Headington history: Streets

Tour backwards
Go forwards

Headington Hill & Road:The raised footpath up the hill

Footpath up Headington Hill
Drawing of the raised path by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (1733–1794)
This upper part appears to have had a retaining stone wall.
The bridge over the hill was not built until 1877
Reproduced with permission of Collect Britain, © The British Library Board

Path up hill in 1810Drawing of the path in 1810 by J. Storer. The lower part just has an earth bank

Telegraph polesEarly twentieth century: The retaining wall here above the bridge is higher

Headington Hill with telegraph pole
Early twentieth century: Cyclists riding/walking up the hill towards the bridge, and a cart coming down

The Revd Josiah (“Jo”) Pullen was Principal of Magdalen Hall (then in the grounds of Magdalen College) from 1656 until 1714, and he used to enjoy his daily walk up Headington Hill so much that in about 1700, as well as planting his famous elm tree, he organized a general subscription of the University to pay for a raised footpath up the northern side of the hill: hence the joke that Pullen had “made a-way with public money”.

The need for such a footpath is explained in Thomas Hearne’s diary entry for Monday 2 May 1726, where he describes how the road up the hill had until then been a very uneven “hollow way”, whose sloping sides left very little room for wheeled vehicles to pass:

This day Sennight they began to level the great hollow way at Heddington Hill, so as to make the whole Horseway even, wheras before it was so very rough & uneven that there was hardly passage for Horses, Coaches, Waggons, &c. This is a laudable Thing, & will be of as good Service as the making Magd. Coll. Bridge wider.

Only the lower part of Headington Hill, of course, was used by the London coaches at this time, as they soon turned right into Cheney Lane to reach Old Road. So it was probably only the part of the hill above Cheney Lane (leading nowhere but Old Headington) that was in a very bad state. The footpath still dips down to the road at the turn into Cheney Lane for people wishing to walk via the Old Road.

Raised footpath by Turner
The raised footpath painted by J. M. W. Turner in 1803–4

It is not known whether the hill was a natural or man-made hollow way. Peshall, writing in the eighteenth century, believed it was dug out by the Romans:

It will not be thought absurd that the holloway up this hill should be wrought by the Romans, when it is considered what wonderful pains the soldiers took in breaking through mountains and other rough places.

The raised footpath is still very useful today, as the danger of walking in a rough hollow way have been replaced by the danger of traffic. As can be seen from the above picture, there was nothing originally to stop pedestrians from falling over the edge of the footpath, and this was not rectified until 1891. On 13 October that year (p. 6c), Jackson’s Oxford Journal reported:

A fence 350 yards in length, formed of wrought iron tubing fixed to cast-iron standards, has been erected along the edge of the footpath on Headington Hill from opposite the end of Cheney-lane to a point near the summit of the hill.

This was evidently insufficient, however, as Jackson’s Oxford Journal of 7 October 1893 reported on the inquest held into the death of John Lane, a labourer of 59 from Forest Hill, who died after a fall from the footpath into the road. The stakes which had been driven in to prevent people slipping down the bank had been removed. The Jury added a rider to the verdit of accidental death that “they were unanimously of opinion that the attention of the authorities should be called to the path on Headington Hill, and especially to the point where the deceased fell”.

Headington Hill’s claim to national fame is the statement by C. S. Lewis that he became a theist here in 1926 while on a bus going up up to Headington (probably on a visit to Janie Moore in Holyoake Road):

The odd thing was that before God closed in on me, I was in fact offered what now appears to be a moment of wholly free choice. I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words, and almost without images, a fact about myself was somehow presented to me. I became aware that I was holding something at bay. I felt myself being given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut. I chose to open.

Landslip on hill

Above and below: landslip from the raised footpath in 2006.

Landslip on hill

© Stephanie Jenkins

Headington home Shark Oxford History home