DPhil Diaries Fifteen: Two Thousand Years of Conflict

Recently, since the lifting of the most recent lockdown, I have been making an effort to explore more of Oxfordshire by getting the bus out of the city to walk or run further afield. This last weekend, I travelled down to Faringdon, not far east of Swindon, for what turned out to be a very interesting run.

When I set off first thing the weather forecast said there was a 50% chance of rain showers, but that turned out to mean a light drizzle all day long. I put my rain jacket on within the first ten minutes and kept it on for the entire 27km route, making the day slightly less enjoyable than it otherwise could have been and obscuring the apparently far reaching views from the small hills to the river and the Cotswolds to the north and the  North Wessex Downs with the Uffington White Horse to the south. Back in 2019 on a college trip to the White Horse we had even worse weather, so at this point I am skeptical the views exist at all.

Regardless of the conditions, I had mapped out an interesting route that took me through a lot of local history. The bus dropped me off in the old market square of Faringdon, just across from the stout, steeple-less church, which was said to have been damaged during the English Civil War. I followed the sign posts up to Faringdon Hill, an intriguing small lump tucked behind the houses of the town. 

I'd caught a glimpse of it on my way into town and seen its distinct shape, with rounded sides and a flattened top. It's one of those place where it is easily apparent that such a feature in the landscape would have had a military usage in a past era and that is true of Faringdon Hill.

That reaction to the hill was also true for the eccentric Lord Berners, owner of Faringdon House, in the early 1930s. It is said that while out walking one day he declared that "this hill needs a tower" and so he had the folly built, in part also to rile up local opposition. The tower that now dominates the hill was officially opened on Guy Fawkes Night, 1935 and is today managed by a local trust who allow visits to the top, from where it is said one can see five different counties. With Covid restrictions still in place, the tower wasn't open on my visit. Maybe that's just as well, given that I could barely see to the next farm, never mind five counties!

The pretty woodland on the hill is now a popular walking spot, but that hides a far more interesting history, and one much older than Berners' folly. For it was on Faringdon Hill that Oliver Cromwell had  a battery during the Civil War. With King Charles I headquartered in Oxford in 1641 (definitely a blog post for another day), Faringdon was on the front line, with this hill providing the fortifications to protect Cromwell's men as they fired cannons down onto the Royalists. Local history websites say that bodies from this time were uncovered when digging the foundations for the tower. However, with trees now growing across the hill, it is now difficult to see any traces of Cromwell's battery, even if its significance is clear to see.

But the Civil War was not the first time this town had been the scene of battle. Back in 1144 Queen Matilda had taken refuge in a fort on Faringdon Hill when it was attacked and captured during a three day battle by King Stephen. For him, the significance of Faringdon was that it was the high ground south of the River Thames' oldest bridge crossing at Radcot. Unfortunately, I couldn't fit in a visit to the bridge today, which was a particular shame as there's a good Time Team episode with an excavation of a site nearby.

After visiting the hill, with all its history, I looped back round into Faringdon town centre before heading west to Badbury Hill, another wooded mound not dissimilar from Faringdon Hill. Now owned by the National Trust, Badbury had once been the site of an Iron Age hill fort, dating to around 600BC. Again, with more recent levelling and the planting of trees, there is little trace of the fort today, although the wood does feel very atmospheric.

Despite its more recent history, the shape of the hill demonstrates its natural significance for battle. I approached the hill from the south side, running through what is now the National Trust car park. From this side, there is not much of a climb up to the summit of the hill, yet I then turned west from which side the drop off is steeper and longer. This was great fun to run down, although I was somewhat cursing it when I came back up towards the end of my run, passing the road sign that warns of a 12% gradient. Its importance to the Battle of Badon in the 5th or 6th Century, which was purported to have occurred on this hill and in this area, is therefore clear. The army who held its high ground could therefore protect Faringdon to the east and the approach to the Wessex Downs to the south with relative ease, while making difficult work for an attacking army approaching from the north or west.

Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be too much information about Badbury's history available online. So quite what role King Arthur may have played in the defeat of the Anglo Saxons here, or the specific details of the fort on this site I do not know.

Turning north, I ran along the edge of the Buscot Park estate and made for the River Isis (as the Thames is known in these parts). On my route today there's an amazing number of country estates that appear to remain. I'm sure all much smaller than they ever used to be, but each stretch of footpaths seemed to be owned by one big house or another, and I was able to catch glimpses of many of them as I passed.

I crossed the Isis at Kelmscott and ran upstream on the tow path to Buscot village. Here, the river is small and rural, frequented by pleasure boats but very peaceful, even in comparison with Oxford. A world away from the main artery of London.

On this path I was surprised to come across two concrete pillboxes, reportedly built on the river's north bank in 1940, during the Second World War. The two were identical, hexagonal structures with horizontal look outs. The internet tells me these are type FW3/22, in case anyone who knows more about these things than me is curious. It seems almost ridiculous that these isolated concrete structures could have been thought possible of defending Britain from Nazi invasion, especially considering their quiet inland location.

Yet these would have formed part of a string of defences, which included road blocks and tank traps, designed to protect the numerous airfields in the region, the most notable of which remains RAF Brize Norton. They ultimately formed the GHQ Line, which stretched from Bristol to the Thames Estuary. Chris Kolonko has done some brilliant work, mapping these sites in Google Earth to demonstrate how the stop lines fitted together to protect against invasion.

Shortly after I passed the second pillbox, I crossed back onto the south side of the river and down into Buscot a really pretty and quaint village. I headed straight up onto Bury Hill (not strictly on the footpath) to visit the Ordnance Survey trig pillar at its summit, as part of another project of mine. Again, I think this would have been another site for great views if it would ever stop raining!

Descending down into Coleshill, I had had more than enough of the drab weather and so ran the direct route back to Faringdon on the roads, past the Coleshill Park estate and back past Badbury Hill, where the ice cream van didn't appear to be doing much business at all (rather unsurprisingly). 

Although the weather was rather trying throughout my run, it was nonetheless a fascinating place to visit and amazing to see so much history in one relatively understated area. There's so much history hidden beneath the surface in places like this and it was brilliant to discover some of it. It's wonderful as well that many of these features, such as Cromwell's battery and the hill fort, are still marked on the Ordnance Survey maps even though there is little trace left on the ground today. It was these labels that set me off in search of the area's history and which got me thinking about the previous uses of these places to start with and I appreciate those little nods to our heritage when it otherwise lies beneath our feet in the countryside. 


PS. All photos in this post were taken on my GoPro camera because, you know, rain.


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