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 killed 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 and 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 after 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 as
exceedingly 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.