Abingdon

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Abingdon
Berkshire
Abingdon Berks St Helens.jpg
The River Thames at Abingdon
looking towards St. Helen's parish church
Location
Grid reference: SU4997
Location: 51°40’1"N, 1°16’59"W
Data
Population: 36,626  (2001)
Post town: Abingdon
Postcode: OX14
Dialling code: 01235
Local Government
Council: Vale of White Horse
Parliamentary
constituency:
Oxford West and Abingdon
Website: Abingdon Town Council

Abingdon (or Abingdon-on-Thames) is a market town in Berkshire, of which county it is the county town. Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain's oldest continuously-occupied town[1], with people having lived there for at least 6,000 years.

Geography and transport

Abingdon lies 5½ miles south of Oxford and five miles north of Didcot, in the flat valley of the Thames and is situated on the west (right) bank of that river, where the river Ock flows in from the Vale of White Horse. The town is situated on the A415 between Witney and Dorchester on Thames and has the benefit of being adjacent to the A34 trunk road, linking it with the M4 and M40 motorways. The B4017 and A4183 also link traffic into the town – both of these roads being part of the old A34 and often heavily congested.

Local bus services to Oxford and the surrounding areas are run by Stagecoach, Thames Travel and the Oxford Bus Company as well as a number of smaller independent companies. The main local town bus service is operated by White's Coaches. The nearest minor railway stations are at Culham and Radley and the nearest major stations are at Oxford or Didcot Parkway, all managed by First Great Western.

History

The site has been occupied from the early to middle Iron Age and the remains of a late Iron Age defensive enclosure (or oppidum) lies below the town centre. The oppidum was in use throughout the Roman occupation.

Abingdon Abbey was founded in Anglo-Saxon times, possibly the 7th century but its early history is confused by numerous legends, invented to raise its status and explain the place-name. The name seems to mean 'Hill of a man named Æbba, or a woman named Æbbe',[2] but Abingdon stands in a valley and not on a hill. It is thought that the name was first given to a place on Boars Hill above Chilswell, and the name was transferred to its present site when the Abbey was relocated.

In 1084 William the Conqueror celebrated Easter at the Abbey and then left his son, the future King Henry I, to be educated there.

In the 13th and 14th centuries Abingdon was a flourishing agricultural centre with an extensive trade in wool and a famous weaving and clothing manufacturing industry. The abbot seems to have held a market from very early times and charters for the holding of markets and fairs were granted by various sovereigns, from Edward I to George II. In 1337 there was a famous riot in protest at the Abbot's control of this market in which several of the monks were killed.

Long Alley Almshouses near St Helen's church

After the abbey's dissolution in 1538, the town sank into decay and, in 1555, upon receiving a representation of its pitiable condition, Mary I granted a charter establishing a mayor, two bailiffs, twelve chief burgesses and sixteen secondary burgesses, the mayor to be clerk of the market, coroner and a Justice of the Peace. The present Christ's Hospital originally belonged to the Guild of the Holy Cross, on the dissolution of which King Edward VI founded the almshouses instead, under its present name.

The council was empowered to elect one burgess to parliament and this right continued until the Redistribution of Seats Act of 1885. A town clerk and other officers were also appointed and the town boundaries described in great detail. Later charters, from Elizabeth I, James I, James II, George II and George III, made no considerable change. James II changed the style of the corporation to that of a mayor, twelve aldermen and twelve burgesses.

County Hall, now a museum

In 1790, Abingdon Lock was built, bringing navigation to the town instead of via the Swift Ditch. In 1810, the Wilts and Berks Canal opened, linking Abingdon with Semington on the Kennet and Avon Canal. Abingdon became a key link between major industrial centres such as Bristol, London, Birmingham and the Black Country. In 1856 the Abingdon Railway opened, linking the town with the Great Western Railway at Didcot. The Wilts and Berks Canal was abandoned in 1906 but a voluntary trust is now working to restore and re-open it.

Abingdon railway station was closed to passengers in September 1963. The line remained open for freight until 1984, including the MG car factory which was opened in 1929 and remained open until October 1980, when British Leyland closed it as part of rationalisation.[3]

The nearest railway station is now Radley railway station, two miles away. The branch line is now mainly replaced by a cycle path, whilst the land on which the station stood has been extensively redeveloped, and is now the site of a large Waitrose store and surrounded by hundreds of new flats and houses.

