Wantage

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Wantage is a market town and civil parish in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire, England. The town is on Letcombe Brook, about 8 miles (13 km) south-west of Abingdon and a similar distance west of Didcot.

Wantage was part of Berkshire until the 1974 boundary changes transferred it to Oxfordshire. It is notable as the birthplace of King Alfred the Great. Wantage is a gateway town to White Horse Hill, in the care of English Heritage and the National Trust (seven miles west by road), and the site of the bronze age Uffington White Horse, and a hill fort on the Ridgeway national trail. Close by is Wayland’s Smithy, in the care of English Heritage.

The Market Square and surrounding streets are a conservation area, as is Charlton to the East.

Wantage was a small Roman settlement but the origin of the toponym is somewhat uncertain. It is generally thought to be from an Old English phrase meaning “decreasing river”. King Alfred the Great was born at the royal palace there in the 9th century Wantage appears in the Domesday Book of 1086. Its value was £61 and it was in the king’s ownership until Richard I passed it to the Earl of Albemarle in 1190. Weekly trading rights were first granted to the town by Henry III in 1246 Markets are now held twice weekly on Wednesdays and Saturdays Royalist troops were stationed in Wantage during the English Civil War.

In the 19th century, Lord Wantage became a notable local and national benefactor. He was very involved in founding the British Red Cross Society. In Wantage, in 1877 he paid for a marble statue of King Alfred by Count Gleichen to be erected in the market place, where it still stands today. He also donated the Victoria Cross Gallery to the town. This contained paintings by Louis William Desanges depicting deeds which led to the award of a number of VCs, including his own gained during the Crimean War. It is now a shopping arcade.  Since 1848, Wantage has been home to the Community of Saint Mary the Virgin, one of the largest communities of Anglican nuns in the world. Wantage once had two breweries which were taken over by Morlands of Abingdon.

Wantage has a town council and is also part of the district of the Vale of White Horse.

Wantage is at the foot of the Berkshire Downs escarpment in the Vale of the White Horse, amidst prime horse racing country. There are gallops at Black Bushes and nearby villages with racing stables include East Hendred, Letcombe Bassett, Lockinge and Uffington. Wantage includes the suburbs of Belmont to the west and Charlton to the east. Grove to the north is still just about detached and is a separate parish. Wantage parish stretches from the northern edge of its housing up onto the Downs in the south, covering Chain Hill, Edge Hill, Wantage Down, Furzewick Down and Lattin Down. The Edgehill Springs rise between Manor Road and Spike Lodge Farms and the Letcombe Brook flows through the town. Because of its central location in the Vale and proximity to the Downs, Wantage tends to be the main touring centre for the area and is home to the Vale and Downland Museum. There is a large market square containing the famous statue of King Alfred, surrounded by many shops with 18th century facades. Quieter streets radiate out from there, including towards the large Church of England parish church. Wantage is the ‘Alfredston’ of Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure.

Wantage is at the crossing of the B4507 valley road, the A417 road between Reading and Cirencester and the A338 road between Hungerford (and junction 14 of the M4 motorway) and Oxford.

Wantage Road railway station on the Great Western Main Line was at Grove about 2 miles (3 km) north of the town, on what is now the A338 road. The Wantage Tramway used to link the town with Wantage Road. The tramway’s Wantage terminus was in Mill Street and its building survives, but little trace remains of the route. One of the tramway’s locomotives, Shannon, alias Jane is preserved at Didcot Railway Centre.

Part of the Wilts & Berks Canal remains within the parish.

Wantage has been the site of a church since at least the 10th century and the present Church of England parish church of Saints Peter and Paul dates from the 13th century, with many additions since. SS Peter and Paul also contains seventeen 15th century misericords.

King Alfred’s Grammar School was designed by the architect J. B. Clacy of Reading and built in 1849–50 but incorporates a highly carved Norman doorway from a demolished chantry chapel that formerly stood in the churchyard.

A water-powered mill with an undershot water wheel still stands from the time that Wantage was a major centre of the wool trade following the building of the Wilts and Berks Canal at the end of the 18th century.

As of 2007, Wantage is developing and changing. In recent years four or more significant housing developments have been constructed bringing large increases in population to the town. At least one development (including the new health centre) has been on a greenfield site adjacent to the A338 road towards Oxford. The other three, however, have been on brownfield sites, converting a scrapyard next to the Letcombe Brook. While making the town tidier, the impact on the wildlife, particularly around the Letcombe Brook, may not be positive.

In 2006, a large commercial development began construction with a Sainsbury’s supermarket as a central focus. This supermarket is double the size of the previous one and was intended to have a significant impact on the town by drawing more visitors from outlying villages. Although the impact was projected as being positive, aimed at preventing the town becoming a commuter town and retaining some commercial activity, it has proved to have a negative effect, driving many of the few remaining independent retailers out of business. An action group, Wantage Rejuvenated, is being sponsored by the town’s chamber of commerce to try to bring business back into the area and inject new life into the town.

Activism in the town regarding development is increasing in 2011, with a campaign to stop the demolition of a building close to the town centre by Vanderbuilt Homes, who initially gained permission to convert an early Georgian bank of shops into a mixed commercial and residential block. Following initial planning permissions for conversion, Vanderbilt applied to have the buildings completely demolished, prompting a local petition and campaign for the application to be refused at the discretion of the Town Council, as although the building is old, it is not listed.

Another area of development which has provoked local protest has been on the north of the town, where a 1,500 home estate is proposed, increasing housing in the town by 35%. Residents have raised petitions and the local MP, Ed Vaizey, has raised concerns, especially about the ability of local road infrastructure to cope. The town is served by the A338, A4497 and A417, which are single carriageway roads. The proposed Wantage development is one mile from a similar mass of 2,500 homes proposed for the village of Grove and which will use same road network. The area for the Wantage development is farmland and used by local walkers, cyclists and dog owners.

Wantage is twinned with Mably, France; and Seesen, Germany.

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