Watlington is a market town and civil parish about 7 miles (11 km) south of Thame in Oxfordshire. The parish includes the hamlets of Christmas Common and Greenfield, both of which are in the Chiltern Hills – the town is a gateway to the Chilterns AONB, and to the Ridgeway national trail.
The M40 motorway is about 2.5 miles (4 km) from Watlington.
The Watlington area is likely to have been settled at an early date, encouraged by the proximity of the Icknield Way. The toponym means “settlement of Waecel’s people” and indicates occupation from around the 6th century. A 9th-century charter by Æthelred of Mercia mentions eight ‘manses’ or major dwellings in Watlington. The Domesday Book of 1086 identified the area as an agricultural community valued at £610.Medieval documents indicate that the modern street plan was in existence in the 14th century, if not earlier. Cochynes-lane (Couching Street), and Brook Street are recorded and the High Street must have had houses.
There are records of inns in Watlington since the 15th century. In 1722 the town’s market was listed as being held on a Saturday. By the end of the 18th century the town had six inns, all of which were bought up in the next few years by a local brewing family, the Haywards. The number of licenced premises increased until late in the 19th century when George Wilkinson, a Methodist bought six of them and closed them down. Today Watlington has three public houses: the Carriers Arms, the Chequers and the Fox and Hounds.
Parliamentarian troops were billeted at Watlington during the English Civil War. It is thought that John Hampden stayed in the town the night before the Battle of Chalgrove Field.
In 1664-65 the Town Hall was built at the expense of Thomas Stonor. Its upper room was endowed by Stonor as a grammar school for boys, and in 1731 Dame Alice Tipping of Ewelme gave a further endowment to increase the number of pupils. In 1842 the town Vestry established a National School, which shared the same rooms in the Town Hall. In 1843 a National School for girls was built next to St. Leonard’s church. In 1872 the boys’ and girls’ schools were absorbed into a new Board school, which like its predecessors was affiliated to the National Society for Promoting Religious Education. In 1927 the school was divided into separate junior and senior schools. In 1956 a new secondary school – the Icknield School – opened for senior pupils and the primary school took over the old premises. The Icknield School is now Icknield Community College.
The Watlington White Mark was designed by local squire Edward Horne, who felt that the parish church of St. Leonard, when viewed from his home, would be more impressive if it appeared to have a spire. He had this unusual folly cut into the chalk escarpment of Watlington Hill in 1764. It is 36 feet (11 m) wide at its base and 270 feet (82 m) long.
In 1872 the Watlington and Princes Risborough Railway was opened. Its Watlington terminus is in fact in Pyrton parish, 0.5 miles (800 m) from Watlington. In 1883 the Great Western Railway took over control of the line. In 1957 British Railways closed Watlington station and withdrew all passenger services between Watlington and Chinnor, which was still being used by the local Chinnor Cement Works. In 1961 BR withdrew all services from the line, the track was lifted and the line left abandoned. The Watlington railway station site remains, as does the station building, the corriagted iron carriage shed, and the brickwork of the goods shed. The line served the people of Watlington and the surrounding villages for 89 years.
By 1895 the Town Hall, no longer used as a school, was in disrepair. In 1907 it was restored by public subscription. It forms a landmark at the meeting point of three roads in the centre of the town.
First World War Royal Naval veteran Bill Stone lived in Watlington until he was 106. The athlete Peter Gabbett was born in Watlington in 1941.
The Church of England parish church of Saint Leonard contains remnants of a Norman church, including a diapered tympanum that was over the north door until this was dismantled for the building of the north aisle. The church was extensively rebuilt in the 14th century, and the arcade of the south aisle survives from this period. The south chapel is 15th century, built for Maud Warner as a memorial for her husband Richard, a woolman. The tower is also Mediaeval. A few Decorated Gothic and Perpendicular Gothic windows survive, but in the 1870s some were moved to different positions within the church.
In 1763 Edward Horne, a local landowner, obtained permission to build a burial vault east of the Warner chapel and south of the chancel. In 1877 the architects H.J. Tollit and Edwin Dolby restored the church. The belltower’s oldest bell was cast in 1587. The tower had six bells until 1909, when two recently-cast ones were hung and increased its ring to eight. St. Leonard’s parish is now part of the Benefice of Icknield.
During the English Reformation Oxfordshire had numerous recusant Roman Catholics. In 1549 William Grey, 13th Baron Grey de Wilton was sent to Oxfordshire with 1,500 troops to enforce the Reformation. Baron Grey ordered William Boolar, a Catholic of Watlington, to be hanged as an example. Despite persecution, a number of local landowning families including the Stonors remained Catholic, and they and their chaplains supported small numbers of other Catholics in the area. In 1930 Fr. William Brown, the chaplain at Stonor Park, brought about the building of the Roman Catholic church of the Sacred Heart in Watlington. The present Roman Catholic church in Watlington is dedicated to Saint Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest who was executed at Tyburn on 1581.
During the 17th and 18th centuries several nonconformist denominations existed in Watlington, with Quakers, Baptists and Seventh Day Baptists most prominent in different periods. Methodist preachers visited Watlington by invitation from 1764, with John Wesley himself preaching in the town in 1766, 1774 and 1775. The Wesleyan chapel was built in 1796. It is now part of Thame and Watlington Methodist Circuit.
The Ridgeway National Trail walking route, which forms part of the longer Icknield Way, passes southeast of the town along the top of the Chiltern Hills.
Watlington is twinned with the Mansle, France.