The parish of Oaksey lies in the extreme north of Wiltshire and is approximately seven miles to the north-east of Malmesbury and seven miles to the south-west of Cirencester. Oaksey is something of a street village, with main buildings and development focused around the road which runs through it; this is the Somerford Keynes Road and it turns into The Street in the village.
Oaksey lies on Kellaways clay, while to the north is limestone and to the south Cornbrash rubble. To the west, separating Oaksey from Chelworth and Crudwell, is a large wooded area, traditionally used for dairy pasture. The southern point of the parish follows the Swill brook and to the east stops at the road which connects Swill brook with Flagham brook. On this road to Minety there is a ford, where the Swill brook crosses Minety Lane. Very little rain is required for the road to become impassable.
The boundary with Minety to the south-east once marked the county boundary but this changed when Minety became part of Wiltshire (from Gloucestershire) in 1844.
The poker straight part of the small road connecting Somerford Keynes to Minety (known locally as “bunny lane” because of the prevalence of wild rabbits) marks the eastern boundary. This road was in use as early as 1591 and was called Pilsmore Lane.
Evidence of very early occupation is scarce; a Bronze Age axe is all that has been found. What is known as Norwood Castle, which is now a mound with a moat around it, is thought to have been a motte and bailey castle site; probably there to defend the manor house which once stood near the site of the church. The manor house was thought to be a 13th century construction. Norwood Castle is found close to Dean Farm to the north of the parish.
Oaksey is referenced in the Domesday Book of 1086 but was then called “Wochesie”, though to be a derivation of “Wuxi”, which was a wattled sheepfold (an area or pen in which sheep are kept). At the time of Domesday, the manor was held by Brihtric (alternative spelling; Beorhtric) who was an ambassador of Edward the Confessor. He was sent to Baldwin, the Count of Flanders, whose daughter Matilda (Maude) fell in love with him. She ended up marrying William, Duke of Normandy, who, after conquering England, stripped Brihtric of his lands and imprisoned him at Winchester.
In 1377, “Wochesie” had 86 poll tax payers (aged over 14 years); a relatively high number for this area.
Population fluctuations were fairly standard; in 1801 there were 363 people in the village, it had risen to 614 by 1841 when many railway labourers lived there, while in 1901 it had fallen to 354. There were new buildings in the 1950s and 1960s (to create 46 council houses in Bendybow) which saw an increase to 446 by 1961. It had risen to 490 by the 2001 census.
Although the Lord of the Manor is Lord John Oaksey, there is no physical manor house remaining. The manor house itself, thought to have stood near to the church, was in ruins in 1593. Lord Oaksey’s father, the first Lord Oaksey, was Geoffrey Lawrence, who stood as a presiding judge in the Nuremburg Trials in 1947 and was awarded a peerage after the conclusion of the trials.
In her diary of village life, written in 1976, Elspeth Huxley said: “Everyone in the village liked Geoffrey. Courteous, friendly, gentle in manner, he was interested in everything around him- the farm, the village, racing, his friends’ opinions, above all his pedigree Guernseys.” There is a memorial to him in the church which was made by Simon Verity, of Minety.
The current Lord Oaksey was a National Hunt Jockey and then became a racing journalist and broadcaster. He wrote for the Daily Telegraph for a long time.
Lord Oaksey is not the only man of note to count Oaksey as his home though; in the 14th century it was one of the homes of the famous de Bohun family who had an estate in the parish.
Mary de Bohun married Henry Bolingbroke, who later went on to become King Henry IV. She died in 1394. Their son Henry was crowned as Henry V in 1413. Mary was also related to a previous king, Edward I, through her father’s family.
The current monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, is also linked to an Oaksey family; Francis Webb, lord of the manor between 1801 and 1814 is her great, great, great, great grandfather on the maternal side. James I is rumoured to have had a hunting lodge in the village.
The Domesday Book reveals that by 1086 the estate passed to the de Bohun family. It remained as part of the Duchy of Lancaster until the 17th century (for Henry IV was also the Duke of Lancaster). When Henry IV’s son, Henry V, married a Katherine de Valois, she was entitled to many great manors and cities (including Leicester and Hereford) of which Oaksey was one. This meant for a while Oaksey people paid money to the French. Subsequently, a Sir Edward Poole was in charge of the manor; this name still survives in the area through Pool Keynes which is a village barely two miles away from Oaksey.
An important building was Oaksey Park House which was built to replace the role of the manor house in 17th century. It was probably built by the Poole family. Its name was changed to Oaksey House in 1773 and Oaksey Manor in 1938. It was briefly a hotel in years before it was demolished, which happened in 1956.
