Wednesday, 13 November 2013


The Market Place from the High Street

Abingdon has claims to be the oldest town in England, and it also has five sets of almshouses. I wonder why I have not previously done a town walk here, but today here I am. I start from the Market Place, which is dominated by the Old County Hall (Pevsner calls it the Town Hall), a wonderful building of 1678-82. It was built by Christopher Kempster, who was one of Wren's City masons; it is not known if he also designed it.

To the left is a delightful group of buildings. On the left is St Nicholas Church: the door is Norman, but most of the rest is later and it was restored in 1881. The building to the right was once the hall of the Hospital of St John, a medieval hospital caring for the sick, the poor and travellers alike. I saw a ruined version of the same thing in High Wycombe only a couple of weeks ago. In between the two is the 15th century gateway, which is almost all that remains of the great abbey founded here in 675.

I headed through the gateway, passing on the right the one-time entrance to the grammar school founded in 1563 in the former hospital buildings by John Roysse.

At this point I was following a walk with picture clues that I found on the Friends of Abingdon website. It now took me through the pleasant Victorian gardens on the the abbey's religious buildings and then on a less rewarding loop past Waitrose supermarket and through some new housing developments. I did see the Mill Stream however and eventually emerged by the restored domestic buildings of the abbey, with a 13th century chimney.

On the right of the photo a narrow passageway, or slype, can be seen and leads quite soon to the river Thames and Abingdon's medieval bridge (1416, but mostly rebuilt in 1927). This is the view from the far bank.

The view down river is equally pleasing, with the prominent spire of St Helen's church.

Retracing my steps towards the town, I found a good viewpoint to take a picture of the old Gaol, which dates back to 1805-11. It features an octagonal centre with radiating wings as required by the penal theories of the time. It is now being converted into apartments, alongside "a cafe and restaurant quarter".

Now up Bridge St and left into the attractive East St Helen's St, the best in Abingdon according to Pevsner, with a nice medley of old houses. Entering the churchyard of St Helen's, you are confronted by an extraordinary sight of three sets of almshouses: "No other churchyard anywhere in England has anything like it" (Pevsner).

On the right are Twitty's Almshouses of 1707.

In front of you, are the extraordinary Long Alley Almshouses, which date from 1446. The front doors are accessed via a long pentice, or cloister walk.

To the left are the Brick Alley Almshouses, built for Christ's Hospital in 1718. The giant arches carry first floor balconies.

The church itself takes up the final side of the churchyard. The 13th century steeple seen earlier from the river bridge turns out to accompany a massive church, rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries to have double aisles on each side of the nave.

The final stage of my exploration involving walking up West St Helen's St and turning left into Ock Street. A small detour revealed part of the fine old brewery, now apartments.

Further along Ock St are the fourth set of almshouses: Tompkins's Almshouses of 1733. The Dutch gables mark the ends of two ranges of houses which face each other across a small but pretty courtyard.

I retraced my steps back to the Market Place, pausing to note the Baptist church of 1841, with its fine Tuscan columns and portico.

Finally, I found my way to Vineyard for the final set of Almshouses, St John's Hospital, re-established here in 1801.

Conditions: a beautiful day.

Distance: four miles or so.

Rating: four and a half stars. A fantastic town walk.


David said...

I often work in Abingdon, and I'm gradually ticking off visits to the historic buildings. What you have covered in a single walk puts my efforts to shame. Congratulations on this comprehensive and interesting piece.

PH said...

Thanks David. I used to find the same when I visited towns and cities on business, but now I am retired I have more time to do research beforehand and can afford to do a thorough exploration. Definitely one of the benefits of getting older!

Ron Harnack said...

Thank you for your narratives and photos. These allow me to see and hear about places I may never be able to visit in person. So, to me, they are wonderful! Thank you very much!

Ron from Sunnyvale, California