September 2016

Thursday – Burford – This is the quintessential Cotswold town – a main street of yellow Cotswold sandstone buildings and an historic church. The town was founded on the River Windrush in the mid-Saxon period. The name comes from burgha, a fortified town and ford, a river crossing. Malmesbury records a battle between the West Saxons and Mercians at Burford in AD 752. Æthelhum, the Mercian standard-bearer who carried the flag with a golden dragon on it, was Tombskilled by the lance of his Saxon rival ending the conflict. The town grew rich through the wool industry and between during the 14th and 17th centuries. However, it was bypassed by the railway and as the wool industry and road travel by coach declined so did the fortunes of Burford. It regenerated in the 20th century through tourism in particular. We park beside the River Windrush, where Mallard, Mute Swans and feral duck gather waiting to be fed. It is noticeable in Oxfordshire that many car parks are free or have free periods – they know how to attract visitors!

Through a street to the church past a terrace of Alms Houses which have a plaque stating they were founded by Richard, Earl of Warwick in 1457, rebuilt in 1828 and are now undergoing extensive maintenance. The church of St John the Baptist is a very fine building, one of only eighteen churches in the country awarded five stars by Simon Jenkins in England’s Thousand Best Churches. There was a Saxon church here but nothing remains of it, although a small doorway in an internal turret of the south-west tower arch may well be Saxon in origin and reused here. The present church was started around 1175 and continued until around 1500. The west door and tower are fine examples of Romanesque architecture from the 12th century. The interior of the church has many wonderful examples how a church can benefit from a community made rich, in this case by the wool trade. The pulpit is a baroque confection painted in red Tansfield Tomband gold. St Peter’s Chapel is surrounded by a richly carved screen with a painted roof; it was once the pew of the Lords of the manor from 1580 to 1870. The north chancel chapel, St Katherine’s Chapel, contains a magnificent painted tomb of Sir Lawrence and Lady Tansfield, Lord Chief Baron of the Court of Exchequer who died in 1625. The monument was erected by Lady Tansfield after being refused a monument in Westminster Abbey and done so without anyone’s permission. The Tansfields were loathed locally for his high-handed behaviour and reckoned to be greedy and corrupt. It is recorded that local residents burned an effigy of Tansfield annually until the 19th century. It is said that a ghostly, fiery coach containing Sir Lawrence Tanfield or his wife flies around the town bringing a curse upon all who see it. There are various other tombs in the church and the Lady Chapel contains numerous monuments, many of the Sylvester family. On the north wall is the Harman monument dedicated to Edmund Harman, one of Henry VIII’s barbers and gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Harman died in 1577. The monument is in memory of him and his wife Agnes who had sixteen children who are depicted in the bottom frieze. A long Latin inscription is supported by four figures which look Aztec and are indeed members of an Amazonian tribe. High on the aforementioned south-west tower turret is a plaque depicting three figures, one on horseback and two on foot, known by choirboys as The Three Disgraces. Some believed the plaque to be Saxon, representing the Divine Horse Goddess Epona with attendants, but it seems more likely that it is a 12th century depiction of the Flight into Egypt of Joseph, Mary and the Infant. Outside are a number of bale tombs, stone tombs with the representations of wool bales on top. Outside, on the Lady Chapel wall is a plaque unveiled in 1975 by Tony Benn (Kay was present!) It commemorates the three Levellers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins and Private Church who were executed by Cromwell’s soldiers on the 17th May 1649. The church was extensively restored between 1870 and 1887 by G.E. Street. The restoration appalled William Morris and led to the formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

The High Street is busy. It contains a large number of touristy shops and high end clothiers, jewellers etc.

