Aston’s Eyot is a small island by the Thames with a history that stretches back into one thousand year history of the city of Oxford.
The site has been called “Aston’s Eyot” since at least 1440 when All Souls’ College sold hay from “Astonseyte”. All Souls’ records go up to to 1842 when the college leased it to “John Early of Newland and Witney, blanket manufacturer”. It was bought by Christ Church College in 1891, who are still the owners of the site – and now lease the land to the Friends of Aston’s Eyot. Until the mid nineteenth century the land was a low-lying riverside flood meadow. It was used as a pasture, hay meadow, and market garden.
From the early 1900’s to the late 1940’s, the whole site was used as the rubbish tip for the City, dumping domestic, university, and small business waste. The remains of this rubbish now consists largely of pottery and glass. A thin layer of soil was added to the surface, but the capping was thin so the rubbish below is regularly brought to the surface. Through dumping, the level of the land was raised by 1 to 2 metres all over the eyot, except for a narrow strip 1 to 5 metres wide along the river and ditch edges. As a result of this increase in height, Aston’s Eyot doesn’t flood very often, with the exception of the water-edge strip.
During Second World War, the eyot was used for military training. And immediately after, the northern part of the site was used as a rugby pitch but quickly stopped because players were getting cut by glass fragments rising through the surface.
Since tipping rubish ceased, the vegetation has gradually developed so that the area has become a semi-natural wilderness, with scrub predominating. Some fruit trees are present too, including apple, pear and sweet cherry. Some were planted but many more are suspected to have self-sown from dumped fruit waste.
Between 1974 and 1984 Christ Church gave Oxford City Council a non-exclusive licence to use Aston’s Eyot as a public open space. Many of the trees scattered through the Eyot were also planted at this time (1975-1980) by John Thompson in association with the City Council. In 1983 Christ Church also leased the land to a bottle-digging club. During 1983-4 this club brought in large mechanical excavators which soon devastated a large area of the Eyot, digging down several feet over most of the site. Bottle digging didn’t stop until 1999. Although most of the trees and shrubs were left in place, the result of this extensive soil disturbance over many years, together with the high fertility associated with old rubbish tips, was that almost all the grassland on the site was lost and was replaced by the very extensive areas of nettles and creeping thistle still seen today.
In 2010, Christ Church said that they were also unable to invest in management of Aston’s Eyot and restore habitats. They asked for a local wildlife group to take it on. As a result Friends of Aston’s Eyot was formed in September 2010 following a series of well-attended meetings of local people, to protect and manage the site – which continues to this day.
Take a look at old photos, paintings and maps of the eyot.