Look Back With Little: Much-loved hill tells tales across the ages

A mid-19th century view of Crouch Hill first published in Alfred Beesley's History of Banbury 1842
A mid-19th century view of Crouch Hill first published in Alfred Beesley's History of Banbury 1842

Crouch Hill is the highest eminence in the Banbury area. Its conical top is artificial: according Alfred Beesley in his History of Banbury built up by early Britons to provide a signalling point to the surrounding hill fortresses that are still visible from the crest.

An amusing folk legend has it that the devil was part responsible for its formation. Exhausted by great heat the contents of a hod were deposited there rather than taken to the church at Bloxham.

Such is the value placed on the visual aspect of Crouch Hill that attempts to build at its foot close to the Broughton Road were thwarted by a government inspector’s decision to disallow plans for housing because of its impact on Crouch Hill which she regarded as an outstanding amenity feature.

In Old Banbury published by the Banbury Historical Society, Dr E R C Brinkworth prefers to write about its British name which hints at a settlement as early as 400 BC. He goes on to remark about the lack of evidence for Roman settlement within Banbury.

Had he been alive today he would have been excited by the discovery of a substantial Roman villa on farm land at nearby Broughton.

Dr Brinkworth could not have predicted the building of houses beyond Salt Way. Within the Victoria Park site, archaeologists have located a late Iron Age farmstead with associated round houses.

Long before this it is more than probable that rites linked with the goddess of fertility were celebrated, especially on May Day.

In his booklet Ted Brinkworth describes later local festivities. These included the youth of Banbury going to the woods on Crouch Hill and returning with boughs to make garlands and timber for a Maypole.

Linked to this activity was a May Queen (the Earth Goddess) who would be seated on a white horse, the symbol of deity. The outcome would have been music and dancing, the strewing of flowers and the setting up of the maypole. Needless to say specially made cakes were consumed, a likely origin of Banbury Cakes. A later development was the emergence of the Fine Lady with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes.

The hill’s commanding position was seen as a military advantage during the Civil War. In June 1644 a royal army led by the King marched over Banbury bridge and through the town with intention of taking possession of Crouch Hill. It soon became apparent that Sir William Waller’s parliamentary army advancing from the north had the same object in view.

Waller’s troops triumphed and the King’s army retreated to Grimsbury. Waller’s name lives on within the Bryant Homes estate at the foot of the hill.

Much closer in time has been Crouch Hill’s association with recreational activities. Steeple chases took place on the lower slopes and in years such as 1908 attracted a good level of entries.

That they were popular over a wide area is evidenced by the fact that the Great Western Railway announced a cheap trip to Banbury from Didcot, Culham, Abingdon, Radley and Oxford.

As for the races, these were said to be under distinguished patronage as well as National Hunt rules.

There were six races, the last of which was for local jockeys only. The event attracted people from all levels of society.

One shilling was sufficient for course access but groups such as those from Broughton Castle would have paid 10s a head for paddock entry.

In 2018 the hill area is a local park, domain of dog walkers, kite fliers, family picnics and informal games. In snowy weather locals battle the slide zone on everything from toboggans to sheets of plastic.

During 1963 when conditions were severe the sports master from Easington Boys School taught keen youngsters the rudiments of skiing. Back in the 1920s the route had been towards the Broughton Road and not in the direction of the houses as now.

Local people of a certain vintage recall livestock grazing at the top of the hill and past national occasions when a beacon was lit, providing a signal to the surrounding area.