The village of Hampton Gay has largely disappeared, leaving only an isolated church and the picturesque ruins of an Elizabethan manor house. The few remaining inhabitants reside in the farmhouse and four cottages that line the last few yards of single track road; a mile long, single track spur that connects to the road from nearby Hampton Poyle to Bletchingdon. Once you pass though a gate into the fields you can see the outlines of where Saxon dwellings once were from the humps in the grass.
It’s an ancient spot and much of the surrounding farmland on the nearby circular walk undulates as a result of the use of the mould-board plough in medieval times. The best way to see it is to walk from Thrupp, a small village just north of Kidlington, and along the canal to Shipton-on-Cherwell. There you turn right across a bridge over the river Cherwell and arrive at Hampton Gay after a few minutes walk. I’ve been visiting and photographing the ruin for many years – you can find my photography gallery here. I’ve also experimented with narrow focus shots using a Lensbaby Edge 50 optic. The dreamlike effect tends to polarise opinion so I’ve posted them separately here.
The aspect of the ruins change greatly according to the season and the light, which makes it well worth a return visit.
The de Gay family were tenants of the two estates in Hampton Gay in the 12th and 13th centuries – the village name combines their surname with the Old English for a village or farm. The de Gays donated and sold land from the estate to various religious orders including the ill-fated Knights Templars, the Abbey of Osney, just outside Oxford’s west gate, and the Convent at Godstow.
The manor house
All the land owned by religious orders at Hampton Gay were forfeited after the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The crown sold the land into private ownership and in 1544 it was purchased by John Barry, a wealthy glover from Eynesham, who built the manor house. In 1682 the last of the Barrys mortgaged the manor and then sold it to Sir Richard Wenman of Caswell and in 1691 his widow Katherine sold the manor to William Hindes. It remained in the Hindes family until until 1798. The manor changed hands again in 1809 and 1849, and in 1862 was bought by Wadham College, Oxford.
The Manor House was constructed to the classic Elizabethan E-shaped plan with gabled wings and a crenellated central porch. The vertical line of the E was the main hall, and the horizontal end lines the kitchens and living rooms. The central line was the entry porch.
As late as 1870, the building was still largely original including oak panelling, though it had been neglected. By 1809 it was reported to be a ‘Gothic manor’ in a neglected state and in 1880s the house was divided into two tenements which were jointly occupied by a farmer and Messrs. J. and B. New, paper manufacturers. In 1887 it was gutted by fire and has never been restored. It is a Grade II listed building and a scheduled monument. English Heritage have placed the ruins of the manor house on its register of historic buildings at risk.
Curiously, it ended up back in the hands of the Barry family in the early 20th century when Wadham college sold the manor, by then a ruin, to Colonel S.L. Barry of Long Crendon, a descendant of the Barrys who built it.
Two mills and three fires
There has been water mill at Hampton Gay on the River Cherwell since the 13th century. It was a grain mill until 1681 when it was converted into a paper mill. In 1875 it was destroyed by fire but was rebuilt. In 1880 it had both a water wheel powered by the river and a steam engine and was capable of producing a ton of paper per day. It closed in 1887 after a second fire. That same year, a third fire consumed the manor house.
The train crash
There were rumours that the manor was deliberately burned down for the insurance. More imaginatively, others claimed it was the result of a curse related to one of the worst train accidents to take place on the Great Western Railway. On Christmas Eve 1874, a Great Western express train from Paddington was derailed on the nearby Cherwell line. Thirty-four people died in the accident and sixty-nine were injured.
Among those coming to the aid of the victims was Sir Randolph Churchill, father of Sir Winston, from nearby Blenheim Palace. The paper mill was used as a temporary mortuary, and the church a refuge against the bitter cold until a train arrived to take the injured to the Radcliffe Infirmary and the other survivors to Oxford hotels. According to the story, the residents of the manor house refused shelter to the victims and the curse was retribution for this.
The agrarian revolt
Hampton Gay is known for its villager’s part in the unsucessful agrarian, or Oxfordshire rising, rising of 1596. The Barrys enclosed land at Hampton Gay for sheep pasture. The villagers, unable to till the land for their own produce, faced starvation and many joined a revolt. The plan was for the villagers to come together to murder Barry and his daughter, but this was foiled when the village carpenter turned informant. One of the ringleaders from the village received the barbaric sentence of being hanged, drawn and quartered. Subsequently, the Government recognised the cause of the rebels’ grievance and the Tillage Act of 1597 enabled the land to be ploughed and cultivated once again.
The church of St. Giles
The church of St. Giles now stands in picturesque isolation not far from the ruin of the manor house. It has never had electricity and is lit by candle light. Evidence of its existence dates to 1074 and it was granted to Oseney Abbey by the de Gay family about century later. By the time of the dissolution it fallen into disrepair after which it became a free chapel, funded by the owners of the Manor. It was completely rebuilt in the eighteenth century in Georgian style by the owners and re-modelled in the nineteenth century using the Early English Gothic and Norman revival styles. Nothing remains of the medieval building except the cross on one of the gables and the reused battlements of the square tower. One of St. Giles’ two bells is from the mid-13th-century and is one of the oldest in the country.
Hampton Gay’s population has fluctuated over the years in line with its fortunes. In the fourteenth century it had between nine and twelve taxpayers. In the fifteenth century it was exempted from taxation because there were fewer than ten resident householders. The Compton Census recorded twenty-eight adults in 1676. The population increased during the late 18th century – in 1811 there were seventeen families crowded into thirteen houses. The peak was reached in 1821, with eighty-six inhabitants, After the fire and mill closure in 1887 the population fell to thirty and by 1955 there were only fourteen parishioners. Hampton Gay ceased to be a separate civil parish in 1932 when it was merged with Hampton Poyle.
A strange occurrence
I updated this article, adding the Hampton Gay photo gallery, in June 2020. That week I came across a post that mentions a photographer observing something out of the ordinary at the ruin. I found that was curious, as I had seen exactly the same thing a few days previously, but never before. It was a black piece of cloth, like a curtain, hanging from a second floor window and moving in the wind. It was only in view for a few seconds and I wasn’t able to photograph it, though the other photographer did. No doubt there is an explanation for it, but what it could be escapes me.
There have been several unsuccessful attempts to renovate the Manor. Jiri Fenton, of Oxford University’s department of experimental psychology, bought the building In 1975. He wanted to restore the Manor as a thank you to the nation for providing him a home when he fled the Nazis in 1939. His attempts failed due to “crippling inflation and Government red tape”, according to the Oxford Mail.
In 2010 Christopher Buxton, whose company Period and Country Houses restored and sub-divided English country houses, submitted plans to create a five-bedroom home within a concrete envelope that would support the original walls. He had also submitted plans four years previously, but neither plans proceeded.
Today Hampton Gay has reverted to a quiet hamlet of four houses and a small mixed farm with conversation-minded owners. It is also one of the most picturesque spots in Oxfordshire, set in a landscape that has barely changed since the Domesday book. The Bell in the nearby village of Hampton Poyle is an excellent hostelry to stop at for food en route or afterwards.