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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Port Meadow in Oxford

What is Port Meadow?

Port Meadow is a formerly ancient grazing land in Oxford, which is now one of the largest open spaces in the city.

Seagulls sitting on a fence at port meadow

Port Meadow History

If you find yourself in the north-west of the city, meandering through Jericho’s winding streets wit their rows of candy-coloured houses, it’s worth heading down Walton Well Road, crossing the railway bridge and making your way onto Port Meadow – a wonderful expanse of green that stretches for miles beside the River Thames.

The meadow is an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise: there are numerous footpaths traversing it, making it an ideal spot for a run or a long walk. In the winter, much of the meadow is flooded and if it gets cold enough you can ice skate across the frozen lake. In summer, you can go sailing on the river at Medley Sailing Club. There’s also an enthusiastic wild swimming community who can be seen powering up and down at all times of the year.

As with almost anything in Oxford, Port Meadow has a rich and colourful history as well as being a site of enormous natural beauty. At the northern end of the meadow, you’ll find the impressive ruins of Godstow Abbey. This was built in the 1130s for Benedictine nuns and was a wealthy and flourishing institution until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s. Famously, Henry broke with the Catholic Church so that he could divorce his wife Catherine of Aragon and marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. He then replaced the pope as supreme head of the Church of England, giving him power over religious institutions like Godstow Abbey. On the advice of his trusted adviser Thomas Cromwell, he dissolved many established and very wealthy nunneries, monasteries, and other religious houses. He seized their lands and riches for the Crown and often gave the buildings as gifts to his noblemen to ensure their loyalty. Godstow Abbey was one such property. It was converted into Godstow House by Henry’s supporter George Owen and occupied by his family until 1645, when the building was badly damaged in the British Civil Wars. After this, it fell into disrepair and was used locally as a source of stone for new construction.

A cow standing in a field at Port Meadow

The rest of the meadow is of equal historic importance. You might notice horses and cattle grazing here. This is because the meadow is ancient ‘common land’, accessible to all, which has never been ploughed, or not at least for the past 4,000 years. Legend has it that in return for defending the kingdom against Danish invasion in the 10th century, the freemen of Oxford were given 120 hectares of pasture next to the River Thames. The right to graze animals free of charge on this land was recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 and has been exercised ever since. Certain houses in Wolvercote are afforded this right and it passes from owner to owner. Common land is an important English tradition and although the total amount has decreased from the millions of hectares accessible in the 17th century, there are still over 8,000 registered commons across the country. Port Meadow is one of the largest.

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