Chris Cheetham’s Snippets from Noke

Return to Noke page

Return to Index  


The Environment Agency has just reminded owners of 2 million properties who are at risk of flood this winter. These are the households in areas shown as at risk on the Agency's "100 year Indicative Floodplain Map" published on the Agency's website ( It shows those areas where the risk of flood is greater than 1 in 100 - a flood is to be expected at least once every 100 years.

No surprise that Otmoor, and the land east of Islip are indicated: the whole area is shown at risk, up to about 59.5m above Mean Sea Level - the exact level is based on historical records. Flooding of Otmoor arises from influx of water either coming down the Ray or (as in April 1998) up the Ray from the Cherwell. Since the Agency has permanent monitors on both rivers, it should normally be able to warn those potentially at risk directly or via its flood wardens, of whom I am one. In any case, relatively few people are at risk: I imagine for most of you, flooding of Otmoor is a familiar process, slow enough to give ample warning of potential flood danger. But the fact that floods have not reached your property before does not mean that there is no chance they will in future. The time to prepare is now, not when the flood is a foot from your door (and you are on holiday!) Perhaps someone in each village might take it on herself to check the indicative map to identify areas at risk.

Less expected is that much of Noke is also shown, as are parts of Beckley, and areas round White Cross Green, in Murcott, in Charlton, and between Charlton and Islip. In these cases the cause is different: flash flooding due to heavy and persistent rain falling on ground that cannot absorb it. The bad news is that flooding arises from small streams which are not
monitored by the Agency, who can give no warning, moreover the water rises very swiftly. The good news is that the risk is low for the Ray basin – for example in Noke it is rated at less than 1 in 50.

Note that the latter projections are not based on historical records, but on a predictive model. This is acknowledged by the Agency to be crude and inaccurate, and the predictions it generates are being replaced by "Section 105 maps", but these are unlikely to be available for 18 months. Meanwhile, my own calculations for Noke are that the true risk is under 1 in 100: it would need conditions far worse than those ever recorded, more than 6
inches of rain in less than 6 hours. Further, the Agency's risk projections, as well as the indicative map, are available to insurance companies: these provide no basis for them to increase insurance premiums.

C. J. Cheetham


Saxons versus Celts


Archaeologists used to need to be expert in inanimate objects, stone and pot, wood and steel, gold and jewels. Now they need to know their organic sciences too. Nowhere is this more evident locally than in the light thrown by them on the Dark Ages. The whole picture is obscure enough: did Saxons really invade England, as used to be thought, or was the invasion like that of Rome, a largely cultural dominance by a relatively small number. What happened on Otmoor is completely unknown. The Domesday communities are all Saxon tuns or towns, with Saxon names such as Noke (“at the Oak”), yet there have been continuous occupation from Celtic times, because Noke, Woodeaton, Beckley and Horton are all on Celtic sites.


The first, somewhat ambiguous clue to a solution comes from genealogical studies, appropriately because Otmoor was one of the areas that formed part of Harrison Ainsworth’s pioneering studies, Comparison with an isolated community, in Munster in south west Ireland, shows strong gene relationships, and hence a strong presumption of shared Celtic ancestry. More intriguing is the specific link established to Blessed Eadulf of Seaxmund’s Ham, using DNA samples taken from his relics in Cork Cathedral. As his name indicates, he was a Saxon, known to us from the researches of local scholar Bruce Tremayne: presumably he settled in Ireland and married (still common enough in the Irish church in the 7th century), doubtless to his long time companion Sister Fidelma of Cashel (of whom Tremayne also writes).


A more precise, if more specifically local link to that period comes from another appropriate technique, dendrochronology, known locally because it was used to date a bridge on the Roman road across Otmoor to AD.97. It has recently been applied to an Oak which lies on Noke Footpath 12, just by Prattle Lane. Evidently old from its girth, the first surprise is that it turns out to be a Quercus Aprilis (April Oak, so called because it is the first to leaf in Spring), a species very rare in England. Dendrochronology shows that it is indeed venerable, exactly 1401 years old, which puts it in AD.600 right in the period when Saxons an Celts must have been contesting locally for cultural and racial supremacy. Could it indeed be not merely old and rare, but actually the last survivor of the tree for which Noke was named, our first April oak ?


