Category Archives: Meeting report

January 2022 meeting: Romans in Oxfordshire

On 10 January, encouraging numbers of members and guests braved a dreich evening to hear Marie-Louise Kerr describe traces of the Romans in Oxfordshire.

Soon after their invasion in AD 43, the Romans established a fort at Alchester (near Bicester). Two wooden gateposts survived, which, from the pattern of the tree rings in their wood, could be dated to AD 44 or 45.

At the Museum of Oxfordshire in Woodstock you can see this tombstone of a legionary who died around AD50. ‘Lucius Valerius Geminus … of the Pollia voting tribe, from Forum Germanorum, veteran of the Second Augustan Legion, aged 50(?), lies here. His heir(s?) had this set up in accordance with his will.’

The most striking Roman site in Oxfordshire is the villa at North Leigh, probably started around AD100, and later hugely extended. You can see remains of hypocausts, and some beautiful mosaic flooring.

Other important Roman, or Romano-British, sites include Cholsey, Goring (where there was a villa with a cold plunge pool), Long Wittenham, and near Broughton Castle.

In answer to a question after her talk, Marie-Louise confirmed that Dorchester had been an important Roman settlement, but suggested that few traces of it have survived.

Reports of previous meetings

November 2021 meeting: The Harcourt Arboretum 1712-2014

One of Oxfordshire’s brightest botanical jewels

On 8 November Timothy Walker described the Arboretum’s history from (about) 1712 until 2014, the end of his stint as Director of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum.

In 1710 Sir Simon Harcourt had acquired the Nuneham estate, probably as an investment. His grandson Simon, the first Earl Harcourt, decided to live there, and organized the removal of the then village to its present site along the main road. In 1777 he drowned while rescuing his favourite dog from a well. George, the second Earl, enthusiastically continued laying out the gardens near Nuneham House, with notable herbaceous borders and a new ornamental church (whose dome is prominently visible from several places in Radley).

The earldom died out, and the estate passed to Edward Vernon-Harcourt, archbishop of York, and, in 1861, to one of his sons, William Vernon Harcourt, a clergyman with a keen interest in chemistry. William, working with Charles Daubeny, professor of Botany at Oxford (and saviour of the Botanic Garden) began laying out the Arboretum, planting many oaks and limes, expensively imported redwoods, and rhododendrons along a serpentine path.

In 1904 the estate briefly passed to Sir William Harcourt, who as Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1894 had reformed and increased estate duties. They may have been a factor in his grandson Viscount Harcourt’s decision in 1948 to sell the estate to the University of Oxford.

Initially the University saw the land as a source of income from forestry. In the 1960s the University proposed to sell it. Cyril Darlington, Professor of Botany, had to campaign for the Arboretum to become an adjunct to the Botanic Garden. From then on the Arboretum has been continually improved and enriched, and now includes two colourful wildflower meadows and a richly stocked pond.

Timothy Walker illustrated his talk with pictures of favourite trees, and revealed some of his pet hates, including the resident feral peafowl, squirrels, and people who trample the bluebells in order to pick the white ones. He described a trip to Heathrow to collect some palm trees from David Mulholland.

In an answer to questions after his talk, Timothy Walker confirmed that the effects of climate heating are visible at the Arboretum in earlier springs and later autumns, and more frequent extreme events such as the great gale of January 1990.

Reports of previous meetings

September 2021 meeting: Radley in the 1930s and 40s – impressions from oral history

The good old days: village bakery and tea shop, wild swimming, few cars, no overflowing sewer …

On 13 September Radley History Club members were delighted to resume live meetings in the church. After a swift AGM, Scilla Dudding introduced, and David Findlay presented, highlights from one of the Club’s treasures: 28 interviews, conducted mainly by Tony Rogerson, in which Radley residents relate their memories, particularly of the 1930s and 1940s.

Thanks to much work by the Club’s oral history group, these recordings are now accessible in our Archive. Crucially, the group has prepared a catalogue indicating the main topics covered in each interview. This makes it possible to research a particular topic, and the recurring themes.

Several interviewees describe life before the arrival of mains services: well-water including frog-spawn; cesspits; and being told, when mains water did arrive, not to drink another drop from the well that had supplied the family for years. The first telephone was in the then Post Office (now 25 Lower Radley). Alternatively, you could go to the station and ask the signalman to phone an urgent message.

Many residents recalled swimming in the Thames. A ‘great big punt’ had provided a ferry service to Nuneham. Jean Deller’s uncle swam across, somehow keeping dry the uniform he would then use to wait at dinner in Nuneham House.

The house now known as Baker’s Close was the centre of the village, as a shop selling provisions and providing teas. There was also a bakery in Thrupp Lane. There were regular deliveries of coal, paraffin, milk and bread.

