Didcot

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Didcot is a town and civil parish in Oxfordshire about 10 miles (16 km) south of Oxford. Until 1974 it was in Berkshire, but was transferred to Oxfordshire in that year, and from Wallingford Rural District to the district of South Oxfordshire. It became the largest town in the new South Oxfordshire district, although it is situated right at its edge.

Didcot dates back to the Iron Age. The settlement was situated on the ridge in the town, and the remainder of the surrounding area was marshland. The Romans attempted to drain the marshland by digging the ditch that runs north through what is now known as the Ladygrove area north of the town near Long Wittenham.

Didcot first appears in historical records in the 13th century as Dudcotte, Berkshire. The name is believed to be derived from that of the local abbot. Didcot was then a sleepy rural Berkshire village with a population of 100 or soand remained that way for hundreds of years, only occasionally cropping up in records. Parts of the original village still exist in the Lydalls Road area and part of All Saints’ Church dates back to the 11th century.It was much smaller than several surrounding villages, which are now dwarfed by modern Didcot.

The Great Western Railway, engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, reached Didcot in 1839. In 1844 the Brunel-designed Didcot station was opened. The original station burnt down in the later part of 19th century. The more obvious location for the original line to Bristol would have been the town of Abingdon a little further north, but the landowner, Lord Wantage, is reputed to have prevented the railway coming close to the town.This and the junction of the Great Western line to Oxford created the conditions for the future growth of Didcot. The station’s name also finally fixed the spelling of Didcot. The complex is mentioned in the now lapsed proposal for a Great Western Railway World Heritage Site.

Didcot’s junction of the routes to London, Bristol, Oxford and to Southampton via the Didcot, Newbury and Southampton Railway (DN&S) made the town of strategic importance to military logistics, in particular during the First World War campaign on the Western Front and the Second World War preparations for D-Day. The DN&S line has since closed and the sites of the large Army and Royal Air Force ordnance depots that were built to serve these needs have disappeared beneath the power station and Milton Park Business Park. However the Army still has Vauxhall Barracks on the edge of town.

Remains of the DN&S line are still in evidence in the eastern part of town. This line was constructed from 1879-1882 after previous proposals had floundered and was engineered by John Fowler and built by contractors T.H. Falkiner and Sir Thomas Tancred, who together also constructed the Forth Bridge. It was an extremely expensive line to build due to the heavy engineering challenges of crossing the Berkshire and Hampshire downs, and this over capitalisation coupled with initial traffic barely meeting expectations caused the company financial problems, meaning it never reached Southampton of its own accord but had to join the main LSWR line at Shawford, south of Winchester. But from the outbreak of WW2 such was the growth of wartime traffic to the port of Southampton a decision was made to upgrade the line which included the complete doubling of the northern section between Didcot and Newbury, closing for 5 months in 1942/3 whilst this was carried out. Although passenger trains between Didcot and Newbury were withdrawn in 1962, the line continued to be used by freight trains for a further four years, mainly oil traffic to the north from the refinery at Fawley near Southampton. In 1966 however, this traffic also was withdrawn, and the line was then dismantled. A section of the abandoned embankment toward Upton has fine views across the town and countryside and is popular with walkers.

After World War II technology changed, with steam locomotives becoming obsolete and the motor car becoming common. The station was renamed Didcot Parkway in 1985 and the site of the old GWR provender stores which had been demolished in 1976 (the provender pond was kept to maintain the water table) became a large car park so that the station would attract travellers from the surrounding area. The locomotive depot became the Didcot Railway Centre in 1967.

The Didcot Power Stations (between Didcot and Sutton Courtenay) supply electricity to the National Grid. Country Life magazine voted these the third worst eyesore in Britain, but some locals refer to them as “the Cathedral of the Vale” [of White Horse], a title which really belongs to the parish church at Uffington. The power station cooling towers are visible from up to 30 miles away due to their location, but won an award for reducing visual impact (six towers in two well-separated groups half a mile apart rather than a monolithic 3×2 block), much in the style of what is sometimes known as Didcot’s ‘sister’ station – Fiddlers Ferry Power Station – at Widnes, Lancashire, constructed slightly earlier. The power station has also proved a popular man-made object for local photographers.

In October 2010, Didcot Sewage Works became the first in the UK to produce biomethane gas supplied to the national grid, for use in up to 200 homes in Oxfordshire.

Didcot is the principal town of South Oxfordshire in the county of Oxfordshire. Until 1974 it was part of Wallingford Rural District.

Didcot is home to around 24,500 people, with a new town centre, The Orchard Centre which opened in August 2005. Didcot has been designated as one of the three major growth areas in Oxfordshire with the Ladygrove development set to double the number of dwellings in the town since construction began in the late 1980s to the north and east of the railway line on the former marshland. Originally, the Ladygrove development was planned to be complete by 2001, however, the final section to the east of Abingdon Road only had plans announced in 2006. In anticipation of the completion of the Ladygrove development, a prolonged and contentious planning enquiry decided that a 3,200 dwelling development will now be built to the west of the town, partly overlapping the boundary with the Vale of White Horse. The development will contain much needed sports facilities as Didcot is currently amongst the poorest provided towns in Oxfordshire for leisure facilities.

In 2008 a new £8million arts and entertainment centre, Cornerstone, was opened adjacent to the Orchard Centre. It contains exhibition and studio spaces, a cafe and a 278 seat auditorium. Designed by Ellis William Architects, the centre is clad with silvered aluminium panels and features a ‘Window Wall’, used to connect the building with passing shoppers.

There are a number of major scientific employers nearby including the UKAEA at Culham (and the Joint European Torus (JET) fusion research project), Harwell Laboratory, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (the research council responsible for Rutherford Appleton Laboratory) and the Diamond Light Source synchrotron, which is the largest UK-funded scientific facility to be built for over 30 yearsDidcot is also the base of operations for the Baptist Union of Great Britain and BMS World Mission.

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