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Rivers in Oxfordshire; a detailed description written in 1912

rivers in oxfordshire

This book written by P.H. Ditchfield called “Oxfordshire” was published in 1912 but rivers have not changed much since then! You can find the actual digital version of the book here. The book is in the public domain. 

The Thames and other rivers in Oxfordshire

The rivers, as already stated, form a distinguishing natural feature of the county. They are so numerous and are fed by so many streams and brooks that almost the whole of the shire is covered with a network of water-courses, with the exception of the two plateaus at the extreme north and south of the county. What Dr Plot said with hesitation concerning our Oxfordshire streams we may assert with confidence. No county surpasses Oxfordshire in regard ‘ to the number and abundance of its rivers.

The great river Thames flows along its whole southern boundary, and it has besides the Cherwell, Evenlode, Windrush, and Thame. All these flow into the Thames and have also their own tributaries. Thus, among many others, the Glyme and the Dome add to the waters of the Evenlode, and the Ray to the Cherwell.

Main Photo: © Copyright Mat Fascione and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Dr Plot tells us that these rivers are ” of so quick a stream, free from stagnation, and so clear… that few (if any) vappid and stinking exhalations can ascend from them to corrupt the air. And so for standing Pools, Marish or Boggy grounds, the parents of Ague, Cough, Catarrh, they are fewest here of any place to be found.” Perhaps in this the learned doctor erred, or perhaps rivers like human beings sometimes change their nature. The Thames is swift enough, especially in times of flood, and was far more swift in Dr Plot’s day, before it was bridled with locks ; but the Thame, Evenlode, and Cherwell are somewhat sluggish streams and have many weeds, which are not seen in swift currents.

The conditions have changed since very early times. The bed of the Thames was once far less deep than it is at present, and the river extended itself on each side. Moreover the hills and vales were covered with dense forests, and these would tend to increase the rainfall and to make the atmosphere humid. The Thames is navigable for large barges and small steamers as far as Oxford, but it does not, of course, become a tidal river until long after it has passed the boundaries of the shire. It is also navigable from Oxford to Lechlade for boats and barges.

Photo: © Copyright Peter Trimming and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Thames rises near Cirencester and runs southward into Wiltshire, and after receiving the Churn from the north of Cirencester and proceeding easterly by Cricklade, it unites near Lechlade with the Coin from the north and the Cole from the south, and becomes navigable. The Leach, from which Lechlade takes its name, also adds its waters to the river, and forms for some distance the boundary of the county. From this point the Thames forms the southern limit of Oxfordshire, and thence flows eastward, inclining to the north through an uninteresting country. It passes under Radcot Bridge, where a battle was fought in 1387 between Robert ue Vere, Earl of Oxford, and the insurgent Barons, when the Earl only saved his life by plunging into the river ; under Tadpole Bridge and New Bridge, where in the Civil War a fight took place. Here the Windrush joins the Thames. At Bablock Hythe there is a ferry, and there are many locks during this course of the river.

Rounding the woods of Wytham it receives the waters of the Evenlode, but before reaching Oxford it divides itself into various small channels as it traverses the meadows of Wytham, leaving Oxford on the left. These streams, however, soon unite, and the river turns round the city and glides beautifully through the meads of Christ Church. The Cherwell joins the Thames where the College barges are moored. Proceeding still south-eastward past the old mill at Sandford, the Norman church of Iffley, Radley, and the lovely woods of Nuneham, it flows in a westerly bend to Abingdon  where it receives the Ock.

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Turning South and then east, past Culham and Clifton Hampden, it reaches Dorchester by a semicircular course, where it is joined by the Thame, and then runs south-eastward to Wallingford. Past North Stoke and South Stoke it glides, and then reaches its most lovely scenery. All the way from Goring to Henley, save for a small uninteresting reach at Reading, it is girt by beautiful woods on one side and not less beautiful meadows on the other. Whitchurch, Mapledurham, and Purley are all beautiful. Eyots or Eyes (e.g. Sonning Eye) clad with willows, add diversity and beauty to the scene, and by their name preserve the old Saxon word for island. Near Reading the Thames receives the waters of the Kennet and turns in a north-easterly direction towards Sonning and Shiplake, welcoming on its way the Loddon river, both these streams coming in from the south. Soon it reaches Henley,  proceeding towards Windsor, London, and tne sea. The length of the course of the river from the point where it first touches Oxford shire to Henley, where it quits the county, is about 70 miles. With its tributaries it drains about 5000 square miles of country.

