As A seasoned columnist of one year and a week I’m beginning to realise the vagaries of this occupation.

It seems good to me as a way of keeping the column fresh, to consider the mood of the moment and compose the column in a flurry of activity when revelation comes. It’s a kind of edgy way of writing because it depends completely on revelation actually appearing on time – if at all! The most troubling aspect with this epiphany is not that it comes too late but that it arrives under a completely different heading than the one I’d planned!

So it was with the column I’d started to pen (or key) this week. It was all about Witney musicians in more recent history, but what you are about to read, if you persist, is a history of one of Witney’s Burial Grounds – not quite where I wanted to go – in every sense!

I suppose it was a series of events that steered me into making a tour of Tower Hill Cemetery. I had attended the funeral of Charles Gott, a local legend and writer of historic happenings for many years.

Charles, in his last days, had written an interesting and often humorous biography that was read out to an enrapt congregation. His amazing life story inspired me to wander in the shadows beneath the 160-year-old beech and pine trees of Tower Hill’s Victorian graveyard, pondering the way of things.

I hadn’t realized that the cemetery’s history was right up there on the Witney agenda having just featured as part of the Witney Heritage Open Days. I was too late to join the tour on the day (September 8 and 9) but the town council’s communications officer, Polly Innes, was a total treasure and provided me with a wealth of information about this interesting and inspiring location.

It’s probably a less than inspiring thought to realize that the increasing need for graveyard capacity will be directly proportional to a growing population.

Thus it was that in 1849 St Mary’s Churchyard was scheduled for closure to subsequent burials and a new location was sought. Notable members of St Mary’s were gathered to form The Witney Burial Board who would consider where a new cemetery might be sited.

They eventually settled on a four hectare piece of land off what was then known as Galley Hill and it was bought by agreement on March 20, 1856, for £170 by the Burial Board. Charles Richard the Bishop of Winchester, and George Spencer Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough received £51 and £119 6s respectively.

At the foot of Galley (or Gallows Way) Hill incidentally, once stood a large tree, the Cornbury Elm, that very probably served the grim task of effectively terminating criminal careers. The hill later became known as Union and finally, Tower Hill.

The Witney Burial Board contracted the skills of William Wilkinson, a notable local architect, who designed The Randolph Hotel in Oxford as well as many Witney constructions. He in turn hired two local builders, James Long and Malachi Bartlett, to complete the construction of the chapels, the Cemetery Keeper’s Lodge and the landscaping of the grounds at a cost of £1,360.

Looking at the topography of the site I tried to envisage what it might have been like before the landscaping took place.

Despite being described as green and pasture land, the banks and different levels suggested to me that the area was very probably quarried and this may be supported by the local name of Crundel Place nearby and the old name for Corn Street being Crundel Street. (The derivation of this name is confusing – it can mean a ravine or a watercourse, maybe a cairn, but some commentators refer to it meaning a source of stone and building materials).

So, equipped with a useful map of the graveyard along with my helpful and tolerant wife, Lesley, and a somewhat gratuitous small dog, Lolly, I embarked on a captivating tour of this hidden treasure.

Even without a map one will quickly notice all the familiar names remembered there.

One of the first graves at which the visitor arrives is that of Malachi Bartlett, the carved letters of his 142-year-old headstone now eroded but still carrying the memory of this well-known local builder. The names on the headstones within the older part of the cemetery are like a roll call of the town’s forefathers.

The Marriotts, Earlys, and Smiths of weaving fame, Samuel Lea Leigh who founded Leigh and Sons ironmongers in Market Place, Ernest Huddlestone who provided us with The Palace Cinema and more recently, ex-mayor Arthur Titherington, writer and chair of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors Association. (Thank you to Nathan Bowers for flagging up these names on Facebook’s ‘Witney Memories’ page).

Behind every gravestone is a life story.

For example the First and Second World War, Commonwealth War Graves tell of young lives laid down for their country.

The hundreds of memorials recall those whose lives have been part of Witney’s story, a vital part of the continuum that creates our local history.

Near the chapel there stands an interesting tree –a Champion Tree – but I’ll have to tell you about that, the mystery of the beech tree, and the dissenters, next time!