‘Banburyshire’, the historic hinterland of Banbury and its surrounding villages, has a unique character, formed on the historic frontiers it has straddled for the last three millennia
© 2020-21 Paul Mobbs; released under the Creative Commons license.
Created: 30th January 2020; updated: 14st February 2021
Length: ~1,500 words
Generations of my family have lived in this area. Growing up, I heard many tales of “Banburyshire”, and of where it extended and why.
The Banbury Union Workhouse
Of all the stories I’ve heard, I think the most convincing was that ‘Banburyshire’ is the area which comprised the fifty-one local parishes, spanning four counties, that made-up the Banbury Union Workhouse (which operated from 1835 to 1946, when it was converted into a hospital which continued until the early 1980s).
I walk through all of those parishes on a regular basis – hence why calling this the Banburyshire Rambles Journal is such a fitting title. But knowing the area as I do, I also want to explore its rich history.
Today the term ‘Banburyshire’, now stripped of all such social stigma and division, is used by local tourism and marketing agencies. It sells a vision of the area that bears little resemblance to its true past.
I choose to use that name with reference to this area’s historic story of independence and radicalism; one that made it nationally notorious from Medieval times.
The earliest landscape features built by the past people’s of this area date back to the Bronze Age, 2,700 to 4,500 years ago; when the earliest parts of the The Rollright Stones were laid down. Before that the hunter-gathers who lived in this area left little trace of their presence.
In the Bronze Age a large part of Europe represented one single culture. That changed with the transition to settled agriculture, and the concurrent rise of Celtic culture during the Iron Age; when the first walled settlements were constructed – such as Rainsborough Camp (near Charlton, click image above for bigger version).
Two millennia ago, before the Romans came, the Cherwell valley and the hills around were the meeting point of the three Britonnic tribes that covered central and southern England:
The best preserved historic sites in the area are associated with the Dobunni. With the coming of Rome the Dobunni willingly became Romano-British citizens, and there is some evidence of a legacy of place names and mythology that persists to today.
There are far fewer sites nearby related to the other two tribes. In part that’s the legacy of the different land management practices which existed in different counties perhaps erasing ancient sites – the legacy of land ownership and exploitation which that divided history created.
There was no settlement of ‘Banbury’ as such before the Saxons. There were a few Roman villas scattered around, associated with Salt Way, but little else has been recorded.
With the coming of the Saxons two settlements are founded either side of the crossing of the River Cherwell: ‘Banesbury’ to the west; and, ‘Grimsbury’ to the east. The Saxons to the south-west of the town were part of the Kingdom of the Hwicce; to the north and east the Saxons were part of Kingdom of the Middle Angles.
Once again, the Banburyshire area straddled a border.
Banbury is curious in that it is a Saxon town which has a triangular, not square market place (go to Deddington, or Chipping Norton, to see the difference). That suggests a Danish influence in the foundations of the modern town.
In the second half of the First Millennium, Vikings raids pushed further inland along the rivers from The Wash: The Great Ouse; and The Nene – the hilltops which mark the sources of both rivers are visible from Crouch Hill.
By the late 800s the Vikings established the Regenhere of Northampton, an area that is roughly modern-day Northamptonshire, as a district of The Danelaw. For the next century, the Banburyshire area straddled the border of Danelaw, with the kingdoms of Mercia to the north-west and Wessex to the south.
The Modern World
If you have looked carefully at the illustrative maps above, you'll see that many elements of these boundaries persist into the modern-day county boundaries – and ‘Banburyshire’ still straddles administrative boundaries today.
The River Cherwell through the town was the county boundary until 1889, when for administrative purposes Grimsbury and Nethercote were brought within Banbury and Oxfordshire (the county boundary now being at the foot of Overthorpe Hill).
From the top of Crouch Hill it is possible to see:
- Three English regions (South East, West Midlands, East Midlands);
- Four counties (Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire, and on a clear day, Buckinghamshire); and
- Six districts (Cherwell, South Northamptonshire, Daventry, Stratford-upon-Avon, West Oxfordshire, and on a clear day, South Oxfordshire).
Whereas once that isolation led to Banbury being fairly independent, today – with the M40 and high speed rail travel to London and Birmingham – it’s being subjected to development pressures from those surrounding regions. This exacerbates the historic social and economic inequalities that have always existed in ‘Banburyshire’ – ever since the creation of the workhouse which created that insular identity.
Psychogeography: The traces of our past that haunt our dreams of modernity
‘Psychogeography’ is a term to describe how people emotionally or socially relate to an area. For me, being born and raised here, from a family all of whom were born and raised here, creates a very specific relationship to this area – one that has slowly come to have more significance as I have looked into it.
As a child I had access to allotments and farms, as well as spending time foraging in the countryside near the town. A number of those areas are now built over. And generally, as public space has been squeezed by development interests over the last 50 years, and the surrounding villages have been gentrified and access to rural land curtailed to all but the wealthiest. That has constrained the space that ‘ordinary’ people have to interact with the natural landscape.
Access to the countryside, through increasingly constrained by successive legislation over the past few years, is the one ‘natural space’ that people have left – to experience something other than the commercialised consumer culture that now pervades the space in the town.
In this sense, ‘Banburyshire’ takes on a wholly new meaning; one that can reference that past history within the exploration of the topography and ecology of the landscape hereabouts.
We think that we are modern; we think we are liberated from Hobbes', “nasty, brutish, and short”, limits to life (though, in truth, he was ignorant of any evidence to the contrary).
The reality is that as I walk around this area today – habitually held by the local topography to those parishes that once made-up the Banbury Union Workhouse – I am still constrained by the geographical boundaries erected by our ancestors centuries, and even millennia ago.
Are we therefore still constrained by the physical, psychological, and social limitations which that they laboured with too?
If we are still bound by those limits, though temporarily liberated of them by energy, resources, and the technology the two enable, might we very quickly snap-back if those circumstances change?
That is why I have created this blog of walks and views of the local area. To show what exists if you just step outside the town, one foot in front of the other, to explore the natural landscape of this historic area; and perhaps, reflecting over your own relationship to the land in that space, you may find-out something interesting about yourself too. Both how tenuous all life is in these challenging times; but that the land itself can provide a salvation from that inevitability if you look deeply enough for it – just as it has sustained our ancestors for millennia.