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The earliest historical descriptions of Oxfordshire are found in itineraries. Unlike previous passing references in chronicles to places which happened to be linked to a political, military or ecclesiastical event, these collections of written observations are concerned with the detail and often the intrinsic character of particular places. The earliest such observer of Oxfordshire was John Leland (1506-52), who from 1533 was charged by Henry VIII with recording evidence from the libraries of monasteries and colleges, then being dismantled. As he toured England and Wales Leland made notes, later written up in a mixture of historical evidence and contemporary description. Leland notices castles, markets, towns, cities, churches and principal buildings, houses of great men, street plans, building materials, bridges, rivers and watercourses, and land use- for common field arable, enclosed arable, meadow, waste, wood, forest and parks. Happily, Leland’s itineraries are available in a 20th-century printed edition ( L. Toulmin Smith (ed.), The Itinerary of John Leland in or about the years 1535-1543 ( 5 vols., 1907).
There is much to be squeezed from Leland’s account, including mention of sites, buildings or documents now lost. The value is enhanced through comparison with the descriptions of the succession of later travellers who also set out to characterise Oxfordshire and the Vale of White Horse. Oxford, a place of national and international fame, predictably gets extensive attention, as do places on major routes, like Henley, Abingdon and Banbury. But there is much else, as for example in the Oxfordshire sections of the travels (1685-1703) of Celia Fiennes, who not only visited the houses of her grand relations, (including Lord Saye and Sele at Broughton Castle), and the spa at Astrop, but noted the enclosure of land, the quality of the local soils and the methods of ploughing them. Later observers of the county in this genre included Daniel Defoe (1724-6) who encountered a hiring fair at Bloxham, John Byng in 1792, H.Rider Haggard in 1902, and J.B.Priestley in 1933.
One of the most intriguing accounts is that of Carl Philip Moritz, who walked through Oxfordshire in 1782, recording his sharp and intriguing observations as he went. Click Here for references.