A brief history of Aston’s Eyot
Aston’s Eyot is a 12 ha / 30 acre ‘island’ bordered by the Thames, Cherwell New Cut and Shire Lake Ditch. It can be approached from Meadow Lane via the Kidneys and across a footbridge, or from Jackdaw Lane off Iffley Road. The land is owned by Christ Church. Although on the ‘wrong’ side of the Thames, before it was included within the city boundary it used to be in the old (pre-1974) county of Berkshire.
In medieval times land holdings were often very fragmented, and Aston’s Eyot was a detached part of Hormer Hundred, which formed part of the manor of Lewknor, a village on the edge of the Chilterns (by the ‘Khyber Pass’ cutting on the M40). Edward the Confessor granted Lewknor to Abingdon Abbey, to which it belonged until 1440, when it was taken by the King (with compensation) to be granted to the newly founded All Soul’s College in Oxford – all colleges in those days financed themselves from land holdings. The last Rector of Lewknor before it passed to All Souls was William Eston, after whom, we think, the Eyot is named. ‘Aston’ itself means ‘East Tun’ [=eastern farmstead] and was often also spelt ‘Eston(e)’ in medieval times.
As far as we can discover, Aston’s Eyot first appears in history under this name in the 15th century, when All Soul’s leased ‘Astonseyte’ to John Page and Richard Bustard of Oxford in the year ’32 Henry VI’, or 1454. The All Soul’s records go through to 1842, when the land was leased to ‘John Early of Newland and Witney, blanket manufacturer’, who, one may presume, ran sheep on the meadows to feed his famous blanket mill, sadly closed in the 1990s. Christ Church, which had acquired most of the land west of the Iffley Road through enclosure awards in the mid-1800s, bought Aston’s Eyot in 1891 to complete their holdings east of the river. However the ‘charming walk by the waterside’ anticipated by the Oxford Magazine (see separate tab) did not materialise for many decades, and Christ Church never joined it to their Meadow walks.
Until the mid nineteenth century the land was a low-lying riverside water meadow. It was used as a mixture of pasture and market garden. From the early 1900s until the 1940s it was used as the city rubbish dump, an unpleasantly smelly zone luridly described in Dorothy Sayers’s 1935 novel Gaudy Night. The area contains the residue of old pottery and glass, often bearing scraps of College crests, as well as broken tiles, food jars and medicine bottles. The level of the land was raised by about two metres.
During the 1939-45 war part of the area was used for military training (see ‘Bygone Eyot’ tab), and after the war pigs were run under what is now ‘Wild Wood’ (see map) and the area near Jackdaw Lane gate was used as a rugby pitch (marked as ‘sports ground’ on postwar maps). However, due to problems caused to players by glass fragments rising through the surface, this was abandoned. Since tipping ceased, the vegetation has gradually developed so that the area has become a semi-natural wild area, with scrub predominating. Scrub is an under-represented habitat with the Oxford City Local Plan area.
From 1968 to 1978 the northern part of the Eyot was under threat from an inner relief road, the ‘Eastwyke Farm Road’ planned to run from Jackdaw Lane over the river through Eastwyke Farm to the Abingdon Road – residents’ objections were consistently overruled, until a financial crisis in 1978 forced the government to cut road plans. In 2003 the Oxford Civic Society published a book that included a suggestion that a conference centre and theatre/concert hall, plus associated car parking, should be built on the Eyot, together with a cycle/pedestrian bridge over the Thames. The whole area was described as ‘an old car dump’, showing a certain insensitivity to the wildlife haven that isn’t Metal Salvage’s scrapyard!
Between 1974 and 1984 Christ Church gave Oxford City Council a non-exclusive licence to use Aston’s Eyot as a public open space. This was greatly appreciated by local people, not least because the gate at Jackdaw Lane was kept locked and cars kept out.
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. The formerly locked gate was left open, and the club members’ cars allowed on the land. The effects on the wildlife and habitat of Aston’s Eyot of the bottle diggers’ activities so shocked local people that they formed a committee to negotiate with Christ Church on behalf of the plants and animals that were being destroyed. The affair brought considerable local press coverage and caused acrimony between college and townspeople.
Christ Church allowed the bottle digging club to conclude its mechanical digging. However bottle diggers continued for a period to dig illicitly, although manually, and the college in an attempt to control this issued some individual licences. These were finally withdrawn in 1999.
The city council in the 1980s regarded Aston’s Eyot as “such an important area of accessible urban countryside” that it was very anxious to continue with the management licence and prepared to find funds to do so. It was listed by the City Council listed as a ‘SLINC’ (Site of Local Interest for Nature Conservation), but has no formal statutory protection, although it is zoned both as Green Belt and flood-plain which, in principle, prevents it being built on.
During rebuilding of one of the college boathouses on Christ Church Meadow in the late 1980s, a pontoon bridge was placed across the Cherwell. This was greatly appreciated by local people as an informal link with walks through the Meadow. However the fact that it is not currently on a through route gives the area a welcome degree of isolation from the city’s bustle.
Bibliography of sources for Aston’s Eyot and nearby areas
- Betjeman, John & Vaisey, David. 1971.Victorian and Edwardian Oxford from old photographs.T.Batsford, London. Unpaginated (156 plates).
- Chance, Eleanor.Oxfordshire of one hundred years ago. Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud. 116pp [reprinted 2008 in smaller format as Victorian & Edwardian Oxfordshire.Amberley Publishing, Stroud]
- Farr, Peter & Chapman, Don. 1994.Images of Oxford. Breedon Books, Derby. 192pp.
- Graham, Malcolm. 1992.Images of Victorian Oxford. Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud. 192pp.
- Graham, Malcolm. 1999.A Century of Oxford. Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud. 120pp.
- Havinden, Michael & others (eds.). 2003.Visions for Oxford in the 21st century. Oxford Civic Society, Oxford. 152pp.
- Martin, Charles T. 1877.Catalogue of the archives in the muniment rooms of All Souls’ College.Spottiswoode & Co., London. [on-line at archive.org]
- Poulton-Smith, Anthony.Oxfordshire place names. Amberley Publishing, Stroud. 160pp.
- Salmon, Graeme L. 2010.Beyond Magdalen Bridge: the growth of East Oxford. Oxford Meadow Press, Oxford. 86pp.
- Sayers, Dorothy. 1935.Gaudy night. Victor Gollancz, London [frequent reprints, various publishers].
- Sharp, Thomas. 1948.Oxford replanned. Architectural Press, London. 224pp.
- Skinner, Annie. 2005.Cowley Road – A history. Signal Books, Oxford. 164pp.
- Surman, Phyl[lis]. 1992.Pride of the morning – An Oxford childhood. Alan Sutton Publishing, Stroud. 141pp. [reprinted as An Oxford childhood, The History Press, Stroud, 2009]
- AND – online at www.british-history.ac.uk: Victoria County HistoryA History of the County of Oxford: Volume 4: The City of Oxford
And thanks to Graeme Salmon (Friends of Warneford Meadow), Keith Wait (Oxfordshire Antique Bottle Collecting Club) and the Iffley Fields Community Nature Plan Group (Mari Girling, Sarah Wild) for additional information.
[This account expanded and adapted by Anthony Cheke (with help from Graeme Salmon) from an outline compiled by the Iffley Fields Community Nature Plan Group (ca.1999)]