History and Heritage

The Radley Lakes area has a rich history going back millennia.  We know about the very early periods from archaeology carried out ahead of gravel extraction.

Hunters and gatherers

Early humans, probably Neanderthal hunter-gatherers, left two flint hand axes behind, perhaps around 50,000 years ago. They were found buried in the gravel which was being laid down by the River Thames at this time. Such axes were used to butcher large animals, including mammoths.

After the last ‘Ice Age’ ended in about 11,000 BC, new groups of hunter-gatherers settled by the Thames at Thrupp, where their flint implements including a pick have been found. The river offered a rich range of food resources.

Flint pick Mesolithic flint axe
Mesolithic flint axe, perhaps 10,000 years old. This would have been used by hunter-gatherers. © AAAHS.

To learn about the early geology of the Lakes area, including the formation of gravel terraces, click here.

The first farmers

From about 4000 BC early farmers were living in the area. Excavations at Thrupp, not far from the river, have produced pottery, flint tools and a stone axe dating to around this time. Closer to Lower Radley, this fine ‘Beaker’ pottery vessel of around 2000 BC, was found. It may have been buried in someone’s grave.

Fine ‘beaker’ vase, about 30 cm high
This ‘Beaker’ vessel, about 30 cm high, is evidence of a more settled community. © AAAHS.

These first farmers were probably nomadic, Later settlements were more permanent. In about 1000 BC, at Tuckwell’s Thrupp Lane quarry, Bronze Age farmers dug ditches around their fields and a waterhole. In the subsequent Iron Age (about 400 BC to 50 AD), a round house of timber and thatch was built nearby. There was evidence of metalworking as well as farming here.

Thrupp was settled again in the Iron Age. Houses were strung out along the edge of the gravel terrace, with ready access both to land suitable for ploughing and to grazing on floodplain. Not far away, at Longmead, stone causeways were built across an old channel of the river. Maybe they too provided access to rich riverside pastures.

Romans and Saxons

In Roman times (about 50 AD to 400 AD), the Lakes area may have been farmed from a villa where the Daisy Bank (Abingdon) housing estate now is, and from a large settlement at Gooseacre Farm. Both are on higher ground overlooking the Lakes. Mixed farming was prevalent, so the combination of drier land which could be ploughed and rich floodplain pastures and meadows made this a desirable area.

This pattern probably continued into the Anglo-Saxon period, after Roman rule in Britain ended in about 400 AD, even though the population may have fallen at this time.

Farmland and fisheries for Abingdon Abbey

From about 950 to 1538 AD the Lakes area was part of Abingdon Abbey’s manor (or farming estate) of Barton. The Abbey was only about a mile away and was the dominant force in the surrounding area.

By about 1150 there is firm documentary evidence of a small settlement at Thrupp, maybe continuously occupied from Iron Age times.   An early Abbey record mentions Thrupp supplying the monks with cheese and eels for their larder. The river and the rich meadows were, again, valuable resources.

Those living at Thrupp were ‘unfree’ tenants of the Abbey, providing unpaid labour service as well as farming their own small holdings. These included strips in the open arable fields and the right to use the common surrounding the settlement. 

The settlement declined early in the fourteenth century, perhaps because of disease and failed harvests, but a small number of houses have remained to the present day and the pattern of farming continued as before, even into the mid-twentieth century.

Emerging fields and farms

Following the dissolution of the Abbey in 1538, the land became part of the new manor of Radley, bought by the Stonhouse family.  Until about 1700 the pattern of farming was largely unchanged, but the land was then enclosed into larger fields.

The resulting field pattern still lives on as later gravel excavation was carried out field by field. For example, Thrupp Lake used to be an arable field called Spinages and Longmead used to be a meadow called Long Mead.

With the larger fields came larger farms. By 1900 most of the area had become part of Thrupp Farm. The main buildings were just south of the NCN 5 cycletrack, close to the top of Orchard Lake. They have since gone, but there are still former labourers’ cottages just north of the cycle track.

This map shows how the land was farmed in about 1850
This map shows how the land was farmed in about 1850. The divide between ploughed land, pasture and meadow would have been much the same when the area was first settled.

The coming of the railway

In 1843 Brunel’s Great Western Railway company built the mainline that still exists between Didcot and Oxford. You can cross under the line at the ‘Sounding Bridge’, which was built to preserve access along the old path from Thrupp towards Radley.

In 1856 a branch line was then built to Abingdon. Originally this joined the mainline at a small halt just north of the Sounding Bridge.  The line closed to passengers in 1963. It continued for a while for freight, including MG cars made in Abingdon, before being entirely closed in 1984. 

You can now walk along the old branch line all the way from the Sounding Bridge to the edge of Abingdon.  This takes you right through the centre of the Lakes area.

The ‘Bunk’ train from Radley to Abingdon, steaming serenely past Thrupp in 1912.
The ‘Bunk’ train from Radley to Abingdon, steaming serenely past Thrupp in 1912.

Gravel extraction

The Radley Lakes area is part of a wider zone of gravel extraction, starting in the 1940s and stretching from the Barton Lane Science Park in the west almost to the edge of Lower Radley in the east.  The Lakes area falls in between: unlike the areas on either side very little has been restored to new agricultural or commercial uses.

First to be extracted was Thrupp Lake, in the days when planning permission was not needed. Extraction followed on the land in the north-west of the Lakes area. Next came the eastern part of the area, either side of the old branch line to the Sounding Bridge. Finally there was a smaller extraction at Longmead, close to Barton Lane. All of this was complete by about 2000, but gravel still remains under the field called Nyatt. 

A dragline extracting gravel at Thrupp Green
A dragline extracting gravel at Thrupp Green, late 1970s. © AAAHS.

Landfill and restoration

The very first areas to be extracted, in the north-west of the area, were landfilled with municipal waste and have still to be restored.

The pits in the north-eastern part of the Lakes area were landfilled with pulverised fuel ash from Didcot’s (now demolished) coal-fired power station. The planning permissions for this originally required restoration to agriculture, but this was later changed to nature conservation. This was completed in 2020.

The Lakes area as you see it today is mainly shaped by the process of extraction, landfill and restoration as explained here.

Pulverised fuel ash from Didcot power station being pumped into the Thrupp Green gravel pit, 2003
Pulverised fuel ash from Didcot power station being pumped into the Thrupp Green gravel pit, 2003

Saving and enhancing Radley Lakes

In 2005 the Save Radley Lakes group was formed to campaign against Thrupp Lake being filled with pulverised fuel ash. This attracted much support and media interest, locally and nationally, and it was agreed in 2008 that the Lake should not be filled with ash, but instead become a nature reserve with open public access. The campaign group took on a new form and mission as Friends of Radley Lakes.

The 2018 Radley Neighbourhood Plan then proposed that there should be a Masterplan for the wider Radley Lakes area to become one of nature conservation and quiet recreation. In 2020 the Radley Lakes Trust was formed to oversee the process and in 2021 Friends of Radley Lakes decided to join forces with the Trust.

Trustees at the launch of the Radley Lakes Trust, September 2021
Trustees at the launch of the Radley Lakes Trust, September 2021

Finding out more

For a more pictorial account of the Lakes history and heritage, view here

For a map of the Lakes area today, view here.

For the field patterns in the Lakes area, view here.

For the geological origins of the Lakes area, view here.

For the history of the wider Radley area, visit the website of the Radley History Club at https://www.radleyhistoryclub.org.uk/.

For more about the Radley Lakes Trust and the work in hand to implement the Radley Lakes Masterplan visit the other pages on this website.