Mapping the Wychwoods

I have spent most of my working life working with antiquarian maps and atlases and when you consider the relative size of the three Wychwood villages, you would imagine that we would be unlikely to trouble a cartographer. Would he even bother to mark us on a map? The answer is surprising.

The first ever printed maps of the English counties were made by Christopher Saxton and were published –after seven years of surveying – in 1579. Oxfordshire is on one sheet together with Berkshire and Buckinghamshire – a cost saving exercise – but there in the western corner of Oxfordshire is the Whichwod (sic) forest and clearly delineated are Ascot and ‘Shipton Underwood’. The forest is shown stretching from Shorthampton to Longborough and is identified by a cluster of small engraved trees.  The first time Oxfordshire appears as a separate county map was in 1607 when a Dutch cartographer, William Hole was commissioned – along with his compatriot, G. Kip – to produce a set of maps for the 1607 edition of William Camden’s ‘Britannia’. Once again Ascot and Shipton Underwood are present and the Wychwood forest is now spelt correctly.  

Probably the best know English cartographer is John Speed and his map of Oxfordshire of 1611 duplicates Saxton’s map with the naming of Ascot and Shipton Underwood and the clear identification of the ‘Whichwod Forest ‘. The similarity is not surprising as Speed did not conduct an original survey but copied earlier sources. This was much cheaper but does result in the perpetuation of mistakes. Speed makes no claim to originality and because there was no law of copyright, he admits in his ‘Address to the Reader’ that; “I have put my sickle into other men’s corn”.

A rare and rather beautiful allegorical map appears in 1612, courtesy of Michael Drayton. Drayton was a poet –who is buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey – but his ‘Poly-Olbion ‘- a monumental collection of eighteen songs, is illustrated with eighteen maps. These were not intended to be an article of geographic accuracy but as a whimsical allegorical and fictitious illustration to the poet’s verse.  They were engraved by William Hole and are best described as ‘mythological topography’. These curious maps are no respecter of county boundaries.  They concentrate instead on rivers and geographical features with hills and streams being decorated with shepherds, bare-breasted water-nymphs and pagan deities. The Oxfordshire map is centred on the city of Oxford but includes parts of Berkshire and Buckinghamshire but there to the central left of the map is a ‘Green man’ with a staff standing in front of engraved trees, clearly labelled ‘Whichwood fo.’.

We then jump some thirty years to Amsterdam and the wonderful maps of Johannes Blaeu and Jan Jansson. Both men copied their maps from John Speed but they were sumptuously produced, often with stunning contemporary hand colouring and they have a spaciousness and clarity which contrasts with the somewhat ‘cluttered’ appearance of the maps of John Speed.  Both maps again clearly identify Shipton, Ascot and the forest.

The residents of Milton must by now be feeling somewhat overlooked, but in 1676 you appear on what is arguably the most decorative map of Oxfordshire. Created by Robert Plot, its margins are embellished with 172 coats-of-arms; both those of the Oxford Colleges and of the gentry of the county.  The maps are visually stunning and they clearly show the ‘Which-wood-forest’, Ascot, ‘Shipton under Which Wood’ and ‘Miltone’. The map is also one of the first to show roads, which had been surveyed and published the previous year by John Ogilby.

At this point, it should go without saying that these comparatively early maps were not anything like as accurate as those of today.  They were, however, a huge contributor to geographical knowledge and the mapmakers were justifiably proud of the end product.  We cannot expect to make detailed analysis of places based solely on these maps.  It was really only with the coming of the Ordnance Survey – and their first Wychwood map did not arrive until 1833, that generational comparisons could be made, showing, for example, how the Wychwood Forest has shrunk over time.

Why are the Wychwoods so prominently featured on nearly all the county maps made from the reign of Elizabeth I up to and beyond Queen Victoria?  Certainly the forest was historically and economically important and would have been a large geographic feature worthy of inclusion. More likely is that Shipton is a linear village lying on a major coaching route and if you were travelling from Bristol up into the industrial Midlands or further north, you may well have chosen to stop and rest in our valley. You can speculate and hypothesise as to why we feature so prominently and whatever conclusion you come to will be as valid as any other, but it is a rather splendid fact that our small rural community has been considered worthy of inclusion on the maps of Oxfordshire from before the sailing of the Spanish Armada and up to the present day.

John Trevers

April-May 2021