Antiques
Arts
Country
Fashion
Food
Garden
History
Humour
Interiors
People
Wordplay
 
Limited Edition
Contents
February 2006
No. 229
Antiques
- Smart art
Arts
- Out of this world
Country
- Rallying to the cause
- Woodland walks
Fashion
Food
- Something seductive
- Dinner for two
- Two for one
Garden
- Signs of spring
History
- Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages
- The wild west
Humour
Interiors
People
- Dealing with depression
- Wind power
- A winter wonderland
- The lost champion
- A web of words
- The creation of Narnia
Wordplay
- Touchy subjects
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Port Meadow in flood by Valarie Petts
Where things began
Port Meadow brings the countryside right into the heart of Oxford — and it has a history which began long before the first dreaming spire appeared on the city skyline

An American tourist once asked an Oxford academic to show him the city's most ancient monument He grew more and more bewildered as the don led him far from the city centre to a windswept watermeadow, where cattle and horses grazed.

"What's this?" he asked. "This," said the don, "is Port Meadow."

Port Meadow is unique, older than the university and any building in Oxford. It has never been ploughed and, covering 365 acres, is one of the biggest areas of common land in England. And it has been used and abused by man since the Iron Age, if not longer.

The Thames valley was a major area of settlement in prehistoric times, and near Oxford the floodplain was then much drier, allowing settlement on Port Meadow. Look at any aerial photograph of the meadow taken during a long hot summer and you’ll see the ghostly imprints of Iron Age round houses and enclosures and Bronze Age burial mounds appearing as rings on the grass. Since time immemorial, the burgesses and freemen of Oxford have grazed their beasts there, defending the right by quoting a reference in the Domesday Book of 1086.

The vast expanse was originally called Portmaneit (or Burgess Island). The name Port Meadow was in use by 1285.

In the 21st century, it is still "common pasture", a wild, windy plain beside the River Thames, with grass, thistles, ponies, cattle, geese — possibly descendants of domestic geese once owned by residents of nearby Wolvercote — and other overwintering wildfowl.

There have been long-running arguments over who owns the meadow. Oxford City Council once tried to get Parliament to rule on the Freemen's claim that it belonged to them, but dropped the idea after fierce opposition. Now the council and Freemen share the responsibility.

The annual round-up or horses and cattle continues a medieval custom where the Sheriff of Oxford and their followers drive all animals off the meadow and into a pound.

This is supposed to be a top-secret operation, so that owners without grazing rights cannot remove their animals at the last minute and escape a fine. But most years, news leaks out and many animals suddenly vanish before the Sheriff's arrival.

Sheriffs of Oxford have used a variety of means of transport when conducting the annual round-up of animals — some have ridden horses, others have walked or driven in vehicles. One, a former Air Vice Marshal, even commandeered a helicopter.

Port Meadow also has a military history. King Charles I billeted his forces there during the English Civil War, when Oxford temporarily became his headquarters.

At the Wolvercote end of the meadow an area was also used as an airfield during the First World War — you can still see the concrete ‘target’ building constructed to allow the airmen to practice their ‘bombing’ runs on the ‘border’ between Port Meadow and Wolvercote Common.
 
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