Guest post: Dorchester’s ‘Great Meadow’ – a literary and cultural history

Guest post written by: Prof. Hugh Macmillan

There are few places in southern England that have a greater depth of archaeological, historical and cultural significance than the stretch of the Thames/Isis between its confluence with the Thame and Day’s Lock, with the Wittenham Clumps to the south and the Dorchester Dyke Hills and Dorchester itself to the north. Known to the people of Dorchester for centuries as the ‘Great Meadow’, this stretch of land bordered to the south and east by the two rivers, has not only local, but national and global significance and has been open to all-comers since time immemorial – as befits a place of such huge cultural importance.

The wider area has a record of continuous human occupation going back 6,000 years into the late neolithic period and great strategic significance going back into the early iron age, more than 2,500 years ago. The latter period saw the construction of the fortifications on Castle Hill, the easterly clump, and the Dyke Hills, a massive earthwork, which replaced Castle Hill as the local strong point. This strategic significance continued through the Roman, Anglo-Saxon and Norman periods. Sir Frank Stenton, the historian of Anglo-Saxon England saw this area as the strategic centre of southern England, a point demonstrated by William the Conqueror’s crossing of the Thames a few miles away at Wallingford. This strategic significance was recognised within living memory by the construction of two pillbox forts in 1940 at opposite ends of Dorchester’s ‘Great Meadow’ as part of national defences against a possible German invasion.


The cultural importance of this area is no less than its military significance. The Venerable Bede (670-735), in his great Historia Ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), written circa 731 AD, recorded the missionary work of St Birinus, the conversion of King Cynegils of Wessex and his baptism in the presence of King Oswald of Northumbria in 735-6, as well as the establishment of the bishopric of Dorchester. He does not specify where King Cynegils was christened, but tradition says that this was at Dorchester, but it is not clear whether this was in the Thame or the Thames, and may have been at the confluence. Archaeologists now point to the possibility of an unbroken Christian tradition in this area from late Roman to Anglo-Saxon times.

The cultural and mythical significance of the Thames/Isis/Thame confluence can be dated back to the first half of the 14th century when Ranulphus Higden, a monk of Chester, writing in his Polychronicon or ‘Universal History’, was the first person to make a comparison between the Thames and Nile. He also suggested that the Latin name of the Thames – Tamesis – was a combination of two river names, the Thame and the Usa or Esa – a name derived from the Celtic isa or esa, meaning water, which comes down to us as Ouse.

The suggestion that Thames was derived from a combination of Thame and Isis is attributed to John Leland (1503-52), the geographer and poet, who visited Dorchester in 1542 and left an early description of the abbey and of the confluence of the Thame and the Isis. He also provides a very early reference to the ‘Great Meadow’, lying between the confluence of the rivers and what is now Day’s Lock. It is reasoanable to presume that the ferry, which he describes as about a mile from the town, was to Little Wittenham at the site of the present Day’s Lock and ‘Pooh Sticks’ bridge.

The ryver of Tame cummith first by the est ende of the toune: and then by the south side passing thorough a very faire bridge of stone a little wihtoute the toune. Gumming from Wallingford to Dorchester the toun standith ulter, ripa Tama [on the far bank of the Thame], The bridg is of a good length: and a great stone causey [causeway] is made to cum welle onto it. There be 5. Principale arches in the bridge, and the causey joining to die south ende of it. fo. 13. Tame and Ise metith aboute half a mile beneth Dorchestre bridge in the meadowis. From Dorchester to the feiy [ferry] over the Tamise about a mile. Here the hither ripe [near bank] by north is low and medow ground.

Leland’s epic poem Κυκνειον Ασμα – Cygnea Cantio ((‘Song of the Swan’), written in Latin and first published in 1545, describes the journey of a dying swan down the Thames from Oxford to London via Abingdon and Dorchester, to which he gives the Greek name Hydropolis ( ‘Water city’), a name derived from a speculative etymology of Dorchester from the Celtic/Welsh dwr, meaning water – Dwrchester. Leland was the first person to see the upper Thames as the Isis, which becomes the Thames only after it is joined by the Thame:

Mox cerno Hydropolim sacram, Birino
Quondam praesule, confluentiamque Tamae ac Isidis; insuper uetusti
Castri culmina lapsa Sinnoduni.