Abingdon became the county town of Berkshire some time after receiving its Royal Charter in 1556[4] Assize courts were held in Abingdon from 1570 but in the 17th century it was vying with Reading for County Town status. The county hall and court house were built between 1678 and 1682, to assert this status. The building, now the Abingdon County Hall Museum, was supposedly designed by Christopher Kempster, who worked with Sir Christopher Wren.[5] However, Abingdon's failure to engage fully with the railway revolution, accepting only a branch line, sidelined the town in favour of Reading which became the County Town in 1869.[6] The corporation was reformed, under the Municipal Reform Act 1835 and was abolished under the Local Government Act 1972, though Abingdon now has a parish council under that Act.

Abingdon Bridge (built 1416) spans the Thames

Leisure and media

For a town of its size, some perceive Abingdon to be somewhat bereft of leisure facilities. The Regal Cinema closed in the 1980s and has never been replaced — as with many other parts of the town centre it has now been demolished and the site redeveloped into housing. However, sports and recreation are well catered for in the town, with the purpose-built White Horse Leisure and Tennis Centre, Tilsley Park and the Southern Town Park providing adequate facilities.

Shopping in Abingdon has suffered from the development of out-of-town retail parks in Didcot, Wantage and Witney. The "Tesco Extra" store to the west of the town is the largest supermarket in Abingdon and one of the most profitable Tesco stores in the country.[7] Nearby is the Fairacres Retail Park, recently redeveloped, which boasts Homebase, Argos and 'Pets at Home' stores as well as several retailers that are part of Anglia Regional Co-operative Society. It was originally home to two long established Abingdon retailers — Vineys Home Furnishings and Mays Carpets (although Mays is now part of the Carpetright chain and has re-branded accordingly). In the town centre, many independent stores, estate agents and charity shops make up the Bury Street shopping precinct as major high street names have chosen to go to other towns. However, this may change following earmarked redevelopment here.

The town centre of Abingdon was refurbished in 2007 as part of the council's redevelopment plan. The roads around the area have been changed: notably the one-way system around the centre has been partially changed to two-way. While this has slightly reduced traffic within the historic town centre, congestion has greatly increased elsewhere. Local businesses have also complained that the increased traffic has driven shoppers away.[8] Also planned for the town centre is a roof over the pre-1970s shopping precinct and the removal of two kiosks. The market square was repaved and a new tourist information centre is planned.

In 2010 further refurbishment is planned; the Bury Street Precinct has a new owner/landlord, its name has been changed to Abbey Shopping Centre and it is to get another "facelift" plan: instead of a roof (always promised), the covered walkways are to be removed and the flat roofs replaced. A few shops have been knocked together for larger shops; W H Smith have moved in. When Woolworths went into administration, the shop was empty for a while, then Cargo returned to Abingdon on a short-term lease. Proposed plans show demolition of the buildings in the Charters. The GP practice and public library are to be relocated, with the latest plans being to move them into the second floor of the building where Woolworths used to be.

The Old Gaol redevelopment has started: the first stage was demolishing the 1970s additions and swimming pool extension. The Gaol is to become luxury flats, shops and restaurants, with promised access to the riverside. Part of the old Police Station will be demolished to access the older building of the Old Gaol.

Abingdon is also one of the few towns in the UK to have its own annual air display — the Abingdon Air and Country Show which takes place every May at Dalton Barracks, the former RAF Abingdon (see below).

Economy

Industrially, Abingdon is best known as the location of manufacture of MG cars (1929–1980). The Pavlova leather works, now closed down, used to be a major employer. Abingdon was home to the Morland Brewery, whose most famous ale was Old Speckled Hen, named after an MG car. Greene King Brewery bought Morland for £182 million in 1999, closed Morlands Brewery and moved production to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The site of the brewery has now been redeveloped into residential housing. The same for the smaller companies that were associated with the brewery, The Maltings was demolished and is now a mixed residential area, and council offices.

