On frosty winter days or in the lengthening evenings of May its profile can be picked out easily if you know where to look. On a grey morning with angled light it melts mysteriously into the surrounding grassland. Four thousand years haven’t quite eroded it, and the floodwaters of the nearby Thames never immerse it completely.

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Round Hill. A circular earthwork twenty inches high and 115 feet across, topped by another smaller mound 45 feet in diameter, and rising to four feet above the surface of the ground on which it sits. A Bronze Age barrow, ancient as the pyramids of Egypt, the oldest human edifice in Oxford.

T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) excavated it as a youth (he lived in nearby Polstead Road) armed with a simple spade. A century later, lidar scanning, geophysical signal processing and aerial photography have been deployed to survey the surrounding land. They reveal Round Hill to be one of at least two dozen ancient settlements stretching East from the river’s edge towards a giant Neolithic monument (twice the size of Stonehenge) which once rose up on the site of what is now St Giles Church.

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Who were the people who settled here first, along the low edge of the river? Who fished its waters and foraged in the woodlands at its margins? Whose bones once lay within Round Hill? … We’ll never know. But stand here today and you might just catch a glimpse of that distant world: the shifting light, the water reflecting the clouds, and the dark green of Wytham Woods in the distance.

This is the place known as Port Meadow. Tradition has it that it was granted to the Freemen of Oxford in the ninth century by King Alfred the Great in return for their support against the marauding Danes. In the Domesday book of 1086 it is written: ‘All the burgesses of Oxford have pasture outside the walls in common, which pays six shillings and eight pence.’ Since that day it has never been ploughed and never privately owned.

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Across its broad expanse cows and horses mingle contentedly, nibbling at the grasses. Yarrow, Sorrel and Buttercups flower in the dry pasture; Silverweed and Strawberry Clover in the moist pasture; and in the marsh pasture which is frequently winter-flooded, Water Forget-me-not, Marsh Arrowgrass, and the (very rare) Creeping Marshwort.

Flocks of migrating birds criss-cross the skies above or settle on the river beyond – Wigeon, Teal, Shoveler, Gadwall, Grebe, Heron, and Kingfisher. Flurries of Finches, Starlings and Pied Wagtail sweep in on the breeze.

In the early Spring a shallow lake appears almost overnight as the river spills across its banks – a cue for Barnacle and Canada Geese to join their resident Greylag cousins. In colder weather a natural skating rink is formed, the grass at its edge crisp with frost.

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Generations have strolled here. Scholars and artists, naturalists and foragers, poets and pilgrims, stick-throwing walkers and scampering dogs, lovers lost in the feeling of spaciousness …

A timeless magic. And all this less than two miles from Carfax.

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Photographic thanks to Adrian Arbib, J.J.Harrison, Kevin Clarke and Rory Carnegie.
For further exploration of the flora, fauna, and history of Port Meadow, see www.portmeadowoxford.info

For more pictures of Port Meadow sent in by Morris Oxford readers, see https://morrisoxford.co.uk/greenheart/

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We were delighted to receive these photographs from Chris Gosden, Oxford’s Professor of Archaeology:

I thought Morris Oxford readers might be interested to see further evidence of prehistoric activity in Oxford, this time traces of more Bronze Age round barrows and various later features in what is now University Parks. In particularly warm summers the grass in the Parks becomes drier, but the soil which was disturbed some four thousand years ago when the round barrows were dug out retains moisture for slightly longer than its surroundings, which means that it can be picked out (if you know where and how to look). In times of greater heat or greater wetness – ie most of the year – the traces disappear once more. The attached black and white photograph shows what can be revealed through aerial photographs. The colour one was taken on Tuesday 19 July as Britain recorded its hottest ever temperature – CG

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These days Port Meadow is known as a haven of quiet and relaxation; but how many Oxford citizens are aware that it was once a place of intense recreation – a venue for horse racing, skating, cricket, boxing, and much else besides? Graham Harding explains.

I’ve been looking at various nineteenth century local newspapers and have been amazed by what I’ve read.

In the big freeze of 1870, for example, ‘Thousands of people were out by torchlight’ according to the Morning Post (19 February). A few days later a two mile race was held on the ice and the employees of Oxford University Press contrived to play a cricket match on skates!

Talking of cricket, such was the number of pitches at the south end of the Meadow towards the end of the century that one correspondent felt moved to comment on the ‘imminent danger’ to the passers-by of hard leather balls flying through the air.

Then there were the annual horse races. Described as ‘one of the finest pieces of ground for racing purposes in the country’, the Port Meadow course was characterised as ‘soft and elastic as a piece of carpet’, so smooth that it might have been a ‘croquet lawn’.

It attracted thousands of visitors. Tents were arranged along the riverside – housing bars, boxing booths, skittles and assorted sideshows, including clay pigeon shooting.

Spirits were dampened somewhat by a fatality after a sporting gun exploded; but a more frequent hazard was pickpockets, mostly Londoners who’d caught one of the frequent excursion trains. The Oxford Journal noted in 1871 that one set of thieves successfully lifted the Lord Mayor’s gold watch and his brother-in-law’s wallet.

Throughout the nineteenth century Port Meadow retained its role as a sporting centre for citizens of Oxford. City councillors even debated plans to turn it into a golf course, with boating lakes and ‘rides’ and carriageways across the Meadow.

How different it all could have been! (And thank goodness it never came to pass.) – GH

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You mention scampering dogs on Port Meadow. Have you seen Adrian Arbib’s wonderful photographs of our four-legged friends? – Sarah Tilney

We have indeed; and we are most grateful to Adrian for allowing us to feature one of them here:
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For his complete, magnificent portfolio see: http://www.portmeadow.org
Oxfordshire’s expert on wildflowers is the ecological consultant, Judy Webb. She writes:

I’m Flora Guardian within the Ashmolean Natural History Society of Oxfordshire for the rarest plant on Port Meadow – Creeping Marshwort (for which the site has Special Area of Conservation status). This plant is extremely rare in UK and in Europe; in fact critically endangered. Marsh Stitchwort can no longer be found on Port Meadow, alas.

Judy writes about Port Meadow’s many other wild flowers, including Bird’s Foot Trefoil (pictured) at: https://portmeadowoxford.info/greenery/wildflowers/

Her full report (including details of Port Meadow’s 34 species of fungi) can be found at:

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How did Port Meadow get its intriguing name? Who better to ask than its historian, Graham Harding? – even if the answer is somewhat less than lyrical …

Port Meadow has always been used as common grazing ground – even before the town of Oxford was formally established in the ninth century. But unlike ‘true’ meadows – as, for example, in Yarnton – it was never used for growing hay. So, technically speaking, it’s a moor (like Otmoor) rather than a meadow.

Nor, I’m afraid, was it a port. The name ‘Portmaneit’ (or Portman’s Island) was first recorded just after the Norman Conquest. A ‘portman’ or ‘burgess’ was one of the citizens with the right to administer a town. (As well as Port Meadow, some of the approaches to Oxford were named ‘Portway’ or Portstreet’.) So the original term probably referred to a port of some form only in the sense of a loading / unloading point for boats. There was never a port on the Meadow itself – it was too far from the city and too low-lying. ­– GH

This video footage of Port Meadow in 1983 speaks for itself.
We’re very grateful to Peter Smith for drawing it to our attention.