Soon I see holy Dorchester, Where Birinus was once protector, and far off, 
I see the confluence of the Thames and Isis.
And also, the fallen towers of the 
Antique castles of Sinnoduni I see.

It is not quite clear whether the phrase ‘the fallen towers of the Antique castles of Sinodun’ refers to Castle Hill or the Dyke Hills. A more accurate translation of the mediaeval Latin might be ‘the collapsed tops of the ancient camp of Sinodun’, which could refer to either or to both.


Forty years later, William Camden (1551-1623) described Dorchester and its environs in both Latin prose and verse in his historical and geographical study, Britannia (first published in Latin in 1586 and in English translation by Philemon Holland in 1610) and in his poem, Connubio Tamae et Isis (‘The Marriage of the Thame and the Isis’), which he published only in part, as anonymous fragments, in Britannia. Describing the decline of the city of Dorchester, following the diversion from it of the highway to London, he wrote:

it is scarce able now to maintaine the name of a Towne, and all that it is able to doe, is to shew in the fields adjoyning ruines onely and rubbish, as expresse tokens of what bignesse it hath beene.

Referring to the confluence of the Thame and the Isis, which he compared with what he claimed were the double names of the Jordan and the Dordogne, he wrote:

A little beneath this Towne Tame and Isis meeting in one streame become hand-fast (as it were) and joyned in Wedlocke:* and as in waters, so in name, they are coupled, as Ior and Dan in the holy Land, Dor and Dan in France, whence come Iordan and Dordan. For ever after this, the River by a compound word is called, Tamisis, that is, Tamis.

In this short extract from a much longer fragment of his poem, he wrote of Isis’s rush to marry Thame:

Impatient now of all delay

She hastneth him to wed,

And thinks the daies be long untill

They meet in marriage bed.

Untill I say, ambitious she,

May now before her love

Her own name set: see whereunto

Ambition minds doth move!

And now by this shee leav’s the * town [ F]

That knowen is by her name,

All haile, fare well redoubling to

The Norris’s by the same.

Old Dorchester at length she sees

Which was to give presage,

And lucky Augury of this

Long wished marriage.

Although he claimed that the notion of the marriage of the Thame and the Isis dated back to the 14th century Eulogium Historiarum, it seems likely that he got the idea from the poet Edmund Spenser’s previously published account of a projected poem: Epithalmion Thamesis. Spenser (1552-99) did not write his intended long poem on the Thames, but he returned to the theme of the marriage of Isis and Thame, and drew on Camden’s work, when writing the fourth book of his great poem The Faerie Queene, which was published in 1596. Of the marriage of the two rivers, he then wrote:

So went he playing on the watry Plain,
Soon after whom the lovely Bridegroom came,
The noble Thames, with all his goodly Train;
But him before there went, as best became,
His auncient Parents, namely th’ auncient Thame.
But much more aged was his Wife than he
The Ouze, whom Men do Isis rightly name;
Full weak and crooked Creature seemed she,
And almost blind thro Eld, that scarce her way could see.

The great age of Isis reflected her ancient Egyptian birth. Peter Ackroyd, in his book Thames: Sacred River (2008), attributes the persistence of the myth, or as he says fallacy, of the link between the Thame and Isis to its having

some inner resonance, some essential rightness in defiance of the laws of etymology. Isis, after all, is charged with general human memory. She is the Mother Goddess, the benefactress of rivers. She is the womb of regeneration. She is the goddess of fertility, the Lady of Abundance…

In the 15th song of his massive Poly-Olbion, an attempt to detail the history and geography of England in verse, which was published in 1613, Michael Drayton (1563-1631) extended the metaphor of the marriage of the Isis and the Thame to the Cotswolds and the Chilterns.

