivers. So Littlemore, little marsh (by the Littlemore brook), Peasmoor (Piece and brook), Farmoor.
And the occasional spring-related place: Sunningwell.
It doesn’t seem inevitable – and the pattern isn’t invariable – but round about Oxford, –leys, that is clearings, or wood pasture, tend to be in and around the floodplain, though slightly raised above it.
Botley, Cripley, Cowley, Iffley. Blackbird Leys. (But not Rewley, which is Loco Regali, a royal place)
For a counter example, see Beckley. Perhaps it’s just that around Oxford, lots of pasture land was by rivers.
And see also mead, as in Sunnymead – otherwise preserved more in field or open-space names.
Whereas on higher ground we find –tons or –hams: homesteads, farms or enclosures, though in some cases the -tons are thought to be corruptions of something else, like -dun, meaning hill – which would explain why they’re concentrated on higher ground
Marston, Barton, Kennington. Wootton. Walton manor – which gave its name to Walton st.
(Also Stanton St John, Yarnton, Cassington)
Headington – suggested to be a corrupted -dun.
Norham manor – gave its name to Norham Gardens. Wytham.
For an instance in which an elevated -ley is higher than the nearby -ton, see Bagley Wood behind Kennington – though Kennington is also elevated, at a point along the Thames where the limestone surrounds close in.
Risinghurst is elevated woodland. Shotover is suggested to mean steep slope.
To say nothing of the more obvious ‘hills’: Forest Hill (attested from the eleventh century), Boar’s Hill; Sandhills.
Up at the northern end of Port Meadow (port as in portreeve, alderman – nothing to do with a maritime port) we find the locally more anomalous –
Godstow. Stow is place of assembly, possibly holy, according to Wikipedia. Godstow sounds pretty holy.
Cote, as in Wolvercote, is a cottage.
Then there’s Cutteslowe, where Cut(?) lies buried.
Wicks are outlying settlements or dairy houses. Around Oxford we have Butterwyke Place off Thames St, East Wyke farm (now part of Oxford Spires Hotel) and associated ditch, and Wick Farm above Barton.
Most such elements in England derive from Old English. The Saxon invaders not only occupied but named the landscape. In the north east, some Old Norse is mixed in, but not around Oxford. Celtic survivals in local place names are rare, but Kidlington – Cydela’s -ton — provides one instance.
A website under development at the University of Nottingham provides county maps – including one for Oxfordshire – which identify place names according to their language of origin.
Non-topographical elements in such names are often interpreted as the names of early settler leaders. Thus (conjecturally) Osa’s -ey (Osney); Bina’s -ey (Binsey); Cufa’s-ley (Cowley); Hedena’s dun (Headington). -ing names may be early Saxon names, the -ing element relating to a band: thus Sunningwell, the well (spring) of Sunna’s ing.
Otherwise name elements often relate to other natural features or functions, thus Walton, farm by the city wall, or possibly by the well or spring; Barton, part of a farm with a grange where grain (bar) was stored; Stanton, farm on stony ground.
Antiquaries were showing interest in what place names might reveal about the history of English places by the sixteenth century, when speculations along these lines figure in Camden’s Britannia. Places with -chester/-cester/-caster elements provided an easy way in, being suggestively Latinate: therefore names of Roman forts or settlements (like, locally, Dorchester). Many early speculations haven’t stood up to subsequent scrutiny.
One challenge is the corruption of names. The form in which we know a name may not perfectly reflect ancient usage (thus Headington being corrupted from early forms that seem to derive rather from Hedena’s dun, to give an example already cited). It’s necessary therefore to check guesses by referring to ancient documents, the most ancient usable for this purpose often being charters. Historical studies of charters, insofar as they yield name evidence, provide a basis for more informed speculation. Scholars have revealed thus that the older form of Bullingdon is Bulseden – dene meaning narrow valley. Moor can be a corruption of mere, or pond. Thus it’s not clear whether Peasmoor Piece originates from its marsh/moor state or from it’s having a mere, pond.
