Introduction to Cumnorís landscape

Cumnor parish lies within the wide bend of the Thames, which reaches its most northerly point near Wytham. It was this wide loop of the river, forming a natural boundary, which gave name to the early Saxon 'Hornigas' and to the Hundred of 'Hornimere' (Hormer) [Photograph | Map].

The north of the area is dominated by Wytham Hill, which rises to 180 metres [Photograph]. There are two anticlinal domes, known respectively as Wytham Hill and Seacourt Hill, the former being the higher and more westerly. The south-eastern flank of Seacourt Hill above Dean Court, like the ridge above the Hinkseys, affords fine views across Oxford to the Chilterns [Photograph]. From Oxford these uplands are well-defined hills which enhance the city's setting.

The Corallian limestones on Wytham Hill form an outlier of the main outcrop on the Cumnor ridge, separated by a valley imputed to spring sapping. This cross valley broadens to the west till it reaches the Thames [Photograph]. The strata on Seacourt Hill tilt southwards, probably due to a fault on an axis with lslip. The outcrops on the lower slopes of Wytham and Seacourt Hill have been confused by land slippage.

The limestones exposed on Wytham Hill and the Cumnor ridge are in part Coral Rag, the remnants of Jurassic reefs. The Cumnor reef is exposed in the by-pass cutting north of the Oxford Road bridge in Cumnor. It was quarried for a time to the east of the Faringdon Road near Bradley Farm and at other sites in the area, being used for road foundations, lime and building. The limestone between the reefs was formed of detrital sediments and is known in the region as Wheatley Stone.

The Corallian limestones lie upon sandy, gritty beds, known collectively as Calcereous Grit. These have a certain environmental effect in that they provide the preferred earth for badgers, foxes and rabbits. This outcrop is close to the spring line, which determined the pattern of early settlement in the cross-valley.

The above strata lie over a deep bed of Oxford Clay, which forms the lower hillsides and valley floor. At Cumnor Meadow it was overlain by recent deposits of alluvium and river terrace gravels.

Around Cumnor Hurst, a landmark on the ridge cherished by the poet Matthew Arnold [Photograph], the Corallian limestones are topped by lower Greensand and Kimmeridge Clay. The latter provided, from around 1850 to the 1930s, material for Chawley Brick and Tile Works. The Kimmeridge Clay extends south to Wootton.

The woods on Wytham Hill still cover a substantial area [Photograph | Photograph] and there are some remnants of old woodland on the slopes of Cumnor ridge, which is dominated by Cumnor Hurst and southward by Boars Hill. Forest would have covered the whole area above the flood plain in prehistoric times.

The natural drainage of the valley between Wytham Hill and the ridge west of Dean Court flows west to the Thames, the main brook now displaced from its original course by the first reservoir at Farmoor. East of Dean Court the flow is eastward into the Seacourt Stream, a branch of the Thames. From Cumnor the Osse stream flows south to the Ock and thus to the Thames at Abingdon. Streams formed natural boundaries between the tythings and between fields, as did the Thames for many centuries between tribes, dioceses and between counties.

Until this century a 'closed parish' policy by the lord of the manor maintained a level of population that could be supported, sometimes only with difficulty, by the landed economy: only Cumnor village gathered a surplus population which in times of recession and poor harvests put a heavy burden on the Poor Rate.

In the 20th century tremendous changes occured south of the Botley to Eynsham road but the Wytham estate to the north of it has changed little. The boundary of North Hinksey was extended in 1915 to include the eastern part of Botley tything. After the First World War the 7th Earl of Abingdon, whose family had owned most of Cumnor parish since 1658, was obliged by financial difficulties to sell the farms and cottages. Many were bought by sitting tenants. The dispersal of the freeholds opened up opportunities for exploitation for housing development, particularly in the eastern areas closest to Oxford.

While there was extensive residential building between the wars and after 1950, a wide arc of farmland [Photograph] and woodland to the west and north has been protected for its scenic quality and scientific interest. In 1943 the Wytham Estate, which included nearly all the Cumnor parish land north of the B4044 Eynsham Road, was acquired, in parts by gift and purchase from Raymond ffennell (who had bought it some 20 years earlier from the Earl of Abingdon), by Oxford University. The woodlands have since been a restricted area for environmental research. On the other hand a marked environmental impact was made by the Thames Water reservoirs, on which work began in 1962 [Photograph], and by two lines of pylons. Thus the demands of urban areas make their mark on the rural landscape.