Each month we turn our focus upon a different county, highlighting
some key ancient tree sites and identifying some other places of
general interest for tree-lovers. Other than Woodland Trust
properties, admission or parking charges apply for many sites, and
as access may be prohibited or limited to certain dates or times,
it’s always advisable to check with the site owner or with the local
Tourist Information Office before making a visit.
This month we turn our attention to Oxfordshire, a large
county in England’s heartland incorporating parts of the Cotswolds,
Chilterns and the North Wessex Downs. This county is internationally
famed for its places of academia and research, as well as being a
setting for architectural and natural beauty. Within its borders
you’ll find popular towns, delightful limestone villages, ancient
forests, undulating wolds, tranquil vales and exciting wilderness,
not to mention rivers like the Thames, Cherwell, Evenlode and
Oxfordshire is the most rural county in the south-east of England
and has the lowest population density in the region. More than 75%
of the land is still devoted to agriculture and nearly 40% of the
county is designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB)
or as an Area of High Landscape Value.
There’s famous industry too in this county, most notably thanks to
bicycle-maker William Morris, who turned his hand to car production
in 1912 and created what became Britain’s most successful automobile
The county capital of Oxford, known as the city of dreaming spires,
is a very popular destination for tourists. It’s known world-wide
for its universities and of course for the associated annual boat
race. Oxford University is the main centre for academics, with its
historic colleges, and is in fact the oldest university in the
English-speaking world. Oxford Brookes University by comparison is
relatively new but has become another popular location for students.
There’s much more in this city than academia, however, especially if
you’re interested in history and architecture. Oxford dates back to
912AD or earlier, and gained a royal charter in 1155. Seemingly
around every corner there’s another superb building. Oxford Castle
was built by Robert D’Oyley just after the Norman Conquest, and the
sites of various royal houses are to be found on Beaumont Street.
Visitors come too for the shopping, theatres and restaurants, and to
check out the haunts of TV’s much loved detective, Inspector Morse,
and his sidekick Lewis.
For those interested in history, there’s plenty to discover. The
Bronze Age Hawk Stone stands on a ridge just north of Chadlington,
the Thor Stone stands in Taston and the Rollright Stone Circle from
around 2000BC is to be found beyond Chipping Norton on the high
Cotswold ridge. Additionally, there’s the North Leigh Roman villa
which was built on the site of an Iron Age settlement circa 100AD,
and Oxford wasn’t the only place to gain a royal charter. Henley in
1526, Banbury in 1554 and Chipping Norton in 1607 all achieved this
Walkers may like to check out the forest of Wychwood and the
Chadlington Downs, whilst the rolling lands of Southern Oxfordshire
stretch down to the Chilterns in the east and to the Vale of the
White Horse and the Berkshire Downs in the west. The open downland
in this area is just splendid for walking. Four long distance walks
are also worthy of consideration – the Ridgeway National Trail
(which is Britain’s oldest road), the Oxfordshire Way, the D’Arcy
Dalton Way and the MacMillan Way. Alternatively, for something a
little less strenuous, the Thames offers some lovely waterside
walking throughout the county.
So, where will we find Oxfordshire’s ancient trees, its ancient
woodland and its best treescapes?
Blenheim Palace is a good place to start. Located in the
historic market town of Woodstock, the historic house was designed
in the early 18th century by Sir John Vanbrugh and built for John
Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough. It houses fine collections
of sculptures, furniture and tapestries, and it includes the room
where Sir Winston Churchill was born in 1874. The estate covers
around 5,000 acres including farmland, woodland, formal gardens,
lakes and parkland. The park has been carefully landscaped, and the
fact that many of the paths are covered in tarmac is a bonus or a
shame, depending upon your viewpoint. There are plenty of walks
here, including those in the beautiful woodland. You’ll find several
hundred ancient trees, mainly oaks, in the parkland which was once
part of the Wychwood Forest (see below) and then a royal park.
Sadly, a large number of the ancient trees were destroyed by the
storms of the late 1980s, and Dutch elm disease has also ravaged the
two main avenues to the north and east of the park. The 9th Duke
planted some 465,000 trees between 1893 and 1919, and there’s an
interesting arboretum here too; look in particular for four incense
cedars, which tower at some 15 metres high.
To the north-east of Burford stand the remnants of the once
impressive royal hunting forest of Wychwood (SP3316).
Part of the Cornbury Park Estate, this designated National Nature
Reserve (NNR) is the largest area of ancient broadleaved woodland in
the county. Here you’ll find fine stands of oak and ash, together
with a beech plantation, ponds and interesting flora. Keep an eye
open for delightful meadow saffron in particular, plus herb paris
and adders tongue ferns. Access to this private estate is limited
but public rights of way are well marked.
