The River Cherwell is a river which flows through the midlands of England. It is a major tributary of the River Thames.
The general course of the River Cherwell is north to south and the 'straight-line' distance from its source to the Thames is about 40 miles. It flows through Northamptonshire for about ten miles before passing into Oxfordshire for the remainder of its journey to Oxford where it joins the Thames.
The River Cherwell rises in the ironstone hills at Hellidon, two miles west of Charwelton near Daventry. Helidon Hill immediately north of the source forms a watershed: on the south side, the Cherwell feeds the River Thames and thence the North Sea at the Thames estuary; on the north side, the River Leam feeds the Warwickshire River Avon and the River Severn and thence the Bristol Channel. (A third river system on this watershed rises east of Charwelton and feeds tributary streams of the River Nene and thence the North Sea at The Wash.)
South of Charwelton, the River Cherwell passes between the villages of Hinton and Woodford Halse. Woodford Halse was much expanded by the building of the Great Central Railway in 1900.
Two miles further on, the River Cherwell swings westward for a few miles, passing below the village of Chipping Warden through Edgcote, site of a Romano-British villa. The river passes from Northamptonshire into Oxfordshire at Hay's Bridge on the A361 Daventry to Banbury road.
Cropredy and the Upper Oxford Canal
Half-a-mile north of the village of Cropredy, the River Cherwell turns southward again. The Oxford Canal enters the river valley here and more or less follows the Cherwell on its route to Oxford until it reaches Thrupp near Kidlington. The canal was projected to run connect the Coventry Canal to the River Thames and the Act of Parliament authorising it was passed in 1769. A few years earlier, Oxford merchants had proposed 'canal-ising' the River Cherwell upstream from their city to Banbury. Construction of the Oxford Canal began near Coventry but the canal didn't reach Banbury until 1778 and it was a further 12 years before it was completed, the first boats reaching Oxford in January 1790.
The River Cherwell skirts the east side of Cropredy itself and passes under Cropredy bridge, site of a major battle in the English civil war in 1644. This was a protracted encounter with riverside skirmishes concentrated along a three-mile stretch of the River Cherwell between Hay's bridge and a ford at Slat Mill near Great Bourton. King Charles's forces beat the Parliamentarian army.
On Cropredy bridge is a plaque bearing the words "Site of the Battle of Cropredy Bridge 1644. From Civil War deliver us." The bridge was rebuilt in 1780 and this plaque is a facsimile of the original one. Cropredy's church contains relics from the battle and it is said that local people hid the church's eagle lectern in the River Cherwell in case marauding soldiers damaged or stole it.
South of Cropredy bridge, the river skirts the fields used for the annual Cropredy Festival, a three-day music event run by the band Fairport Convention. It then passes the site of a former water mill. A sufficient head of water to power the mill was assured by a weir system to create a millpond. There may have been more rudimentary mill works upstream but this is the first major mill along the river's course.
After a few miles the River Cherwell passes under the M40 motorway and enters the industrial hinterland of Banbury, passing the site of another water mill. From here, a main line railway runs alongside on the west side. This line was built by the Great Western Railway and links London and Oxford with Birmingham and the north. South of this point, the railway closely follows the Cherwell valley.
The town of Banbury grew up alongside the River Cherwell. A Roman villa at nearby Wykham Park dates from around the year 250 but it was the Saxons who built the first settlement west of the River Cherwell. On the opposite bank is the Saxon settlement of Grimsbury, now absorbed into Banbury.
Banbury Castle was built in 1135 on the west bank of the Cherwell commanding the river. The castle was extended and rebuilt many times. In the English civil war the castle became a Royalist stronghold and was beseiged during the winter of 1644-45. A second siege began in January 1646 and lasted until April when a surrender was negotiated. Following a petition to the House of Commons in 1648 the castle was demolished.
There was a substantial water mill on the River Cherwell near the castle. The brick-built mill building and the miller's cottage have been modernised and extended to serve Banbury as a theatre and arts centre.
South of Banbury, the valley of the River Cherwell widens out. On the west bank is a large housing estate built in the 1970s named Cherwell Heights and a mile south the ancient village of Bodicote on higher ground to the west of the river. Downstream of Banbury, most of the villages in the Cherwell valley are similarly set back from the river on higher ground to avoid flooding.
