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Watling Street Towcester 2008 05 18.jpg
Watling Street, Towcester
Grid reference: SP691481
Location: 52°7’48"N, 0°59’24"W
Population: 8,856  (2001)
Post town: Towcester
Postcode: NN12
Dialling code: 01327
Local Government
Council: West Northamptonshire
South Northamptonshire

Towcester (toʊstər) is a small town in Northamptonshire. It stands on Watling Street, the ancient Roman road from Londinium to Deva and is the site of the Roman town of Lactodorum, and a fortification of the tenth century also. Today it is more famous for horse racing.

The town was long a coaching stop on Watling Street; the first substantial town north of the Great Ouse. In Charles Dickens's novel The Pickwick Papers, the "Saracen's Head Inn" in Towcester features as one of Mr Pickwick's stopping places along the road.


The name "Towcester" comes from the Old English Tofeceaster, in which Tofe is the River Tove or possibly a Norse personal name, such as Tófi or Tofa.[1]

The name appears in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 921 as Tofeceastre (dative form).[2]


The town is about 8 miles south-west of Northampton and about 10 miles north-west of Milton Keynes, the nearest main towns. Oxford is about 30 miles south-west on the A43 road, M40 motorway and A34 road. The A43 now bypasses the town to the north but the A5 still passes through the town centre. This still carries much traffic in the north-south direction which may be bypassed to the west with the possibility of expansion of the town.

Parish church

St Lawrence's Church, Towcester

St Lawrence's Church stands in the middle of the town. It has a 12th-century Norman Transitional ground plan and foundation, probably laid over an Anglo-Saxon 10th century stone building. Local tales have it that its heritage may well relate back to Roman times as they say St Lawrence was patron saint of the Roman legions; not an assertion with which historians have been able to assent.

The building was reconstructed in the Perpendicular style 1480–85 when the church tower was added. Permission to quarry stone for this restoration from Whittlebury Forest was granted by Edward IV and later confirmed by Richard III on his way towards Leicestershire and his death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

The church contains a "Treacle" Bible, a table tomb and cadaver of Archdeacon Sponne, Rector 1422–1448. The Archdeacon started what was thought to be the oldest Grammar school in Northamptonshire, which was merged with the old Secondary Modern School in Towcester to produce Sponne School. The church tower contains more bells than probably any other parish church in the land: a fine peal of 12 bells and a chime of 9 bells which ring the hours and chime tunes at frequent intervals.


Prehistoric and Roman periods

Towcester lays claim to being the oldest town in Northamptonshire and possibly, because of the antiquity of recent Iron Age finds in the town, to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements in the country. There is evidence that it was settled by humans since the Mesolithic era (middle stone age). There is also evidence of Iron Age burials in the area.

In Roman Britain, Watling Street, now the A5, was built through the area and a garrison town called Lactodurum established on the site of the present-day town. Two candidate sites for the Battle of Watling Street, fought in 61 AD between Boadicea and the Romans, are located close to the town; these are Church Stowe which is 5 miles to the north[3] and Paulerspury which is 3 miles to the south.[4]

Lactodurum was surrounded by a wall that was strengthened at several points by brick towers. Substantial remains of one of these towers could be seen until the 1960s, when it was demolished to make way for a telephone exchange. The wall was also surrounded by a ditch part of which became the Mill Leat on the east side of the town.

Small fragments of Roman pavement can be seen next to the boiler room of St Lawrence's Church. It is also thought that a Roman pillar is in the garden of one of the houses along Watling Street.

The Saxon period and Middle Ages

In the 8th century, the Danes conquered Mercia, the Midlands. They were defeated by King Alfred of Wessex and in the Treaty of Wedmore, Watling Street north of the Great Ouse became the frontier between the English and Danelaw, and thus Towcester became a frontier town. Edward the Elder fortified Towcester in the spring of 921[2] but the Danes sought to retake it[5] and it had to be refortified with a stone wall later that year.[6]

In the 11th century, the Normans built a motte and bailey castle on the site. Bury Mount are the remains of the fortification and is a scheduled Ancient Monument. It was renovated in 2008 with an access ramp added and explanatory plaques added.