The tributaries of the Thames in Oxfordshire

The tributaries of the Thames that run through the county have cut their way through the limestone hills and made narrow valleys. The Windrush rises in Gloucestershire, and entering Oxfordshire not far from the ancient town of Burford, in the delightful region of the Cotswolds, flows through the county a distance of about 16 miles. It is a land of breezy downs and bare hill slopes with old grey farm buildings dotted here and there over the fields. The Windrush runs clear and swift between pleasant meadows that go sharply up to the north, where stand the last trees of the old forest of Wychwood. It is unlike the rest of the Oxfordshire rivers with their muddy banks and sluggish currents.

Burford and the Cotswolds

Before reaching Burford we see on the right the picturesque garden and farmhouse at Upton. Upton mills, once turned by the river, belonged to the Earl of Warwick, the King-maker. On the left is Taynton with its interesting Decorated church, which has a good Early English chancel. Taynton was the home of the Harmans, who afterwards removed to Burford Priory when it was dissolved. Burford town (the Boroughford), with all its charms of history and romance, we shall visit again, and the Windrush pursues its course till it comes to another ford, called Widford (doubtless Wide-ford), a desolate place, an extinct parish with a deserted church dedicated to St Oswald, surrounded by an overgrown melancholy churchyard on the green banks of the stream. In vain its sweet bell in the bell-niche bears the inscription : ” Come ye all At my call Serve God all.” Half a century has passed since a few village folk obeyed that call, and the deserted shrine is fast falling into ruin. On its site once stood a Roman villa.

The Windrush in Oxfordshire

A little farther down the stream we come to a river-side inn, near a bridge that spans the Windrush at Swinbrook, where formerly stood the splendid mansion of the powerful Fettiplace family, but both house and race have vanished. Of this family the old rhyme says : ” The Tracys, the Lacys, and the Fettiplaces Own all the manors, the parks, and the chases.” But now nothing remains but their monuments and brasses in the church. A little farther down the stream on the right bank is Asthall, where there is another bridge. Close by, the Akeman Street crossed the river by a ford. About a mile south is Asthall barrow, a relic of prehistoric times. The Windrush proceeds eastward, and passing the lonely Minster Lovell, which we shall visit again, soon reaches Witney.

The waters of the Windrush have certain peculiar properties which favour clothmaking. Dr Plot describes them as ” abstersive,” whatever that may mean. They are found, however, to be useful in blanket-making, and have brought prosperity to the little town of Witney. Fish, too, thrive on the “abstersive ” quality of the Windrush waters and are vastly superior, we are told, to those in most other streams. From Witney the river turns south, passing through a tract of flat narrow land intersected by water-courses, known as ” Ducklington Ditches,” one of which is called Emm’s Ditch, marking  the boundary of Queen Emma’s manor, the queen of King Ethelred and Canute. The village of Ducklington stands close to the river, with its fine church showing mainly Early English work, with examples of Norman, Decorated, and Perpendicular styles.

Photo: © Copyright Philip Halling and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Past the woods of Cokethorpe Park the Windrush flows, and then wends its zigzag course to Standlake and its British village, soon finding its way to the ” stripling Thames ” at Newbridge, which is nowadays not new at all, but has stood for centuries grim and grey with its curious triangular buttresses. On it a skirmish was fought on May 27, 1644, the day after Essex had occupied Abingdon. Between Witney and Standlake the Windrush flows as a double stream, the branches being from a quarter to half a mile apart.

