Look Back With Little: The Cherwell Valley

A pastoral scene near Somerton taken by the author NNL-140321-155919001
A pastoral scene near Somerton taken by the author NNL-140321-155919001

Just before the National Rivers Authority was replaced by the Environment Agency it published a very detailed study of the Cherwell River Basin.

The Cherwell Valley by Jean Stone is a paperback book written for the more popular leisure and pleasure market, coloured illustrations abound.

The book is made up of three parts which in turn are entitled Invaders, Waterways, Railways, Highways and Byways and People and Places.

In the last of these towns and villages are described in a way which traces their historical evolution and reveals how they have been influenced by improvements in and diversification of communications.

For the purpose of this article I intend to concentrate on Banbury and Somerton.

Selection of the latter has been conditioned by next Tuesday’s meeting in Somerton Village Hall arranged by the Banbury Historical Society, starting at 7.30pm.

The market town of Banbury is treated at some length and with much emphasis on the traditional elements: Cross, rhyme and the Lady on the white horse.

In 1859 not everyone wanted a cross; some would have preferred a drinking fountain. Either way the location was not where earlier crosses were erected. As for the Lady on the Horse she could not have been Celia Fiennes as there was no cross when she rode to Banbury.

Appropriately the author places a lot of emphasis on markets and fairs. The two were inter-changeable. Occasionally (mainly fair times) cattle sales extended into Broad Lane [Street].

The earliest known location of the sheep market was at the western end of the High Street, previously known as Sheep Street.

By Edwardian times and up until about 1925 it was in the Horse Fair. Hurdles were put out where today coaches off-load groups of visitors.

Jean acknowledges the present Thursday and Saturday produce markets but might have added that the former happens courtesy of the Charter of 1148 and the latter as an outcome of a statute of Parliament.

The issue surrounding the livestock market concludes the section on Banbury but deserves a more prominent place in any description of the town and its claim to fame.

Back in 1925 the creation of a special site in Grimsbury and the setting up of the Midland Marts Company had indeed been the making of the town.

Paragraphs on the Oxford Canal highlight the battle to save Tooley’s famous boatyard. It is good that Jean reminds her readers of the significant parts played by Tom Rolt in the 1930s and then by the Inland Waterways Association he helped to set up.

The history of plush weaving introduces the topic of industry in Banbury.

The book then features the role of Bernhard Samuelson in widening the 19th century industrial base.

It might with advantage have given attention to the town’s broader commitment to engineering and metal treating activities in the Cherwell area.

Think of Somerton and a deep canal lock and Fritwell and Somerton railway station on the Great Western line come to mind.

With such restriction of knowledge many landscape contrasts would be passed over. The village with its drier limestone outcrop siting contrasts significantly with the wetter valley lands where, as in the Somerset levels, summer pasturage supported cattle probably as far back as Anglo-Saxon times.

Mills benefitted from the Cherwell flow and Jean records the interesting and amusing fact that in 1086 ‘one mill paid around 20s a year along with 400 eels’.

By Stuart times the enclosure movement seems to have impacted adversely on the Somerton area.

Loss of grazing opportunities led to disturbances, while decline of arable land resulted in population loss.

On a happier note twelfth century St James Church has a superb medieval reredos depicting the Last Supper.

The use of colour for maps and photographs has greatly enhanced the attractiveness of this paper back.

It goes a long way towards justifying addition of the Cherwell valley to a recent Sunday Times survey of the ‘Best Places to live in Britain’.

l River Cherwell by Jean Stone is published by Amberley Press.