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Wool and turnpike to Radcot

Friday, 1 October 2021 at 21:28

Thames bridge on Dr John Dunn. Radcot Bridge c.1200

Wool and turnpike to Radcot

Tomorrow I will publish the latest of my motorcycling videos, which is about an important old road. It is in fact about the Burford to Faringdon road, which was critical, in the medieval era, to the exporting of wool from the Cotswold area to the continent. A stone bridge over the Thames. built by monks, was central to the old roads success, and also laid the foundations for the road's continued success into the turnpike era.

The publication of the video on YouTube will be announced first on this website on the 1st October.

What follows is the commentary to accompany the video production, and will be posted as subtitles for those who need them.

On my Royal Enfield again - this time on the busy A40 at Burford in Oxfordshire, looking to turn off right to Carterton.

I’m now riding my motorcycle down the most important road in England, well,that might well have been the case back in the middle ages, when wool production and wool exports to the continent were at the height of their importance to the economy, that is, back in the days when the wool barons financed the building of the great and famous so-called wool churches of the Cotswolds and East Anglia.

This road was important because it was the route by which the wool produced in the Cotswolds was transported southwards to the channel ports for export; so important that King John ensured that a stone bridge across the Thames was built at Radcot to facilitate the movement of this vital export commodity.

If not the most important road by the eighteenth century, long after the export of wool had passed its peak, King John’s bridge ensured that the road retained its importance as a north-south route. Indeed, the road was turnpiked as the Faringdon and Burford Turnpike in 1771.

These days the road I’m riding on is the B4020,becoming the A4095 at Clanfield and remaining so until Faringdon south of the Thames and the Radcot Bridge.

The turnpike days ended in the 1880s. Nevertheless, there is evidence of the old turnpike at the heart of today’s Carterton, and it is this that I will be seeking out.

The first evidence is this old milestone, erected by the Faringdon & Burford Turnpike Trust in the 19th century. It once had an iron plate upon which was inscribed Burford 3 Faringdon 8 miles.

When that old milestone was erected back in the eighteen hundreds there was nothing around here. The old turnpike road wended its way across a flat open plain. Carterton did not exist.

The biggest change to hit the old road happened in 1894 when land was acquired by Homesteads Limited whose director was William Carter. Plots of land with bungalows were sold, and this initial development was the seed of what flourished to become the town of Carterton, by the late 20th century, one of the largest towns in Oxfordshire.

I’m now riding to seek out the second of the two surviving milestones in Carterton.

And not surprisingly, it is one mile further down the road, aptly enough, opposite Milestone Road. Again, this now rather paltry looking thing once had an iron plate, upon which was inscribed, Burford 4 miles Faringdon 7.

There it is, not much to look at, but a monument to an important old road.

I’m setting off, back up the road that I’ve just travelled along. I have no choice.

Carterton's later growth was closely related to the expansion of Brize Norton airbase, opened in 1937.

The runways were built right across the old road, which necessitates the by-passing of Carterton to the west of the town through the village of Alvescot.

Travelling as I am, north to south, after Carterton, the old road is not resumed until I reach the junction to Black Bourton.Just here - so now I’m back on the old turnpike road.

However, from long before the turnpike era, there is an ancient survivor from the most important wool years of the Milddle Ages, the bridge commanded to be built by King John over the Thames, the bridge I mentioned earlier called Radcot Bridge, today the oldest bridge over the Thames.

And after passing through the village of Clanfield - here we are, approaching Radcot, with its three bridges. And here’s firstly Pidwell Bridge. Then the canal bridge of 1787.

And here it is, Radcot Bridge itself, built not long after 1200, the oldest bridge over the Thames, built for packhorses, but today carrying modern traffic.

In1202 King John had granted lands between the river and Faringdon to the Cistercian Order for the construction of a new abbey. Whilst the abbey was never built the present stone bridge was probably the work of Cistercian monks and their masons.

I went back for another look.

Here’s the bridge, just wide enough for packhorses, which means traffic lights for today’s traffic.

Back over the Radcot Bridge of 1200.

And now for a closer look.

The old bridge has three pointed arches, the pointed Gothic arches with strengthening ribs typical of Early English churches of that period, and the niche at the top of the bridge could have could have held an effigy of the Virgin Mary.

Wool was the mainstay of the English economy in the Middle Ages, and crossings of the upper Thames were important since it was the main natural barrier between the wool towns on the Cotswolds and the export markets across the Channel. Packhorse trains from Burford would find Radcot a convenient point to bridge the river en route for Faringdon, and further south to the channel ports.

Once over the Thames at Radcot, it was but a short ride into Faringdon, a town with a rich transport history and many route options. But that is material for another video sometime.

For now I’m done.

© John Dunn.

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