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Writing the Oxfordshire VCH
The VCH draws on a wide variety of source material - documentary, architectural, archaeological, and topographical - to create a comprehensive account of how the places around us have developed. Locating and working through the relevant material is only the beginning. More important is extracting a coherent story from the mass of evidence - distinguishing the commonplace from the unusual, and building up a picture of the changing people, societies, and landscapes of the past.
The first stage in researching a village, town, or parish is to work through a VCH 'checklist' of printed and manuscript sources. The checklists are constantly updated, and list the basic sources, indexes, and online resources relevant to most English places. Even for a small rural village this can involve several weeks' work. Standard printed sources for Oxfordshire parishes run to several hundred items, many of them still only searchable by sifting through printed indexes. Then there are the numerous classes of documents to be searched at Oxfordshire History Centre and the Bodleian Library, as well as at the National Archives and British Library in London.
Once we have discovered who the chief landowners were, this often leads onto private archives. Many Oxfordshire estates were owned at some point by Oxford colleges, which usually have extensive estate records. Other archives used in recent VCH research include those of Blenheim Palace, Holkham Hall in Norfolk, Eton College in Buckinghamshire, and Lincoln cathedral, along with county record offices in Lincoln, Chichester, Winchester, Gloucester, and Aylesbury. Material in private hands, including photographs, deeds, or memoirs, often comes to light once contact has been made with local residents.
Sources can range from Anglo-Saxon charters and medieval court rolls through to 20th-century planning reports and parish council minutes. Whatever the source, all this material has to be searched, noted, and interpreted in the light of other evidence. In the process, VCH researchers often find themselves demolishing long-cherished local myths - if local historians had a motto, experience shows that it should be 'Take Nothing on Trust'.
Particularly valuable are early maps. Ordnance Survey 1-inch maps are available from the early 19th century, and larger-scale editions from the 1870s or 1880s. Many parishes have earlier tithe and inclosure maps, preserved usually in Oxfordshire History Centre. Most include detailed surveys, with information on field names, land-use, and on the owners and occupiers of farms and houses. They provide a detailed 'snapshot' which can be tied in with other evidence, such as the census records available at Oxfordshire History Centre. Private archive may include earlier, more detailed estate maps and surveys.
Local history cannot be written from documents alone. For Oxfordshire, the most important repository of archaeological data is the county Historic Environment Record (HE