Blackbird Leys was recorded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as Blackford Leys – so that’s a name with two topographical elements.
In the later nineteenth century, with the development of more technically rigorous medieval history, this line of enquiry was more systematically and discriminatingly pursued. In the early twentieth century, a professor of the English language, Alan Mawer, teamed up with medieval historians James Tait and Frank Stenton to establish the English Place Name Society, which set out to survey river, village and town names, and to publish toponymical gazetteers on a county basis. (Now accessible also in a digital version).
Aggregated evidence was also used to ground other insights: into historic patterns of settlement, Anglo-Saxon dialect boundaries, and the like.
These volumes also probe the etymology of river names.
In Oxford, Thames is a rare Roman survival, from Thamesis (not surprising in a river, though: ‘Compared to most other toponyms, hydronyms are very conservative linguistically, and people who move to an area often retain the existing name of a body of water…The names of large rivers are even more conservative than the local names of small streams.’) Already by the fourteenth century the false notion had developed that this was a compound of two elements: Thame and Isis. Hence the designation of the upper river, around Oxford, as ‘the Isis’, that survived in general use into the early twentieth century, but now chiefly in a rowing connection.
At Henley bridge, two faces carved by the eighteenth-century sculptor Anne Seymour Damer depict Thame and Isis, as man and woman.
The Place Name volumes don’t dig much below the level of the parish or manor: the compilers were primarily interested in administrative units. Some attempt was made to survey field names, but it was noted that much more could be done on them from modern records.
In fact, much subsequent work has been carried out on more localized place names, including field and associated names as they appear on more recent (early modern to nineteenth-century) estate or enclosure maps. In Oxford, the ArchEOx project team has published separately and in their general report several studies of east Oxford field names, including studies of Cowley, Iffley and Rose Hill and Headington.
There has equally been much work on street names — I’ve instanced many to illustrate lines of enquiry in this blog.
And name studies continue to find new applications. Anne Cole, in the chapter mentioned above, used place name evidence to try to build up a picture of activity on medieval rivers.
And now a Leverhulme-Trust-funded project, ‘Flood and flow‘, involving the universities of Leicester, Nottingham, Southampton, and Wales, proposes to use place name evidence to provide a context for understanding flooding. As they explain on the project website ‘Place-names (particularly those that are over a thousand years old) might feel a strange place to start to look for answers and solutions to modern flooding. But place-names were originally designed to say something about the places they were attached to; and very often what place-namers chose to describe was the local environment. These names, many familiar to us but which we rarely stop to think about, are one of the most valuable records we have when it comes to mapping the presence, characteristics and behaviour of water in the landscape. We are interested in exploring the value of these names for our own times. .. Can we learn from the information they contain? What warnings do they hold for us in terms of where we might build? Might they be useful in guiding where we might restore wetlands or replant woodland in order to Slow the Flow? It is these aspects of place-names that we want to explore..’ The great name-giving age, they suggest, potentially has much to teach us, because ‘The period 700-1000AD was the last major episode on record of rapid global warming before the present day.’
The site includes a list of water-related name elements. It’s suggested that ‘The spectacularly rich water vocabulary that particularly speakers of Old English (the Anglo-Saxons to you and me) had at their disposal, really reveals them to have been not just acute observers of their surroundings but masters of it, possessing the kind of profound knowledge of their environment which today should be much envied.’
Oxfordshire specifically hasn’t at this moment — Feb 2021 – been studied in the context of this project, but several regional, river-catchment-focussed studies are in progress.
Anne Cole’s chapter can be found in John Blair ed, Waterways and canal-building in medieval England (2014)
Thanks to Roey Sweet and Benjamin Thompson for discussing the history of place-name studies with me.
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.
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.
