The village of Hampton Gay has largely disappeared, leaving only an isolated church and the picturesque ruins of an Elizabethan manor house. The only inhabitants left reside in a large farmhouse and a few 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 cottages used to be 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 shooting there for about ten years. The aspect of the ruin changes according to the season and depending on 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.
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 the Barry family who built the manor house. The record of a grant of tithes in 1074 shows there has a church in the village since that time. The present church of St Giles’s (which still has no electricity) was built between 1767-1772 on the foundations of the earlier church.
The Manor house
The Manor House was constructed by the Barry family to the classic Elizabethan E-shaped plan with gabled wings and a crenelated 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 interior was still largely original including oak panelling, though it had been neglected. It has changed hands many times over the years. Curiously, it ended up back in the hands of the Barry family in the early 20th century when Wadham college sold it to Colonel S.L. Barry of Long Crendon, a descendant of the Barrys who built it.
By 1809 it was reported to be a ‘gothic manor’ in a neglected state and in 1880s the house was divided into two tenements. 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.
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 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. According to legend, and disputed by some, the residents of the manor house refused shelter to the victims, resulting in the house becoming cursed.
The agrarian revolt
Hampton Gay is known for its villager’s part in the unsucessful agrarian, or Oxfordshire rising, rising of 1596. The Barrys had made their money from wool and 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.
Hampton Gay’s population has flucatuated 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.
The decline continued during the 20th century until in 1955 there were only fourteen parishioners. Hampton Gay ceased to be a separate civil parish in 1932 when it was merged with the adjacent parish of Hampton Poyle. Today it is one of the most picturesque spots in Oxfordshire. The Bell in the nearby village of Hampton Poyle is an excellent hostelry to stop at for food en route or afterwards.