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Abingdon or archaically Abingdon-on-Thames (/ˈæbɪŋdən/) is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire, England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places that claim to be Britain’s oldest continuously occupied town, with people having lived there for at least 6,000 years. It was part of Berkshire until the 1974 boundary changes transferred it to Oxfordshire. Abingdon is on the Thames Path national trail. The former County Hall is now a museum in the care of English Heritage.
Abingdon’s Market Place is in the heart of the town centre and hosts street cafés and a variety of markets, such as the Monday Market, the Farmers’ Market, the Local Excellence Market and visiting Continental Markets. In 1556 Abingdon received its Borough Charter from Queen Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain. From that time until 1869, it was the county town of Berkshire.
Abingdon is 5.5 miles (8.9 km) south of Oxford and 5 miles (8.0 km) north of Didcot in the flat valley of the Thames on its west (right) bank, where the small river Ock flows in from the Vale of White Horse. It is on the A415 between Witney and Dorchester, adjacent to the A34 trunk road, linking it with the M4 and M40 motorways. The B4017 and A4183 also link the town, both 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, the Oxford Bus Company and smaller independent companies. The main local town bus service is operated by White’s Coaches. The nearest railway stations are Culham and Radley, and the nearest major stations are Oxford and Didcot Parkway. All are managed by First Great Western.
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. The name seems to mean ‘Hill of a man named Æbba, or a woman named Æbbe’, possibly the saint to whom St Ebbe’s Church in Oxford was dedicated (Æbbe of Coldingham or a different Æbbe of Oxford). However Abingdon stands in a valley and not on a hill. It is thought that the name was first given to a place on Boars Hill above Chilswell, and the name was transferred to its present site when the Abbey was relocated.
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 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, replacing navigation to the town 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 Radley. 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 serving the MG car factory, which opened in 1929 and closed in October 1980 as part of a British Leyland rationalisation plan.
The nearest railway station is Radley, two miles (3 km) away. Abingdon was served by a branch line however the line and Abingdon Railway Station were closed in 1963. Much of the original Abingdon branch line is now 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 a large number of new flats and houses.
Abingdon became the county town of Berkshire sometime after receiving its Royal Charter in 1556. Assize courts were held in Abingdon from 1570 but in the 17th century it was vying with Reading for County Town status. The county hall and court house were built between 1678 and 1682, to assert this status. The building, now the Abingdon County Hall Museum, was supposedly designed by Christopher Kempster, who worked with Sir 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 which became the County Town in 1869. 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.
Since the 1980s, Abingdon has played host to a number of information communication companies, with many based in the town’s respective business and science parks. With this, and the result of Abingdon’s proximity to academic and scientific institutions in Oxford, the town has seen an influx of young professionals taking residence in the town’s many residential areas such as Peachcroft.
Local councillors voted in November 2011 to rename the town “Abingdon-on-Thames”, though this would need approval from the Vale of White Horse council.
For a town of its size, Abingdon could be considered 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, The Oxford Times 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 ‘news gathering’ centre in the town, formerly a broadcasting studio, for ITV Meridian. Traditionally, the ITV franchise was ITV Central. Local radio is provided by BBC Radio Oxford, Jack FM, Glide FM and Heart Thames Valley. There was also a SIX TV local TV channel until 2009.
Shopping in Abingdon fares poorly in comparison to developments in nearby 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 includes Homebase, Argos, Subway, Dreams, HomeStore&More 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 (now part of the Lee Longlands chain) and Mays Carpets (now part of the Carpetright chain and has re-branded 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.
In 2010, further refurbishment was planned;the Bury Street Precinct has a new owner/landlord, its name has been changed to Abbey Shopping Centre and it is to get another “facelift” plan: instead of a roof (always promised), the covered walkways are to be removed and the flat roofs replaced. A few shops have been knocked together for larger shops; W H Smith have moved in. When Woolworths went into administration, the shop was empty for a while, then Cargo returned to Abingdon on a short-term lease. The current occupants of the former Woolworths store are Poundland. Proposed plans show demolition of the buildings in the Charters. The GP practice and public library are to be relocated, with the latest plans being to move them into the second floor of the building where Woolworths used to be.
The Old Gaol redevelopment has started:[ the first stage was demolishing the 1970s additions and swimming pool extension. The Gaol is to become luxury flats, shops and restaurants, with promised access to the riverside. Part of the old Police Station will be demolished to access the older building of the Old Gaol.
Abingdon is one of the few towns in the UK to have its own annual air display— the Abingdon Air & Country Show, which takes place every May at Dalton Barracks, the former RAF Abingdon (see below).
Industrially, Abingdon is best known for the manufacture of MG cars, who opened a factory there in 1929. 1,155,032 cars were made at the plant over the next 51 years before British Leyland closed it down on 24 October 1980.
The Pavlova and Gloria leather works, now both closed, used to be major employers. Abingdon was home to the Morland Brewery, whose most famous ale was Old Speckled Hen, named after an early MG car. Greene King Brewery bought Morland for £182 million in 1999, closed the brewery and moved production to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. The site of the brewery has been redeveloped into residential housing. The Maltings was demolished and is now a mixed residential area and council offices.
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 takeover 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). Penlon Ltd, a medical equipment company, have their premises on the outskirts of Abingdon (their previous site, close to the former railway station, has 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 moved its business alongside the Pavlova Leather Factory in 1929. By the outbreak of the Second World War , MG was established as one of the most popular 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. The headquarters of the MG Car Club, founded in 1930, is at 11 & 12 Cemetery Road, next to the old factory offices.
A police station was built in its place, currently being extended with the addition of more cells, as Oxford’s police station could not be extended further.
Of the Benedictine Abingdon 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 that now houses the Abingdon County Hall Museum, which was formerly the county hall of Berkshire (the town was the 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 dates from around 1100 and is the second widest church in England, having five 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.
The Abbey Gateway between the Abingdon County Hall Museum and the Guildhall remains a point of local importance. Although it is unclear how far back this tradition dates, some people from families that have lived in the town for generations follow the superstition that in walking under the gateway one should hold one’s breath to stop the gargoyles that decorate the gateway from stealing it.
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 being partially demolished and developed into residential and commercial premises.
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.
A long-standing tradition of the town has local dignitaries throwing buns from the roof of the Abingdon County Hall Museum for crowds assembled in the market square on specific days of celebration (such as royal marriages, coronations and jubilees). 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, 450th anniverary of the town’s being granted a Royal Charter in 2006, and the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton on the 29th April 2011.
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 and 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.
Old Speckled Hen ale was originally brewed by Morlands of Abingdon to commemorate the MG factory in the town.
Abingdon is twinned with Argentan, France; Lucca, Italy; Schongau, Germany; Sint-Niklaas in Belgium.