People manipulate the natural phenomenon, groundwater — a phase in the water-cycle — for various practical purposes. They also endow it with meanings. Meanings have changed over time, if through longer and more subtle processes than might have been supposed. In relation to springs and wells, themes of magic or miracle, health and good works recur, in changing guises. In relation to the logic of the phenomenon, providential themes endure, again in changing forms, through the nineteenth century. In later centuries, this theme co-existed with scientific forms of analysis and explanation. During recent decades, it’s repeatedly been said that understanding has just been revolutionised, but one might equally be struck by the long, slow evolution of evaluative tools and explanatory frameworks.
In his 1893 Legendary Lore of Holy Wells, Charles Hope listed and mapped ‘ancient and holy wells’, in Oxford among other places – stretching the ‘holy well’ category by blurring it with ‘ancient’. Of course, all kinds of wells can be credited with some loosely ‘holy’ characteristics. All springs can be seen as manifestations of God’s providence. Their appearance may be deemed miraculous. Insofar as it’s important that water sources should be pure, there’s reason to seek religious protection for them: the well is protected by its holiness. Varying mineral content gives a different character and taste to different waters, and some have gained a reputation as healing wells – an idea preserved in later ‘spas’ (deriving their generic name from Spa in present-day Belgium). The ‘wishing well’ idea perpetuates to this day the notion that wells and other water features possess quasi-magical properties. So there’s a cluster of possible associations, blurring the boundary between the holy and the workaday.
But some wells have stronger and clearer holy resonances than others. Four Oxford wells stand out from the sources as sites of veneration. St Edmund’s well; St Margaret’s well (also associated with St Frideswide); Stockwell by St Bartholomew’s hospital, and Holywell.
Among these, two – St Edmund’s and St Margaret’s – were associated with specific religious narratives, and were in their day places of pilgrimage.
St Edmund’s well bubbled up in the parish of St Clements (probably now in the grounds of Magdalen College School, or possibly St Hilda’s). The VCH tells us that Edmund Rich, later archbishop of Canterbury, had a vision of the Christ child there when he was a student at Oxford. The spring began to be venerated shortly after his canonization (1246). (St Edmund Hall takes its name from the same saint, who’s supposed to have lived and taught on its site).
The well supposedly attracted hordes of pilgrims, such that one function of the hospital whose site Magdalen later acquired was to house such visitors (along with visitors to St Frideswide’s, later subsumed by Christ Church). Its water was reputed to cure wounds and sickness, but it attracted official church condemnation as superstitious at the end of the thirteenth century.
Nonetheless it continued to attract visitors until the early seventeenth century. Anthony a Wood (who offered an alternative account of its origins, linking it with the student days of Pope Innocent IV) thought that it lost its last shreds of popularity only when Milham bridge — which spanned the Cherwell between Christ Church meadows and St Clements, presenting foot passengers with an alternative to Magdalen bridge, and much used by ‘country people’ — was knocked down ‘by the violence of the ice’ in the great frost of 1634, such that the well ceased to stand beside a thoroughfare. This account, though, suggests that popular interest in it was by this point fairly casual.
Legend had it that St Frideswide caused it to be opened up, when she prayed to St Margaret of Antioch to cure the blindness that had struck an unwelcome suitor pursuing her. According to a Wood ‘To this Well and her Image, and Reliques in the Chapel, did the People come on Pilgrimage with as great Devotion to ease their burthened Souls, and obtain an Answer of their Doubts as they would to an Oracle. And here also, when the maimed or unsound had been cured by bathing in, or drinking of this Water, they hung up their Crutches as a special Memorandum of their Cure, for which Reason several Priests inhabited here, appointed by the Prior of St Frid[eswide] to confess and absolve them’. He claimed that pilgrim traffic from Eynsham across the hills to the west was heavy enough to support a flourishing hamlet at Sackworth, well furnished with inns, though subsequently decayed to rubble. A ‘little house of stone’ was set up around the well to preserve it from the throng. But this was taken down in the 1630s, possibly (the historian Alex Walsham has recently suggested) in the context of reviving religious tensions, which led some to fear that the achievements of the Reformation were in jeopardy.