Abingdon-on-Thames – We are staying in this Oxfordshire town. Once the County Town of Berkshire, it was moved into Oxfordshire by the 1974 reorganisation. It lies on an angle of the River Thames where it is met by the River Ock. Neolithic items have been found locally. The town centre stands on an Iron Age settlement. According to the chronicler of Abingdon Abbey, a town called Seuekesham or Seouechesham stood here before the building of the 7th century abbey. However, history is confused by legends designed to raise the status of the place. The name Abingdon is said to mean Hill of a man named Æbba, or a woman named Æbbe who could be the saint to whom St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford was dedicated (Æbbe of Coldingham or maybe Æbbe of Oxford). However Abingdon stands in a valley and not on a hill and it is possible that the name was first given to a place on Boars Hill above Chilswell, and transferred to its present site when the Abbey was moved. The abbey was completely destroyed in the 9th century by the Danes. It was re-founded in the mid 10th century. In 1084, William the Conqueror celebrated Easter at the Abbey and then left his son, the future Henry I, to be educated there. In the 13th and 14th centuries, there was a flourishing agricultural centre with an extensive trade in wool and a famous weaving and clothing manufacturing industry. However, the area declined Long Galleryafter the Dissolution and it was not until Mary I granted a charter establishing a mayor, two bailiffs, twelve chief burgesses and sixteen secondary burgesses that the town began to recover. In 1790 Abingdon Lock was built, replacing navigation to the town via the Swift Ditch. In 1810, the Wiltshire and Berkshire 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 Radley. The town was famous as the home of the MG car factory, which opened in 1929 and closed in October 1980.


We lunch at The Nag’s Head. This pub stands on Nag’s Head Island which is connected to either side of the river Thames by Abingdon bridge. The bridge dates from 1422. Back over the bridge and along Thames Street to the Abbey Mill; all the buildings are boarded up. The mill was built by Ethelwold and recorded in Domesday. In the 16th century it consisted of three mills and a fulling mill all under one roof. Through a passage which has small doors to cottages on either side and up the street. Various buildings of the old abbey still stand and are in private ownership. The Long Gallery is the main survivor. Nearby is the Unicorn Theatre was once known as Checker Hall. A lane leads to the Abbey grounds. There is a very crowded children’s park and a busy open air pool. The Abbey grounds are quieter. E J Trendall, a wealthy merchant, bought Abbey House, which stands at the western end of the abbey grounds, in 1853. He set out extensive gardens leading to a lake with islands which were formally a rockeries but are now full of trees. Across the grass the footprint of the Abbey is marked with stones in the ground. A small ruin still stands. Out past a concrete mistake of a modern guildhall. The abbey gatehouse joins the old Town Hall with St Nicholas church, sadly it seems all the churches in the town are closed and locked.

Opposite is the market square. The old County Hall, described by John Betjeman asexceedingly handsome building, stands on the south side of the square. It was erected between 1678 and 1683, primarily to house the Berkshire Assizes when they were held in Abingdon. The builder was Christopher Kempster, possibly using a design by Christopher Wren. It replaced a market hall on the same site. In 1869 Abingdon ceased to be an assize town but the building continued to be known as the County Hall and is now the museum.

We wander up some streets of shops, all too many of which are closed down. The old Free Library is now apartments, although the decoration in the gables is nicely picked out on coloured paints. West St Helens Street is one of the oldest in the town, deeds of 1245 refer to in vico occidentali beate helene. It leads to the St Helen’s church dating from 1180, which locked and the mediaeval hospital. Long Alley alms houses date from 1446.. The street ends on the banks of the Thames. To the west is a large old barge. Modern canal boats and cruisers are moored on the far side. Feral Geese swim up noisily. Back up East St Helens Street, again of considerable age, this time referred to in the deeds of 1245 as in vico orientali sancte helene. The street is lined with houses ranging from the 15th to 20th centuries, including a number of grand Georgian residences.

Opposite our hotel is the old County Police Station and behind it a sizeable gaol with a central rotunda lookout. The gaol completed in 1811, was built under the direction of Daniel Harris, Governor of Oxford Prison, who used free convict labour to carry out his civil engineering projects.The premises are partly restaurants and other parts are being redeveloped. We visit the The King’s Head and Bell pub in West St Helens Street. An inn called The Bell was recorded on this site in 1544. It is though The King’s Head was added to the name in an attempt to connect the property with Charles I who certainly visited Abingdon before and during the Civil War. The name reverted to The Old Bell in the 19th century. The present building dates from the 17th century although much of the structure is 18th century. The front was remodelled in 1907 when the present name was adopted.