Today Abingdon is close to several major scientific employers the UKAEA at Culham (including the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion research project), Harwell Laboratory, the Science and Technology Facilities Council Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and the new Diamond Light Source synchrotron, which is the largest UK-funded scientific facility to be built for over 40 years.

Many inhabitants work in Oxford or commute by rail to London, from nearby Didcot. The Army now occupies Dalton Barracks, which, before 1993, was the Royal Air Force station, RAF Abingdon.

Abingdon has a business park which has offices for several national and international companies including Northern Rock bank. Until recently, Vodafone had offices in the town, acquired as part of its take over of Mannesmann in 2000. The Science Park is home to the headquarters of Sophos, the anti-virus company. RM, an educational computing supplier, commonly refer to themselves as being Abingdon-based, which is technically true — even though their HQ is actually in nearby Milton Park, Milton, they have an Abingdon post code (as does the rest of Milton Park). South East Workwear Ltd a family run Workwear Centre also providing in-house embroidery/shirt printing, with a retail shop in the town centre The Warehouse. Penlon Ltd, a medical equipment company, are Abingdon-based, formerly based close to the site of the former railway station, although having recently moved to the outskirts of Abingdon, the former premises having been redeveloped as residential housing. Another major employer is the British head office of the German appliance company Miele.

In 1924, carmaker MG was founded and set up its business at a factory in Abingdon. By 15 years later, MG was established as one of the most favoured brands of sports car in Britain. After the war, the MG factory continued to churn out increasing volumes of popular sports car which were available at competitive prices. But the factory closed in October 1980 on the demise of the ageing but still popular MG MGB range, and was demolished within months.

A Police Station was built in its place, currently extending its building with the addition of more cells.

Sites of interest

The Baroque County Hall building from the abbey gateway
St Helen's Church from across the river

Of the Benedictine Abingdon Abbey there remains a beautiful Perpendicular gateway (common local knowledge, however, is that it was actually rebuilt out of the rubble of the original, and a little cursory examination of the patternation of the stonework will apparently divulge this) and ruins of buildings such as the mainly Early English prior's house, the guest house and other fragments. Other remains from the former abbey include the Unicorn Theatre and Long Gallery, which are still used for plays and functions including an annual craft fair.

The most distinguished landmark in Abingdon is probably the building which now houses the Abingdon County Hall Museum, which was formerly the county hall of Berkshire: a building hailed as the "grandest town hall in Britain" and built by Christopher Kempster, who worked with Christopher Wren on St Paul's Cathedral. The hall stands on pillars, leaving a sheltered area beneath for a market or other municipal functions, and overlooks the main market square. The museum and town hall is run by English Heritage.

The picturesque narrow-arched Abingdon Bridge over the Thames, near St Helen's Church, dates originally from 1416. St Helen's Church itself dates from around 1100 and is the second widest church in England, having 5 aisles and being 10 ft wider than it is long. The tower of St. Helen's church is home to a new ring of ten bells, cast by The Whitechapel Bellfoundry in 2005 and hung in a new frame with new fittings by Whites of Appleton Church Bellhangers in 2006.[9]

A large gaol, built by prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars in 1811 stands on the south edge of town next to the Thames. It has had various uses, most recently as a leisure centre, but is now (in 2007) empty and awaiting a planning decision.

The Roysse Room was the site of Abingdon School (then 'Roysse's School') from 1563 until it moved to its current site after an indenture by John Roysse, who had been born and educated in Abingdon before he moved to London . The room is now part of the civic offices.

Culture and folklore

A long-standing tradition of the town has local dignitaries throwing buns from the roof of the County Hall for crowds assembled in the market square on specific days of celebration (such as royal marriages, coronations and jubilees). The museum has a collection of the buns, dried and varnished, dating back to bun throwings of the 19th century. Since 2000, there have been bun-throwing ceremonies to commemorate the Millennium, the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II in 2002 and in 2006 the 450th anniversary of the town's being granted a Royal Charter.

The centre of town and the whole of Ock Street (half a mile) are closed every October for two days for the Ock Street Michaelmas Fair, once a hiring fair but now maybe Britain's longest and narrowest funfair. The much smaller Runaway Fair, the following Monday, was traditionally for workers who had found their new employers too much to stomach within the first week.