Well ceremonies associated with St Bartholomew’s chapel had a different trajectory – finding a new lease of life after the Reformation. St Bartholomew’s hospital (originally for lepers, later for the poor) stood on a little elevation athwart the watery slopes beneath Headington, near Cowley Marsh. According to a Wood’s Antiquities, it housed an image of St Bartholomew, besides which ‘many other Trinkets in the Chapel drew the Adoration of the People. In King Ed. IIId’s Time was here, St Edmund the Confessor’s Comb, St. Bartholomew’s Skin, the Bones of St. Stephen, and one of the Ribs of St Andrew the Apostle’. They ‘were on high Days indulged to view; and happy was he that could come near either to touch or kiss them. –Pilgrims came from afar to be cured by the Reliques,– Such as were troubled with continual Head-Achs, by combing their Heads with St. Edmund’s Comb, received Cure; such as had a Weakness of the Joints, by handling and applying these Bones to the Places affected, were restored to their pristine Strength; with many other like Accounts. …’ In order to attract visitors, and gifts for the lepers, Oriel – which had acquired the chapel and hospital — secured a grant of indulgences, but later in the century moved the relics to St Mary’s, to attract ‘a greater Conflux of People, than a retired and obscure Place.’
Still, the chapel remained a site of seasonal festivity: Cooks from Oxford flocked here, bringing in on Whitsun week the Fly. The Boys on May-Day the First-fruits of Flora, with their Lord and Lady’s Garland, Fifes, Flutes and Drums, to acknowledge with Dancing and Musick, and salute this gladsome Occasion. And this Injunction and Custom was with great Earnestness and Zeal kept up by the Oxonians and the adjacent Country-Men, till the Reformation of Religion. When Q Elizabeth’s Act against Images &c. appeared, this Idol was pulled down.– Whence this Custom for a while slept, and the Alms-Folk by Degrees reduced to Poverty, and became the Objects of Compassion. …’
Yet, it seems not very long after, ‘the worthy Fellows of New College principally amongst others’, revived their former Ascension Day devotions’ (Ascension Day because Magdalen College Men and the Rabble of the Town came on May-Day). These involved fellows and their choir singing at the chapel, and (according to Hurst’s base text, Leonard Hutten) ‘haveing made their Oblations, and sung Anthems for a space, [concluding] this wholl Ceremonie and their Visitation with a passing along through the Grove to the Well, and doeing the like observance there.’ The well in question seems to have borne the name of Stockwell, like that by Hythe bridge (and suggesting mundane functions). The observance apparently came under some critical pressure, because whereas the choir originally ‘like the ancient Druids, echoed and warbled out from the shady Arbours harmonious Melody, consisting of several Parts, then most in Fashion.– [and on some later occasions] ‘sung an Oriana, or else one of Mr. J. Welby’s Songs of 5 Parts, beginning thus, “Hard by a Chrystal Fountain, &c.”, they subsequently reformed their ways and ‘sang only the Collect of the Day of divers Parts; which done, they go up to the Grove’ – presumably by this means aiming to avoid any imputation of pagan or Popish well worship. In vain if so, because,‘the Presbyterian Times totally abolished it.’
In 2009 and 2013, New College briefly revived the custom. The then-choirmaster wrote an account of what transpired: ‘We … sang a short office in the exquisite chapel (with the East window bursting with morning light), and made our procession to the Well, at the top of the Oriel playing field. We were looking rather for a Spring, and in the wet season you could indeed find some water seeping out of the ground, if not bubbling. Little sign of it however on our bright if blowy Ascension Day morning. Unperturbed, we sang ‘Now is the month of maying’, a jollier number than Morley’s calculated ‘Hard by the crystal fountain’. The procession was led by pipe and fiddle, and we strewed the route with flowers as tradition demanded. Plenty of curious onlookers turned out to witness this spectacle: curious and genial’,
This was an assertion of the spirit of the place, intended to encourage respect for it (and to discourage encroachments).
