This is the remarkable story of an island that shrunk. Every Oxfordian knows where it’s located but only a few can tell you what goes on there, let alone how it got to be so small.

First, the name. Why is it called Folly Island? To find out we need to go back to the Norman Conquest – and to the original Oxen-ford. Doubtless there had been some kind of river-crossing here long before; but it was the Normans who fixed it for ever in stone.

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Grandpont. Big Bridge. The name says it all. The giant blocks of corallian ragstone which underpin it were hewn and levered into place nearly a thousand years ago at the command of Robert d’Oilly, henchman to William the Conqueror. Over them was laid a massive causeway, rippling south across the marshlands (along what is now the Abingdon Road, as far as Redbridge) with perhaps as many as forty arches.

On top of this bridge, two centuries later, was built a gatehouse, hexagonal in shape, with a portcullis and a drawbridge, proclaiming Oxford’s importance and guarding the southern approach to the walled town which occupied the higher ground overlooking St Aldates. And above this gatehouse was a room from which the medieval scholar-monk, ‘Doctor Mirabilis’, Roger Bacon (1214-1292) made astronomical observations. ‘Friar Bacon’s Study’ was how it came to be marked on early maps.

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A man called Thomas Welcome built an additional floor to the study in 1611, topped off with mullioned windows and crenellations – an architectural indulgence which led to it being christened ‘Welcome’s Folly’. Samuel Pepys visited it in 1668. J.M.W. Turner painted it a century later. And, even though it was demolished in 1779 to make way for heavier traffic, the name stuck: Folly Bridge.

Life imitates art; so when, in 1849, the eccentric accountant Joseph Caudwell came to build his house on the adjoining island, he decided to adorn it with follies, riotous brickwork, metal and stone statues, yet more crenellations, and a rooftop statue of Atlas bearing a globe. (The globe no longer survives, leaving Atlas with a look of permanent surprise.)

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Cannon were placed in the forecourt. Thus was ‘Caudwell’s Castle’ secured. (Although its defences were nearly breached in dramatic and controversial circumstances: see Feedback).

Next to Caudwell’s Castle stands No.4 Folly Island. Built in 1875, it originally had a steeply pitched roof, but the upper storey was rebuilt (and, of course, crenellated) in 1974. If you stand on the riverside towpath and look at the back of the house, you can still make out the old roofline, its long-gone chimneys silhouetted in soot-darkened brick. Beyond it, at the prow of the island, gleams Swan Cottage, all ship-shape and Bristol fashion, with its very green lawn and a Union Jack run up the flagpole.

The island’s most recent building is an octagonal tower (echoing the hexagonal original perhaps?) It is painted a strikingly bright yellow.

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It houses three artists’ studios. From their riverside balconies you can stare down on the pleasure boats, the jetties, and the diners elegantly arranged on the pontoon of the restaurant below (what else could it be called but ‘The Folly’?) And as you inhale the heady aroma of river, aftershave and espresso you can imagine for a moment that you are in Venice … or could, were it not for the sound of motor traffic slowly grinding its way over the bridge, and voices echoing beerily from the Head of the River opposite.

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But what about the shrinkage? How did a sizeable river island become a mere eyot? This is where the story gets really extraordinary. For the original island stretched much further – a good three hundred metres up St Aldate’s, as far as what is now Thames Street, its perimeter defined by the Shire Lake Stream.

In a project whose audacity and ambition only the Victorians could have contemplated, a giant basin was excavated in the 1820s, slicing through the middle of the island from west to east. The main course of the Thames was thus straightened while the stream to the north was culverted and built over. (You can still see its outpouring as it emerges beyond the bridge and crosses Christ Church Meadows to the east)

The result? More mainland to build on. More water to sail on. More space to meditate upon ….

But, alas, a lot less island on which to put follies.

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Oxford being a city of pranks, the ornamental cannon fronting Caudwell’s Castle presented an irresistible temptation to excitable students from nearby Christ Church in search of a wizard jape.

So it was scarcely a surprise when, in the early hours of 26 June 1851, Joseph Caudwell opened his bedroom window to discover a group of inebriated young men in dinner jackets tying a rope around one of his field-guns with the aim of dragging it into the river.

Enraged, he reached for a pistol and fired, hitting one of the miscreants. He was subsequently charged with having ‘unlawfully and maliciously shot at Alexander Henry Ross, Esquire, an undergraduate of Christ Church, Oxford, with intent to do him some grievous bodily harm’.

Caudwell’s lawyer put up a powerful defence, painting a lurid picture of the night in question, and accusing the students of bringing it upon themselves: ‘After luxuriating at a cricket supper at the Maidenhead,’ he fulminated, ‘smoking cigars and drinking beer, these four young men sallied forth, and, in order to fill up or rather kill time, they proceeded to a man’s house for wanton mischief, and to despoil his premises, for the sake of gratifying a morbid and wicked disposition.’

His rhetoric proved persuasive. The jury were sympathetic to the defendant and Caudwell was acquitted.

As far as we know the castle was never again besieged – and the cannon are sadly no more. Perhaps they ended up in the river after all?

If you were crossing Folly Bridge recently you may have spotted Gyles Brandreth in a characteristically unmistakable jumper, surrounded by cameras and a small crowd of literary types. Mark Davies, expert on all things Wonderland, explains:

On 23 May 2023 at 12 noon the writer and broadcaster Gyles Brandreth unveiled a plaque to commemorate the boat trip of 4 July 1862, during which the Oxford don Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (‘Lewis Carroll’) first told the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the Dean of Christ Church’s daughters, Alice Liddell and her two sisters.

This is the first time that any such permanent memorial to Carroll and his internationally famous book has been created in the city in which he lived all his adult life – and where Alice spent most of her younger years.

Present at the ceremony were: Professor Sarah Foot, the Dean of Christ Church; Lubna Arshad, the Lord Mayor of Oxford; relatives from the Liddell and Dodgson families; and many members of The Lewis Carroll Society.

The plaque can been seen from the Abingdon Road on the south side of Folly Bridge on the wall of The Folly restaurant, which generously provided refreshments and short boat trips on the day. – MD

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Readers who wish to go into the story of Folly Island and Folly Bridge in greater depth are referred to the superb South Oxford History website put together by Liz Woolley:
It features maps and drawings (including these below) and much fascinating historical detail.
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Oh Lordy! Talk about weird! Guess what Jo Lane put into her Wordle search yesterday?
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Gina Cowen (@ginacowenseaglass) creator of spectacular and beautiful sea glass jewellery, has a workshop / studio in the yellow tower. She writes:

I found the studio by a stroke of very happy serendipity. The seller had been given a pair of earrings by her godmother. She had lost one and, upon finding out that I was a jeweller, asked if I could make a match. It turned out the earrings had been made by me in the first place! An extraordinary co-incidence. And as if that wasn’t enough, there just happened to be an exact matching piece of sea glass sitting on the work bench in my old studio! The pair was duly restored. Our shared amazement and friendship sealed the purchase of the Folly Bridge studio.– GC

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