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Visiting Southmoor, Oxfordshire, England: Peaceful Hamlet Disturbed by the Death of a Scientist and Political Antics

Updated on August 29, 2018
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Methodist Church, Southmoor, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire), seen from the south-west.
Methodist Church, Southmoor, Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire), seen from the south-west. | Source

A peaceful, English hamlet, transformed by a media maelstrom, forced to fit into a broader, British historical context

"Oh! yet another conspiracy theorist writing about a place he had never heard of previously?"

Wrong. The quiet hamlet of Southmoor, in Vale of White Horse District, Oxfordshire, is a locality which had been known to me for a number of decades through numerous visits prior to July, 2003, when it suddenly hit the headlines at the time of the death of distinguished scientist Dr. David Kelly, a Southmoor resident.

Sometimes known collectively as Kingston Bagpuize with Southmoor, in reference to the adjoining village, the hamlet is situated south-west of the City of Oxford, for which it to some extent functions as a dormitory; indeed, some of its land and property belongs to St John's College, Oxford. It is an ideal base for country walks.

Not a few of its houses are built of stone, giving Southmoor somewhat of a feel of the Cotswolds. Lacking an Anglican parish church, local members of the Church of England in Southmoor would sometimes repair to the parish church at Longworth (where indeed Dr David Kelly's funeral was held), or to the one at neighbouring Kingston Bagpuize.

The hamlet's Methodist Church at the junction of the Farringdon and Hanney Roads is a small, Gothic structure dating from 1841 with pointed arches and flying buttresses; dwindling numbers of adherents have made its upkeep challenging in recent years.

Southmoor used to be in Berkshire — as some of the older residents of the hamlet like to point out — but boundary changes by Mr. Heath in the early 1970s gave it to Oxfordshire.

One of the major features of Southmoor was that it was off the beaten track and nothing usually happened there to disturb its peace and tranquility. A by-pass road built several years ago, which skirts the hamlet, added to the relative seclusion of the hamlet.

In July 2003, however, a media maelstrom hit the locality. Representatives of many news media outlets descended on Southmoor and neighbouring Longworth. This occurred, first of all, after Dr David Kelly, weapons expert, gave evidence to the House of Commons about weapons inspections in Iraq, following the Iraq war of 2003. Microbiologist Dr Kelly, who had studied at Linacre College, Oxford, and elsewhere, was an acknowledged expert on weapons of mass destruction (WMD), whose work during UN monitoring of weapons facilities in Saddam Hussein's Iraq had earned him a nomination for the Nobel Prize for Peace. Earlier, he had accomplished what was widely acknowledged was outstanding work inspecting and reporting on the former Soviet Union's biological weapons program. With his expertise, Dr Kelly, who worked as a consultant to the Ministry of Defence, had until recently been very much in favour with the British Government, which in 2002 had used Dr. Kelly's knowledge to assist in some of the content a draft of a Joint Intelligence Committee dossier on the weapons capabilities of Saddam Hussein's régime. This document was — unusually — employed as a media tool by the British Government as a justification for the 2003 invasion of Iraq by a US-led coalition in which the United Kingdom participated, despite widespread public scepticism — indeed, anger. Strong public feeling in Great Britain had led to what organizers claimed were up to 2 million-strong public protests.

It later transpired that Dr Kelly also shared the skepticism of huge numbers of the British people about the reliability of part of the claim within the intelligence dossier quoted by Prime Minister Tony Blair before Parliament, namely, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction which could be activated within 45 minutes. The fact that no such weapons were found after Saddam Hussein's overthrow seemed to serve only to underline justification for the very widespread skepticism — not least, Dr. Kelly's also, as it transpired — about some of the claims by Mr Blair and his media management team. It mattered not that Dr Kelly's skepticism was apparently held honestly or that his expertise on WMD was internationally acknowledged; the fact that the news media had (at first anonymously) reported his skepticism while Dr Kelly was working in a consultative capacity for the Ministry of Defence meant that Dr Kelly was suddenly very much out of favour with Mr. Blair's Government. Put bluntly, Mr Blair and Mr Campbell thought that their critics, who were many, but Dr. Kelly in particular — who was more in a position to know what he was talking about — implied they had misled the British people about the reason for going to war in Iraq.

On July 17 Dr Kelly died suddenly at nearby Harrowdown Hill. Even before his death was confirmed on July 18, a 33.6 metre communications mast was erected outside the Kelly home in Southmoor; it may be noted that Prime Minister Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell were in Japan; and it is clear that Government news management of developing events commanded a high priority.

Having been in great favour with the Government, and having suddenly fallen out of favour, Dr. Kelly quickly came back into the Government's favour again, with Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott arriving at Dr Kelly's funeral at Longworth Parish Church, situated within walking distance of Southmoor.

In the United Kingdom, deaths in unusual circumstances are almost always investigated by a Coroner's inquest, with powers to subpoena witnesses to give evidence on oath. However, in a highly strange move, the Government overruled the Oxfordshire Coroner in the case of Dr Kelly and set up an enquiry under Lord Hutton, which lacked the same rules of evidence as a Coroner's court.

