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The Chequers Inn, Horspath.
The Chequers Inn, Horspath.

Horspath is an ancient English village in South Oxfordshire. Green Belt land surrounds the village on the slopes of Shotover Hill, one mile outside the boundary of the city of Oxford. The parish boundary, along the Roman road, encloses Bullingdon Green, where gentlemen used to sport and English Civil War battles were fought. Medieval evidence suggests there were originally two distinct hamlets, Upper or Old Horspath and Nether, Lower or Church Horspath. The old bridle path joining the London Road through the neighbouring village of Wheatley gave the village the Anglo-Saxon name of "Horsepadan", which became "Horsepath." Finally, in 1912 the Parish Council changed the village's name to the unique form "Horspath."

[edit] History

Three Oxford Colleges, Corpus Christi, Magdalen and Brasenose have owned land and property in the parish. A connection with Queen's College comes from the 15th century when student John Copcot, walking in Shotover Forest reading his Aristotle, was attacked by a wild boar. He thrust the volume down the animal's throat and 'the boar expired'. The college ceremony of carrying in the Boar's Head at Christmas resulted from this, as did the stained glass window in St Giles church, presented in 1740 by the President of Magdalen to commemorate the Copcot Legend.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries laundresses stretched their lines across the green and market gardeners tended their vegetables for Pembroke College, Oxford. Farmers also reared pigs for the college tables. In the census of 1871, showing a population of 373, 93 were employed on the land, 14 were craftsmen and there were 30 other trades, a curate and two publicans. There were 12 farmers in 1841 and only two in 1990, but the village still has its two publicans.

Horspath may not be a pretty village, but it has character. It boasts 15 listed buildings including farm outbuildings and a cowhouse, the manor house, the church, and two thatched cottages, of which there were once 17, but fire has destroyed most. In 1936 the Queen's Head public house caught fire and sparks from the thatch destroyed two cottages opposite. The pub was restored with a tiled roof, as was Shepherd's Cottage, this thatch being burnt in the mid 1970s. The Chequers Inn although dated 1624, was built in the 19th century.

The manor house, part dating back to 1513 and with a Tudor staircase, is mainly 17th century with a 19th century addition. Its ghost, 'The Grey Lady', is reputed to wander the landings and garden. Killed by her husband in a quarrel, her body was placed in a priest hole. Several sightings have been reported and in December 1878 a first-class shot claimed he had fired three times at the figure, and found two bullets embedded in the wall. The present owner has done much to refurbish and restore the manor to its former glory.

St Giles church
St Giles church

The church of St Giles, dating from the 12th century, is dedicated to the patron saint of beggars and cripples, whose ceramic statuette, made by a local potter in 1988, may be found in the south chapel. The church is the proud possessor of an Elizabethan silver chalice, a pre-1740 faceless blacksmith clock, a carved late Jacobean pulpit, six tuneful bells, Medieval stained glass windows and interesting memorial plaques. One of these to James Salisbury of Bullingdon Green, who died in 1770, is elaborately decorated. Another is to the five children of Thomas and Esther Herbert, who died from a recurrence of the bubonic plague between 1686 and 1688. Esther, whose family founded New College, died also in 1688 aged 33.

In the early 20th century there was much change with tarmac roads, housing developments and mobile homes replacing farmland and manor grounds, the loss of the elms, the village pond and the railway. The population is now approximately 1,500, and includes people from all walks of life including those employed at the BMW car works in nearby Cowley.

In 1870-72, John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Horspath like this: "HORSEPATH, a village and a parish in Headington district, Oxford. The village stands under a hill, 2 miles W by S of Wheatley railway station, and 4 ESE of Oxford. The parish includes also the hamlet of Littleworth. Post town, Wheatley, under Oxford. Acres, 1,164. Real property, £1,840. Pop., 334. Houses, 71. The manor belongs to the Earl of Macclesfield. The living is a vicarage in the diocese of Oxford. Value, £91. Patron, Magdalene College, Oxford. The church is ancient; consists of nave and chancel with a tower; and has, in its tower wall, two rude figures, said to be those of its founders."

