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Oxfordshire: Widdershins

Where is Oxfordshire?

In our tenth and forty-eighth episode, we referred to loads of interesting Oxfordshire-based things - and promised links and photos, so here they are:

Abingdon Abbey

Abingdon Abbey (formally Abbey of Saint Mary) was a Benedictine monastery in Abingdon-on-Thames in the modern county of Oxfordshire in the United Kingdom.[1] Situated near to the River Thames, it was founded in c.675 AD and was dedicated to Mary, mother of Jesus.[2] It was disestablished in 1538 during the dissolution of the monasteries. A few physical remnants of the Abbey buildings survive within Abingdon-on-Thames.

The abbey is thought to have been founded in 675 either by Cissa, viceroy of Centwine, king of the West Saxons, or by his nephew Hean, in honour of the Virgin Mary, for twelve Benedictine monks.[3] Cissa was buried here, as well.

Endowed by successive West Saxon kings, it grew in importance and wealth until its destruction by the Danes in the reign of King Alfred, and the sequestration of its estates by Alfred because the monks had not made him a sufficient requital for vanquishing their enemies. By the 950s the abbey was in a decayed state, but in about 954 King Eadred appointed Æthelwold, later Bishop of Winchester, abbot. He was one of the leaders of the English Benedictine Reform, and Abingdon then became the second centre of the Reform (after Glastonbury).[4] There is a collection of 136 charters granted to this abbey by various Saxon kings.[a] The Domesday Book of 1086 states that the abbey was a wealthy and powerful landowner.

Godstow Abbey

Godstow is a hamlet about 2.5 miles (4 km) northwest of the centre of Oxford. It lies on the banks of the River Thames between the villages of Wolvercote to the east and Wytham to the west. The ruins of Godstow Abbey, also known as Godstow Nunnery, are here.[1][2] A bridge spans the Thames and the Trout Inn is at the foot of the bridge across the river from the abbey ruins. There is also a weir and Godstow lock.

Godstow Abbey (see detailed history below) was built here, starting in 1133. It housed an order of Benedictine nuns. Rosamund Clifford, the mistress of King Henry II, retired here and died at 30 in about 1177. Her grave is somewhere in the grounds but now lost. The abbey was suppressed in 1539 under the Second Act of Dissolution.

The abbey was then converted into Godstow House by George Owen. It was occupied by his family until 1645, when the building was badly damaged in the English Civil War. After this damage, the building fell into disrepair and was used by the locals as a source of stone for their buildings.

Dorchester Abbey

The Iron Age fort on Wittenham Clumps dominates a landscape settled since remotest antiquity. To the south, in the Berkshire Downs, is Churn Nob, and here, in 635AD the missionary Bishop Birinus, sent from Rome by Pope Honorius I, preached to Cynegils, King of Wessex. To the north, enclosed between the River Thames and its tributary the River Thame, lies Dorchester, a small village with a great Abbey, a cradle of English Christianity.

The building we now see was begun in the 12th century, replacing two earlier Saxon cathedrals (some Saxon fabric is still evident in the north wall of the nave). The Norman building expanded in the 13th century and was richly aggrandised in the early 14th century when the chancel was added with its wonderful window sculpted with the Tree of Jesse, its stained glass and its exquisite sedilia. The great tower, rebuilt in 1602, but incorporating a 14th century spiral staircase, rises above a lush landscape of willows and flowering water meadows. On this site, perhaps in the Thame itself, Birinus baptised King Cynegils, with Oswald King of Northumbria standing godfather.

Saint John's College Skeletons

This skeleton, known as SK1756, is one of at least 35 men and boys discovered in a mass burial site underneath St John’s in 2008 by Thames Valley Archaeological Services during preparations for building Kendrew Quad. Archaeologists believe the men to have been killed during the St Brice’s Day Massacre of 1002, when King Aethelred II ordered the execution of all Danes living in England after hearing of a Danish assassination plot against him. During the massacre Danish families in Oxford broke into St Frideswide’s church looking for sanctuary, and local people burnt the church down.

