Horspath, 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 near Open Brasenose. Production of red-slipped wares commenced by about AD 240 and continued until end of 4th century. Production at the Horspath kilns 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 freedraining 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. Horspath Common, on the edge of Shotover Country Park, is a highly mixed woodland with some encouragement through tree planting, and Horspath Common, along with the commons of the Chiltern escarpment, is currently under active woodland management (i.e. subject to a Management Plan).
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". The villages of Horspath, Stanton St John, Forest Hill, Stow Wood, etc. 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.
Acknowlegements to South Oxfordshire District Council Landscape Assessment
Land use within Horspath Parish (Oxfordshire Wildlife & Landscape Study)