The handsome stone bridge arraying The Abingdon Road south over the Isis which you cross en route to the boathouse or to Radley every morning is but the latest in a succession of crossings dating back to Saxon times. The first was the swampy cattle crossing which has given its name to our town and University, The Oxen Ford.
The spit of dry gravel which drops down from the posh north of Oxford, runs out as it nears the river and the ground turns to clay on a line running West to East from the castle to Brewer St to the lower end of Christ Church along the line of Dead Man’s Walk to the Botanical Gardens. This allows a line of springs and rivers to come to the surface and for these to be channelled into tight fast running streams and mill races. However in the Middle Ages, the ground south of Christchurch was a wide, boggy morass, wetter or drier depending on the weather and how high the river level was. The animals would be driven from the area still known as the Oxpens, and a cattle market even in my time in Oxford on what is now the Cherwell College of FE. Humans driving them would try to keep dry shod by walking on whatever dry land they could find in between puddles/lakes and on wooden planking and temporary wooden bridges. Apparently even now when the river is low and the water clear you can sometimes see the remains of one of these wooden bridges, by looking down from Folly Bridge. The Saxon occupants of the fortified burgh of Oxford, fearful of Viking raids up the Thames were probably happy to keep the area around the Southgate impassably boggy, so it was not until after the Conquest that Robert D’Oelli, Lord of Oxford and his Norman passion for stone construction built a stone bridge and causeway from the beginning of the bog, over the Thames to the foot of Boar’s Hill, to just about what is now the ring road.
Oxford was now really on the map. It was an important crossroads (Carfax is a corruption of Carrefour), we English are such good linguists! It was already an important religious centre (Osney Abbey) and place of pilgrimage (St Frideswide) by the time of the Conquest. The fleece of sheep from the Cotswolds and Chilterns would now be brought here for processing into broadcloth using the plentiful water provided by the above ground rivers Thames and Cherwell for fuelling and power. And then when the woollen cloth had been cleaned, spun, woven and stretched on tenterhooks, it could be exported to London and thence to Europe. The importance of wool to the British mediaeval economy can be judged by the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer still sits on a woolsack in the House of Lords. Then the Jews came, settling in Old Jewry, straddling St Aldates, where the Town Hall, GPO and Christchurch now stand, bringing trade, financial acumen and investment So, religion, trade and then the university, all increasing the economy and providing bodies to be housed, fed and taxed, the D’Oelli family were onto a winner. The trans Thames part of Oxford where I live is still called Grandpont after the great Norman causeway and bridge and it is only recently that the Thames wharves above Folly Bridge have been swept away and replaced with chichi riverside housing development. One of the streets is called Baltic street after the wharf designed to receive pine spars, resin and other essential imports from the Baltic trade, for which Oxford was as high on the Thames as seagoing ships could reach.
Like all the bridges on this site, it took two bites at the cherry, by leaping onto the natural island in the middle of the Thames we now know as Folly island across it and then off it again to the Berkshire side of the river. The current bridge was completed in 1927 to a design by the London architect Ebeneezer Perry. In the summer when the river is low take a punt around the south side of the island into the marina in front of the posh townhouses and under the causeway by one of the three low arches. It is too low to stand to punt but you can paddle (don’t do it if the river is high or rain is in the air), if you look up you will see large lumps of Norman stone embedded in the new structure. You come out in front of what was a mill, go round it to the left through a narrow overgrown channel and you find yourself back on the Isis where Una, Tony and other good coxes tuck the stern of their VIIIs under the iron footbridge to turn and avoid ramming the salters’ Steamers in front.
Oxford was buzzing and becoming rich. It was a focus of the Civil war when Charles 1st and his Court set themselves up in Oxford. In the eighteenth century as roads improved, a group of businessmen built the turnpike from Oxford to Abingdon, the south end of which started at the north end of Folly Bridge, the sweet shop which stands there now, is a listed building and was the toll booth for the turnpike. Close by the town Southgate was Friar Bacon’s Study. Brother Roger Bacon was a highly educated Franciscan monk who, like many people (in the age before the nature of atomic theory was fully understood) was an alchemist (good Arabic word, that) and spent his days trying to convert base metals such as lead into gold. There is a nice story, which if it isn’t true ought to be. As his alchemical experiments often involved hot fires and explosive chemicals, Friar Bacon, study and lab had been banished to the edge of the wood and thatch town lest he burn it down.
A group of Cambridge students (clerks of Cantabrigge aka Tabs) had travelled to Oxford to challenge the clerks of Oxenforde to a contest of Rhetoric (a debate in Latin). They were no doubt delayed by the excellence of some Berkshire alehouses and arrived at the Southgate somewhat the worse for wear, after the gate had been locked. The porters had turned in for the night and the only person awake was Friar Bacon in his study. They banged on the gate and shouted in Latin demanding entry. Friar Bacon, a friendly soul, called down to say he would pop down and let them in as soon as he had finished his experiment if they would be so kind as to wait five minutes. The Tabs were so discomfited by someone they assumed was a porter speaking such perfect and courteous Latin, that they turned back to Cambridge rather than challenge anyone more learned in one of the colleges. Unlikely? Sure, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?
Folly? bridge. Why Folly? I don’t know for sure but I was once told that the brick buildings on the island were built by a man called Cauldwell, who wanted to confront the canard that accountants are boring and uncultured by adorning his house with busts of the great and the good. The somewhat preposterous result was dubbed “Cauldwell’s Folly” by the locals and the name stuck (see above re. truth and a good story)
Francis King MA. OBE.
SPC 1st VIII 1966-7O
Coach of Lower VIIIs 2006-2012