Chris Cheetham


 Water, water everywhere?

It used to be said that the people who live close to Otmoor grow webbed feet.  After some exceptionally dry years, the last eighteen months have reminded everyone just how wet the area can be round the west end of the moor. 

I once counted over twenty good sized ponds in Noke - not including the ones that have been filled in and, in some cases, built on!  Almost every old house had its own well and they were an important factor in keeping the village healthy.  Until proper water supplies and drainage were installed, the most common cause of disease and death was contamination of the water, which happened especially when people lived close together and used the same wells (as in Islip).

Some of our water seems just to come down off the little slope on which the houses in Lower Noke are built.  The soil acts like a sponge laid on the impermeable clay, with sometimes surprising results.  When we planted a tree last year in memory of Ron Spice, we chanced to strike a little stream running under the road near Rectory Cottage.  I once saw water bubbling up through the road surface near there, driven by nothing more than the slight rise of the slope.  When I investigated the well at Rectory Farm Cottage next door, within feet of the road, I found the water level was higher than the road surface.

Another good water source is the springs one can find on the slopes of Beckley Hill, in Noke, in Oddington and in Islip.  Many of these originate when water falls down through the sand or gaps in the rock to the underlying clay, then runs along the clay bed and springs break out wherever there is easy access to the surface.

Sometimes one can think we will never run short of water.  Indeed, the pond in the field next Woodeaton Shrine is said to be fed by a perpetual spring.  But in dry enough years even the wettest areas dry out.  The late Charlie Durrell remembered a couple of years when cattle had to be driven out onto the centre of Otmoor to find water.

 SNIPPETS FROM THE PAST (Fragments of Local History?

Islip and the Oxford Transport Strategy in 1850

The Oxford Transport Strategy is running two months late because it is taking longer than expected to dismantle the old station.  Nothing changes does it?

Oxford Station owes its location to the belief of Oxford dons that the advent of the railway would destroy Oxford as they knew it.  Unable to keep it away altogether, they were at least able to ensure it was sited at an inconvenient distance from the city centre.  And once the first line came, it was impossible to keep others away.  And that is how Oxford acquired, in the same year as The Great Exhibition (1851), the little prefabricated building using Crystal Palace technology which is now being dismantled.

Strange to report, it proved somehow impossible in 1850-51 to bring everything together so that the new line to Oxford could open all together in a timely fashion, which is how “Oxford’s" terminus came to be located for a short time in Islip.  In April 1851, when the census was taken, Islip’s population was swollen by some 48 people, including a telegraphist, a station master, railway police, a booking clerk and sundry labourers still working on the extension to Oxford.  Until later in 1851, those who wanted to travel into Oxford centre descended at Islip and took a cart.

So that’s where the idea of Park and Ride came from!

 An OT-iose comparison?

Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed
And batten on this moor
?” Hamlet, Act III.4, ll.67-68

Hamlet’s comparison (he is being rude about his uncle, the usurping king) seems to have puzzled at least one distinguished editor (T J B Spencer), who assumed that moors are highlands!

Well, Spencer can never have seen Otmoor.  But had Shakespeare?  He travelled from Stratford to London.  He may sometimes have gone by Banbury, but the shortest route, according to the first roadmap of England (published in 1675), was south from Stratford to the Four County Stone on the road to Oxford.  To Oxford but not through Oxford, unless he had good reason.  Long before where he might have taken what was then a by-way, alternately hilly and muddy, he would have struck the main road from Worcester to London - now the B4027.  And so to Islip and across the Ray.  No one could call Noke Hill a fair mountain, but its slopes certainly support sheep and spread out below is undoubtedly a low-lying moor.  Since the contrast is unfavorable to the moor, Shakespeare must have seen Otmoor at its wet, muddy, and inhospitable worst.

An OT-iose comparison indeed!

 Chris Cheetham