Corn Exchange

Friday – Wallingford – We briefly visit this ancient town. It was possible to ford the Thames here which attracted settlers from the Bronze Age onwards. It was one of King Alfred’s new towns, the same size as the then capital, Winchester. It was enclosed on three sides (the river formed the fourth defence) by earthen walls capped with a wooden palisade and surrounded by a wet moat. William of Normandy came here after the Battle of Hastings as the local lord, Wigod was a Norman sympathiser and, of course, for the Thames crossing. In 1067 a large castle was built which stood for 600 years. In 1155, Henry II held a Great Council at Wallingford and awarded it a Great Charter of Liberties. We stay mainly around the market square. The church of St Mary-le-More stood before 1077, when the advowson belonged to St Alban’s Abbey. The west tower was originally 12th century but its upper stages were rebuilt in a Perpendicular Gothic style in about 1653. The nave and aisle were built in the 13th and 14th century and the chancel was added later, but all were rebuilt in 1854,including a marble reredos and sanctuary area with Salviati mosaic bands, to designs by the Gothic Revival architect David Brandon. The ornate rood cross was dedicated in 1921 to the daughters of John Kirkby Hedges. The pulpit dating from around 1888 is of grey-veined white marble with bronze panels of saints by Onslow Ford. The arcaded Town Hall, standing by the market square, is a timber-frame building that was constructed in 1670. Judge William Blackstone sat here as recorder. He was the author of the law book, Commentaries on the Laws of England, used by the founding fathers of America when they drew up the Constitution of the United States. The Corn Exchange of 1856 is now a theatre and cinema. There are a good number of antique shops. A country market is being held in the old cinema.

Sunday – Leominster – The morning has a distinctly autumnal feel. The sky is a mixture of dark, stormy looking clouds to the south and blue sky with fluffy white clouds to the north. The River Lugg remains low and clear. The market gets smaller as the weather deteriorates. There is the first stall with Christmas items, plastic trees and a Santa. I purchase a useful little lidded saucepan for the grand sum of £2. There seem to be fewer Pond Skaters under Ridgemoor bridge. Like the Lugg, the River Kenwater is low and clear.

Sunday – Leominster – In the early hours the kik kik call of a female Tawny Owl can be heard from the trees in the gardens. Sadly it is not answered by a male bird’s hoot. The stars shine brightly and it is cooler than of late.

Off to market. The River Lugg is a little higher now, the heavy rain finally feeding through from the hills. A Grey Wagtail flies off upstream. The sun is up and starting to burn off the heavy dew. A Boeing 757, Manchester to Alicante flight leaves a vapour trail at 27000 feet. The Malaga bound Airbus at 23000 feet leaves no trail whilst a Faro flight at 37000 does. The market is not large, but busy.

Home – Most of the Worcestershire Pearmain apples have now been harvested. It was a good crop despite both moth and bird damage. The Herefordshire Russet apples and Doyenne Pear are not quite ready yet. The Marjorie’s seedling plum has also produced a better crop than I expected. There has been some moth and bird damage but not too bad. There are two problems, the tree is growing very tall making harvesting tricky and the nearby Hazel is in danger of overwhelming one side of the plum tree. Both issues can be resolved with the pruning shears! Courgettes are still growing both quickly and prolifically. Miss a couple of days cropping and they are the size of small marrows. Now I need to find some more preserving recipes. The ground crops are all slowing down. Lettuces, brassicas and leeks are all progressing, but slowly. In the greenhouse, the tomato plants are beginning to die back but still have a decent crop ripening. The green peppers however, are still vigorous and fruits developing steadily. We have cleared away the large nettle bed. It was left in case Peacock butterflies wanted to lay eggs there but this seems not to have happened. Brambles have regrown at an alarming rate and all pulled out again.


