Headington history: Streets

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Headington Hill & Road: Cuckoo Lane West

”Cuckoo Lane West” runs between the top of Headington Hill and the Marston Road, along the back of Headington Hill Hall. It is only in recent years that it has been officially designated an extension of the Cuckoo Lane footpath to the east; historically it was a completely different path.

Thomas Hearne believed that this narrow lane was part of a Roman road. He wrote in his diary (22 February 1723/4) that Joe Pullen’s Tree was “just at the Brow of the Branch of the Roman Way that falls down upon Marston Lane”. Tradition has it that the Roman way in question (using modern street names) ran as follows:

  • Across the Woodstock Road just to the south of the Radcliffe Infirmary;
  • Past St Giles’ Church;
  • Along the line of Keble Road and South Parks Road;
  • Across the Cherwell and on to the Marston Road;
  • Up the back of Headington Hill to Pullen’s Lane;
  • On to Shotover via the Headington crossroads (then the site of the High Bush Cross).

Looking down the hill

In medieval times, when Headington Manor stretched as far as north Oxford and Binsey, it seems likely that this would have been a useful route. But when the manor boundary retreated eastwards as far as the Marston Road, it would have been less important, as it then led nowhere obvious, and there were quicker ways to Marston and Oxford from Old Headington. (The fact that this route provided easy access to the King’s Mill is probably irrelevant, as Headington had two medieval mills of its own – a windmill in Windmill Road, and a watermill at Bayswater.)

During the seventeenth century, however, this path may well have been used by pedestrians coming to Headington from Oxford, as the hollow way of Headington Hill was then in such a poor state that two carts used to have difficulty in passing each other, and London traffic (which had to execute a sharp right turn into Cheney Lane) must have added to the danger. This back route would have been safer and less muddy, even if it was a little further.

After Joe Pullen created his raised walkway up the front of Headington Hill in 1700, “Cuckoo Lane West” must have become less popular with pedestrians, as the new path was broad, dry, safe, more direct, and offered interesting views. But members of Magdalen College (the biggest landowner in Headington) would still have found this lane a useful shortcut from the back entrance of their college in King’s Mill Lane (particularly in 1771 when Magdalen Bridge was being rebuilt).

In 1817 the Oxford brewer James Morrell senior bought some grazing land from the Savage family at the top of the hill, and the original Headington Hill Hall was built by 1824. He later extended his land right down to the Marston Road. The boundary of his estate thus ran along the whole length of this footpath, which must have been eroded or encroached upon to the point of being unusable, because within a few years it had to be remade. G. V. Cox records that the University of Oxford’s “Curator of Public Walks”, Dr William Tournay:

planned and superintended the formation of several of the road-side walks (now so valuable for our Tutors’ “constitutionals”) and particularly the pretty winding path up the back of Headington Hill.”

The attraction of such a walk for Dr Tournay are obvious: he was Warden of Wadham College from 1806 to June 1831, and he would have stepped straight out of his college into the Parks (which then included the land now occupied by the Science Area, Rhodes House, and indeed South Parks Road itself). Although the Parks were not yet owned by the University, they were already a popular walking place for dons; and a footpath on the other side from King’s Mill Lane to Headington would provide a splendid walk for them. It appears that Wadham was rather fond of this part of Headington, because they appear to have bought all the land to the south-west of Pullen’s Lane (to the north of the footpath) in the manor sale of 1836.

The back lane to Headington would also have continued to be useful for Magdalen College, and members of other colleges may also have preferred it (even if it was slightly further), because by this time in order to reach Pullen’s raised walk, dons had to pass through the expanding slums of St Clements, which were to endure a cholera outbreak in 1832 and be taken into the city in 1835.  The importance of the route to the University was emphasized by a resolution of Convocation in 1885, reported by the General Purposes Committee of the Oxford Local Board on 7 March 1885:

University continues to maintain Cuckoo Lane west in 1885


Enclosure Award map of 1804

“Cuckoo Lane West” has always been an important boundary. First and foremost, it divided the parishes of St Clement’s and Headington, and this explains why on the 1804 Enclosure map for Headington (above), this small lane is clearly marked, while Headington Hill itself, which was part of a major turnpike road but falls in St Clement’s parish, is omitted. Jackson’s Oxford Journal for 25 February 1832 gives the following extract from the Bill for the Division of Counties:

Boundaries in 1832

Boundary stone at foot of hill


As well as marking the definitive boundary between St Clement’s and Headington parishes, the lane also met the Marston boundary at the foot of the hill.

The oldest and finest stone in “Cuckoo Lane West” (left) stands at the bottom of the lane where the

three parishes of Headington, Marston, and St Clement’s meet. It dates from the seventeenth century, and reads:


It faces Headington, not the Marston Road, and here the parish of Headington is emphasizing to the traveller that the road beyond this point was then outside both the parish of St Andrew’s Church and the Manor of Headington, and was not the responsibility of the village.

Boundary stone in middle of hill


Another old boundary stone (right) hides behind the fence on the north side of the lane, not far below the path to John Garne way. It marks the new eastern boundary of the city Oxford in 1835.

At the top is an ox crossing a ford, and below that it reads:

C. J. S.

Charles James Sadler was Mayor in 1836/7,
and this stone was probably erected when he beat the bounds in August/September 1837.

There used to be a matching boundary stone due west of this one on the Marston Road, opposite King’s Mill Lane.

Boundary stone at top of hill


The boundary stone at the top of this lane (left) reads:


George Claridge Druce was Mayor of Oxford in 1900/1.

This stone presumably marks the point where the County Borough boundary turns the corner into Pullen’s Lane.

Even as late as 1939 (below) “Cuckoo Lane West” marked the whole of the Ward Boundary, and most of the Parliamentary Borough Boundary.

The bottom part of this lane was tarmacked for the first time in January 2007, and it will soon become an important route again, as it leads directly to the new mosque on the Marston Road.

Cuckoo Lane in 1939

© Stephanie Jenkins

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