The Hutton Enquiry, which also largely exonerated the Government's handling of the events, in due course found in 2004 that Dr Kelly had committed suicide, a finding which met with widespread skepticism. Leading medical and legal figures subsequently campaigned for a full Coroner's inquest to be held, but without success. Indeed, Lord Hutton, in an unusual move, sealed the evidence for 70 years. This is rather distastefully reminiscent of the Mersey Enquiry into the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, when investigation of a German submarine's sinking of a ship carrying many passengers, including Americans and munitions, was hampered by the passing of a law which made illegal discussion of the Lusitania's cargo of munitions. Thus, in the eyes of the American public, Germany exclusively was cast as the villain, at a time when British Government's strategy was to draw the United States into World War One (2).

Eventually, further unusual and disturbing facts about the death of Dr Kelly on Harrowdown Hill were revealed. The Hutton Report had claimed that Dr Kelly, glove-less at the time of his death, had used a knife to inflict on himself a fatal wound, but the fact that the police at the scene had found no finger-prints on the knife, or on other objects also said to have been touched by Dr Kelly, was not made known to the public for several years. Other circumstances of the death, not publicly known at the time of initial media interest in the story, later emerged, giving rise to widespread disquiet.

What are we to make of all this? If Southmoor's famous resident did "merely" commit suicide, then this itself casts in a very poor light the efforts and news management methods employed by politicians of the day in order to try to discredit dissenting viewpoints, even when these are held by eminent, internationally respected individuals ('Walter Mitty-like fantasist' was one of the more printable descriptions — later withdrawn — by a Government spokesman about Dr. Kelly. In separate developments, BBC Director-General Greg Dyke and the BBC journalist, Andrew Gilligan, who broke the Dr Kelly story, were both forced to resign.)

If, however, Dr. Kelly was murdered, whether by the intelligence services of one of a whole range of possible countries on either side of the Iraq war of 2003, then the situation is revealed as even more sinister.

If the tenor of these comments supposedly amounts to conspiracy theorizing, then in the same bracket must surely be included the misgivings felt by everyone who questioned Mr Blair's stated reasons for going to war in Iraq in 2003; misgivings which, in the absence of WMD being found, seem to have been proven justified. (One recalls that, here in Canada, Prime Minister Chrétien simply declined to participate in the Iraq war in 2003.)

For the British Government, the sequel was that Mr Blair and his Labour administration were subsequently re-elected to a further term of office. The Conservative Opposition of the day, being even more viscerally bellicose against Iraq than Mr Blair's Government, had evident difficultly in effectively opposing the Government's handling of the circumstances of the death of Southmoor's famous resident.

May 9, 2015

(1) The trenchant terminology used by Mr. Campbell about Dr Kelly and related in the subsequent Hutton Enquiry need not detain us; but Mr Campbell's determination to discredit Dr Kelly is a matter of record. (See also: .) It may be recorded also that the publication of the Hutton Report caused both the Director General of the BBC, Greg Dyke and the journalist, Andrew Gilligan, who quoted Dr Kelly as an unnamed source, to resign from the BBC; only after Dr Kelly's death did the BBC confirm that Dr Kelly, had, in fact, been the journalist's source. The Government claimed to find it particularly objectionable that Mr Gilligan had stated that the the Government "probably knew" that the 45-minute claim in its dossier was unsound and that this was the view of its unnamed source (Dr.Kelly); whereas Mr Gilligan was later to concede that the term "probably knew" amounted to his own extrapolation, rather than being a direct representation of Dr. Kelly's views. (See also: .) Thus, in "successfully" ensuring the resignation of the journalist from the BBC, the Government was evidently more rigorous in its scrutiny of the semantic achievements of Mr Gilligan's prose efforts than with the factual basis of the Government's own published dossier used to try to justify war with Iraq.

(2) The importance of bringing the US into World War One as having been a British Government strategy cannot be overemphasized; as Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to Walter Runciman, then President of the Board of Trade, It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany . . . . For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still. (Churchill to Runciman, February 12, 1915, qu. in: Denson, John V. (2006). A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson, and Roosevelt, Ludwig von Mises Institute. p. 135.) There is nothing new about the exercise of amoral, Realpolitik by the British state in pursuit of the perceived interests of its political class.

Map location of Vale of White Horse District, Oxfordshire
Map location of Vale of White Horse District, Oxfordshire | Source

Also worth seeing

In Kingston Bagpuize with Southmoor, its parish church of St. John the Baptist, built by John Fidel, dates from 1799-1800; the design of its rebuilding in 1880 was by Edwin Dolby. The Thames runs at the edge of the civil parish. Canadians will note that Kingston Bagpuize House, dating from c. 1720, was inherited in 1940 by John Buchan, 2nd Baron Tweedsmuir from his father John Buchan, 1st Baron Tweedsmuir, Governor-General of Canada.

The parish church in Longworth (distance: 3.6 kilometres), St. Mary's Church, dates from the 13th century, with additions from the 14th to the 17th century; the Old Rectory and Longworth House are of historical note.

In Oxford (distance: 15.4 kilometres), included among the numerous visitor sites are: the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College; the Radcliffe Camera; the Sheldonian Theatre; the Bodleian Library; Oxford Castle; Keble College Chapel; the University's Botanic Gardens; Carfax Tower; Christ Church; Magdalen College Tower and Magdalen Deer Park; the City's numerous spires; and many others.

Uffington (distance: 15.9 kilometres), a prehistoric, 110 metre chalk White Horse, reckoned by the Oxford Archaeological Unit to be 5,000 years old, gives its name to the Vale of White Horse, also the name of the District of Oxfordshire in which it located.


How to get there: United Airlines flies from New York Newark to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Distance from Heathrow Airport to Kingston Bagpuize with Southmoor: 80.1 kilometres. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. You are advised to contact the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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