Georgian and Victorian periods

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, in the heyday of the stagecoach and the mail coach, the Watling Street became a major coaching road between London and Holyhead, and Towcester flourished, becoming a major stopping point. Many coaching inns and stabling facilities were provided for travellers in Towcester, many of which remain.

The coaching trade came to an abrupt halt in September 1838 when the London and Birmingham Railway was opened, which bypassed Towcester and passed through Blisworth, barely four miles away but enough to result in Towcester quickly reverting to being a quiet market town. By 1866 however, Towcester was linked to the national rail network by the first of several routes which came together to form the Stratford and Midland Junction Railway, known as the "SMJ".[7] Eventually, from Towcester railway station it was possible to travel four different ways out of the town: to Blisworth (opened May 1866); to Banbury (opened June 1872); to Stratford-upon-Avon (opened July 1873); and finally Olney (for access to Bedford, opened December 1892). The latter line however was an early casualty, closing to passengers in March 1893 although it continued to be used by race specials up until the outbreak of Second World War. The Banbury line closed to passengers in July 1951 and the rest in April 1952. Goods traffic lingered on until final axing in February 1964 as part of the Beeching Axe. The site of Towcester railway station is now a Tesco supermarket.

Towcester might have gained a second station on a branch line of the Great Central Railway from its main line at Brackley to Northampton, but this branch was never built.

20th century and beyond

The motor age brought new life to the town. Although now bypassed by the A43, the A5 trunk traffic still passes directly through the historic market town centre causing traffic jams at some times of the day. The resulting pollution has led to the town centre being designated an Air Quality Management Area. An A5 north-south bypass is likely with plans for expansion of the town being planned by the West Northamptonshire Development Corporation.[8]

About the town

The Chantry House, Watling Street
The Old Town Hall

The town has good shopping facilities with four major supermarket chains plus a very good number and range of smaller shops and stores. All the major banks are present, as is a main Post Office.

The town has an Air Cadet squadron located near to Sponne School and The 1st Towcester scouts and guides group.


Towcester is famous for Towcester Racecourse, originally part of the Easton Neston estate on the east side of the town. Many important national horse racing events are held there.

Nearby is the Silverstone motor racing circuit, currently home to the British Grand Prix.

Outside links


  1. Bosworth-Toller: An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
  2. 2.0 2.1 Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (921) on þysum gere foran to Eastron Eadweard cyning het gefaran þa burg æt Tofeceastre. 7 hie getimbran: in this year before Easter King Edward had the burg at Towcester occupied and rebuilt.
  4. Rogers, Byron (2003-10-11). "UK: The original Iron Lady rides again". The Daily Telegraph (London). 
  5. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (921) middum sumera se here bræc þone friþ of Hamtune, 7 of Ligeraceastre, 7 þonan norþan, 7 foron to Tofeceastre, 7 fuhton on þa burg ealne dæg, 7 þohton þæt hie hie sceolden abrecan: A Midsummer the [Danish] army broke the peace in of Northampton and Leicester and the north and went to Towcester and fought at that burh all the day that they should breach it.
  6. Anglo-Saxon Chronicle  Parker Chronicle (921)for Eadweard cyning mid Westsexna fierde to Passanhamme, 7 sæt þær þa hwile þe mon worhte þa burg æt Tofeceastre mid stanwealle; King Edward went with the West Saxon levies to Passenham and remained there while men worked on the burg at Towceaster with a stone wall
  7. "Stratford and Midland Junction Railway (SMJ)". Retrieved 2008-06-05. 
  8. "Sandra Barnes, Leader of South Northants Council, says "This is putting a mark down for future generations and they're not going to thank us for just putting 3,000 houses down" (17 December 2007)". Retrieved 2008-10-13.