The aforementioned Cornbury Park (SP3417), home to Lord
Rotherwick, was mentioned in the Domesday Book and was once a royal
hunting lodge. It was given by Charles I to Harry Danvers, the Earl
of Danby, in 1642. A few years later it passed to the Earl of
Clarendon, who had a strong interest in landscaping and was
responsible for planting some 2,000 trees in a single year. The
estate ran into financial difficulties toward the end of the 17th
century, and large areas were turned into farmland. Subsequent
owners included the Earl of Rochester and the Earl of Marlborough.
At one time, its name changed – to Blandford Park! The estate today
offers office space, residential accommodation and hosts private
parties and events. A few public events take place here too, most
notably the Cornbury Festival. More interesting, however, are the
6,500 acres of private ancient forest and the hundreds of ancient
trees which remain on the estate.
A number of other estates in the county are also of interest to us.
Firstly, there’s Buckland Park (SU2895), which straddles the
Berkshire-Oxfordshire border. This splendid Georgian house was built
in a Palladian design for Sir Robert Throckmorton in 1757 by John
Wood of Bath. It houses feature ceilings, fireplaces and mouldings,
and includes two octagonal pavilions. This fine property is
surrounded by extensive parkland and overlooks the Thames Valley.
The landscaped park was designed by Richard Woods, a contemporary of
Capability Brown, and incorporates the 17th century deer-park. Look
here for a number of surviving ancient oak trees.
Secondly, there’s Eynsham Hall (SP3911), which has been home
over the last 300 years or so to the families of Willoughby Lacey,
Robert Langford, James Duberley, Sir Thomas Parker, Sir Thomas
Bazley and finally to Lady Evelyn Mason. Once Georgian, the house
has been remodelled to a Jacobean mansion, with fine fireplaces,
carvings and murals. Today it acts as a training, conference and
activity centre. Again, the estate was once part of the ancient
Wychwood Forest, and you’ll still find a small number of very old
oak trees here.
Thirdly, we have Stonor House (SU7489), which was home to the
Stonor family for some eight centuries. Today Lord and Lady Camoys
reside here. The house dates back in part to the 12th century but
most of it was built in the 14th century. It was remodelled in a
Georgian style in the 18th century and is known for its fine
collections of tapestries, portraits, Italian drawings and unusual
furniture. There’s a medieval Catholic chapel too, which was used
throughout the years of Catholic repression; indeed, the house
provided sanctuary for St Edmund Campion in the 16th century. This
property is located in a picturesque wooded valley in the Chilterns,
and includes large gardens and a far-reaching deer-park, where
you’ll find a number of ancient oak trees.
Here’s a selection of the rest of the county’s estates. Thame
Park (SP7104) was part of a Cistercian monastery from the
mid-12th century. In the Middle Ages, there was a deer-park here,
and today a few remaining ancient oaks survive. Milton Manor
House, a splendid 18th century stately home with fine
architecture, porcelain and furniture is surrounded by parkland,
which has several fine old trees, a woodland walk and two lakes.
Nuffield Place, once home to William Morris, Lord Nuffield,
contains a number of fine collections, and the four-acre gardens
have several mature trees. Kingston Bagpuize House dates from
the 17th century and is set in mature parkland, and Henley
Park also has a small number of surviving ancient oaks. Lastly,
there’s Crowsley Park (SU7280) near Henley, which was a
deer-park in the 17th century. Again, a small number of ancient
trees have survived - notably oaks and a few lime trees.
We now turn our attention to the University of Oxford. The Wildlife
Conservation Research Unit (CRU) of its Department of Zoology is
responsible for Wytham Woods (SP4609). The CRU now has
a field centre in Wytham, but it was Charles Elton, founding father
of animal ecology, who first used Wytham as a field site. This
property was once owned by Abingdon Abbey, then by the Earl of
Abingdon and finally by the Ffennell family. It’s believed that King
Eadwig gave the land to the abbey in the 10th century. There are
some 400 hectares of woodland here plus another 370 hectares of
mixed farmland. The site is encircled by the River Thames and rises
from the flood plains to the top of Wytham Hill. The ancient
woodland has seemingly never been cleared and today’s tree cover is
a reminder of the prehistoric wildwood which would have stood here.
