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Headington Hill & Road: Cuckoo Lane


Cuckoo Lane is an ancient footpath, possibly over a thousand years old, running eastwards from the top of Headington Hill to Old Headington. It still provides the shortest and most pleasant route for pedestrians between Oxford and that village.

Cuckoo Lane on Corpus map

Left: Extract from a map of Headington made in 1605 by Corpus Christi College, then one of the major landowners in Headington North is to the left, and Headington Hill and Brockless Field are clearly marked.

Cuckoo Lane is named as Oxforde Waye (showing that it the map was made from a Headington perspective). It later splits in two, one part continuing in the direction of Sandhills, and the other coming to an abrupt halt at what is now Osler Road.

The year after that (1683) the Revd Josiah Pullen is said to have planted his famous tree, and it soon became known as “the lane to/from Joe Pullen's tree”.

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, before the London Road, Pullens Lane, and Osler Road existed) shows Cuckoo Lane (marked in green) running from the top of Headington Hill to Old High Street, as it does today. The footpath then extended along the line of North Place and the northern boundary of Bury Knowle Park to Barton Road, which led north to the hamlet of Barton, but this part no longer exists.

Cuckoo Lane

The map above shows clearly that while in 1769 the best route for pedestrians visiting Old Headington village from Oxford was via Cuckoo Lane (marked in green), the principal route for carriages and carts was then the more circuitous one via the present Marston Road (shown on the left), Copse Lane, Saxon Way, and Dunstan Road (which was known as Headington Lane until at least 1900). There is a second footpath leading east from the top of the Headington Hill near the line of the present Headington/London Road. The main highway at the bottom is Cheney Lane leading to the Old Road to London, then still very much in use.

When the present Headington/London Road was created as a turnpike road in the 1780s to replace the Old Road to London, Cuckoo Lane still 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 the plan of the lots in the auction catalogue (below) shows a newly-widened and straightened Cuckoo Lane, labelled ROAD, running between Pullen's Lane and the Boundary Brook (near Headley Way), and a similar but wider new road (now Pullen's Lane) also running from Joe Pullen's Tree.

1836 plan

The division of the lots on the above plan shows that small villas fronting this section of Cuckoo Lane were anticipated on the north side, and to the south the six villas expected to front Headington Road (labelled Turnpike) would have used it as a back lane.

In the event, however, the land failed to sell in the 1836 auction, and the proposed occupation road lay dormant from 1836 to 2019, and nature took over. Cuckoo Lane was saved as a pleasant green walk because when the area was eventually developed, only the plot in the north-eastern corner was laid out as originally envisaged when the lane was widened:

Corner site: This was developed as originally planned (see Lot 30 above), and The Pullens was built there in 1880). This house was demolished in the mid-1870s, and the EF (Education First) Language Centre is now on the site. The Pullens evidently had a lodge entrance in Cuckoo Lane as well as its main entrance in Pullens Lane

South side: John Marriott Davenport bought all the land to the south of this part of Cuckoo Lane (Lots 13–18) in the second Manor sale of 1848, building Davenport House in the western corner and keeping the rest of the proposed development land as far east as the Boundary Brook as a farm. This land remains intact today (except for the bit lost in the 1950s to create Headley Way), as the entire Davenport House estate was bought in its entirety by Headington School in 1920.

North side: No medium-sized villas were built along the new road as anticipated, but instead two enormous houses were built on Pullen's Lane that extended south-east to include these building plots, namely The Croft (1882) and Langley Lodge (1887), both now part of Rye St Antony School).

In the picture below, taken in January 2007, the snow helps to emphasize just how wide the lane is at this point, compared to the original six-foot-wide footpath:

Cuckoo Lane in the snow

The 1898 map below shows the four large houses that eventually backed on to this this road, which is named Cuckoo Lane (possibly for the first time). East of the corner, a garden building of The Croft appears to have a small entrance into Cuckoo Lane.

1898 map

Signpost

On this part of the lane is a “signpost” memorial stone (right), commissioned from the Stile Company and put up on 4 May 2003 by Ruth Harris of Brackley in memory of her parents. Highway officers allowed it to remain on the grounds that it is a street sign (which does not require planning permission), but stated that in future such unusual road signs proposed for Oxford will have to go through the planning procedure.

Originally Cuckoo Lane continued to strike its way continuously through fields to Old High Street, but it is now it is traversed by three roads: the first is Headley Way, cut through the grounds of Headington School in the 1950s.

After Headley Way, Cuckoo Lane continues as a path alongside Woodlands Road. Just to the east of Headley Way is the line of the Boundary Brook, which is now underground. This brook marked the boundary between Oxford and Headington/Cowley/Iffley that was established in 1889 (and is the reason that the Headington Road becomes the London Road at this point). The brook appears to have been sent underground here when Headley Way was built.

Boundary stone Woodlands Road

There is an 1892 boundary stone (left) at the side of Cuckoo Lane marking the the sharp turn to the south in the boundary that divided Headington and Oxford from 1889 to 1929. It is inscribed:

1892
F.W. ANSELL
MAYOR
W. S. CARTER
SHERIFF

A matching stone can be found on the Headington Road where it meets London Road.

 

To the east of the Boundary Brook, Cuckoo Lane reverts to being a narrow footpath for the rest of its length: it has about the same width (six feet) as it did at the time of the Headington Enclosure Award of 1805.

 

Cuckoo Lane then crosses a second new road, Sandfield Road (built in the 1930s), and then runs behind the Manor Hospital and housing built on the site of the former football ground in 2003. There used to be a Cuckoo Lane stand, and some football supporters had an exit into Cuckoo Lane.

Headington Manor House (below) has stood to the north of Cuckoo 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.

Manor House

The lane then crosses a third new road, Osler Road, which was built in 1802 and was formerly known as Manor Road. (Before this date, it was a just the narrow Sandy Lane.) At this point, Cuckoo Lane clearly marks the start of the village of Old Headington to the north.

Lodge of Headington Lodge

On the east side of Osler Road, the entrance to the next part of 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 much newer and is marked “1928”.

The next part of the lane is like a dark tunnel. This effect was deliberately created by William Wootten-Wootten, who in 1848 bought Headington House and its adjacent field to the south (now occupied by Stephen Road and the London Road shops). By building high walls along the public right of way and putting two narrow bridges across it just for the use of his family and servants, he could enjoy an uninterrupted view of his large estate while the local people passed unobserved below. The lodge of Headington House originally stood where the Scott Fraser building is now.

Bridge 1

Bridge 2

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 the shops at the north end of Old High Street.

Cuckoo Lane today reaches its end in Old High Street, beside the entrance to Headington House.

On 4 July 2018 Cuckoo Lane was accepted on to Oxford City Council's Heritage Asset Register: see its listing here.

Cuckoo Lane in summer

On 29 March 2019 Oxford Direct Services started the construction of a new tarmac path (later to be covered with buff gravel) on the eroded stretch of Cuckoo Lane between Pullens Lane and Franklin Road.

15 April 2019

3 May 2019

See also “Cuckoo Lane west

© Stephanie Jenkins

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