Oxfordshire, England, UK
Created | Updated Dec 11, 2007
Red sky at night, shepherd's delight
- made famous from a Banbury chapbook1.
Oxfordshire (shortened to Oxon, from Latin Oxonia) lies in South Central England and is surrounded by neighbouring Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Gloucestershire and Warwickshire. The county is fundamentally agricultural, with undulating hills and winding river valleys. Oxfordshire's 1,006 square miles support a population of 619,800 (according to a mid-2004 census), most of whom inhabit the Oxford urban area. Since its beginnings as a collection of farming communities, Oxfordshire has developed a number of industries which have become associated with the county, including blanket and glove-making, motor manufacturing and, of course, academia. Oxfordshire is home to two Universities, Oxford University and Oxford Brookes University.
Oxfordshire comprises a number of districts, which came into existence on 1 April, 1974.
Cherwell - Situated in the North of Oxfordshire, Cherwell is named after the River Cherwell. Banbury, Bicester and Kidlington are all towns that are located in the district.
South Oxfordshire - The main towns in the district are Didcot, Henley-on-Thames, Thame and Wallingford. Before 1 April, 1974 parts of Wallingford belonged to Berkshire.
Vale of White Horse - Previously part of Berkshire, this district was part of South Oxfordshire until 1 April, 1974. The town of Abingdon is located in this district.
West Oxfordshire - The district of West Oxfordshire is home to the towns of Woodstock, Chipping Norton, Charlbury, and Witney.
In 2007 Oxfordshire celebrated a thousand years of its history. The county was formally created in 1007 by the Saxons, when Oxfordshire was part of the West Saxon Kingdom of Mercia, but the area was settled long before that. This is demonstrated by the Rollright Stones that date back to 2000 BC, the Iron Age and Bronze Age settlements, the remains of a Roman Villa in North Leigh and Roman potteries in Headington and Cowley. There is also a reference to Oxfordshire in 912 (according to Oxfordshire County Council Website).
Edward Thurlow Leeds and fellow historians have found Anglo-Saxon remains aplenty, most of which have been put on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford for all to see. Anglo-Saxon cemeteries have been found at Frilford, Abingdon, Chadlington, North Leigh and Cassington, a single burial mount at Asthall Barrow and a settlement at Sutton Courtenay. The remains of the walls the Saxons built around the town of Wallingford can still be seen today.
Before The Battle of Hastings in 1066, the Wychwood forest stretched from London to the Cotswolds. The Cotswolds had good hunting grounds and were easy to access. They were therefore popular among kings such as King Alfred, who was born in the Oxfordshire town of Wantage in 849 AD.
Later William the Conqueror crossed the river at Wallingford after victory at Hastings and gave orders to Robert D'Oyly to build Wallingford Castle. The castle was built between 1067 and 1071. Some events that have taken place at the castle include the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda; and the imprisonment in the castle of Ealdred of Abingdon, Edward I, Maurice de Berkeley, 2nd Baron Berkeley, Owen Tudor and Margaret of Anjou.
In 1138, when Henry II went away to war, he wanted to ensure that his lover, the eldest daughter of Walter de Clifford, was safe. He placed the 'fair Rosamund' in a safe house at the centre of a maze in Woodstock. However, his wife Eleanor found out about Rosamund and the maze and poisoned her.
Elizabeth I also left her mark on Oxfordshire. During her reign she was rumoured to have had an affair with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was married to Amy Robsart. Robsart stayed at Cumnor house in Oxfordshire and one day died by falling down a flight of stairs. Whether or not she was pushed remains unknown.
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady upon a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.
The true origin of Banbury Cross is unknown. Some people believe it was one of twelve 'Eleanor Crosses' erected to mark Eleanor of Castile's funeral route. However, the closest Eleanor Cross was located nearer to Northampton than Banbury. Other people believe the cross and the rhyme were in reference to Elizabeth I. Some even think they came about due to Lady Godiva2. However, the majority of people believe it was associated with one of the women from the Fiennes family. The original cross mentioned in the rhyme was destroyed by Puritans in the 1600s but in 1859 a new cross was erected in its place commemorating the wedding of the then Princess Royal to Prince Frederick of Prussia.