Abingdon has a very old and still active Morris dancing tradition, passed on by word of mouth since before the folk dance and song revivals of the 1800s.[10] Every year a Mayor of Ock Street is elected by the inhabitants of Ock Street; he then parades through the town preceded by the famous Horns of Ock St, a symbol of Abingdon's Morris Dance troupe.

The Friends of Abingdon's Unicorn Theatre, housed in the old Abbey buildings, is the site of first productions of many stage adaptations of Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, by Stephen Briggs.

Old Speckled Hen ale was originally brewed by Morlands of Abingdon to commemorate the MG factory in the town.

Notable people from Abingdon

  • Ælfric of Abingdon, 10th century Archbishop of Canterbury
  • Saint Edmund of Abingdon, 13th century Archbishop of Canterbury: He was born in Abingdon, as were his sisters, Saint Alice of Catesby and the Blessed Margaret Rich.
  • Alexander of Abingdon, late 13th / early 14th century sculptor.
  • Stephen of Abingdon, 14th century Lord Mayor of the City of London.
  • Oswald Couldrey (1882–1958) was a British artist, poet and author.
  • Sammy Chung, British former football manager.
  • Gerald Charles Dickens, actor and great great grandson of Charles Dickens, lives in Abingdon
  • Geoff Dunbar, director and animator of Rupert and the Frog Song, and The World of Peter Rabbit and Friends was born in Abingdon, and attended Larkmead School.
  • Kate Garraway, GMTV presenter, was born in Abingdon and attended Fitzharrys school.
  • Oliver Tompsett, West End star who is currently starring as Fiyero in the musical Wicked at the Apollo Victoria Theatre in London.
  • Tom Hingley, lead-singer of Manchester band Inspiral Carpets
  • David Mitchell, actor and comedian attended Abingdon School in his teens.
  • Alain Menu, World Touring Car Championship driver, lives in Abingdon.
  • Radiohead, the rock band, who formed when studying at Abingdon School, although they are commonly associated with Oxford, as that is where they played most of their gigs prior to being signed.
  • Dorothy Richardson, novelist who was born in Abingdon. She was the first writer to publish an English-language novel using what was to become known as the stream-of-consciousness technique.
  • Matthew Taylor, Premiership footballer: He plays for Bolton Wanderers F.C., grew up in the town and attended John Mason School.
  • Thomas Tesdale, 16th century local benefactor and eventual founder of Pembroke College, Oxford.
  • Henry Tombs VC KCB (1825–1874) was a recipient of the Victoria Cross
  • Dean Whitehead, Premiership footballer: He plays for Stoke City F.C. and was born in Abingdon.

References

  1. "Abingdon". Royal Berkshire History. http://www.berkshirehistory.com/villages/abingdon.html. 
  2. Mills & Room, 2003, page not cited
  3. Jacobson, Curtis (September 2007). "Abingdon For MG Enthusiasts". Longmont, CO: British V8. http://www.britishv8.org/Articles/Abingdon-For-MG-Enthusiasts.htm. Retrieved 31 December 2009. 
  4. Abingdon Town Council Official Guide
  5. Abingdon County Hall: Information for Teachers, English Heritage. Palladian Press, 2004.
  6. Summer assizes were moved from Abingdon in 1867, effectively making Reading the county town. However, the Home Office informed the county's court of quarter sessions that in moving the court they had acted ultra vires (beyond their powers), and that they were required to petition the Privy Council to make the change. The petition was duly submitted and the change was officially approved with effect from the summer of 1869. "Berkshire Quarter Sessions". Jackson's Oxford Journal. 4 July 1868. 
  7. "Traders fear bigger Tesco". Abingdon Herald. http://www.heraldseries.net/search/display.var.1059634.0.traders_fear_bigger_tesco.php. 
  8. "Abingdon Integrated Transport Strategy (ABITS), The Current Situation". 21 April 2007. http://www.radleyvillage.org.uk/news/news002_comment_0407.htm. 
  9. "St. Helen's Church". http://www.parishes.oxford.anglican.org/abingdon/sthelens/history.htm. 
  10. "Abingdon Traditional Morris Dancers". http://www.abingdonmorris.org.uk. 

Outside links