Now fame had through this isle divulg’d in every ear,

The long-expected day of marriage to be near,

That Isis, Cotswold’s heire, long woo’d was lastly wonne,

And instantly should wed with Tame, old Chiltern’s sonne.

This poetic theme was carried on into the 18th century. Matthew Prior (1664-1721), diplomat, political prisoner and poet, is said to have composed his poem ‘Henry and Emma’ on the Wittenham Clumps in 1709. He then wrote:

Beauteous Isis, and her husband Thame,

With mingled waves for ever flow the same.

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) in his poem Windsor Forest (1713) began his description of a whole series of Thames confluences with:

First the fam’d authors of his ancient name,

The winding Isis and the fruitful THAME.

The great English painter Joseph William Mallord Turner (1775-1851) was clearly aware of this long poetic tradition when he gave the title ‘Union of the Thames (sic) and Isis’ to the famous painting that he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1808, following a visit to Dorchester in 1805. The painting, which is also known as ‘Dorchester Mead’, seems to have been painted from a spot on the ‘Great Meadow’ looking towards the bridge at the confluence, which was then a wooden structure. This great artist’s vantage point would now, sadly, be inaccessible because of fencing.

Union of the Thames and Isis (‘Dorchester Mead, Oxfordshire’) exhibited 1808 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856

There is not space here to attempt a detailed iconography of the surrounding area, but a more accurate close-up depiction of the confluence appeared in a two-volume book, The Thames, which was produced by the engraver W. B. Cooke on the basis of sketches by Samuel Owen in 1811. This shows a view from the Hurst looking across a wooden humped-back bridge to the ‘Great Meadow’ with one of the Wittenham Clumps in the background.

George Vicat Cole (1833-93) produced a fine painting of the ‘Great Meadow’, looking towards Day’s Lock in 1891.


William Morris (1834-96), artist, crafstman, poet, novelist, printer, publisher, wallpaper designer and manufacturer, and socialist visionary, had a very special relationship with the Thames, and, especially, with our part of it. He travelled up the Thames three times by boat, for the first time in 1867, and again in 1880 and 1881. The stanzas, ‘August’, in his great poem ‘The Earthly Paradise’ (1868) were written from the Dyke Hills (incorrectly described as ‘the Romans’ handiwork’ – an error that he corrected later) and mentioned Dorchester Abbey, the Thame (‘the little grassy valley’), Castle Hill (‘the trenched hill’), and Day’s Lock (‘the restless changing weir’).


ACROSS the gap made by our English hinds,
Amidst the Roman’s handiwork, behold
Far off the long-roofed church; the shepherd binds
The withy round the hurdles of his fold;
Down in the foss the river fed of old,
That through long lapse of time has grown to be
The little grassy valley that you see.

   Rest here awhile, not yet the eve is still,
The bees are wandering yet, and you may hear
The barley mowers on the trenched hill,
The sheep-bells, and the restless changing weir,
All little sounds made musical and clear
Beneath the sky that burning August gives,
While yet the thought of glorious Summer lives.

   Ah, love! such happy days, such days as these,
Must we still waste them, craving for the best,
Like lovers o’er the painted images
Of those who once their yearning hearts have blessed?
Have we been happy on our day of rest?
Thine eyes say “yes,”—but if it came again,
Perchance its ending would not seem so vain.

In June 1889, Morris wrote a letter explaining the ‘August’ stanzas, which he had published 21 years earlier:

Day’s Lock is the river-side name, but the little old town of Dorchester lies two furlongs from its Oxfordshire bank with its strange and very beautiful Church know commonly for its very peculiar Jesse window in stone. Between it and the river lie Dorchester Dykes, an earth work defending a triangle of land lying between the Thames and the Thame which comes in here: on the other side in Berkshire is Long [Little] Whittenham at the back of (the) which village rise two ‘mamelons [breast-shaped hills]’ commonly called Whittenham Clumps: one of which is crowned by a well defined dyke and is called (tautologically of course) Sinodun Hill…The whole country hereabouts is full of interest, and, to a man who can use his eyes, of beauty also.

