The Character of Wessex: Oxford and the Upper Thames

The birthplace of Wessex is actually two character areas in one, with the Upper Thames Clay Vales completely enclosing the Midvale Ridge. The latter is a limestone ridge stretching from Swindon to just outside Aylesbury. It is a mostly rural area, drained by small streams that drain into the rivers Thames, Thame and Ock, though the expansion of Swindon and Oxford threatens this rural character.

Surrounding it are the Oxford Clay Vales, whose impermeable clay soils give rise to flood plains and wetlands, in contrast to the permeable limestone of the Midvale Ridge and the neighbouring Cotswolds. The land is largely unsuitable for crop growing, making it a classic "chalk and cheese" disparity.

It was in the area around Dorchester-on-Thames that the kingdom later known as Wessex began to form. The area boasts one of the densest concentration of Anglo-Saxon archaeological finds in England, and is the subject of an ongoing investigation by a team of archaeologists from the University of Oxford.

There has been an encouraging increase in woodland in the area, however, an invasive population of poplar trees is proving a threat to native tree species.

Climate change threatens an increase in flooding in the clay vales. As with so many other places.it is up to all of us to do our part in preventing this.

Essential Wessex: Nicknames for Wessaxons

There are many nicknames for people from Wessex. The most obvious one is "wurzels". Whilst most people assume that Adge Cutler named his band after an already-existing name for people from the West Country, it appears to have been his own coinage. There follows a (by no means exhaustive) list of nicknames for people from different parts of Wessex:

Devon - Janners (particularly applies to people from Plymouth, but is sometimes used for Devonians in general).

Dorset - Dorset knobs (from the local biscuit).

Gosport - Turk Towners or Turks (from the Turkish naval cemetery in the town).

Hampshire - Hampshire hogs (from the local tradition of boar hunting).

Isle of Wight - Caulkheads (from the caulking of boats).

Malmesbury - Jackdaws (from the colony of said birds that inhabits the Abbey)

Somerset - Cuckoo-penners (from the folk tale of "penning the cuckoo").

Southampton - Scummers (offensive term used by supporters of Portsmouth FC).

Wiltshire - Moonrakers (from the tale of smugglers evading customs officials by pretending to be yokel idiots, saying they were fishing a big cheese - actually the reflected moon - out of a pond when they were really retrieving contraband.).

Wessex In Fiction: Charley’s Aunt

Charley's Aunt is a 3-act farce by Brandon Thomas which was first performed in 1892 and has been a perennial favourite of both amateur and professional theatre companies ever since. It has been filmed several times, the most famous being the 1941 Twentieth Century Fox production starring Jack Benny and directed by Archie Mayo.

The play tells the story of two Oxford undergraduates, Charley and Jack, who want to use a visit by Charley's Brazilian aunt, Donna Lucia, as an occasion to bring their families together in order to propose to their respective girlfriends. When Donna Lucia is delayed, a series of complications forces them to recruit a friend, Lord Fancourt "Babbs" Babberley, to disguise himself as her, with increasingly disastrous consequences.

The role of Babbs/Donna Lucia was originated by actor and producer WS Penley (illustrated) in the 1892 theatrical production, which premiered in Bury St Edmunds before transferring to London. It has been translated into numerous languages, been adapted into an opera by Manuel Fernandez Caballero, and filmed in Britain (a loose 1940 adaptation starring Arthur Askey), the US, India, several European countries, and the USSR.

Essential Wessex: Edward, King and Martyr

Edward, the boy king of England from 975 until his death three years later while still a teenager, was famously murdered at Corfe Castle and buried at Shaftesbury Abbey. The circumstances of his death are unclear, but a substantial body of legend built up around it. He was commonly seen as a martyr, and is recognised as a saint by the Anglican, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

The pious version of the story states that he was a wise and good leader, generous to the church. But he was resented by his wicked stepmother, Queen Elfreda, who wanted to place her biological son Ethelred (later known as the Unready) on the throne. Elfreda arranged for him to be murdered and his body thrown into a marsh. But God sent a light to reveal the whereabouts of the body.

Today, historians dispute how much involvement, if any, Elfreda had in his death. Relics said to be those of the saint are now kept by the fundamentalist "True Orthodox" monastery at Brookwood in Surrey, though the remains in question have been identified as those of a man aged around 30, and not a teenage boy.

Wessex In Fiction: In The Place of Fallen Leaves

In The Place Of Fallen Leaves is the debut novel by Tim Pears, a coming-of-age tale set on the edge of Dartmoor. It was published in 1993, but set in the drought-ridden summer of 1984, and tells the story of 13-year-old Alison, the youngest daughter of a farming family at the tail end of the family farm era. Reviewers compared the book to the work of William Faulkner and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and it went on to win the Ruth Hadden Memorial Award and the Hawthornden Prize.

The book has a 3.82 rating (out of 5) on Goodreads, where readers have praised it as atmospheric and evocative. Pears continues to draw on his Devon upbringing in his novels.