Abingdon (from March 2012 Abingdon-on-Thames) is a market town and civil parish in Oxfordshire in Southern England. It is the seat of the Vale of White Horse district council. Previously the county town of Berkshire, Abingdon is one of several places which claim to be Britain’s oldest continuously occupied town.
Abingdon is eight miles (13 km) south of Oxford, in the flat valley of the Thames and is situated on the west (right) bank of that river, where the small river Ock flows in from the Vale of White Horse. The town is situated on the A415 between Witney and Dorchester and has the benefit of being adjacent to the A34 trunk road, linking it with the M4 and M40 motorways. The B4017 and A4183 also link traffic into the town – both of these roads being part of the old A34.
Local bus services to Oxford and the surrounding areas are run by Stagecoach Oxfordshire, Thames Travel and the Oxford Bus Company as well as a number of smaller independent companies. The main local town bus service is operated by Whites Coaches. The nearest minor railway stations are at Culham and Radley, although more frequent services may be caught at Oxford or Didcot Parkway.
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 take over 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). Burton Trading a family run Workwear Centre also providing in-house embroidery/shirt printing, with a retail shop in the town centre, The Warehouse. Penlon Ltd, a medical equipment company, are Abingdon-based, formerly located close to the site of the old railway station, but now on the outskirts of Abingdon. Another major employer is the British head office of the German appliance company Miele.
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 which now houses the Abingdon 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 itself dates from around 1100 and is the second widest church in England, having 5 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.
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 empty and awaiting a planning decision.
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.
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 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.
Illustrations from the ‘Abingdon Angles’ collection by local artist Peter Bellingham.