I SUPPOSE that, like many people who grew up in West Oxfordshire, I can never drive south, say from Burford to Radcot Bridge, without thinking of the wonderful children’s book, The Wool-Pack, by Cynthia Harnett, which won the 1951 Carnegie Medal for children’s literature.

Particularly so at this time of year, when lambs are beginning to frolic, the world of the rich medieval Cotswold wool merchants that it conjures up comes back to life vividly, as if it were yesterday.

I well remember being encouraged to read it and – I am ashamed to say – resisting such encouragement on the grounds that it seemed too educational, worthy, didactic even (had I known that word).

I far preferred the Famous Five books, or I thought I did. But I equally well remember how much I enjoyed reading The Wool-Pack when I eventually took it from the shelf of my own volition.

Indeed it was The Wool-Pack that first made me realise that history – which I vaguely defined as finding out about how things got to be the way they are, and why – was right there on my doorstep: an open book, there for all to discover.

I took it from the shelf again the other day, after a trip to Wantage via Radcot, and was again gripped by both the storyline, which is indeed a little like a medieval Famous Five adventure, and the author’s ability to get right inside the mindset of a boy living here in West Oxfordshire in 1493.

Ordinary domestic life in Burford and on the wolds is set against a backdrop of great events of world history – such as the advent of wily bankers (yes, even in those days) appearing on the scene from Italy and ensnaring merchants with their wicked ways of usury; and that despite the Church’s misgivings about the morality of charging interest.

Such Italian bankers were universally known as Lombards, though those in the book came from the Medici bank of Florence, in Tuscany.

Even today Lombard Street lies at the heart of the City, London’s financial district.

And the old two shilling piece (10 new pence), in use until decimalisation in 1971, was called a Florin after the Florentine coin of that name, prompting the uncle of the book’s hero, Nicholas Fetterlock, to exclaim: “They ride the country, stealing trade out of honest men’s hands, and then lending again at huge interest, the money they have snatched so villainously.

“I tell you, nephew, they are the curse of this modern world – worse than the black plague!

“They taint every business with their florins – yes we are even adopting the coins that bear the name of their city, Florence!”

Wool was, of course, the backbone of the British economy, as still symbolised by the Woolsack in the House of Lords, upon which the Speaker sits.

It was introduced by Edward III long before the events described in the book and was for more than six centuries the seat of the Lord Chancellor – until the Constitutional Reform Act of 2005 separated out the roles of Speaker and head of the judiciary.

I love the way in which those sinister bankers are depicted as appearing in our familiar Cotswold landscape: with a glint of armour, seen on the horizon, and progressing along the old packhorse way, now the A40, from Burford to Northleach – both of which possess magnificent churches built with wool wealth.

In the book our hero rides south to Newbury with his father, Thomas Fetterlock (named, I dare say, after the Fettiplaces of Swinbrook), to meet the 11-year-old Cecily to whom he is betrothed.

On the way, they cross Radcot Bridge, the oldest bridge foundation on the Thames where a phoney – in other words, unlicensed – bridge hermit importunes them for money.

It is a packhorse bridge built on the main wool export route from Northampton to Southampton.

These days modern, two-way traffic, governed by traffic lights, passes a niche which once held a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Funny how we adapt old ways to new uses. I am told something called financial services, not wool, is now our main industry.

For centuries the business of crossing the Thames was a hazardous undertaking. Perhaps luckily so, too, since the river long formed some sort of defence for Saxon Oxfordshire against marauding Danes.

Pre-Norman crossings were achieved by way of fords or ferries, usually manned by monks from nearby monasteries, or by hermits who needed to be licensed by church authorities to do the job.

They often dispensed refreshments at crossing points, which is why pubs are still often to be found near bridges.

There is some dispute about which is the oldest bridge across the Thames.

By date of foundation Radcot Bridge has that honour, but some say that New Bridge, not far downstream and guarded at one end by the Rose Revived pub and at the other by the Maybush, is materially older, since Radcot has been much repaired, restored, even rebuilt, over the years.

New Bridge (at Newbridge) carries the A415 over the Thames between Witney and Abingdon.

It is so called because it was the newest of the three bridges ordered into existence by King John in the 13th century in a bid to improve communications in the wool trade. The other two were Radcot and Lechlade. The latter, sadly, was replaced in the 19th century.

Both New Bridge and Radcot Bridge are built of Taynton stone, with beautiful church-like Gothic arches.

And both have been battle scenes. Radcot Bridge was badly damaged in 1387 when Robert de Vere, ninth Earl of Oxford and favourite of Richard II, was defeated here by rebels. Famously he jumped into the river. His armour was found and he was presumed drowned, though he later turned up in France.

Parliamentarian William Waller was defeated during the Civil War in battle at Newbridge in 1644, when he tried to cross the river here as part of a plan to surround Oxford and capture King Charles I.

But perhaps neither bridge is the oldest. Folly Bridge, formerly known as Grandpont, in a way dates from the 11th century. It was reconstructed in 1827, though recent surveys show that parts of the original structure remain.

It stands on what was probably the original Oxenford – although, here again, some experts maintain that the ford was through marshes near North Hinksey.