The English Civil War
During The English Civil War, Oxfordshire became divided over who supported Oliver Cromwell and who maintained allegiance to King Charles I. Oxford as a town leaned towards the Parliamentary side in the Civil War but the University was Royalist. The University was pretty powerful politically, and Oxford was the Royalist headquarters. Charles I had a firm hold on Oxford Castle, which was strengthened during his reign. It was the last stronghold to surrender to Oliver Cromwell in 1646. Remains of the castle can still be seen today in the town centre, off Castle Lane.
Even families were divided as to who supported whom. For example, the Pye family in Faringdon was split. Sir Robert Pye Senior, the Lord of the Manor, along with the townspeople, supported the King. Sir Robert Pye Junior, the son-in-law of Parliamentarian Colonel John Hampden (Oliver Cromwell's cousin), however, was a Roundhead. The relationship between father and son was even more torn when Fairfax commanded Sir Robert Pye Junior to take control of the Roundhead force that occupied his father's house.
Colonel Sir John Hampden MP, a former pupil of the Thame Grammar School, died of wounds received in the battle of Chalgrove Field on 18 June, 1643 at the Greyhound Inn, now Hampden House in Thame. Anthony Wood, the first historian of Oxford University, boarded at the vicarage and recorded in his diary a skirmish between the forces on the old Crendon Road. When the war came to an end in 1646 many people had died, the original Faringdon House was left in tatters, and the church spire nearby had been blown to pieces.
According to the Domesday Book of 1086, Wychwood Forest3 covered much of the west of Oxfordshire and was used by the sovereign for hunting wild animals such as deer, sheep and pig. Many a royal figure had a hunting lodge there and later on many a sovereign would stay at nearby Blenheim Palace. During the 13th century Woodstock and Oxford prospered in glove making, using the hides left over from the animals that were hunted down by the sovereign. These were then sold back to the sovereign as gloves and were often ornately decorated, particularly in Elizabeth I's time. The gloves would be used by the sovereign for hunting and hawking. Glove making still takes place today, although not in the factories that once stood. These gloves are sold at the glove shop in Woodstock next to the town hall.
During the early 13th Century Banbury saw the arrival of the Crusaders who brought with them a variety of spices and dried fruit. These ingredients were used to make Banbury Cakes that could only be sold at the cake shop in Banbury for their recipe was a closely guarded secret handed down by generations of shop owners who worked there. The cakes are seen as a delicacy and have featured at a number of celebrations both in Britain and abroad.
Wool in Witney
Although the people of Witney have been trading in wool as far back as the Iron Age, it was the Medieval period that really saw the wool trade boom. The secret to their success they believed was that they had sheep that were a cross between the Iron Age sheep and a breed that the Romans brought to Britain that resulted in long, fine wool, the quality of which made exporting easy. The land along the nearby Windrush river was used for bringing up sheep and the water helped in the many processes in cloth making. Witney also had good road networks to trading centres.
Witney isn't the only place in the Cotswolds that flourished from the wool trade. Chipping Norton, which became home to Bliss Mill that generated electricity from the Windrush river, also did well for itself. The invention of electricity also made it easier for wool to be processed. Machines were brought into the mills and replaced the workers. The workers who were made redundant turned on their employers. Often royalty bought the blankets that were sold in Witney and the money that came from making wool was spent on wool churches4 and houses.
In the 19th Century Didcot was simply a town that was steadily being expanded due to the Great Western Railway that linked London to the West Country. Although trains still run to Didcot today they have changed in style and the number of people commuting in and out of the town has greatly expanded thanks to businesses such as Didcot Power Station and the scientific research industry5. Diamond Light Source is a Synchrotron, one of the most powerful particle accelerators in the world. It is also the most expensive UK Science facility built in the last 30 years.