The Evenlode rises in Gloucestershire and runs during part of its course almost parallel with the Windrush, entering the county at Bledington. Several tributaries unite their waters with the river, which flows past Chipping Norton junction now called Kingham in a south-easterly direction to Shipton-under-Wychwood with its graceful spire, and then turns north-east to Ascott- under-Wychwood past the old gabled Elizabethan manor house of the Lacys, called Pudlicote, curving round to Charlbury, a quiet little village on its banks. It bounds the old park of Cornbury, which has been a park since the year 1312-3, and the slopes of the valley are beautifully wooded. Hitherto the valley through which the river runs has been wide and open but it now becomes narrower, and the river continues in a south-easterly  direction till the woods of Wilcote run down to its edge.

More rivers in Oxfordshire

Its course becomes tortuous and soon the Blenheim woods appear on the left, with the tributary stream the Glyme, which rises near Chipping Norton and flows past Kid- dington and Glympton and through the ornamental waters of Blenheim Park. The Evenlode then flows almost due south, joining the Thames opposite the woods of Wytham. The Cherwell is the most important of the Oxford- shire rivers after the Thames, and has a course of thirty miles in the county. It rises in Northamptonshire, and on entering Oxfordshire near Wardington in the north of the county receives many tributary brooks and streams, flowing almost due south save for a slight curve after passing Hampton Gay. Its vale is wide and open during the upper part of its course, until it reaches Banbury, where it scoops out for itself a narrow valley similar to many other Oxfordshire rivers, forming very pleasant and attractive features of the scenery of the shire. For some distance it forms the boundary of the county until it passes near Clifton, having received the waters of the Sorbrook and Swere tributaries.

Photo: © Copyright P L Chadwick and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Swale, another river in Oxfordshire

The Swale, a small river from which Swalcliffe takes its name, is a tributary of the Sorbrook. Passing the well-wooded park of North Aston, the Cherwell creates for itself one of its fairest reaches until Heyford bridge appears. The old name of the village was Heyford-ad-Pontem, a very early bridge having been built here by Robert D’Oilly, lord of Wallingford in the Conqueror’s time. Its name signifies the presence of a ford that preceded the bridge.  Other bridges span the stream at Northbrook and Enslow, and the Akeman Street crosses the river between them where there was once a ford. The river now passes; by a scene of desolation, the decayed hamlet of Hampton Gay. The village has only three houses, and it is a melancholy sight to gaze upon the ruins of the manor house recently destroyed by fire, and on the burnt paper- mills. The banks are very steep here,, and opposite stands the picturesque church of Shipton-on-Cherwell.

When we have passed the lofty spire of Kidlington, we see the Ray river, which, after passing through Bicester and Otmoor, here comes in on the left bank. The Cherwell now flows on past the beautiful manor house of Water Eaton, past the magnificent pile of Magdalen College, and pours into the Thames just below the College barges. Its beautiful lower reach, bedecked with lilies and lovely water plants, is much frequented in summer by such undergraduates as prefer dreaming in a punt to the more strenuous work of the Eights.

The river Thame in Oxfordshire

The last Thames tributary that runs through the county is the Thame, which rises in Buckinghamshire and flows through the town that takes its name from the river. It is not a very interesting stream, pursuing its uneventful course for the most part through flat meadow- land. A bridge spans it at Chiselhampton, long and narrow, with bold projecting cut- waters, carrying the road over two branches of the stream and low-lying meadows. Here, on the morning of the battle of Chalgrove Field, a skirmish took place between the royal forces under Prince Rupert and the army of the Parliamentarians  led by John Hampden, who for some time kept the Prince at bay.

On the other side of the river is Stadhampton, where John Owen, Cromwell’s chaplain, was born. Past Newington and Drayton the Thame flows, and just below Dorchester reaches the place “Where beauteous Isis and her husband Thame With mingled waves for ever flow the same.” South of this there are no streams of any importance, the Chiltern district being badly supplied with water except near the Thames. The Stour rises in the county near Tadmarton heath and Hook Norton and flows westward through Swalcliffe common, soon leaving the county. On the east side of the county the river Ouse touches it, forming for some distance the boundary of the shire.