In the case of Holywell, I have found neither reports of pilgrim hordes descending, nor of special ceremonies, though by report it did attract visitors. Indeed is said by Hearne to have brought ‘a vast amount of money to the place’ (what place?) No particular saint or story seems to have been associated with this well — or wells (for there was more than one in the Holywell neighbourhood).
Indeed, candidates jostle for the status of ‘the holy well’. One was incorporated under the altar of the manor house (perhaps when that was occupied, as Merton’s lessees, by the Catholic Napier family, champions of the old faith?). This well was rediscovered in 1897; a ‘tubular well stone’ found at that time was said to be Anglo Saxon work. Another adjoining on the exterior of the building apparently once served as a cold bath – perhaps this is the one reported to me to be still visible in the Praefectus’s garden. Another, called Jenny Newton’s well, lay or lies further to the east, and yet another beyond the bridge that now leads to St Catherine’s (called Napper or Napier’s bridge). Is St Catherine’s water feature fed by a holy well?
According to a Wood or his continuator, whichever the holy well was, it was deemed ‘holy’ because reputed so; because its waters were often employed for holy uses, and because ‘certain Holy Men and Hermits’ chose to live in this ‘shady and arboreous place’. ‘About the year 1488, Dr Fitzjames, Warden of Merton, built a fair House over it of Stone, with a roof to it of Free-Stone, to receive the Prayers of People; a Token of which Bounty remains over the door of it at this Time, being a Dolphin neant, carved on a Shield, the Arms of this worthy Doctor.’ So not the one then under the altar, but one of the others.
During the seventeenth century, according to professor of chemistry and curator of the Ashmolean Robert Plot, it continued to be resorted to by people with bad eyes, which it was reputed to help. Again which of the wells exactly is in question is unclear.
Holy wells were often associated with miraculous cures. Belief in the curative properties of some springs or wells survived the Reformation, now being reframed in scientific terms. Indeed, interest in healing springs and associated ‘bathes’ or ‘spas’ took an upturn from the later sixteenth century, to peak (at least in England) in the eighteenth century. Having shrugged off one now-negative set of associations, springs became available for other kinds of appropriation. Their promoters often included local doctors who perhaps hoped to profit from attracting custom.
Springs were understood to acquire distinctive characteristics because of minerals in the rocks through which they passed. In the seventeenth century, the theme attracted the attention of chemists, who experimented to determine what was different about different waters, and speculated about how springs were generated and how precisely they acquired their different characters. It’s perhaps not surprising that Robert Plot, the Ashmolean curator, who was not only generally curious about the properties of things but also specifically a professor of chemistry, interested himself in this debate (of which more in a moment) and, in his Natural History of Oxfordshire, drew attention to the reported healing qualities of Oxford’s holy well.
Crowell (outside the east wall of the old city, where Holywell st means Longwall st) is also reputed to have cured bad eyes.
The same was said of Child’s well — possibly adjoining Castle Mill Stream, though another Child’s well has given its name to the Chilswell valley on the slope above South Hinksey, and BBOWT believes that that was once thought to heal sick children and to have been honoured by Good Friday picnics – another tradition recently revived. It’s not always clear which traditions have been garbled or enlarged in the telling.
Of the Physic well further north along that range of hills, near Cumnor, south of Farmoor reservoir, Anthony a Wood wrote in June 1667: “This month about the middle, the well at Comnore in the high way going downe to Bablackhith was discovered and frequented. It will never be famous because there is not water to supply a multitude. Much resorted to by scholars; the water brought to Oxford.” In 1806 it was said to be ‘long disused’ (Lysons, ‘Magna Britannia: Berkshire’). Henry Taunt photographed the well, noting of it “’In the Long Leys, on the way down to Bablock Hythe is what is called “Physic” Well which in 1674 [not clear why he picked on that year] was also much frequented by scholars of Oxford in search of a pick-me-up (it was reputed to have healing powers). It was here that the great cowslip grew that had three hundred heads’.
