Faringdon

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Faringdon is a market town in the Vale of White Horse, Oxfordshire, England. It is on the edge of the Thames Valley, between the River Thames and the Ridgeway. It was part of Berkshire until the 1974 boundary changes transferred it to Oxfordshire. Faringdon is a gateway town to the NT property of White Horse Hill (site of the bronze age Uffington White Horse).

The civil parish is formally known as Great Faringdon, to distinguish it from Little Faringdon in West Oxfordshire.

The centre of Faringdon is a conservation area.

On 1 February 2004, Faringdon was granted Fairtrade Town status, becoming the first Fairtrade Town in the South East of England. In 1990, the town was twinned with Le Mêle-sur-Sarthe in France. Faringdon is the base for the Faringdon Enterprise Gateway, which is run by the South East England Development Agency to help and advise businesses in rural west Oxfordshire.

The name Faringdon means fern covered hill. The Anglo-Saxon kings of Wessex and later England had a palace located in Faringdon. However, claims that King Edward the Elder died there are misguided.

In the Domesday Book of 1086, Faringdon is recorded as a manor and a mill. The town was granted a weekly market in 1218. The weekly market is still held today. King John also established an abbey in Faringdon in 1202, (probably on the site of Portwell House) but it soon moved to Beaulieu in Hampshire.

The Church of England parish church of All Saints may date from the 12th century, and the clerestorey and possibly the west end of the nave survive from this period. A Norman doorway survives, although not in its original position, in the baptistery.  The chancel and north transept are 13th century and the west chapel is 14th century. The north chapel is a late medieval Perpendicular Gothic addition with 15th century windows.

All Saints has a central bell tower, which was reduced in height in 1645 after it was damaged by a cannon-ball in the English Civil War. Faringdon was fought over because it commands the road to the Radcot Bridge over the River Thames. The tower now has a ring of eight bells. The three oldest bells were cast in 1708. James Wells of Aldbourne, Wiltshire cast the tenor bell in 1779 and another bell in 1803.  The three youngest bells, including the treble, were cast in 1874 by Mears and Stainbank.

The Old Town Hall (formerly the Market Hall) dates from the late 17th century or early 18th century. It remains the centre of the town and its focal point.

The £1.6 million three-mile A420 bypass opened in 1979.

Just east of the town is Folly Hill or Faringdon Hill, a Greensand outcrop (at grid reference SU 298957). In common with Badbury Hill to the west of the town, it has an ancient ditched defensive ring (hill fort). This was fortified by supporters of Matilda sometime during the Anarchy (1135–1141) – her campaign to claim the throne from King Stephen – but was soon razed to the ground by Stephen. Oliver Cromwell fortified it in his unsuccessful campaign to defeat the Royalist garrison at Faringdon House. The Pye family had Scots Pines planted around the summit, around the time that Faringdon House was rebuilt in the late 18th century. This is a conspicuous and recognisable landmark that can be seen from afar, including from the Vale of White Horse, White Horse Hill, the Berkshire Downs near Lockinge and the Cotswold Hills to the north.

The folly on Folly Hill was designed by Gerald Wellesley, Marquess of Douro for Lord Berners and built in 1935. It is 140 feet (43 m) high and affords panoramic views of the Vale of White Horse. During the Second World War the Home Guard used it as an observation post. In 1982 Robert Heber-Percy restored it and gave it to the town in trust.

Near the top of London Street near Faringdon Folly is the pub bearing the same name. Resembling a small living room with a bar placed in the middle, it is a popular haunt for those that like an “old-fashioned” pub.

There is a manor house and estate, close to the edge of Faringdon, called Faringdon House. The original house was damaged during the English Civil War. Its owner at the time, Sir Robert Pye, who was a Royalist, was put under siege by his own son Robert who was a Parliamentarian colonel. Building of the current, smaller, began about 1780 and was not completed until after 1785. It was the home of Lord Berners in the middle part of the twentieth century. It currently belongs to the writer Sofka Zinovieff, though she does not live there.

Faringdon is home to the famous Faringdon Sponge Gravel, a Cretaceous unit filled with spectacular fossil sponges, other invertebrates, a few vertebrate bones and teeth, and wonderful examples of bioerosion.

A 3.5 miles (5.6 km) Faringdon branch line was opened in 1864, between Faringdon and the Great Western Railway (GWR) at Uffington, with construction funded by the Faringdon Railway Company (bought outright by the GWR in 1886). Passenger traffic peaked in 1913, but later declined to such extent that the passenger service was withdrawn in 1951. Freight traffic continued to use the line until the Beeching closures of 1964. The Faringdon station building is still extant, having been used for various commercial purposes (currently a nursery school).

Faringdon is notable for the dyed pigeons at Faringdon House. The custom of dyeing pigeons was originally started by the eccentric Lord Berners. Around the town one can see a number of stone plaques with comments such as “Please do not throw stones at this notice” reflecting Lord Berners’ ongoing influence on the town.

Since 2004, Faringdon has held an annual arts festival over one weekend in early July. The festival is currently (2010) being organised by Focus on Faringdon CIC: a Community Interest Company established for the ongoing benefit of the town.

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