Monday – Mortimer Forest – A grey autumnal morning. Tints of yellow appear on the leaves. Wood Pigeons coo. Repeated ticks come from the undergrowth, probably Wrens. A Robin sings, a Jay squawks and Ravens bark. Up the path through the woods. A flock of Long-tailed Tits move noisily through the tree tops. A Great Tit chirps nearby. Along the Forestry track. The temperature is only in the mid-teens but it feels very humid. Few flowers are to be seen, just the remnants of Ragwort, Bird-sfoot Trefoil and Rosebay Willowherb. Birds are very flighty and difficult to pin down. A Chiffchaff feeds in a Birch sapling, its call a pale imitation of its spring song. Both Marsh and Willow Tits are calling in the valley that runs down to Sunny Dingle Cottage. The pebble tapping of a Whitethroat comes from the hillside. An arrhythmic tapping comes from the wood, probably a woodpecker although a Grey Squirrel runs across the track a few minutes later. A much more typical two-tone song comes from a Great Tit. Up the track towards Climbing Jack Common. Two large and wormed boletus fungi lie on the bank. Up to High Vinnalls which is shrouded in mist. The trees on the western slope have been cut back so the valley can now be seen. The Bringewood chase lies across the valley but disappears almost immediately in the mist. Some of the conifers have large upright cones resembling a parliament of owls. Some of the cones have been ripped apart and Blue and Coal Tits are picking their way through the shredded remains. They are scattered across an area of trees keeping in contact with one another by constant twittering. On down the track then down through the Deer Park to the pond. The path down to the track that leads to the pond is getting overgrown and will probably be impassable in a couple of years. A Willow Tit buzzes by the pond, a Willow Warbler wheeps in a small Birch. The pond is reduced to a small pool.

Tuesday – Leominster – Early morning cloud drifts away eastwards to leave an eggshell blue sky and warming sun. Across the old playing field by the Minster churchyard. A Robin sings and a Chiffchaff calls intermittently. Into the Millennium Gardens. Foxwhelp cider apple are beginning to fall in numbers. Buckthorn in the hedge lining the railway has little bunches of black berries.Spindle A non-stop train roars past, hidden by the dense hedgerow. The path through the gardens is liberally sprinkled with rabbit droppings. Warblers are still in song, both Garden Warbler and Blackcap. Purple Loosestrife and Meadow Cranesbill are still in flower but almost at the end of their season. A Spindle tree at the end of the park, or the beginning I suppose, has delightful pink berries. The plum tree on Pinsley Mead has been stripped of fruit. There are still small fruits on a quince tree. The old building at the west end of the area is still surrounded by fencing. Various people have views on what the building was used for. It is timber-framed and probably goes back to at least the 17th century. Suggestions range from a store for the Minster, a hay loft and a pig shed.

By early afternoon, stormy clouds are passing over and it rains stair rods. By late afternoon the storm is rumbling overhead. Bursts of heavy rain are punctuated with strange light periods, then the rain pours down again. A pair of House Martins are still feeding above the roofs.

Wednesday – Bodenham Lake – It is again warm and humid. The bushes alongside the track are full of scarlet Hawthorns, Blackberries and feathery, sea anemone-like tassels of Old Man’s Beard. The Blackberries are small this year, I assume the lack of rain during August inhibited their growth. The lake is very quiet. There are a couple of Mute Swans and some Canada Geese on the scrape. The cider apple orchard is a mixture of bounty and famine. Some trees are laden, others completely fruitless. It is similar in the dessert apple orchard, although most trees have some fruit. The Irish Peach produced tiny apples this year and few of them. Others have a decent crop but not yet ready for eating.

We pay a quick visit to Hereford. It is amusing that so many different languages can be heard in the city centre. More importantly, these people are shopping and spending money – without them the place would be even more of a retail desert! On the way back we stop at the Wellington garden centre. Kay wants some violas but the quality is poor, they are very leggy presumably because of the recent hot weather. There is a huge flock of Swallows and House Martins feeding over the centre and resting thickly on electricity wire.

Thursday – Shrewsbury – Mist is thick enough to call it fog as we head north from Leominster but starts to thin by the time we reach Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury railway station was originally built in October 1848 for the Shrewsbury to Chester line by Thomas Mainwaring Penson of Oswestry. Between 1899 and 1903 the station was extended by the construction of a new floor underneath the original building. The building style was Gothic, complete with carvings of Tudor style heads around the Stationwindow frames, to match the Tudor building of Shrewsbury School (now Shrewsbury Library) almost directly opposite. It was operated jointly by the Great Western Railway and the London and North Western Railway. A lot of restoration is being carried out on the platform-side buildings. Out of the station past a long wall with old cast iron signs stating Taxis Only. Through the town to our hotel to drop off our bag. Down to the English Bridge. The Shrewsbu