Ancient oaks, ashes, field maples and hollies can be found on the
lower slopes, whilst ancient beeches stand on the hilltop. For the
eagle eyed, one ancient hornbeam has been noted here too. There are
more recent plantations, including beech trees of some two hundred
years or so, and it’s evident that coppicing has taken place on this
site over many centuries. This location has been used for several
decades for a Common Bird Census, as well as RSPB studies into
sparrowhawks and blue and great tits. More recently bats have been
surveyed, and pipistrelle, daubenton, noctule and brown long-eared
have all been recorded.
Now, let’s look to the National Trust, always a good source of
interesting locations. Greys Court (SU7283) is a Tudor Manor
which boasts 14th century fortifications and which is famed for the
times when Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here by Queen
Elizabeth I. It’s named after Lord de Grey, and the Great Tower
survives from medieval times. Outside there are lovely grounds,
which include grassland (a deer-park in the Middle Ages), ornamental
gardens, a wisteria walk and the Archbishop’s Maze, inspired by the
enthronement speech of Robert Runcie in 1980. Look here for a small
number of surviving ancient trees, namely oak, ash and field maple.
Buscot Park, home to Lord Faringdon, is a superb
neo-classical mansion with collections of furniture and art. The
house was built in the 1780s and is surrounded by extensive grounds,
which include formal gardens, a walled garden, an Italienate water
garden, lakes and woodland. You can enjoy some lovely woodland and
avenue walks here. Sadly most of the old elms which stood here had
to be felled, but there are still some fine oaks and beech trees.
You can’t fail to miss the Lombardy poplars here, and you’ll find
specimen trees and shrubs in the kitchen garden.
Ashdown House (SU2882) is an unusually tall and narrow
building dating from the 17th century and located on the Berkshire
Downs. It was built for the 1st Earl Craven and is associated with
the Winter Queen, Elizabeth of Bohemia, who was the sister of King
Charles I. The house contains important paintings and an interesting
staircase, and it offers fantastic rooftop views over the estate and
the downs. You’ll also find an Iron Age Hill fort here, the site
where King Alfred did battle with the rampaging Danes. Whilst
technically located in Berkshire, the estate rolls into Oxfordshire.
In the 14th century it was part of the Abbot of Glastonbury’s estate
and included a deer-park. It was subsequently landscaped in the
early 18th century. Here you’ll find some fine ancient beech trees,
plus veteran oak and ash trees.
The Woodland Trust also manages some terrific woodland locations in
the county. Stoke Wood (SO5527) was part of the 3,000-acre
Swifts House estate, which was owned from the early 19th century
until the 1990s by Sir Henry Peyton. The mixture of broadleaved
trees and replanted conifers makes for interesting tree colours and
shapes, especially in autumn. An ornamental avenue of Corsican pines
runs the full length of the wood, and look in particular at the end
of one of the southern rides for a very large wild service tree
standing on the ancient boundary bank. The semi-natural ancient
woodland at Piddington Wood (SP6216) stands just outside the
Bernwood Forest area. It was sadly clear felled prior to World War
II but some old coppice stools did survive. Visit in summer in the
hope of catching a glimpse of the elusive black hairstreak or brown
North Grove (SU6483) is a quite beautiful beech wood in the
Chilterns. It’s believed that many years ago a bodger lived and
worked in this wood, crafting beech into chair legs using a
rudimentary lathe. Some of the beech trees here are at least 100
feet tall. Underneath, bluebells grow in profusion in the spring,
and the slimy, brilliant white, beech tuft fungus clusters in large
numbers in the autumn. Ipsden Heath Wood (SU6685) is a wooded
common, and commoners still have the right to collect firewood here.
This wood is typical of ancient woodland, though not confirmed as
such, with a well defined boundary bank running along the western
edge. You’ll come across some large yew, oak and beech trees,
perhaps aged 300 years old or so, and look for some splendid
whitebeams too. Harpsden Wood (SU7680) is another typical
Chiltern beech wood. Oak, ash, wild cherry and birch are dominant
too, and you’ll find goat willow where the wood’s at it dampest.
This was once part of the Phillinore Settled Estate in South
Oxfordshire, which was broken up as recently as the 1990s.
Designated as a SSSI and as Semi Natural Ancient Woodland, this is
another great site for flora. Look in the wetter areas for yellow
pimpernel and great wood-rush, and elsewhere for goldilocks
buttercups, birds-nest orchids and sanicle. This wood suffered badly
in the storms of the early 1990s but it’s definitely well worth a
visit, and adjacent to this wood you’ll also find Peveril Wood
Other ancient woodland sites in Oxfordshire managed by the WT
include Daeda’s Wood (SP4633) with some fine old willow
pollards alongside the stream, Clayhill Wood and Common
Wood (SU6883) and Old Copse (SU7080).