After Bodicote, the river passes an industrial estate at Twyford Mill before reaching Kings Sutton, a village noted for the splendid lofty spire on its church which overlooks the river. Two miles further on, the Cherwell reaches the settlement of Nell Bridge and passes under a main road leading to the village of Aynho which is a mile to the east on a low hill overlooking the river.
Shortly after Nell Bridge, the River Cherwell crosses the Oxford Canal at a right-angle, flowing in on the east side and out over a weir on the west side. Such level river crossings are fairly uncommon on English canals. A few yards below this crossing is Aynho Weir Lock. This lock is unusual in that instead of a rectangular chamber, it has a wide lozenge-shaped chamber. This is because the lock lowers the canal by only 12 inches and the extra width of the lock chamber compensates for the smaller amount of water which would otherwise be passed from the River Cherwell to feed the lower level of the canal.
Adjacent to Aynho Weir, the railway route splits. South of this junction, the orginal line continues down the Cherwell valley to Oxford; east of it, a more direct route (opened in 1910 by the Great Western Railway) runs via Bicester and High Wycombe to London, originally served by trains to Paddington station but now by trains to Marylebone station. On the line to Oxford, the River Cherwell supplied water to the railway, feeding long troughs laid on top of the sleepers between the rails so that locomotives could scoop up water to replenish their tanks without stopping.
Lower Course, Somerton, Heyford, Rousham and Shipton
From Aynho, the River Cherwell meanders in its valley overlooked by hilltop villages. Somerton and Heyford are the only villages adjacent to the river itself and both once had water mills. The mill at Lower Heyford was last rebuilt in the early 1800s and worked as a mill as recently as 1946. However, there was a mill here before the Norman Conquest and this fact is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
At Rousham, the River Cherwell passes a famous landscape garden designed by William Kent. It features many statues and a temple which overlooks the River Cherwell. The terrace by the river is named the Praeneste after the ancient temple in Palestrina near Rome.
Two miles south of Rousham the river is crossed by a medieval packhorse bridge at Northbrook and a further mile south the course of Akeman Street, a Roman road, crosses the river. South of here, the Cherwell valley narrows and becomes more wooded.
The River Cherwell passes under the Woodstock to Bicester road and shortly after the Oxford Canal flows into it from the east. The next mile of the river is used by boats as part of the canal route. The canal and river pass a now-derelict cement works which was once supplied by canal narrowboats and which used water extracted from the river.
After sharing their course for about one mile, the Oxford Canal and River Cherwell diverge at Shipton Weir Lock (a similar lozenge-shaped structure to the lock at Aynho Weir). To the west of the lock is the village of Shipton on Cherwell. The bridge carrying the railway over the canal was the site of a major train crash in December 1874 in which more than 30 people died.
East of Shipton, the deserted village of Hampton Gay stands on the bank of the River Cherwell. The most substantial remnant is the church which stands in lonely isolation in the watermeadows but there are ruins of a manor house too. Beyond here, the river reaches Thrupp where the Oxford Canal finally leaves the Cherwell valley.
There was a Romano-British settlement not far from the River Cherwell near Kidlington and a substantial Romano-British villa across the river at Islip. To the east of Islip is a wide plain called Otmoor drained by the River Ray and its small tributaries. The Ray flows into the River Cherwell at Islip bridge.
The City of Oxford
The River Cherwell reaches the northern outskirts of Oxford and runs south on the eastern edge of Oxford town centre, diverging into several streams. Below Park Town, the river is flanked by University Parks and passes in front of Lady Margaret Hall and St Catherine's College. The river then passes under Magdalen Bridge (like Magdalen College, it is pronounced 'maudlin') and skirts Christ Church Meadow before flowing into the River Thames. In summer, punting is very popular on this stretch of the Cherwell (a punt is a long flat bottom boat which is propelled by means of a pole pushed against the river bed).
The confluence of the Thames and Cherwell was the site of early settlements and the River Cherwell marked the boundary between the Dobunni tribe to the west and the Catuvellauni tribe to the east (these were pre-Roman Celtic tribes).
A Romano-British settlement grew up north of the confluence, partly because the site was naturally protected from attack on the east by the River Cherwell and on the west by the River Thames. This settlement dominated the pottery trade in what is now central southern England and pottery was distributed by boats on the Thames and its tributaries.