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"Otmoor" by Danny Chapman

"Otmoor" by Danny Chapman

Photo: "Otmoor" by Danny Chapman (CC BY 2.0)

Miraculous Oats of Otmoor

10 March 2021 (Updated 17 January 2024)

Otmoor is an area of low-lying ground to the northeast of Oxford. Today is it best known for the popular RSPB nature reserve at Beckley, where visitors can see a wide range of birds and other wildlife.

Otmoor landowner clashes with locals

In the past this area was highly prized by the locals because it was common land, meaning anyone that wished to could graze their livestock on it. There have been various attempts by wily landowners over the years to restrict public access to the land, which have been vigorously resisted by locals.

In 1830, the army was even called in to regain control of the area from groups of locals who had rioted in response to an attempt to enclose and drain the area! The ringleaders were captured and taken in chains to Oxford, only to be set free again by the sympathetic crowds who had gathered in Oxford to celebrate St. Giles' fair.

It is this background of conflict between locals and those who attempt to restrict their access to the land that likely inspired the legend about how Otmoor got its name.

A map of Otmoor circa 1936

A map of Otmoor circa 1926.

The legend of burning oats

According to the legend, a local landowner had promised his wife that he would grant as common land whatever area his wife was able to ride around while holding aloft a single burning sheaf of oats. He clearly thought that the oats would burn quickly, resulting in only a small area of common land.

However, whether by magical or miraculous means, the sheaf of oats burned for far longer than anyone could have predicted, resulting in the current 400+ acre area that became known as 'Oat-moor', or Otmoor today!

Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson point out that this story follows a similar pattern to legends like the Lady Godiva myth, in which a high-born lady carries out some humiliating, difficult or impossible task on horse-back for the benefit of the common people.

Otmoor legend vs the Tichborne Dole

The story of the miraculously burning oats of Otmoor bears a striking similarity to a legend from Hampshire, so much so that it makes me wonder if one tale inspired the other!

The Tichborne Dole is the name given to a local festival in the village of Tichborne, Hampshire in which donations of flour are traditionally handed out to members of the parish. The practice is said to date back to the 12th century and, like the Otmoor story, has its origin in the actions of the wife of a former landowner.

Lady Marbella Tichborne was a kindly sort, and liked to make a yearly donation of flour for benefit of the poor of the parish. However, her husband was not nearly so generous. When Lady Tichborne was on her deathbed, she begged her husband to continue her charitable ways. Sir Richard was apparently of a rather sadistic nature, and agreed, but said he would only donate produce from the amount of land that she was able to walk around while holding a burning torch. When the torch went out, Sir Richard's generosity would come to an end!

Sir Richard probably assumed that the area covered by this strange condition would be only very small, given his wife was so sick that she could barely crawl. However, his wife bravely lit the torch and set off crawling. To Sir Richard's amazement, the torch stayed lit a miraculously long time and, despite her poor state of health, his tenacious wife managed to crawl around an astonishing 23 acres before the torch went out!

To make sure that her descendants never abandoned the charitable tradition that she had started, Lady Tichborne is said to have put a curse on her family line. If ever they abandoned the yearly flour donations, the Tichborne family would have a generation of seven sons, followed by a generation of seven daughters, at which point the Tichborne name would fall into ruin and die out.

That fate apparently almost came to pass on a number of occasions. There was a forty year period between 1796 and 1836 when the practice ceased, and, after a generation of only sons and another of only daughters, the bloodline struggled to find a male heir until they resumed the tradition of the Tichborne Dole.

I find this story fascinating for the similarities with the Otmoor legend. Both stories feature a wife who stands up for poor against her hard-hearted landowner husband when he tries to restrict or remove privileges previously given to the poor. In both stories, a deal is struck based on the amount of land the wife is able to encircle while carrying a lighted torch of some kind. In both, the torch stays lit an almost supernaturally long time, allowing the wife to encircle a much larger swathe of land than her cruel husband had anticipated.


  1. 'The Lore of the Land' by Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson (ISBN: 0141021039)
  2. The Tichborne Dole (wikipedia)