Banburyshire Rambles Photo-Journal

Paul Mobbs’ photographic record of his walks around ‘Banburyshire’ and ‘The Irondowns’, and occasionally, as part of his work around Britain, the areas beyond.

Banburyshire’s Ancient Sites:
Crouch Hill

Crouch Hill is a popular informal space for walking and taking-in the view on the edge of Banbury. From around the flanks and from the modern concrete monolith of the trig point at its summit, the hill is a wonderful viewpoint over the local landscape for up to thirty miles. What many people do not realise is that the summit of Crouch Hill is quite possibly not natural. At some point in pre-history it was ‘re-engineered’ creating the profile of the summit as it is today.

Summary for ‘Crouch Hill’:

Location: Banbury, Oxfordshire

Type: ‘Other features’.

Condition: Scrubby hilltop. Very muddy and slippery during Winter months

Access: Open access space, via footpaths leading from Salt Way to the south and the housing estates to the east.

OS Grid Ref.: SP439392

Further information: Wikipedia.

Walks posts for site: {none yet}

The modern English place name ‘crouch’ takes its roots from pre-history, in the Celtic and Welsh name for a hill, ‘crug’, from which we also get ‘crag’. Via Old English ‘crug’ morphed into ‘creech’ and ‘crouch’, though only a few examples of the name survive to the modern day. Mostly in the ‘Saxon’ counties of Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Hertfordshire, London, Kent, and Essex.

Walk up Crouch Hill and you feel its top round and flatten, but then it rises steeply again. At some point in pre-history, perhaps from the Bronze to the Iron Age, a large amount of earth was piled on its summit.

If it wasn’t a conventional settlement what was it? That is still a mystery.

Unlike the Bronze/Iron Age settlements visible from here – at Rainsborough Camp or Madmarston Hill – it had no defensive earthworks and no evidence of settlement have been found.

Excavations for the construction of housing on the far side of Bloxham Road and Salt Way found the remains of an Iron Age farmstead. Excavations for housing to the north found just a few Neolithic artefacts.

What is significant is its location:

To the north runs Banbury Lane. This is an ancient east-west route from East Anglia to Northampton, to Banbury. Then, along what is called the Cotswolds Ridgeway, on to Stow and the Cotswolds, continuing to the ancient settlement at Crickley Hill, near Cheltenham.

At the highest local point – Whichford Hill, which is visible from Crouch Hill – Banbury Lane meets the ancient Jurassic Way running from north-east England down to Avebury and Stonehenge.

In pre-Roman Britain this area was a ‘frontier’ of sorts, with ‘Banburyshire’ and the Cherwell valley representing a vague border between the tribes that made up central and southern England. This is a boundary that roughly persists today in the common borders of Oxfordshire, Warwickshire, and (what was until recently) Northamptonshire.

By the time the Romans arrived there were few major settlements in this area, and the site of modern Banbury was bypassed by Roman roads.

To the south of the hill runs Salt Way, the Roman salt road from Droitwich to Finmere and down to Princes Risborough. Personally though I’m doubtful. The wet and muddy climb up from Giant’s Caves (a late Medieval quarry) up to here – that runs an inch deep in water during heavy rain – seems an unconvincing route for a Roman cart track.

The more dry and solid Wykham Lane from Broughton to Bodicote (if you walk it on foot) ‘feels’ like a more convincing contender for the Roman route. Other researchers have made similar observations.

The Salt Way route past Crouch Hill is certainly the most logical one if following the ridge down from Hornton or Warmington to the north. Go to Wroxton, and there’s an old finger post that points the way from Stratford, “To London”, as being via North Newington to Crouch Hill, not via Banbury.

What’s as equally interesting as its geography is that throughout the history of Banbury the hill has had an important cultural role:

In early Medieval times it was part of a large deer park, and common land, with no development around the hill. It is from this time that the accounts emerge of May Day celebrations being held on the hill and the area around it.

On May Day morning, horns would be blown from the summit, and people in the town would gather flowers and timber from the woods around the hill to make and decorate maypoles. A practise later banned by the Puritans who held sway in the town during the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century.

The flat land nearby was used for horse racing, and until the Nineteenth Century a Good Friday Fair was held near Giant’s Cave, where the hillside meets Banbury Lane and Salt Way.

These events were believed to be a continuation of pagan Beltane festivities that were focussed on the area around the hill. In Scotland until the Eighteenth Century sweet Beltane Cakes were baked, and carried to the tops of local hills as part of what later became May Day celebrations. It is entirely possible that Banbury Cakes and the events in the Ride a cock horse rhyme originate from Beltane celebrations.

From the Nineteenth Century the hill had a group of elms growing at the top, which made it easily identifiable for miles around. They were lost in the 1980s as a result of Dutch Elm disease, and with them (for me) one of the defining features of the hill.

In the 1970s and 1980s during my time at nearby Banbury School we would often have a run down Salt Way to the hill when the football fields were flooded. When snow came we would slide on polythene bags down it.

Today the hill is mostly used by dog walkers. Occasionally groups of teenagers will have fires and camp overnight on the hill (which I have no objection to, providing they take their rubbish home with them!).

Crouch Hill is an historical anomaly; an ‘ancient site’ tied to the historical and cultural evolution of the town that is seldom recognised as such. Even so, that ambiguity marks it out as an interesting site, and one which is well worth a visit – perhaps on a regular, devotional basis should you be a local resident.