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Abingdon-on-Thames

Abingdon (or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames) is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire in Southern England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places which claim to be Britain's oldest continuously occupied town.

Geography and Transport

Abingdon is eight miles (13 km) south of Oxford, in the flat valley of the Thames and is situated on the west (right) bank of that river, where the small river Ock flows in from the Vale of White Horse. The town is situated on the A415 between Witney and Dorchester 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 Oxfordshire, Thames Travel and the Oxford Bus Company as well as a number of smaller independent companies. The nearest minor railway stations are at Culham and Radley, although more frequent services may be caught at Oxford or Didcot Parkway.

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 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, since -don means a hill and Abingdon stands in a valley. 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, 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.

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 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.

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 MG cars until the factory closed in 1980. The nearest railway station is now Radley, two miles (3 km) away. The branchline is now mainly replaced by a cyclepath, 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 was the county town of Berkshire and the magnificent county hall and court house, now the museum, was supposedly designed by Christopher Wren. However, Abingdon's failure to engage fully with the railway revolution, accepting only a branch line, sidelined the town in favour of Reading. The corporation was reformed, under the Municipal Reform Act 1835 and was abolished under the Local Government Act 1972. In 1974, under local government reorganisation, Abingdon became part of the non-metropolitan shire county of Oxfordshire and the seat of the new Vale of White Horse District Council, with Abingdon becoming a civil parish with a town council.

Leisure & 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.

The local newspapers are the Oxford Mail and the Abingdon Herald. The Oxford Journal, a free newspaper, has been based in Abingdon for many years and was formerly called the South Oxfordshire Courier. Local radio and television stations are shared with Oxford, although ITV retains a ‘newsgathering’ centre in the town, formerly a broadcasting studio, for ITV Thames Valley. Traditionally, the ITV franchise was ITV Central. Local radio is provided by BBC Radio Oxford and Fox FM. There is also a SIX TV local TV channel.

Shopping in Abingdon has suffered due to 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. 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 rebranded 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. . 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.

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 bought Morland for £182M in 1999 and operations were moved to Bury St Edmunds. The site of the brewery has now been redeveloped into residential housing.

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 STFC 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, prior to 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). Burton Trading 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 the outbreak of the Second World War 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.

Sites of interest

Of a Benedictine 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 Museum, which was formerly the county hall of Berkshire (the town was county town until it ceded that title to Reading in 1867): 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(3 m) 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.

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 longstanding tradition of the town has local dignitaries throwing buns from the roof of the Abingdon Museum for crowds assembled in the market square on specific days of celebration (such as royal marriages/coronations/jubilee), although many residents are unaware of this, due to the rarity of occurrences. 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 the 450th anniverary of being granted a Royal Charter in 2006.

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 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.

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.

Twinned towns

Abingdon is twinned with:

It also has connections (through the Vale of White Horse District) with:

Famous Abingdonians

See also Abbot of Abingdon, Abingdon School and List of notable Old Abingdonians.

Education

References

External links

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