[edit] Landscape & History

Horspath lies in a geological area known as the"Oxford Heights". The area occupies the northerly part of a belt of low limestone hills that surround Oxford and separates the low-lying clay vales which lie to the north and south. This is an area of prominent relief and complex geology and soils, which contrasts markedly with the adjoining clay vales.

The hills are composed of Upper Jurassic Corallian limestones and sands which outcrop in a broad belt from Wheatley north-westwards to Beckley and have historically been the source of superior building stone. Elsewhere these rocks are overlain by Kimmeridge Clay and a capping of Lower Greensand which forms the higher ground at Shotover Hill, Forest Hill and above Garsington. In the north, the hills descend sharply into the low-lying Cherwell Valley and Otmoor lowlands which are overlain by extensive deposits of Oxford Clay, while to the east and south the hills descend into the alluvial floodplain of the River Thame and its tributary, Baldon Brook.

In Romano-British times there were pottery kilns producing Oxfordshire red/brown-slipped wares at Horspath Open Brasenose. Production of red-slipped wares commenced by about AD 240 and continued until end of 4th century. Production at the Horspath kiln was from the mid 3rd century until the 4th century. A wide range of red-slipped tables wares, often decorated with rouletting, stamps or white slip, was produced in the Oxfordshire potteries and widely distributed across Britain during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. A Romano-British pottery mould has been found at Horspath and Roman pottery has been found on the allotments and on the common to the north of the village.

The area was once part of the medieval Royal Forest of Shotover, with dense woodland cover extending from Islip to Cuddesdon until 'disafforestation' in 1660. A number of important remnants of ancient semi-natural woodland remain, particularly on the steeper hillsides near Stanton St John and at Shotover Hill, where important remnants of calcareous grass-heath also occur. Over much of the area, the free draining and easily cultivated soils have historically been suited to growing arable crops while permanent pasture and wet woodland are more common on the heavy clay soils of the floodplains.

The Oxford Heights have been a favoured area for settlement since prehistoric times and villages such as Wheatley, Horspath, Garsington, Cuddesdon, Holton and, particularly, Headington (a 'royal village’) were some of the primary settlements in Oxfordshire during the Saxon period. The original settlements took advantage of the higher ground and the water supply provided by springs which emerge at the junction of the limestone and clay or, in the case of Beckley, from the freshwater marshes of Otmoor to the north. Some settlements, such as Wheatley and Horspath, later 'migrated' into nearby valleys but the distinctive pattern of villages perched on hilltops and ridges is still evident with only isolated farms occupying the surrounding lowlands.

Buildings in the villages reflect the underlying geology, with many older houses constructed from the distinctive local Corallian limestone. Red tiles or thatch are common as roofing materials. Buildings were typically clustered around a church and village green but modern expansion of many villages has resulted in a more linear or sprawling form, particularly at Wheatley. The villages are typically connected by a network of small, sunken lanes with low trimmed hedges and hedgerow trees that wind up the slopes towards the hills and ridges.

Other distinctive buildings in the landscape include Beckley Lower Park, a moated Tudor brick house on the site of a medieval hunting lodge, and Shotover House with its eighteenth century formal parkland designed by William Kent.

Headington was the seat of a royal palace in the reign of King Ethelred, and it is said that several Saxon monarchs anterior to Ethelred chose Headington on account of its healthfulness as a nursery for their children. Some ruins of the palace were discovered in the 17th century in a field now known as Court Close. The villages of Old and New Headington and Headington Quarry form a kind of midway between Oxford and "the heights of Shotover". These villages (with Horspath, Stanton St John, Forest Hill, Stow Wood, &c.) were included in the vast forest which originally extended to the top of the hill, the point where Headington Hill Park commences its grassy slopes.

Acknowledgements to South Oxfordshire District Council Landscape Assessment.

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