An innocuous area of around 400 acres between Oxford and Bicester to the north-east of the county. Part RSPB nature reserve, Otmoor is a designated site of Special Scientific Interest. Beware though it adjoins a MoD firing range! Although this is in keeping with its colourful history.
Back in the mid-19th Century there were serious fisty-cuffs and the infamous Otmoor Riots. The area was marshland, with its own character and close-knit community. The locals believed that the land was theirs for life having been given it by the Lady of Otmoor (notwithstanding the fact that she may have been just a ghost). Sir Alexander Croke, a local landlord, disagreed and along with other landowners arranged for Otmoor to be drained for their own commercial interests. A Civil War broke out. A civil war ensued. In 1829 they fenced off the land. Well, to say that this gave the locals the hump is an understatement. Agricultural labourers could see their incomes literally going down the drain. They set about a campaign of attacking the fencing with vigour. Inspiring the rhyme; ‘the fault is great in man or woman who steals the goose from the common.’ To be honest not one that I can recall. Some nights around 150 men set about destroying the fencing. To such an extent The Coldstream Guards were summoned and billeted in Islip! There was a massive standoff in the area which inspired yet another rhyme;
I went to Noke
And nobody spoke.
I went to Brill
They were silent still.
I went to Thame
It was just the same.
I went to Beckley
They spoke directly.
…Oxford eh, a city of wordsmiths?
September 6th, 1830 it all came to a head. 1,000 people walked Otmoor’s seven-mile circumference destroying all the fencing. The Riot Act was read, and the Oxford Yeomanry joined the fray. Many arrests and the situation was inflamed and spread into Oxford where they were held. Then many escaped. With the judiciary now involved matters should have been resolved. Reality being that it rolled on for another five years before apparently calming. The flames possibly being fuelled by rumours that the locals of the marshlands had webbed feet! A fact fiercely denied by locals in recent times, saying that the myth is just quackers!
It appears that all was quiet in the area until Hitler stepped in! Between June 1940 and August 1942 Otmoor was renamed ‘Airfield Bombing Decoy Q38A’. According to ‘Historic England’, Otmoor was a ‘Q-type’ night decoy, displaying a sequence of lights to simulate an active airfield. In this case the RAF airbase at Upper Heyford. Apparently the Otmoor site was bombed twice during June 1940, although the uncovered building on the site remains largely intact. So, if you’ve a pre-1940 house in Upper Heyford you may have Otmoor to thank for it not being bombed, by them deceiving the Luftwaffe.
Having survived those bombardments, in 1980 another Government department felt that Otmoor deserved more upheaval (why do they always pick on the quiet one’s?) The Department of Transport decided to extend the M40, not along the route of the existing A40 but cutting out a new one to Birmingham, crushing all in its path.
Leap back to 1871 and a tome of bizarre fiction by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson; better known to us all by his pen name, Lewis Carroll and his sequel to ‘Wonderland’; ‘Through the Looking-Glass’…stay with me please, it will all come together. Legend has it that ‘Lewis’ (no not Morse’s sidekick) based his chessboard centrepiece on a field with a chessboard-like pattern in Otmoor (possibly through the looking glass himself when making that assumption). The proposed M40 route was through Otmoor and a Rook’s line through the ‘chessboard’. Once again, 150 years on, the locals had the hump. One, a Joe Weston, decided that purchasing ‘Alice’s Meadow’ may cause a little irritation to the planners. So, the Wheatley branch of ‘Friends of the Earth’ purchased the land. The ingenious twist was that the field was divided into over 3,000 lots, sold off individually to the locals. Even Whitehall bureaucrats baulked at the extra paperwork this would entail to compulsory purchase the lot.
The M40 extension, as we all know, was finally completed, but not through Otmoor. As you can imagine though the MoD, simply threw their toys out of the departmental pram and changed the rules & regs to prevent this happening again. There is also a case to be made that after more than 30 years a little retaliation is being deployed with the proposal to send the Oxford/Cambridge Expressway through Otmoor. A department junior from back in the 1980’s, a child of a now retired, on a handsome pension, senior official at the time. Now a wrinkled ‘executive’ themselves, getting their own back on behalf of their parent. They need to be beware though…a knock on the office door and a visit from the webbed-feet Otmoor locals!
Long may Otmoor remain a place of Special Scientific Interest and a nature reserve of some beauty, not speed cameras…