The route on which the well lies – a Wood’s ‘high way’ (and it is high) – survives as a bridleway link between two roads: Leys Road, Cumnor and a road at Bablock Hythe, whence a ferry used to cross the Thames. According to Joan Tucker, the route remained long in favour for rambles from Oxford, so many must have passed by the well when in pursuit of other objects. It can still be walked – I met several couples and a family when I traversed it on a January Sunday afternoon — and the well survives.
The ‘discovery’ theme in a Wood’s account is interesting. Discoveries had previously sometimes been framed as miracles. By the seventeenth century, not so, but could clearly still arouse interest. Plot was excited by news of a chalybeate spring (characterised by iron salts) being discovered near Osney bridge: ‘my worthy friend Dr Tho. Taylor has found so strong a Chalybeate Spring in Fulling-mill-ham-stream near Oseney Bridge [possibly the stream that now runs by Osney Mead], that notwithstanding last hard Winter (when the greatest Rivers were froze) this continued open and smoaking all the time, tinging all the Stones, by reason of its not running, nor mixing with other Water, with a deep rusty Colour’.
Explaining the water-cycle
What natural processes give rise to springs?
Two theories about the origins of springs were canvassed in the ancient world. One was that they came from rainfall — observation suggested some connection, since springs flowed more bounteously after heavy rain and dried up in droughts. Another theory was that they originated in the sea, seawater sinking into the earth and then percolating up through rocks, having changed character on its journey.
In the seventeenth century, these theories came back into debate. Plot referred to ‘this great controversy’. He was less interested in the position that some others continued to maintain, that intermitting springs portended dearths, wars, plagues, and other such prodigies. He professed himself ‘very diffident’ of this, and disinclined to discuss such notions further.
Hypotheses about the relationship between rainwater and springs rested on impressionistic judgements – more or less rainfall and more or less spring water. During the seventeenth century, work began on developing instruments to allow more precise assessments of these relationships: ‘Pioneers of the modern science of hydrology include Pierre Perrault, Edme Mariotte and Edmund Halley. By measuring rainfall, runoff, and drainage area, Perrault showed that rainfall was sufficient to account for the flow of the Seine. Mariotte combined velocity and river cross-section measurements to obtain a discharge, again in the Seine. Halley showed that the evaporation from the Mediterranean Sea was sufficient to account for the outflow of rivers flowing into the sea’.
Stephen Switzer, whose summary of Halley’s calculations about the Mediterranean I’ve reproduced above, also nicely diagrammed the evaporation theory that Halley espoused, though he didn’t accept it himself, finding the rival ‘capillary’ theory more persuasive. Switzer is best known as a garden designer (he also served for a while as park quarries supervisor at Blenheim). His interest in springs arose from his interest in fountains and other decorative ‘waterworks’ (all the rage in the formal gardens of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries – as in Oxfordshire notably at Hanwell). Switzer’s case nicely illustrates the diversity of preoccupations and backgrounds from which people might be drawn into this field of enquiry.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the evaporation theory seems to have carried the day, though I’m not sure how that happened.
Hydrology and hydrogeology
Thence to the end of the nineteenth century, several lines of development interacted.
It had long been clear that understanding groundwater depended on understanding the earth, or geology, and what would come to be called ‘hydrogeological’ processes. Late eighteenth and nineteenth-century developments in geology accordingly provided important context for new approaches to groundwater. William Smith, maker of the first geological map, explored the relation of spring lines to stratigraphy, and drew on his conclusions to advise landowners and canal companies. Conybeare and Phillips’ pioneering early nineteenth-century geology text book tried to make sense of springs and wells, and developed a technical vocabulary, distinguishing ‘porous’ from ‘impervious’ strata. In his Bridgewater Treatise, Geology and Mineralogy considered with reference to Natural Theology, (1836), the Oxford geologist William Buckland provided a notably clear explanation of the principle of the artesian well, until then known only to specialists: that is, a well which taps trapped groundwater, which rises within the well in response to pressure in the underground trap.
