The 10k long river stretch of the river Thames at Radley passes through a roadless area rich in both human and natural history. The variety of its wildlife and historic sites is breathtaking and makes rowing at Radley so much more enjoyable and special.
With a lot of marsh and ditches the area is a favorite haunt of reed and sedge warblers and in summer their song, a mixture of harsh and melodious notes and churrs can be constantly heardcoming from the reeds lining the bank. Barton Fields Nature Reserve, close to Abingdon, was designated as a Jubilee Wildlife Space in 2003. The site contains an abundance of wetland plants and provides a refuge for water voles and grass snakes. The pathway next to the stream is lined with the white flowers of meadow sweet and comfrey. A reed bunting, with its black head and throat, may also be seen in the nearby arable fields, especially when the crop is rape.
Shortly after Warren Farm with its off-road racing course the river flows underneath Nuneham Railway Bridge, built in 1929 to replace Brunel’s original timber bridge of 1844. On the opposite bank can be seen Lock Wood and the Island which in the 19th century was a favorite spot for a boat outing from Oxford.
Soon Nuneham Park comes into view with its grand Palladian Villa built in 1757 by Stiff Leadbetter for the 1st Earl Harcourt, with the interior by James Stuart. Lancelot “Capability” Brown designed the landscaped grounds. In order to create his park Earl Harcourt demolish the old village around his new villa in the 1760s. He removed the village in its entirety, and recreated it along the main Oxford road (now the A4074). Oliver Goldsmith witnessed the demolition of the ancient village and destruction of its farms. His poem The Deserted Village, published in 1770, expresses a fear that the destruction of villages and the conversion of land from productive agriculture to ornamental landscape gardens would soon ruin the peasantry.
One special feature in Nuneham’s park for centuries has been the Carfax Conduit which can be seen close to the forest on top of the hill. This square elaborately carved stone water conduit with its historic and mythical figures was built in 1610 to stand at Carfax in the centre of Oxford and supply fresh water for the city. By 1789, now in a rather decayed state, the Conduit had become a hindrance to coach traffic and was given to the 2nd Earl Harcourt by the University but not until it was replaced by a new water-house on the north side of Carfax.
To the left of the drive leading from the Radley College Boathouse is a tumulus. Lower Radley is the centre of a large Bronze Age/ Iron Age cemetery on the gravel terrace similar to those in Wessex (1600 – 1100BC) indicating settlement along the riverbank. The floodplain may have been used for grazing and hay meadows, with arable cultivation, settlement and burial on the higher, drier gravels.
The church of St James the Great on higher ground in the village of Radley is mainly 14th and 15th century with 16th and 19th century heraldic stained glass and 17th century woodwork replacing woodwork much damaged during the Civil War. The wooden canopy over the pulpit was presented by the famous Speaker of the House of Commons, William Lenthall in 1653 and may have come from the Speaker’s Chair. Do not miss out on taking a look at the old vicarage from old Tudor times as well.
Radley College was founded in 1847 and is housed in Radley Hall, built in 1721 by the Oxford stonemason, William Townsend. Later school buildings include the squat Campanile and Dormitories, T.G. Jackson’s Chapel (1895) and Dining Hall (1910), and newer 20th century buildings. The Memorial Arch is the war memorial to the many Old Radleians wo died in both World Wars. The college’s rowing reputation is among the leading rowing schools like Eton, Shrewsbury and Abingdon.