Blewbury is a village of roughly 1,500 people, located at the foot of the Berkshire Downs near Didcot in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire. It lies on the A417 road, a few miles south of Didcot, and was part of Berkshire until the county boundary changed in 1974. It also lies close to two long-distance paths: the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way.
Many writers have lived in the village, including Kenneth Grahame (Wind In The Willows), Barbara Euphan Todd (Worzel Gummidge) and the ex-jockey and thriller writer, Dick Francis. Blewbury has also been the home to several painters, including Clare Bassett and Elphin Lloyd-Jones.
A Downland Village
Despite being a commuter town for London, Blewbury has managed to retain a thriving community. The church remains at the centre of village social life, along with the artistic and sporting circles. Blewbury C of E Primary is a growing school and often serves as a gallery for aspiring local painters. An outdoor theatre, in the gardens of one of the oldest houses in Blewbury, holds several productions each year, and the recreation ground and village hall facilities allow sporting clubs to thrive.
The Blewbury Village Society organises many traditions, such as the Bonfire night celebrations, Easter egg rolling and the Boxing Day Walk. This latter tradition is essentially a fancy dress pub crawl which has seen individuals and groups of people dressed as pretty much anything you can imagine, including colonies of penguins, 'Bluebirds Over The White Cliffs Of Dover', curling teams, and 'The Only Gay In The Village'. The bi-annual Blewbury Festival attracts visitors from all over the surrounding area, with the Open Gardens and the art displays attracting people from all over the country.
The earliest origins of the village are not surprisingly lost in the mists of time. The earliest evidence, unearthed in 1983, is a small cache of flint tools, pottery shards, pieces of bone and nutshells, among other things. An arrowhead has been dated to the Late Neolithic period, roughly 4,500 years ago. The people would have been nomadic, possibly heading up to the Downs or the Chilterns during the summer and returning in the autumn to see if the crops that they planted had flourished.
There are many Bronze Age burial barrows in the area, and it is thought that by the Iron Age in the 8th Century BC, the population had changed from a nomadic to a more settled, agricultural people. It is then that the hill fort on Blewburton Hill was built, and you can still see the earthworks that provided the 'stepped' appearance today. The fort would have had rings of wooden fences to keep the people safe and the animals enclosed. It could have provided a measure of defence as well, although there is no evidence that the fort was ever under attack. The Old English name for Blewburton Hill was bleo byrig dun1, and it is from this name that the name Blewbury evolved.
There is no evidence that Blewbury was settled during Roman times, although there have been plenty of archaeological finds in the surrounding area. Neither has there been much evidence of Anglo-Saxon settlement, apart from a cemetery located on Blewburton Hill, and it could be that the modern village is situated on top of an old one. An axe from this period was found at the turn of the 20th Century, in a stream at the bottom of a Blewbury resident's garden!
The first written record of the area exists in an Anglo-Saxon Charter, which describes the land granted from King Edmund to Bishop Aelfric in 994 AD. By 1086 it was apparently an important local centre, possibly due to its minster church, which could have been founded as early as the mid-7th Century, when Birinus, Saxon bishop of Wessex, was teaching2. At this time there was much upheaval between the many kings, especially those of Christian Wessex and Pagan Mercia.
The Domesday Book of 1086 finally gives us a clear idea of Blewbury, then called 'Blitberie'. It is recorded that there were twenty four villeins3, sixty two cottars4, and zero slaves, and was worth £61. It also recorded the existence of the church. Despite this survey indicating that there were roughly 90 buildings at this time, no trace of them has yet been found.
There are no references to Blewbury until the Enclosure Acts of 1759 and 1805. We can assume that the village grew, and that its growth was affected by the farming of the people within it. It is estimated that the population was about 400 at the time of Domesday. By 1901 it had only risen to 600. There are no records of the population changes due to the Black Death (1348 - 50), but a field in the heart of Blewbury that, to this day, is still left to fallow, is known as the Plague Field. There was a close brush with danger during the Civil War, when leaders of the opposing armies ate at the same house within hours of each other, but as there was no destruction we can only assume that the host in question kept his head - both literally and figuratively!
Since then the introduction of railways, the changes in agriculture and the wars have changed Blewbury in the same way that all of England changed. There were soldiers stationed on the plains above Blewbury during the Napoleonic Wars, but these days, racing stables occupy the land along with the farmers.
Blewbury remains one of those pretty villages that you see on postcards, with thatched cottages and winding, tree-covered lanes. The village was built around the streams, not the roads, and there are still many places that you cannot get to by car. Here are some to look out for on a trip around the village:
The largest of the churches is that of St Michael's and All Angels. Over 900 years old, it still has many original features, including Norman arch windows, flint-building work and a full ring of eight bells. The Methodist chapel is a smaller, more intimate building, dating from 1869, replacing a smaller chapel built in 1826. It is located near the Cleve, the village pond, which used to house watercress beds. At the turn of the 20th Century, Blewbury Watercress was sold as far away as London.
The Playclose is the village green, pretty much the centre of the village and just a short walk from St Michael's. Tall hedges screen the houses along two sides, and a stream, the Millbrook, borders the other side from a field usually inhabited by ponies. This field is one part of Blewbury that you cannot get to by car, however much you wanted to, and it is also the venue for the Blewbury Duck Race, which is held on Easter Day5. Located on the main road is another, much smaller village green, The Pound, which has the Millennium Stone embedded in the centre.
In living memory there used to be five pubs in Blewbury. Now that the Blewbury Inn (formerly the New Inn) and the Load of Mischief have reverted to being private houses, and the Sawyers Arms was decades ago demolished and replaced with a set-back dwelling, Blewbury is left with only two.
Located just off of the Playclose, the Red Lion is your typical crowded village pub, where everybody knows everyone else. The Barley Mow is next to The Pound and has three bed and breakfast rooms upstairs.
The 'cob walls', found in the older parts of Blewbury, are thought to have indicated ownership of land. They are thatched, with the walls made of clay, straw and mud which is then whitewashed or painted. Despite sounding rather flimsy, if looked after they can survive hundreds of years. The footpaths that run alongside them are usually the main routes through Blewbury.
People will always comment on the pretty houses. Virtually anywhere you look you will see a house with an endearing feature. It's not just the thatched cottages; the tiled houses are just as pleasant to look at. Gardens are highly prized and Blewbury is usually a riot of colour.
Savages is Blewbury's local greengrocer, plant-seller, and Christmas tree merchant. There is also a local petrol station and a Post Office, which opens a couple of times a week out of a small shop at the side of the Village Hall. A surprising number of local businesses operate from this small village.
Blewbury is at the foot of the Berkshire Downs and has easy access to the ancient Ridgeway. Closer to home are the chalk pits, which are exactly that: pits made by the open mining of chalk. It is here that the Blewbury Egg Rolling championship is held each Easter. How far can you get your hardboiled egg when you use your nose to start it rolling down a hill?
Blewburton Hill is accessed through Winterbrook Farm, so please be especially careful and considerate if you have dogs or children with you. Once you are up on the summit, you should only have a cow or two to get in the way of the views. In such a glaciated landscape it is one of only a few hillocks rising above the plain. From Blewburton you can see the cooling towers of Didcot Power Station and the hillocks at Wittenham Clumps, as well as the rising hills leading to the Downs and the Ridgeway.
- Blewbury's website
- 'A View From The Hill', pub. Blewbury Village Society, 2006
- 'This Venerable Village' (5th Edition) by Peter Northeast, pub. Blewbury Local History Group, 2007