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Abingdon is a small town that lies on the rivers Thames, Ock and Stert, just to the south of Oxford. The history of Abingdon and the surrounding area spans much of human civilisation, beginning with a prehistoric settlement and continuing today with cutting edge research in nuclear physics.
The earliest known inhabitants of Abingdon were Bronze and Iron Age settlers. In 1991, a 33-hectare Iron Age enclosure known as an 'oppidum' was discovered underneath the town centre. It was built on a site that had previously been occupied, and continued to be used as a town throughout the Roman occupation of Britain. When the Roman occupation ended, the town that was to become Abingdon continued its life as a Saxon settlement; the earliest written records of the area identify the hamlet of Sevekesham1, located at a ford of the Thames.
From the 7th Century, the history of the town of Abingdon is inseparable from that of its abbey, which claims to be England's first monastery2. The first tales3 of Abingdon Abbey tell of a Saint Abban. He escaped from a massacre at Stonehenge carried out by the Saxon King Hengist of Kent in the 5th Century and founded a hermitage somewhere in what is now Oxfordshire. This original hermitage - Abendon - was later expanded by his followers, but eventually fell into disrepair. Some years later, Prince Hean, the nephew of King Cissa of Upper Wessex, was seeking a secluded place to pursue a life of religious devotion. He chanced upon the ruined hermitage and attempted to restore the buildings. Unfortunately, an underground stream prevented the building of solid foundations and Haen was forced to abandon his attempt. The story next tells that he was visited by a hermit who told of a vision, claiming that it was God's will that Haen build his monastery in the town of Sevekesham. So, in 675, Haen began work on his new Abbey, renaming the town Abingdon in honour of the original founder of the hermitage.
The Church of St Helen
At the same time as Prince Haen was busying himelf with his monastery, his sister Cilla founded the Nunnery of the Holy Cross and Saint Helen at Helenstowe on the Thames. It was said that Cilla owned a portion of one of the nails used in the crucifixion of Christ. She had this nail inserted into an iron cross to act as a relic of the nunnery. At her death, the cross was laid in Cilla's grave, until it was dug up some 300 years later and presented to the monastery. The Nunnery of St Helen no longer exists, but continues in spirit as the Church of St Helen4 in the centre of Abingdon.
Ruin and Rebuilding
Precisely how much of the abbey's early history is true and how much is legend is unknown, but it is clear that by 675 there was a monastery in what is now the town of Abingdon. Sadly, nothing of this first abbey remains, as it was destroyed by marauding Danes from nearby Reading.
The next major figure in the abbey's history is Saint Aethelwold, who became Abbot of Abingdon in 955 AD before progressing to become Bishop of Winchester eight years later. One of Aethelwold's pupils at the abbey was a young Edgar, brother of King Eadwig of Wessex. In return for Aethelwold's teachings, Edgar promised that, if he ever became King, he would restore the abbey buildings. On the death of Eadwig, Edgar5 fulfilled his promise to his old mentor, making Abingdon the first in a series of monasteries to be restored during his reign.
Expansion and Dissolution
Throughout the Middle Ages, Abingdon acquired a collection of important relics, beginning with the Passion Nail acquired from the grave of Cilla. Additional relics included those of St Vincent, which were stolen from Glastonbury Abbey but later kept in Abingdon with the blessing of King Canute6. The abbey also acquired the relics of St Edward the Martyr when the bearers of the relics were delayed in Abingdon, interpreting it as a sign of God's will.
In 1100, an Italian monk called Faricius became Abbot of Abingdon and began the building of a new church, which was completed and dedicated in 1239. The expansion of the abbey continued in the 15th Century with the addition of a new nave and a number of towers.
Abingdon abbey survived until the reign of Henry VIII. In 1536, Henry passed an Act of Parliament demanding the dissolution of all monasteries in England as part of his breakaway from the power of the Pope, but also to raise some much needed cash for the Exchequer. So it was that Abingdon Abbey was surrendered to the Crown by Thomas Pentecost in 1539.
