Abingdon would most likely be our destination if we were travelling upstream and out on our boat for a few days. It is a delightful town to explore and has extensive and very pleasant moorings which are now free.
As you leave Culham lock and turn northwards into Culham Reach, the approach to Abingdon is dominated by the soaring stone spire of St. Helen's Church which can be seen piercing the skyline. A little further on as the River turns in a north easterly direction, Abingdon Bridge comes into view. This ancient stone bridge, with its eight arches, is very attractive and was built in 1416 but was completely restored in 1927.
The moorings on the right, as you travel upstream, stretch from about 200 metre below the bridge, right up to the lock. There are also moorings on the left hand side after the bridge, next to the swimming pool.
Like many small towns on the River, Abingdon, which means Aebbas Hill, is steeped in history. It purports to be England's oldest town and for centuries was dominated by a great Benedictine Abbey which was founded in the late 7th century. It flourished right up to the the Dissolution in 1538 when it was demolished by Henry VIII. Consequently, only a few of the original Abbey buildings remain. They are in two groups but they are only a very small fragment of this once wealthy monastery. The mainly 12th century Abbey Gateway faces the Market Place and is flanked by St. Nicholas Church (built in the 12th century for the Abbey servants and its tenants) on one side and by the former St. John's hospital on the other. The second group, in Thames Street, comprise The Checker Hall (which is now the Unicorn Theatre), the Checker and the 15th century Long Gallery.
The Long Gallery
The Abbey Gate
Another imposing building is the old County Hall in the Market Place (Abingdon was once the County town of Berkshire from 1556 to 1869 but in 1974 it became part of Oxfordshire). It was built between 1678 and 1682 by Christopher Kempster, a master mason who had worked for Sir Christopher Wren on St. Paul's Cathedral. When it was built it was the County Assize Court and Market House but it now houses Abingdon Museum.
The balconied roof of the Hall is used for what must be a unique ceremony: the throwing of buns from there by the Mayor and invited guests. This strange custom began at the coronation of George III in 1760 when the Mayor and his councillors threw dozens of buns to the crowds below in the Market Square. It is a custom that still continues on special Royal or State occasions.
There is another strange tradition in Abingdon involving the residents of Ock Street. On the nearest Saturday to 19th June the weekend is given over to Morris dancing and at 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon a new Mayor of Ock Street is elected and then carried shoulder high to all the pubs in Ock Street. This custom dates from 1700 when there was resentment in the town because only Abingdon's elite burgesses were permitted to vote for the Mayor.
In Bridge Street, just up from the bridge itself, you have the Old County Gaol of Berkshire which was built between 1805 - 1811 by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. It remained a gaol for nearly 60 years but it was then used as a grain store. In 1974 it was converted into a Leisure Centre but sadly this has now closed and the windows of this historic building are boarded up.
Abingdon has two parish churches, St. Nicholas (adjoining the Abbey Gate) and St. Helen's. St Helen's, with its dominating spire, is the more interesting and dates from the 13th century. It has 5 aisles which unusually makes the Church wider than it is long. During the townspeople's revolt against the Abbey in 1327, St Helen's was the rallying point. This Church, or more correctly it's spire, has been imortalised in John Masefield's poem 'Right Royal':
Gleaming with swinging wind-cocks on their perches...
And three giant glares making the heavens dun,
Oxford and Wallingford and Abingdon.
Close to St. Helen's Church are three blocks of Almshouses which are still in use today. The oldest is that of the Long Abbey Almshouses built in 1446 by the Fraternity of the Holy Cross. In 1553 Christ's Hospital took over most of the work of the fraternity and it is they who still administer the almshouses today. The other two almshouses are Twitty's, built in 1707, and situated to the north of the churchyard and Brick Alley to the south and built in 1720.
The River Ock joins the River Thames in Abingdon to the south of St. Helens Church. There is an iron footbridge crossing the Ock at its mouth which was built by the Wilts and Bath Canal Company in 1824.
Although referred to as a market town, Abingdon did at one time have a textile industry and was a centre for leather processing. It was also the home of both Morelands Brewery (which closed in the spring of 2000) and the famous MG cars which were built in Abingdon for 50 years before it ceased production in 1980. To mark 50 years of the cars production in Abingdon, Morelands were asked to create a celebration beer and Old Speckled Hen was born. The name came from a 'one-off' saloon car with gold and black flecked paintwork that MG used to run about the town. Locals called it 'Old Speckled Un' which became Old Speckled Hen.
Today the town boasts 11 churches, a compehensive selection of shops including a supermarket, and about 30 pubs, some of which were old coaching inns. It also has two October fairs. The first is the larger Michaelmas Fair which stems from the custom in the 14th century of workers selling themselves at hiring fairs into a year's bond of work. The second fair, a week later, is known as the Runaway Fair as many workers used to run away from their masters to re-sell themselves the following week.
It would be very remiss to have a page on Abingdon without mention of the Swift Ditch, a quiet unnavigable stream that by-passes Abingdon and creates Andersey Island - named after St.Andrew's church which once stood on it. At the end of Culham Reach, the Swift Ditch re-enters the River on the right, under a picturesque wooden footbridge, having left it about a mile upstream of Abingdon Lock. There is conjecture that the Swift Ditch was once the original course of the River but it is now thought more likely that it is the channel dug across the Abbey Meadow by Abbot Ordric in 1052 to improve the course of the River through Abingdon. It is known however, that the Swift Ditch was the main navigable channel from around 1060 to 1550 and again from 1630 to 1790 when the current lock at Abingdon was first built. The remains of one of the first pound locks built on the Thames in c.1635 can still be seen near the top of the Swift Ditch.
There is much to see in Abingdon and is well worth a visit; we are sure you won't be disappointed.
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