There’s a lot to Aston’s Eyot from medieval times to the modern day, and from literature to Thames traditions.
Aston’s Eyot is a 32 acre island nature reserve. It’s bordered by the River Thames, River Cherwell, New Cut, and Shire Lake Ditch. It can be approached from Meadow Lane via the Kidneys Nature Park and across a footbridge, or from Jackdaw Lane off the Iffley Road.
The history of the site has been pieced together by volunteers of Friends of Aston’y Eyot and local historians.
A medieval beginning
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 given 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. It’s assumed the Eyot is named after him. ‘Aston’ itself means ‘East Tun’ (eastern farmstead) and was often also spelt ‘Eston’ and ‘Estone’ in medieval times.
As far as we can tell, ‘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.
All Soul’s records go up to 1842, when the land was leased to ‘John Early of Newland and Witney, blanket manufacturer’, who ran sheep on the meadows to supply his famous blanket mill in Witney – this mill operated for a long time and sadly closed in the 1990s.
‘A new walk for Oxford’
Christ Church College, 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. They bought it to complete their land holdings east of the river. When they purchased the land, they called it a ‘charming walk by the waterside’ and published this in the Oxford Chronicle on 14th March 1891. You can see this below.
Despite this claim, the walk did not materialise for many decades, and Christ Church never joined it to their Meadow walks.
Oxford city rubbish dump
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 smelly zone described in Dorothy Sayers’s 1935 novel Gaudy Night. Domestic, university, and small business waste was dumped at the site. 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. To this day, the eyot contains the residue of old pottery and glass, often bearing scraps of College crests, as well as broken tiles, food jars and medicine bottles.
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
War and rugby comes to the eyot
During the Second World War part of the area was used for military training and after the war pigs were run under what is now ‘Wild Wood’, 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.
Tipping rubbish ended around this time and the site was covered over with a layer of clinker – a thin layer of top soil. The soil profile was left to develop through natural succession. Through some local planting, and natural vegetation succession, plants slowly colonised the eyot but for years much of it was just a bare clinker surface. There was also informal dumping by local residents, to whom it was generally known as ‘The Dumps’. The divisions are evident in a 1945 aerial photo that you can see below.
Nearly a road to ruin
From 1968 to 1978 the northern part of the Eyot was under threat from an inner relief road, the ‘Eastwyke Farm Road’. This was 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.
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, and cars were kept out. 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.
During this time, enthusiastic bottle diggers began to dig up soil on the eyot. The Plantation wood was established by Christ Church in 1981 and 1982, as part of an attempt to overcome the problem of bottle-digging – you can still see a sign erected warning off enthusiasts.
The bottle digging years
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). Although this offers no formal statutory protection, it is zoned both as Green Belt and flood-plain which, in theory, prevents it being built on.
In 1983, Christ Church reversed its policy and 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 shocked local people and they formed a committee to negotiate with Christ Church on behalf of the plants and animals that were being destroyed. The saga 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 illegally, although manually, and the college in an attempt to control this issued some individual licences. These were finally stopped in 1999.
The turn of the century
During rebuilding of one of the college boathouses on Christ Church Meadow in the late 1980s, a temporary pontoon bridge was placed across the Cherwell. This was greatly appreciated by local people as an informal link with walks through the Meadow. A permanent bridge proposal was put forward by the council in 2007. The idea was for a bridge to be installed from Jackdaw Lane across the Thames. It was an unpopular and destructive proposal, and never progressed.
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 pedestrian bridge over the Thames. The whole area was described as ‘an old car dump’, showing a certain insensitivity to the wildlife haven that they eyot has become.
Friends of Aston’s Eyot take over
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.
The Friends of Aston’s Eyot is the charity which looks after the eyot. We are a passionate and committed group of local residents, carrying out conservation work and fundraising for nature
Make a donation
Please support the work of the Friends of Aston’s Eyot by making a donation. Your gift will be used for vital conservation work.
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]