There are also several farms of note. Hill Farm, which lies on the road to Eastcourt, was sold to Lord Oaksey (who was at the time Geoffrey Lawrence) in 1919. The current Lord Oaksey took over the farm in 1948. Oaksey Moor and Lower Farms became Lower Moor Farm and it is now affiliated with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust. Court Farm, Church Farm, Clattinger Farm and Dean Farm all have long histories. In 1775 Dean Farm had a cheese store and in 1800 Church Farm was owned by a cheese manufacturer in Cirencester; here was made the north Wiltshire cheese that was sold under the name ‘Single Gloucester’. They were mainly pasture farms, with only a small amount dedicated to arable production. In the late 19th century there were a total of 17 farms in the parish.
In 1086 Oaksey had six hides, which was a measurement of land. In this case it meant the land could support six plough teams. Over the following centuries the demesne Holding farmed by the lord of the manor, increased in size; it was 724 acres in 1347.
In the 15th and16th centuries the demesne lands were leased to groups of tenants. Unusually, in 1469 - 1478 one man had the let of the whole demesne.
Tenants had common rights in the woods in the parish but in 1278 Malmesbury Abbey refused to recognise their rights and from September 28 to November 11 their pigs were impounded in Crudwell. It must have been a fearsome scene when the tenants angrily took back their pigs and returned them to Flisteridge Wood.
Around that time a third of the small amount of arable land was used to grow fodder for animals and the rest for growing wheat. An average of 580 cows and 300 pigs were kept in 1876.
But by 1986 dairy farming had declined and arable farming had increased. In that year Park and Dean Farms were the largest in the parish. Dean and Street Farms worked together and of their 350 acres, 180 acres were used for growing corn.
In 1086 there was a mill at Oaksey and a water mill is recorded in 1299. The water mill was found to the north east of Oaksey Moor Farm and was powered by Flagham Brook. It was demolished in 1773. There was also a windmill recorded at Oaksey in 1299.
A railway line was built through the parish in 1841 as part of the line from Swindon to Kemble and Cirencester. This was built by the Cheltenham and Great Western Union Railway and became part of the Great Western Railway in 1844. A bridge to the east of the parish took the road over the line and this is still the case today. There was a halt here in 1929 but it closed in 1964.
Oaksey’s connection to horse racing goes beyond Lord Oaksey’s role as a jockey; there were annual races hosted for a long while. It is thought they ceased in 1914 because of the outbreak of the Great War. They were run over Park Farm, which is now the airfield to the south. The course was three and a half miles long and national riders and horses would visit. Once, a jockey was killed as he fell of his horse. His name was Captain Faber.
In 1831, 17 of the 266 men living in Oaksey were tradesmen. In 1885, Kelly’s Directory of Wiltshire showed that commerce was, if not thriving, fairly successful. It lists men of Oaksey fulfilling occupations of carpenter, glover, farmer, mason, butcher, blacksmith, coal dealer, slater and boot maker. The business Oaksey Direct Meat Supply was very successful in the years prior to World War Two.
The parish spent £66 on its poor in 1775 and £91 in 1785. The maximum spent was £462 in 1820. Oaksey’s spending was generally lower than many other parishes in the Malmesbury Hundred. Oaksey became part of the Malmesbury Poor Law Union in 1835 and part of North Wiltshire district in 1974 until the district councils ceased in 2009. It is now in the Malmesbury Community Area Board.
During the war, villagers were greatly surprised and shocked when Oaksey was bombed. Five small bombs fell across the village; one set fire to a tree in a field and another landed on the railway bridge. The Home Guard rushed into action with water buckets. Elspeth Huxley recalls: “Oaksey’s pride in having been an enemy target excited bitter jealousy among the citizens of Crudwell, who took some solace in the thought that while the bombs might have fallen on or near Oaksey, they had been released over Crudwell.”
In 1975 the majority of the village of Oaksey became a conservation area; the then new council houses at Bendybow were not included. The name Bendybow is reported by Elspeth Huxley as being a reference to the ice which formed on the many ponds of the parish over the winter months and the particular bendy quality the ice was reported as having; it made a “bow” shape when stood upon.
The Wheatsheaf Pub is a longstanding part of Oaksey’s community. It is thought to be at least 600 years old and is built of Cotswold stone. The Wheatsheaf became fairly well known in gastronomic circles at the start of the 21st century for its award winning burgers.