Port Meadow is a flood-meadow on the left bank of the Thames north-west of Oxford. From spring to autumn it is grazed by horses and cattle, belonging to the Freemen of Oxford (a gift from King Alfred in return for helping to defend the kingdom against the Danes, as recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book) and Commoners of Wolvercote (from the sixteenth century). Never having been ploughed it has a unique composition of flora and is rich in archaeological remains. (See R. J. C. Atkinson, Archaeological Sites on Port Meadow, Oxford, Oxoniensia VII, 1942.) Bronze Age people buried their dead here and in the Iron Age people lived on the meadow during the summer, grazing their livestock on the surrounding pasture. The increase in annual rainfall and intensification of agriculture saw greater flooding and the impossibility of further habitation. These ancient burial sites and settlements are visible from the air and sometimes ground level as shallow circular ditches and banks. The only archaeological site on Port Meadow recognised prior to 1933 is marked on the Ordnance Survey map as Round Hill.
In the seventeenth century Oxford was occupied by Royalists, whose fortifications around the city were countered by those of the Parliamentarians laying siege to the city - the foundations of their fortifications have left a shallow right-angled bank on the southern part of Port Meadow.
Annual horse racing events, often spanning several days, were held intermittently from 1630 to 1880, a course being laid out on the Meadow and neighbouring Wolvercote Common of which the two stone bridges spanning the ditch between the commons formed a part. (See E. H. Cordeaux, D. H. Merry, Port Meadow Races, Oxoniensia XIII, 1948.)
The only time the land has been cultivated was in 1644 when Charles I cut hay for his cavalry horses. The continuity of livestock grazing has seen the evolution of a unique range of plants; in recent years the grazing pattern has changed, with horses browsing all year round, while the seasonal cattle are fewer in number. Creeping thistle came after the use of the meadow as an airfield in World War I, and ragwort became a problem in the 1950s.
There is a four foot drop in average height north from Wolvercote Common to south towards Fiddler's Island. On the thin dry gravelly soils to the north the vegetation is akin to a limestone grassland with Birds Foot Trefoil, Yarrow, Rest Harrow and Tall Woolly Headed Thistles. To the south the meadow is flooded most of the year, supporting a diverse wetland flora such as Arrow Grass, Strawberry Clover and Creeping Marsh Wort.
The expanse of land and sky at Port Meadow is scored by cries, caws, whistles, pipings, trills, screeches, songs and the differently patterned flights of the many types of bird that visit. The annual winter floods attract wildfowl and waders, lapwings, golden plovers, teals, widgeons and Canada geese. Gulls and terns swoop above the floodwater and along the Thames. On the ground pied wagtails and crows make more pedestrian forays. Migrating birds come to feast on the insects (this past week the swallows have come). Swans occasionally in pairs or threes sail in low flight from the river to the richer picking grounds of the meadow's floodwater. Herons put on a stately show of stillness, and last year a pair of great white egrets came to visit. The receding floodwater traps many fish.
The first week of January this year the floodwater was iced over thickly enough for skaters. Oxford Canal to the west of the meadow was frozen over, and ice even crept in from the banks of the Thames on Port Meadow (here the river banks have not been artificially dammed up and the Isis performs a lazy meander). The frosted land appears barren, life slows almost to a stop.
Adrian Arbib has made an interesting set of photographs "About Port Meadow", and on this site he has put a twenty minute film about Port Meadow by Michael Borst and Tim Piers produced in 1983 (Oxford Film Makers Workshop).