Until the mid-1930s, the only buildings near the station were the Bowyer Arms, the station master’s house, and the pair of large villas in what was later renamed Foxborough Road, and then lined with bungalows. One of these, opposite the Bowyer Arms, included a grocery and provisions shop.

As children, residents recalled playing in the quiet streets, almost free of cars, and lined with elms; having relatives living nearby; 3 classes in 2 rooms at the village school; its crude toilets; the punishment of walking round the school playing field in bare feet; and cycling to secondary school in Abingdon.

Many interviewees describe the station in its heyday, with trains to Abingdon. One heard Italian prisoners of war singing while working in the hut in the goods yard. The buses also took parcels, and would hoot to tell you they were waiting for you at your stop.

David Findlay illustrated his talk with fascinating photographs from the Club’s archive, and old large-scale maps (which are available online from the National Library of Scotland). 1930s Radley had been a happy place to live in, where you could leave your doors and windows open, and there were beautiful meadows down by the river.

Reports of previous meetings

June 2021 meeting: Spitfires over Oxfordshire

On 14 June Nic Vanderpeet, learning and outreach officer at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Woodstock, described the wartime reconnaissance missions of the Spitfires based in Oxfordshire.

Reginald Mitchell (1895 – 1937) of Supermarine Aviation, Southampton, designed the Spitfire as an evolution from the firm’s successful seaplanes. After the flight of the prototype in March 1936, the test pilot commented ‘Don’t change a thing.’

The Spitfires in Oxfordshire were deployed in training and reconnaissance roles, based at RAF Benson, RAF & USAAF Mount Farm (around what is now Berinsfield), and RAF Bicester. The planes were equipped with stereoscopic cameras. Teams including many women, notably the famous Constance Babington Smith, identified features on the photographs in interpretation centres at Nuneham House and Medmenham (nearby in Buckinghamshire).

Key intelligence included sightings of the German battleship Bismarck in 1941, the construction of the ‘Atlantic Wall’, confirmation of the damage done by Allied bombing raids, and reconnaissance of the territory inland from the D-day beaches.

John Hugh Saffery, based at RAF Benson, recorded the hazards of flying at high altitude, including extreme cold and lack of oxygen. On YouTube, you can find a short film Spitfire 944 in which US pilot John Blyth describes his experiences at Mount Farm, including a crash landing. At ncap.org.uk the National Collection of Aerial Photography is available online.

Reports of earlier meetings

May 2021 meeting: The Oxford of Inspector Morse

On 10 May Alastair Lack explored the characters of Inspector Morse and his colleague Sergeant Lewis, as depicted in Colin Dexter’s books and three television series.

On holiday in Wales in the early 1970s, reading a poor detective novel, Colin Dexter exclaimed that he could do better. ‘Why don’t you?’ his wife replied. The result was Last Bus to Woodstock, published in 1975 to immediate success, and followed by 12 further Morse novels.

Colin Dexter’s favourite poet was A E Housman. Morse’s early life recalls Housman’s: unhappy in love at Oxford, dropping out without a degree, and initially taking an unsuitable job. Morse becomes a brilliant but wayward detective, still unhappy in love, devoted to opera and real ale. Lewis is the perfect foil: stolid, happily married, and almost always paying for the ale.

The novels make the most of their settings in and near Oxford, for example including Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s appearance in Dr Faustus at the Playhouse in 1966, as well as pubs in and around Oxford.

From 1987 to 2000 Morse and Lewis appeared in the famous and popular television series based on the novels, and then in further episodes written by gifted scriptwriters. Colin Dexter wanted to cast John Thaw as Morse – an inspired choice – and Kevin Whately was perfectly cast as Lewis. The scripts used Morse and Lewis’s sessions in famous Oxford pubs to recapitulate – for viewers’ benefit – the complex story so far, and to explain their next steps.

After a long day of arduous filming, Thaw in particular disliked being recognized in Oxford pubs, and preferred the relative seclusion of the Randolph Hotel, in what was later named the Morse Bar.

It is estimated that almost 19 million people watched the episode Twilight of the Gods in 1993. The cast included John Gielgud, as Chancellor of the University.

In 1999 Colin Dexter published what he firmly declared to be the last Morse novel, The Remorseful Day, in which Morse dies of a heart attack. This was televised in 2000, and was the 33rd episode. Thaw himself died in 2002. Whately went on to star in a new series, Lewis (without Morse) which also ran for 33 episodes. From 2012 a young Morse has appeared in a third series, Endeavour.

Answering the many questions after his talk, Alastair Lack confirmed that Colin Dexter had often appeared in Morse in cameo roles, including, most unusually, a speaking part as the Bishop of Oxford; and that Morse was often seen parking his famous Jaguar car outside Brasenose College but then, in the next shot, appearing in a different college.

Reports of earlier meetings