Tucked in a quiet corner of north Oxfordshire, in an area affectionately known as Banburyshire, limestone backroads edged with thick, berried hedges connect a string of villages all but held together by ivy and apricot trees.
Nearby, the River Cherwell and Oxford Canal nudge each other along their courses past homely English pubs where narrowboaters and walkers gather to warm their fingers and toes. It’s a landscape made famous by Flora Thompson’s semi-autographical trilogy Lark Rise to Candleford yet, by a strange and wonderful accident, few people know that the book and BBC series originate here and even fewer think to visit.
In the 100 years or so before Flora was born in 1876, very little changed in Banburyshire; time was marked by the turning of the seasons and closely woven communities of farm labourers and craftspeople – stonemasons, cobblers, lacemakers and wheelwrights – populated the countryside.
But great change was afoot. Industrialisation rumbled in the distance, threatening to empty the countryside and replace the horse and plough with steam engines, fill the factories with mass labour and bring the self-sufficient reign of farmers and craftsmen to an end. Lark Rise to Candleford quietly chronicles the passing of this way of life.
Juniper Hill to Fringford
In 1754, two cottages were built on ‘the Rise’ to house the poor folk of nearby Cottisford. More followed and the hamlet of Juniper Hill took root. Flora renamed it Lark Rise because of the number of skylarks that “made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn.”
Life in Lark Rise was hard, but rewarding. Villagers lived an open-air existence, but their 10 shillings-a-week wages were overstretched and the threat of the workhouse was very real. Even so, the poor enjoyed what Flora called “a rough plenty”, making pickles and jellies from the hedgerows, eating vegetables from the allotment, curing bacon from the family pig and celebrating the simple things in life with homemade mead and yarrow beer.
I first visited Juniper Hill with Olivia Hallinan, who plays Laura in the BBC series, and the Living Literature Society, which explores the landscapes behind our best-loved authors. It was a searing day in June and heat rose off the surrounding fields. It was a scene unchanged 120 years ago when a young Flora wrote, “the ripened cornfields rippled up to the doorsteps of the cottages and the hamlet became an island in a sea of dark gold.”
Flora’s father was a stonemason and their cottage, The End House, stood apart from the farmworkers’ homes. If you walk past the cottage today (it’s a private home so please respect the owners’ privacy), you’ll still find a whitewashed one-up-one-down cottage with a narrow garden that stretches back to the cornfields, over which Flora and her brother would walk to school. Next door was home to Queenie, the lacemaker and beekeeper. On a summer’s day such as this, Queenie would often be heard ‘tanging’ the bees – following the swarm while banging an iron spoon against a coal shovel to encourage the swarm to settle in her garden.
Flora came to Fringford (renamed Candleford Green in her books) in 1891 to become an assistant postmistress to a feisty blacksmith’s daughter called Kesia Whitton, who’s character was not dissimilar to Julia Sawalha’s Dorcas Lane in the series. At the time, Fringford was a village of two streets – Main Street and Other Street – and today it isn’t noticeably larger. The Old Forge, set back just before a row of thatched cottages on Main Street, housed the post office.
The sorting office was the room on the left and the parlour, where Dorcas Lane served up afternoon tea with Banbury cakes, was the room on the right.
The villages of Banburyshire
As I soon found out, there’s more to explore in Lark Rise to Candleford country than Juniper Hill and Fringford. Nearby, a group of villages nestle in the crux between Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire and Warwickshire in an area local historian and author Martin Greenwood calls “Banburyshire”.
The villages – all thatched roofs and narrow alleyways – shade from pale Cotswold limestone to golden ironstone, a fine-grained rock made up of iron-oxide and clay once quarried at nearby Wroxton. One of the finest is Great Tew, one of Britain’s few privately owned villages. Opposite a compact green, I walked along a line of ironstone cottages with hobbit-like doorways, neat hedges and tiny lattice windows hooded by a low brow of thatch. At the far end, the renowned 16th-century Falkland Arms, draped in wisteria and ivy, coaxed locals and second-homers inside to its warm inglenooks.
Although now the feather in Banburyshire’s hat, Great Tew very nearly fell into ruins. Martin explained that in 1728 the village and neighbouring Tew Park estate were described as some of the finest properties in Oxfordshire. But just 186 years later, after an heirless owner died, the village was held in public trusteeship for nearly 50 years and fell into disrepair. Many cottages were still unoccupied as late as 1986 and the village was in danger of crumbling away. The Johnson family, who reopened the historic ironstone quarry nearby for repairs and sold some of the cottages in order to renovate others, have since restored the village to beyond its former glory.
“Banburyshire is blessed with three great church spires,” Martin told me as we pulled into King’s Sutton, another thatch and ironstone village: “Adderbury for strength, Bloxham for length and King’s Sutton for beauty.” Apparently the walls of the spindly 198ft (60m) steeple in King’s Sutton are only nine inches thick and it’s said to sway in high winds and when the bells are rung. We sat for a while and watched locals spill out of the White Horse pub onto the classic village green, complete with old stocks, which bustled with Sunday strollers.