Next we switch our attention to the BBOWT, the Berkshire,
Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust, which manages some
splendid woodland sites amongst its 90-plus reserves. Warburg
(SU7287), set in a Chiltern valley, is perhaps the best. A SSSI,
consisting of woodlands, chalk grassland, wildflower meadows and
ponds, there is something to see here all year round. Look in
particular for green hellebores, bluebells and cowslips in spring;
red kites, marjoram, gentians, helleborines and silver-washed
fritillary butterflies in the summer; for at least some of the 900
species of fungus here in the autumn; and for crossbills and deer -
roe, fallow and muntjac - amongst the trees in the winter. Don’t
miss out the educational visitor centre, the bird hides or the
The woodland haven of Foxholes (SP2520) was once part of the
Wychwood Forest. It slopes gently down to the River Evenlode.
Muntjac, roe and fallow deer reside here too. Visit in spring for a
terrific display of bluebells and a variety of other flowers. Watch
too for holly blue butterflies and listen for male woodcocks. In
summer you may well find the heath spotted orchid, one of five
orchid species recorded here. Autumn is a good time to visit,
however, and not just for the tree colour. More than 200 species of
fungi have been recorded at this site. Sydlings Copse (SP5509)
consists of broadleaved woodland at each end. As well as the oak and
hazel which dominate, you’ll find wayfaring and spindle trees here.
Look too for wild liquorice, bee orchids, toothwort and
nettle-leaved bellflowers at ground level and for marbled white
butterflies and six-spot burnet moths at eye level.
Chinnor Hill (SP7600) is a hillside with a patchwork of wild
flower grassland and woodland, not to mention fine views over the
Vale of Aylesbury. At its summit, you’ll fine imposing beech
woodland, including a number of very old, weathered trees. There’s
evidence of coppicing here too. Dormice are known to live amongst
the trees, but you’ll do very well to spot one. You’re more likely
to see the fast-flying green fritillary butterfly or find the rare
Chiltern gentian, and you may even see a glow-worm in the open
grassland areas. Dry Sandford (SU4699) is an interesting mosaic of
cliffs, fenland, grassland, scrub and woodland in a quarry setting.
More than 1,200 marsh helleborines have been counted in the fen
area, and you’ll find an array of orchids and twayblades here.
Willows are prevalent, including osiers and goat willow. Lastly,
there’s an interesting reserve consisting of fen, reedbeds,
grassland and woodland at Lashford Lane Fen (SU4601), a site
which is dissected by Sandford Brook.
English Nature also has two other interesting NNRs on its books for
Oxfordshire. Aston Rowant is on the west-facing slopes of the
Chilterns, comprising grassland, juniper scrub and beech woodland.
Visit the woods in spring for a fine display of bluebells and listen
for wood warblers and hawfinches. Look at ground level for the rare
Chiltern gentian, orchids, violet helleborine and wood barley; at
eye level for silver-spotted skipper and chalkhill blue butterflies;
and up in the sky for soaring red kites. Cothill is part of
the Cothill Fen Special Area of Conservation and includes water,
reed-beds and woodland dominated by oak and alder. If you’re lucky,
you might manage to spot a southern damselfly or Desmoulin’s
Finally, here are a few Oxfordshire gardens worthy of mention.
Trinity College has a number of specimen trees in its garden,
whilst the garden at Wadham College is known for its unusual
trees, including an ancient tulip tree. The Fellows’ Garden at
Merton College is renowned for its ancient mulberry, associated
with King James I, and for its specimen sorbus and malus trees, and
Harcourt Arboretum includes a number of very old conifers.
The Old Manor House near Chesterton includes specimen trees and
some interesting recent planting such as oak and hornbeam circles,
and a double lime avenue. There are some fine, mature trees at
All Saints Convent & St John’s Home, at St Hilda’s College
and at Wayside near Kidlington. Lastly, both Brook Cottage
in Alkerton and Lime Close in Drayton have number of unusual
If you know of other ancient trees in Oxfordshire or if you wish to
suggest a site for inclusion in next month’s article, Focus on
Somerset, we’d love to hear from you!
email us, providing as much information as possible and
preferably including an Ordnance Survey map reference. We’re also
very keen to build up a library of photographs of ancient trees and
ancient tree sites. Can you help? If you’re willing to share your
treescapes and tree portraits, please
to us, remembering to provide location details for each photo, with
an Ordnance Survey map reference if possible. We’d love to include
them in a future article!
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