Statue of a fine lady upon a white horse at Banbury Cross, Oxfordshire.
Statue of a fine lady upon a white horse at Banbury Cross, Oxfordshire. Jim Eagles

England: Rhyme with no reason

WHO'D have thought a nursery rhyme would prove so difficult to unravel?

Since I was visiting the old English town of Banbury, I naturally wanted to check out the spot where once upon a time folk would: "Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady upon a white horse."

That rhyme was read to me countless times when I was young, and I, in turn, read it to my children and grandchildren while bouncing them on my knee.

So I was very excited when, as we drove through Banbury on our way to a farmstay in Oxfordshire, there on the traffic island in the middle of a roundabout was a towering spire adorned with weathered sculptures and topped with a cross. And in a small park beside the roundabout was a statue of a very fine-looking lady on a horse. This must be the place.

But when a few days later we decided to make a pilgrimage to the nursery rhyme shrine, it emerged that things weren't quite so simple.

The cross we had seen on our entry to Banbury turned out to be a fairly recent construction, erected in 1859 to celebrate the marriage of Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, Victoria Adelaide, to Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia.

The statue of the fine lady - unveiled by the horse-loving Princess Anne in 2005 - was presumably built near it only because it is now the town's sole market cross.

Still, it is a very fine statue, with some very fancy "rings on her fingers and bells on her toes", so that "she shall have music where ever she goes".

But we still wanted to know what had happened to the old Banbury Cross the fine lady in the rhyme rode to. And, for that matter, who the fine lady was.

A leaflet put out by the Banbury Tourist Information office told us that the original cross, known as the High Cross and built as least as far back as 1478, was some distance away in Market Square, which these days has a mix of lovely old buildings and a huge new shopping centre.

Just in front of the centre's main entrance, a large circular plaque marks the spot where the High Cross stood until it was demolished by Puritans in 1600 as a pagan symbol. When it fell, so the plaque records, onlooker Henry Sewell cried out: "Now God be thanked, their god Dagon is fallen down to the ground."

Apparently two other crosses, the White Cross and the Bread Cross, were demolished around the same time.

But if it was reasonably easy to find the real Banbury Cross, discovering who the fine lady was turned out to be a lot more complicated.

In preparation for writing this story, I did quite a bit of research and, to my surprise, uncovered a long list of contenders, including Queen Elizabeth I, Lady Celia Fiennes and Lady Katherine Banbury - both members of aristocratic local families - Lady Godiva and even the Welsh horse goddess Rhiannon. Who knew?

It was all too much for me. I enjoyed looking at the statue and was saddened by the thought of the historic cross being demolished by a bunch of bigots. But I'm not even going to try to sort out who the fine lady was.

Much better to buy a coffee and a Banbury cake - a flat pastry with a spicy currant filling said to have been made in the area since Crusaders brought the recipe from the Middle East in 1586 - and take it to the bank of the nearby Oxford Canal to watch the colourful canal boats going by.

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