Grist to the mill

Along this stretch of the Oxford Canal, just like most places in this fair land, are visible clues to a long history.  Going along at a “reasonable walking pace” there is time to notice things that you might not notice in a car, on a bicycle, or even on foot.  A boater cannot just stop suddenly, but, when there is not a hedge to obscure the view, there is time to make a mental note, even take a picture (though unattended tillers can be wayward!), and wonder about the folks who went before.  The most obvious are the buildings that stand proud, or sometimes rather dilapidated, above the landscape, in this case the floodplain of the River Cherwell as it flows south towards Oxford.

Twyford Mill
Twyford Mill, Oxfordshire from the Oxford Canal, once used to mill corn.

Banbury Guardian 15 May 1924 p3 col 3

Your committee are very pleased to report that the Drainage Committee of the Oxfordshire County Council have carried out some most useful work by the cleaning out of the River Cherwell from Stokes’ Mill Head at Twyford, right through Banbury to Slat Mill at Cropredy. This was part of a scheme inaugurated to find work for many of the local unemployed.

Williamscot Hall 2
Williamscot House, near Cropredy Oxfordshire

Built of vernacular honey-toned ironstone, “Williamscot House is Elizabethan, built for Walter Calcott in about 1568.  An Queene Anne style wing was added in 1704 and extended in Georgian style in 1777.  The Elizabethan part of the house is now Grade II* listed”;  Wikipedia.  Further details at British Listed Buildings.

Apparently, King Charles I spent a night there in 1644, not far from his principal base in Oxford.  Could this have been related to the Battle of Cropredy Bridge in that year?

Those windows look out onto a farming landscape that probably includes even older features.  They are not so obvious until seen in sharp relief, when the sunlight is just right.

ridge and furrow
Ridge and furrow field from Oxford Canal, by Varney’s Lock, upstream of Cropredy.

Ridge and furrow field patterns are the result of medieval ploughing technology.  Where such fields have not been subject to modern ploughing the pattern remains, usually the domain of cattle and sheep …

I suspect our Tudor or Jacobean forebears would not recognise this buffalo.


williamscot ridge and furrow 1
Ridge and furrow, with Williamscot House glimpsed through trees.
williamscot ridge and furrow 2
Ridge and furrow, below Williamscot, on the eastern slope of the Cherwell valley.

Having spotted one ridge and furrow field one keeps noticing more, whether simply by passing by, or noticing something like “medieval village” on  a map and keeping an eye out for it.

wormleighton old village 1
Wormleighton old village, down towards the Oxford Canal and River Cherwell.
wormleighton old village 2
Wormleighton old village, from the Oxford Canal.

These images are not quite so clear, but the canal appears to cut through the lumps and bumps that remain of a medieval farming community, with the ridge and furrow field stretching up the hill.

stoneton manor 3
Stoneton Manor:  the site of the village is on the slope, beyond the ridge and furrow sheep field.
stoneton manor 1
The old village site is on the far slope beyond the telegraph pole and the lone tree.

As can be seen, farming goes on today, but that is a very different, mechanical business, carried on by far fewer hands.  There is also some diversification on this farm:

carry on glamping
Carry on glamping.

History really is accessible, if we only look around us and ask: what is that about?  How did we get from there to here?  We now have vertical farms; they are in industrial settings, indeed they really are food factories, eschewing soil for water and nutrients in purest form, not chancing disease or pests or the need for pesticides; they even use red and blue light, not the rays that have given all light to crops previously (apart from rhubarb, perhaps).  Such things could not have been imagined by the people who ploughed those medieval fields, or even those who operated the mill at Twyford, any more than our grandparents could credit the idea of space tourism, or mining on the Moon.  But that does not mean that we should discard what, for the time being, seems obsolete or unattainable – after all, the canals are only navigable because some folk took the contrary view.  In its day the plough that created ridge and furrow was a technological advance that helped feed a population burgeoning on the back of trade in wool and other products.

People have used the land that now makes up the British Isles for going on a million years.  We belong in a short phase of a long history. This phase is the most rapidly evolving and adapting so far, but that is no reason not to marvel at the achievements of our predecessors, or indeed modern farmers who, despite the challenges of changing climate and weather patterns, continue to provide grist to the mill.

brown fields near little bourton
Modern fields near Little Bourton, Oxfordshire (2019).