Alongside geological advances, techniques for measuring water volume and flow continued to develop, and a bank of data about British rainfall, springs and rivers was built up.
John Dalton remains a name to conjure with. His work built on a tradition of quantitative work on weather, and was written up in his Meteorological Observations and Essays. In the words of Nathaniel Beardmore’s early manual of hydrology, Dalton ‘investigated the subject of the relative fall of rain and supply to springs and rivers…..he contrived the percolating gauge, and made extensive experiments on the subject from 1796 to 1798 at Manchester’. He is celebrated now as having been ‘the first to express the basic components of the evaporation process from a free water surface in quantitative terms.’ But Dalton’s law wasn’t expressed by its author in mathematical terms; that came later. Although quantification was in vogue and advancing through this period, mathematicization was only incipient.
Beardmore’s mid-nineteenth-century manual started out as a book of tables: both tables useful in calculation and tables of quantitative data. Including for instance rainfall data for different parts of the country:
This table covers a year of very heavy flooding: 1852.
Later commentators had a lot of quantitative data at their fingertips. When the geologist Joseph Prestwich (in his Letter on the Oxford Water Supply, 1874), considered the option of redeploying the spring at Hinksey (which had once fed the Carfax conduit, and the city’s early modern piped water system), he statd it yielded 10,000 gallons a day, and could easily be made to yield more. He said that he regretted that even the nearest Cotswold springs, near Fairford, were too distant to be usable, for they yielded no less than 4-6 million gallons a day. In the following decade, de Rance, who worked for the British Geological Survey, in his book on The Water Supply of England and Wales, cited a civil engineer on ‘the summer delivery of the Isis at Oxford’ being 73m gallons a day, and in winter 320m gallons.
Hydrogeological mapping was an offshoot of geological mapping – but such maps might also include other kinds of water-related data, including quantitative data. Prestwich has been hailed for having, in 1851, produced ‘the first geological map that included groundwater information’ (in relation to possible sources for the supply of London). Charles Lucas, a staff member on the British Geological Survey, not only coined the term ‘hydrogeology’ but also ‘produced the first real hydrogeological map’ in 1877.
Advances in chemistry made a contribution: ‘Analysts became more confident in their determination of the constituents of water.’
Religious perspectives were not initially superseded by these scientific developments. The tradition of natural theology, which took the hand of God the designer to be manifest in the natural world, informed the presentation and perhaps helped to motivate some of these enquiries. Buckland’s Geology and Mineralogy was one of a series of Bridgewater Treatises, focussing ‘On the Power, Wisdom, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation’. Nor was this perspective confined to men trained in Church-linked universities. The civil engineer Beardmore, in his manual, wrote of wells that they were ‘provisions for the wants of humanity, ordained by providence, so that man shall have water in detail where he may require it for his daily use…the chemist informs us that carbonic acid and other minerals in the natural soil will constantly purify the percolating water in the slow passage (filtration) downwards…so that the earth, synonymous with corruption, is also all-powerful in production and support of new life, as described by the great apostle before chemistry was known.’ The role of modern applied science was, in his account, to compensate for civilisation’s unbalancing of this natural order: ‘Wherever immense populations are gathered together, these conditions are interfered with so as to upset the ordinary economy of nature, and give rise to the complications which the engineer is called on to adjust.’
Developments in scientific understanding made it possible to push God further and further into the background in explanation; they didn’t of themselves require that he be expelled.