Over an afternoon, we popped into numerous other villages – most notably Aynho, known locally as the Apricot Village after Squire Cartwright encouraged his tenants to grow apricot trees up the south-westerly facades of their honey-coloured houses. And the Sibfords, a couple of Quaker villages sitting high on the hilltops in the north-west corner of Banburyshire, populated by craftspeople including, until 1970, a hermit watchmaker.
Cutting through Banburyshire, the River Cherwell (pronounced ‘char-well’) rises in the Ironstone Hills and curls lazily through Oxfordshire before emptying into the Thames. The river and Oxford Canal jostle beside each other; at times they flow within a few metres and the towpath forms a low dyke between them. At other times, the towpath all but disappears – I watched a cyclist bounce home across pasture near Somerton Deep Lock, scattering cows as he went.
Most of the settlements perch on the hilltops. Somerton and the Heyfords are the only villages to sit beside the canal, which makes towpath amblers feel wonderfully removed – despite the nearby M40. You can walk the full 77-miles of the Oxford Canal, but I decided to jump onboard a 47ft-narrowboat at Lower Heyford and trundle upstream instead.
In a matter of minutes I was in the wilds of north Oxfordshire, cutting a path through a green bowl of fields. The max speed was 4mph, but why rush? As I passed the last few houses of Upper Heyford, the canal’s stern banks quickly crumpled into soft mud, edged with rushes and overhung by branches, which knocked my mug of tea into the water – much to the delight of a passing walker.
The surrounding fields smelled of warm cut straw and the last of the sunlight brought out rich amber tones on the low ironstone bridges. The Oxford Canal is regarded as one of Britain’s prettiest (and most popular) inland waterways, but come winter the lock queues will dwindle, the pub landlords will stoke their fires and walkers and boaters should feel all the luckier for having it to themselves.
To avoid the need for costly tunnels and aqueducts, engineer James Brindley designed the canal in 1769 to follow the contours of the land. The most extravagant meanders are a little further north in Wormleighton, where a three-mile stretch coils back to within 868m (2,848ft) of its starting point. These kinks gave newbies like me a chance to get to grips with narrowboat steering, and it didn’t take long for me to fall for the canal’s quirks: lift bridges that you draw up by hand and deep narrow locks you could lose a boat in.
Aside from locks and sharp corners (of which there are plenty), you are free to bed down where you like. So, after perfecting a textbook 18-point turn, I moored beside Somerton meadows, closed the shutters and snugly retreated. But if you fancied spinning barge tales with a pint of local hooky (beer brewed locally in Hook Norton), the Barley Mow at Upper Heyford and The Great Western Arms at Aynho provide more than enough homely drinking dens for you to tuck up, rosy-cheeked after a day out on the waterways.
The Oxfordshire Cotswolds
Driving west the following day, I reached the Cotswolds’ gentlest frontier. Bisected by ancient roads such as the Fosse Way, an economic artery in Roman Britain, and the Jurassic Way, a prehistoric track along a limestone ridge from east Yorkshire to Dorset, the area has, at various times, been a hub of activity. This steady stream of people could well explain why the area is littered with archeology. On my first foray into these undulating hills, local guide Anne Martis (www.walkthelandscape.co.uk) took me to see the Rollright Stones, three separate Neolithic sites that still baffle archaeologists to this day.
Perhaps the most intriguing of these is the King Stone (1800-1500 BC) – a single, 2.4m (8ft) weathered monolith. Welsh drovers caused the ‘bite’ on the lower side by cutting off bits of the soft limestone to keep the devil at bay on their way to Banbury market. The stone is said to be a king with pretensions to conquer England, turned to stone by a witch called Mother Shipton. His men were also petrified and now form a circle of perhaps 77 lichen-covered stumps, although legend says it’s impossible to count them. “A baker once tried by placing loaves on top of the stones,” Anne told me, “but each time some loaves went missing.” The story goes that when the witch’s spell is broken at midnight, the king’s men wake, join hands and dance in a circle, before marching down the hill to drink in Little Rollwright spinney.
This ancient Cotswold hub and the bustling waterways seem a world away from the quiet hamlet in which Flora Thompson wrote. Nevertheless, standing on a gentle summit overlooking peaceful Banburyshire, I couldn’t help but think of how, even in Flora’s day, these fields teemed with people: drovers, traders, farm workers and craftsmen.
Today, the countryside is emptier but, for the modern visitor I think, more enchanting for it.
Oxford Street, Woodstock OX20 1TS
Decadent Hope House has been home to the Money family, who held a royal warrant to supply Queen Victoria with leather gloves. Last year, the Moneys opened their historic doors to guests. If it’s out of your budget, it’s worth sharing a two-bedroom suite.
Croughton Road, Aynho OX17 3BE
A former coaching inn, this well-priced hotel gives you a chance to stay in the heart of Banburyshire.
Station Road, Lower Heyford
Run by canal enthusiasts, all of whom live on boats nearby, this proudly independent company can hire 47ft-69ft (2-12 birth) narrowboats for day trips, short breaks or holidays.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ISSUE 42 OF COUNTRYFILE MAGAZINE. TO NEVER MISS AN ISSUE SUBSCRIBE TODAY!
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