Trains aren't the only means of transport to have an impact on Oxfordshire; planes of various kinds have been stationed in the county too. For example, Carterton was home to many personnel that worked at nearby RAF Brize Norton. Brize Norton was also a major launch base for D-day Horsa gliders. During the 1950s, USAF bomber aircraft were based there, the first to arrive being some 21 Convair Peacemaker bombers in June 1952. These were followed up by Boeing B47 Stratojets in September 1953. The base was returned to the RAF in 1965 and became the home of the RAF transport, refuelling and parachuting aircraft.
Many cars have been manufactured in the county and made their way around the country, as well as being shipped abroad. Cecil Kimber created the MG and his Morris Garages factory produced many fine sports cars in Abingdon during 1930 to 1980. Two royal customers were Prince Phillip of Greece and his fiancée Princess Elizabeth. During WWII the factory produced armoured cars. The BMW car plant in Cowley also once belonged to Morris before being taken over to produce Minis. BMW Motorsport moved to the Williams Motorsport site near Grove, Oxfordshire around 2001.
There are many companies in Oxfordshire that are related to motorsport technology too, such as Prodrive in Banbury, and famous firms from the past such as Reynard (IndyCar racing and Formula One) and TWR (touring cars, sports cars, and Formula One) have been based there, although they went into receivership. Reynard and their premises at Enstone were sold to Benetton and TWR.
Many sports clubs in Oxfordshire appear to revolve around the students of the Universities. For example, Oxford University is well known for its boat races against its rival Cambridge taking place at Henley Royal Regatta every year since July 1839. Oxford Brookes University, on the other hand, is known for its American Football team, the Oxford Cavaliers. However, sporting achievements aren't just made by students; there are plenty of places in and around Oxfordshire that people can watch sporting professionals at play too, such as footballers, Ice Hockey Stars and Speedway champions. Or for those who like to take part in the action themselves how do punting along the River Thames, watersports at Farmoor Reservoir or Pooh Sticks sound? Of course, this is a mere selection of what Oxfordshire has to offer regarding sport, that can leave you either relaxed or thoroughly exhausted.
There is a wide range of cultural facilities in Oxfordshire:
Cinemas in the area include Odeon (in the City Centre), Phoenix Picture House (in Cowley, East Oxford) and two Vue cinemas (one next to the Oxford United Football Stadium and one in Didcot.
Local Theatres are New Theatre Oxford, The Mill at Sonning and Oxford Playhouse.
Those who are interested in the music scene are entertained at The Zodiac and Sheldonian Theatre6.
From farmers' markets all over Oxfordshire to high street fashion in Oxford city centre and antiques to buy near Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire appears to have something for everybody's taste. Whether it rains or shines, you can spend your hard-earned cash shopping indoors and outdoors. For those who are real shopaholics Bicester Village, an outdoor designer factory outlet, is a real treat, whereas if it is raining there is always Templar Square, Cowley.
Food and Drink
Exhausted now? Why not try a place to eat? The Oxonians and the tourists are spoilt for choice over what to eat and where in Oxfordshire. From the markets both indoors and out, there is something to suit everyone's taste.
Oxfordshire's county flower is the Snake's-head Fritillary.
Although native to Australia, wallabies have been reported to be hopping around Oxfordshire.
Faringdon, Blenheim Palace, Icknield Way and Minster Lovell Hall are all believed to be haunted. The churchyard in Faringdon is believed to be haunted by Hampden Pye, who was an officer in the Royal Navy during the 17th Century. Blenheim Palace is said to harbour the ghost of a Roundhead, who fought for Cromwell during the English Civil War. Icknield Way is haunted by Roman Legionaries and black dogs. Minster Lovell is said to be haunted by Lord Lovell who went into hiding in a secret chamber in his house after being discovered by people to support the imposter Lambert Simnel. The only person to know of his whereabouts was a trusty old servant but when the servant died Lord Lovell soon died too.