The Abbey Today
Very little of the abbey remains in present-day Abingdon. The gatehouse still spans the road just off the market square in the town centre, although this has been greatly restored. Nearby, some of the domestic buildings of the abbey survive, including the 'checker' (ie, the exchequer) and Long Gallery. In 1952, the interior of the checker was converted into a small, Elizabethan-style theatre, which opened the following year with a production of a play called The Two Angry Women of Abingdon. The Unicorn Theatre, as it was named, still exists and is home to a number of local theatre companies, such as the Studio Theatre Club7 and the Old Gaol Theatre Company. The latter takes its name from the gaol buildings that stand near the theatre, and is reputed to be haunted by the ghost of an eight-year-old boy who was the youngest person to be hanged in Britain.
The fortunes of the town of Abingdon hinged for many years on the wool trade and local farming. In the 1930s, car company MG began the production of sports cars in Abingdon, an industry that finally left Abingdon in 1980. The brewing industry has also played an important role in Abingdon's history, the Morland brewery8 stood on Ock Street from 1711 to 1999.
Just outside Abingdon, in the village of Culham, stands the Joint European Torus (JET) project. This is world's largest facility for research into nuclear fusion and can achieve temperatures of up to 100 million degrees Celcius and produce reactions similar to those seen in the core of the sun in the hope of developing new energy sources.
As well as the existing Abbey buildings, Abingdon also boasts a unique town hall, completed in 1682 by Christopher Kempster, the master mason who assisted Christopher Wren and created the dome of St Paul's Cathedral. Until 1974, Abingdon was the county town of Berkshire, an honour that went to Reading when the county boundaries were redrawn and Abingdon found itself in Oxfordshire. Today, the building houses Abingdon Museum, which contains archaeological finds from all periods of the town's history, including prehistoric, Roman and Saxon times. The museum also contains exhibits focussing on local crafts and industry.
Abingdon is a market town, and the Monday market has taken place in the town centre since 1556. The town also holds a number of annual fairs and other events. In June, the town's Morris dancers gather to celebrate events of 1700, in which a fight broke out over who was to keep the horns of the ox that was traditionally roasted each year. The men of Ock Street won, and the victory is celebrated with the election of a 'Mayor of Ock Street', who parades the ox horns and a mace said to be carved from a club used in the fight, accompanied by displays of Morris dancing. Abingdon's Ock Street Fair (originally known as the Michaelmas Fair) takes place in October, and began life as a hiring fair during which those seeking employment would offer their services.
Outside of these events, day-to-day Abingdon is a simple market town with a small selection of shops and restaurants, and around 30 pubs.
Over the years, Abingdon's transport links have dwindled somewhat. In 1810 the Wiltshire and Berkshire canal was built, and Abingdon become an important link between Bristol, London and Birmingham. Unfortunately, the canal collapsed in 1906 and, with the advent of the railways, was never rebuilt. Abingdon had its own railway station until 1963; today, the nearest station is at Radley, which is served by local 'stopping' services between London's Paddington Station and Oxford.
By road, Abingdon is just off the A34, a major (and often very congested) north-south route that links the M40, M4 and M3 motorways. Traffic on Abingdon's town centre one-way system can also be extremely busy, particularly at peak times. For those who, quite sensibly, prefer not to drive, regular buses link Abingdon with Oxford, and also with other Oxfordshire towns such as Didcot, Witney and Wallingford.
Long Time Passing
Abingdon is believed to be the oldest continuously occupied settlement in England and, as a result, has plenty to see and enjoy, from historical ruins, to archaeological remains, to the scenery along the banks of the Thames. It also makes a pleasant and convenient place to stay for those wishing to visit Oxford and the surrounding area, and many Oxford-based employees prefer to live in the gentle surroundings of Abingdon rather than the more hectic (and far more expensive) centre of Oxford.