In his futuristic novel, News from Nowhere (1890), he imagines another journey up the Thames by boat and a return to Dorchester and the Dyke Hills sometime after a future socialist revolution:

Presently we came to Day’s Lock, where Dick and his two sitters had waited for us.  He would have me go ashore, as if to show me something which I had never seen before; and nothing loth I followed him, Ellen by my side, to the well-remembered Dykes, and the long church beyond them, which was still used for various purposes by the good folk of Dorchester: where, by the way, the village guest-house still had the sign of the Fleur-de-luce which it used to bear in the days when hospitality had to be bought and sold.  This time, however, I made no sign of all this being familiar to me: though as we sat for a while on the mound of the Dykes looking up at Sinodun and its clear-cut trench, and its sister mamelon of Whittenham, I felt somewhat uncomfortable under Ellen’s serious attentive look, which almost drew from me the cry, “How little anything is changed here!”



It may, or may not, be a coincidence that it was in 1870, only two years after the publication of Morris’s Earthly Paradise, that the partial destruction, through ploughing by the landowner, of the Dyke Hills became a matter of national concern. An article in The Saturday Review for 2 July 1870 reported that one third of the Dorchester Dykes had already been lowered and that the remainder was under threat. In calling for government action to protect ancient monuments, the article concluded:

It is really frightful to think that so many of our most precious antiquities, both primeval and medieval, cromlechs, barrows, dykes, ruined castles and ruined churches, lie absolutely at the mercy of individual owners, who may happen to be liberal and intelligent, but who may also happen to be sordid and ignorant. The rights of property must have some limit… A man may do as he will with his own; but he should not be allowed so to do with his own as to destroy the right which every man has in the history and monuments of his country.

Writing as ‘a former assistant quarter-master-general’, Colonel Augustus Lane-Fox (later Lieutenant-General Pitt-Rivers), a serving army officer, and a pioneer of scientific archaeology, who had already made two visits to the Dyke Hills, and who carried out the first archaeological excavation there in the course of 1870, took issue with the anonymous author of the Saturday Review article on a point of history – he demonstrated that the Dyke Hills were not Roman, but ancient British. He concluded with a plea in support of the demand for government action to protect ancient monuments, such as the Dyke Hills, from the further damage by landowers:

Judging by the rapid progress which prehistoric archaeology has made during the last ten years, there can be little doubt that the knowledge we now possess is as nothing compared to what is stored up in these primeval monuments for the benefit of future generations, and the duty of handing them down intact for the more enlightened judgment of posterity is one which the Government of a civilized country would do ill to neglect.

After various failed attempts, the Ancient Monuments Act, proposed in the House of Lords by Pitt-Rivers’s son-in-law Lord Avebury, was finally passed into law in 1882. Pitt-Rivers became the first inspector of ancient monuments and the Dyke Hills were listed in the schedule as the first of 26 protected monuments.

An article of this length can do no more than scratch at the surface of our cultural legacy. There is also the account of a visit to Day’s Lock and the ‘walk across the fields’ to Dorchester by way of the Dyke Hills, which is recorded in Jerome K. Jerome’s classic Three Men in a Boat (To say nothing of the dog) (1889), and there are no doubt many other literary references. The article has hardly touched on the iconography of the area and the great artistic legacy of the 20th century in the work of Paul Nash (1889-1946) and Robert Gibbings (1889-1958) – and others.

This article should, however, have demonstrated the extraordinary depth of our cultural legacy and the centrality of the story of our ‘Great Meadow’, and the Thames-Isis confluence, to local and national history and culture – and the necessity of defending our rights against the claims of private property. If only William Morris could return to the Dorchester Dyke Hills and say once again: ‘How little anything has changed here!’

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Posted on February 19, 2017 in Factual/Historical Article, Guest Post, Local History, Rights of Way

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