Legend has it that a raven guards Roman buried treasure at Sinnoden Hill, Little Wittenham. A local villager tried one day to discover it and just as he thought he had found it, a raven came down and frightened off the villager with the words:
He has not been born yet.
Places of Interest
Oxford itself is full of places of interest. However, why not venture outside the city walls and visit one of these attractions.
- Binsey Treacle Well - Said to be made for St Frideswide to cure people with 'triacle'. Lewis Carroll refers to it in the Dormouse's story in Alice in Wonderland.
- Blenheim Palace - large country house in Woodstock designed by Sir John Vanbrugh for John Churchill, First Duke of Marlborough in the 1700s and Sir Winston Churchill's family home.
- Broughton Castle - Medieval Manor House
- Chastleton House - A Jacobean country house.
- Cotswold Wildlife Park and Gardens - Open to the public since 1970 this park features many different animals in its 160 acres of land which surround a Victorian listed property.
- Didcot Railway Centre - an exhibition dedicated to the Great Western Railway.
- Greys Court - Owned by the National Trust this place of interest comprises a country house and its gardens.
- Harcourt Arboretum - Belonging to Oxford University, it houses an array of plants.
- Kelmscott Manor — Home of William Morris
- The Maharajah's Well - a gift from the Maharajah of Benares in India to Mr Edward Reade, the former local squire and his parish. It was constructed in 1831 and provided safe drinking water for all.
- Minster Lovell Hall - A ruined medieval hall in the Cotswolds.
- Rousham House - A Jacobean house that has been passed down the family line since its birth.
- Sculpture Park, Christmas Common - a park with towers, mirrors hanging from trees and things to bang.
- Sulgrave Manor - Country Manor House once belonging to the British Washington family.
- Sutton Courtenay Manor - A manor house that is believed to date back to Saxon times.
- Tooley's Boatyard - situated in Banbury this place is the country's oldest working dry-dock dating back to 1790.
- The Uffington White Horse - White chalk hill figure of a horse on Uffington hill said to date back to 12,000 years, to the late Bronze Age.
- Waterperry Gardens
From music from the likes of Radiohead and Supergrass to literature created by Lewis Carroll, Dame Agatha Christie, Colin Dexter, Phillip Pullman and Oxford dons J R R Tolkien and CS Lewis who used to frequent the same pubs together, Oxfordshire has been home to many a famous person.
Included in this list are comedians Rowan Atkinson, Ronnie Barker and Graeme Garden (a former Goodie), businessman Richard Branson (who has a house in Kidlington) and the poet John Betjeman (who lived in Wantage and wrote several poems about the area including Wantage Bells and On Leaving Wantage). Jeremy Paxman and the Shark Man7 otherwise known as Bill Heine also live in the area, as does Top Gear's Jeremy Clarkson who admits he has rarely been into the City Centre.
Sports heroes too, such as Tim Henman, Matthew Pinsent and Sir Roger Bannister have made Oxfordshire their home as has Former President Bill Clinton who studied at Oxford University and several royal people have had homes built for them in Oxfordshire's countryside, where they have hunted game.
Chipping Norton was home to the notorious highwayman James Hird who was finally caught and condemned for high treason and executed in 1652.
Nicholas Brakespear, Binsey's former rector, became Hadrian IV, England's first and only Pope in 1154.
Oxfordshire is easily accessible by car, train, plane, bus and bike. The M40 motorway links Oxfordshire up with London, the M25 and the Midlands. The A34 links Oxfordshire to the south and west coast ports of Portsmouth, Bristol and Southampton, and also goes north to Manchester. Nearby London is home to many airports, which have regular buses and trains going from London to Oxfordshire. Oxfordshire is trying to go environmentally green by encouraging people to leave their cars at home and use the buses instead. There is also a ban on cars in Oxford city centre.