Headington Hill & Road: Cuckoo Lane
Cuckoo Lane proper runs from Pullen’s Lane at the top of Headington Hill to Old High Street in the village of Old Headington. It is an ancient route, possibly over a thousand years old.
A map of Headington made by Corpus Christi College in 1605 shows Headington Hill curving gently into Cuckoo Lane and ending at Osler Road. This whole road from St Clement’s to Old Headington is marked “Oxforde Waye” (so is obviously named from a Headington perspective). There was no London Road at this time, but a side-road forking off from the right-hand side of Cuckoo Lane (also labelled “Oxford Waye”) roughly followed its line. Pullen’s Lane, and the Headington Road that runs from the top of the hill today, did not exist.
Cuckoo Lane was a pleasant shortcut to Headington for travellers coming on foot. Anthony Wood, who frequently visited the White Hart in Headington, describes a walk along the lane in December 1682:
But on the 10th and 11th much raine, yet mild, so that in my walk between Hedington Hill and Hedendon on the 16 Dec. I gathered ears of rye: and the corne there was so high and forward that before that time they were forced to graze or mow it. In the said month of Dec. and Jan. were garden pees in blossom.
Jeffries’ map of 1769 (below) shows Cuckoo Lane (marked in green) running from the top of Headington Hill to Osler Road, and then on to Old High Street, just as it does today. (There is also another lane running along the line of North Place and the northern boundary of Bury Knowle Park to the hamlet of Barton: this may have been a less important footpath, and no longer exists.)
The above map shows clearly that the principal route for carriages and carts from Oxford to Headington village in 1769 was the more circuitous (but less steep) one via the present Marston Road, Copse Lane, Saxon Way, and Dunstan Road. It also shows a footpath running just to the south of the present Headington Road.
After the present Headington/London Road was properly made up as a turnpike road to replace the Old Road to London in the 1780s, Cuckoo Lane remained a handy shortcut for people travelling on foot between Oxford and the village of Headington. At the time of the Enclosure Award of 1804 Cuckoo Lane is described thus:
Also one public Footpath of the breadth of six feet numbered XVIII [Cuckoo Lane] beginning at a certain Tree called Joe Pullen’s Tree and extending from thence in an Eastward direction across the Allotment numbered 64 by the public Road numbered VIII [Osler Road] the Allotment numbered 63 and the Allotment numbered 62 into the Road numbered II [Old High Street] near the village of Headington aforesaid the same being set out as the Public Foot Road from Headington to Oxford.
In 1836 the Lords of the Manor of Headington put their Manor up for auction, and proposed a widening of the part of the footpath that runs from Joe Pullen’s tree to the Boundary Brook (near Headley Way), as this would allow carriage access to the building plots to the north-east. It is not clear exactly when this part of the lane was widened, and it may not have happened until c.1850, when Davenport House was built. In the picture below, taken in January 2007, the snow helps to emphasize just how wide the lane is at this point.
The above part of the lane looks completely unspoilt, with the grounds of Rye St Antony School to the north and those of Headington School to the south. But it is suspiciously straight, and it was in fact created in the nineteenth century as a service road to the properties on each side, but was never made up.
At the end of this part of the lane is a “signpost” memorial stone (right) dedicated by Ruth Harris of Brackley to her parents on 4 May 2003.
Originally Cuckoo Lane struck its solitary way through fields and had no side roads, but now it is traversed by two roads: the first is Headley Way, built in the 1950s.
Just to the east of this road is the line of the Boundary Brook, which is now underground. This brook marks the boundary between Oxford and Headington/Cowley that was established in 1889, and is the reason that the Headington Road becomes the London Road at this point.
The brook starts below the John Radcliffe Hospital and used to run past the end of the Staunton Road gardens, beside the White Horse, and across the London Road, and until the 1940s, steam engines and steam-engined lorries used to stop to draw water at the London Road bridge. It appears to have been sent underground here when Headley Way was built, but until c.1980 it used to run through the back gardens of the council houses on the east side of Valentia Road before being piped underground for safety reasons. After flowing under Old Road it re-emerges to run past the Churchill Hospital and golf course on to the marsh on Cowley Road, the Iffley Road, and the River Thames.
There is a boundary stone (left) at the side of Cuckoo Lane marking the the sharp turn to the south in the boundary between Headington and Oxford from 1889 to 1929. It is inscribed:
W. S. CARTER
A matching stone can be found on the Headington Road where it meets London Road.
To the east of the Boundary Brook, Cuckoo Lane becomes very narrow for the rest of its length. It first runs along parallel to Woodlands Road, and then, after crossing Sandfield Road (built in the 1930s), it runs behind the Manor Hospital, which was built on the site of the former football ground.
Headington Manor House (below) has stood to the north of the lane at this point since it was built by Sir Banks Jenkinson in 1770. It was bought by the Lord of the Manor of Headington (Henry Mayne Whorwood) in 1801. The last Lord of the Manor’s executors sold it to the Radcliffe Infirmary in 1919, and hence much of its land is occupied by the John Radcliffe Hospital.
The lane then emerges in Osler Road, which was formerly known as Manor Road (and before that as Sandy Lane). At this point, Cuckoo Lane clearly marks the divide between the older and new parts of Headington.
The entrance to the lane (left) is marked with a “No cycling” sign, and to the north is the former lodge of the large 1830s house that is now divided into Sandy and White Lodges.
The row of houses in Osler Road just to the south of the lane (not shown) is marked “1928”.
The next part of the lane is like a dark tunnel. This almost subterranean passage was created by William Wootten-Wootten, who bought Headington House in 1848. The field now occupied by Stephen Road and the London Road shops was part of the land of his house, and by submerging the public right of way and building two narrow bridges across it for the use of his family and servants respectively, he could enjoy an uninterrupted view of his large estate while the local people passed unobserved below.
When Stephen Road was built in 1920s, steps were provided down to Cuckoo Lane, presumably to give the new householders quick and easy access to their village church and shops at the south end of Old High Street.
Cuckoo Lane today reaches its end in Old High Street, beside the entrance to Headington House, but once continued to Barton (as shown on the 1769 map above).