Developments in knowledge and understanding were deployed in practice in a series of mid and later nineteenth-century discussions and debates around public policy, above all around the question of how to keep increasingly densely populated towns supplied with sufficiently pure water. There was more to that debate than just an understanding of the production, location and destination of groundwater, but changing ideas about that informed policy debate, and fresh work was also stimulated by it.
Geologists with Oxford connections of one kind or another were among contributors to these debates. These — like the Oxford geologists already cited — are all men we’ve met before (in my posts on Geomorphology, Dinosaurs or Dredging).
The Rev James Clutterbuck, inspired as a student by Buckland, interested himself especially in water supply and came to prominence for his role in a fierce argument about how best to supply London. A leading historian of British hydrogeology says that one of his achievements was to recognise that groundwater was a finite resource – though this seems implicit in older discussions of its origins in rainwater. ‘He was the first British worker to apply observations of groundwater levels in a practical and innovative way to the study of groundwater flow.’ So perhaps it was his ability to give practical form to his ideas that was crucial.
Joseph Prestwich, initially like Clutterbuck a keen amateur (he made his living as a wine merchant) also interested himself in the challenge of supplying London, and wrote a major book on the topic, his Geological Enquiry into the Water-bearing Strata of the Country around London (1851). He was made a member of the Royal Commisson on the Pollution of Rivers in the 1860s, serving alongside (among others) the engineer Nathaniel Beardmore. He became Oxford’s first professor of geology in 1874 – the year in which he published his pamphlet on Oxford’s water supply.
None the less, there remained significant disagreements, especially between geologists and engineers, about how much underground water was available. Public policy debate brought people with various forms of expertise to a common table; it didn’t ensure that they would resolve their differences.
Twentieth and twenty-first-century hydrology has continued to build upon and expand these inherited understandings, techniques and databanks (though is much less likely explicitly to invoke providential design).
There were centuries of cross-fertilisation between British and European work in the field. Latterly, concepts and techniques developed in America also began to shape British research and practice (‘aquifer’ was an American coinage).
Look backward from any point, and the advance in knowledge and understanding always seems notable. Look forward, and what strikes commentators is what, at any point, had yet to be achieved. Thus, it’s noted that, in Britain, ‘[T]he collection of rainfall data was not taken over by a Government Department until 1919, and it was not until 1935 that the systematic collection of data on both surface and groundwaters finally began’.
Since 1945, developing national legislative and governance frameworks have shaped British research and practice. The BGS map portal gives access to the latest version of the official British hydro-map.
Meanwhile, computer assisted modelling has helped modern hydrogeologists to cope with the extreme complexity, variability and even randomness which are now stressed to be features of water systems.
Thanks to Benjamin Thompson and Nancy-Jane Rucker for information about New College’s recent revival of the Ascension Day ceremony at Bartlemas and its well, in which both of them played a part. Also to Stephanie Uenkins for finding Anthony a Wood’s account of the ‘discovery’ of the Cumnor Physic Well, which is in his Diaries.
Alexandra Walsham has interesting things to say about holy wells and physic wells, in her Reformation of the Landscape. In relation to physic wells, I have also benefited from reading Noel G. Coley, ‘”Cures without care”: “Chymical physicians and mineral waters in seventeenth-century English medicine’, Medical History, 1979.
.I was put on to Switzer’s illustration of Halley’s theory by Asit K. Biswas, ‘Edmond Halley, FRS, hydrologist extraordinary’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 1970.
For the history of hydrogeology, I have found especially useful works by John Mather (several of which are also available online to Bodleian readers): see eg ‘From William Smith to William Whitaker: the development of British hydrogeology in the nineteenth century’, in DJ Blundell and AC Scott eds, Lyell: the Past is the Key to the Present, 1998; ‘National water supply, debates between geologists and engineers and the role of the Society of Arts’, Earth Sciences History 2018 (I don’t have access to this, but a summary can be found here); and J.D. Mather ed., 200 Years of British Hydrogeology 2004.
Joseph Prestwich’s works cited here are available online to Bodleian Library readers.
(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.