The skeletons were found to be men mostly aged between 16 and 25, with many of the bones showing signs of extreme violence, having been stabbed several times before they died or suffering other kinds of violent attack, including decapitation.

Banbury Cakes



  • Cream the butter and honey together with the spices.

  • Add the currants and the candied peel and mix well.

  • On a lightly floured surface roll out the pastry to the thickness of a £1 coin and cut out 10 x 10cm circles, re-rolling any trimmings.

  • Divide the filling between the circles.

  • Bring up the edges of the pastry to enclose the filling and crimp the edges of the pastry together to look like little purses.

  • Turn the parcels over, with the folds underneath. Roll each parcel out gently to an oval shape, taking care not to expose the filling.

  • Heat the oven to 180C/160C fan/gas 4.

  • Place the cakes on a baking sheet lined with non-stick paper. Brush with the egg white and sprinkle with sugar.

  • Cook for 25-30 mins until cooked and crispy. Turn the oven down if the tops brown too quickly.

  • When cooked, transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool a little before eating. When cold, they’re excellent spread with a little salted butter.

Helston Furry Day

This ancient festival is usually held on 8th May. A spring festival to celebrate the end of winter and mark the arrival of the new vitality and fertility with the trees and flowers bursting into life. The houses and shops of the town are decorated with greenery and floral arrangements to express the spirit of renewal.

When the big bass drum strikes the first beat of the dance at seven in the morning, the spirit of the day is stirred and the celebrations commence. Couples dance through the streets, entering selected houses and shops to drive out the darkness of winter and bring in the light of spring.

The colourful pageant, known as Hal an Tow, tells the history of Helston with the participating characters singing about the challenge of the Spanish Armada, the English patron saint, St. George and the fight between St. Michael and the devil.

The Uffington Horse

Thousands of years ago, ancient Britons created a vast and spectacular stylised portrayal of a horse in the hills of the North Wessex Downs. Surely they could scarcely have dreamed that The Uffington White Horse would still be intriguing visitors to this day.

Chalk horses, scoured into the sides of downland, are peculiar to southern England. This is the oldest and could have been created 3,000 years ago; the lines took the form of 3ft trenches, which were then filled with chalk.

This 110m-long horse forms part of an ancient landscape, with the prehistoric path known as the Ridgeway running along the crest of the downs and a Saxon hill fort nearby. With its flowing, yet staccato lines reduced to the bare minimum, the White Horse is halfway between a Picasso and a hieroglyph.

Oxford University

According to legend Oxford university was founded in 872 when Alfred the Great happened to meet some monks there and had a scholarly debate that lasted several days.

In reality, it grew up in the 12th century when famous teachers began to lecture there and groups of students came to live and study in Oxford. The university was given a boost in 1167 when, for political reasons, the English king ordered all students in France to return home. Many of them came to Oxford.

From the start, there was friction between students and the townspeople. In 1209 the students left and went to Cambridge. However, the traders in Oxford soon missed the custom of the students and persuaded some of them to return in 1214. In that year the first Chancellor was appointed, a man named Robert Grosseteste (1175-1253).

At first, the students lodged with the townspeople or lived in halls. St Edmund Hall dates from 1238. In the 13th century, the first colleges were founded. Each college owned its own buildings. The colleges also owned land (today many of them own investments). Each college was self-governing. William of Durham founded the first college, University College, in 1249. (The oldest part of the existing buildings dates from 1634).

Balliol College was founded in 1264 by John de Balliol. He founded it as a penance after insulting the Bishop of Durham. Walter de Merton founded Merton College in 1264. Merton Library was built in 1379.

Blenheim Palace

A masterpiece of Baroque architecture, Blenheim Palace provides an awe-inspiring experience for visitors.

Home to the 12th Duke of Marlborough and his family and the birth place of Sir Winston Churchill, Blenheim Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting a long and diverse history.

Blenheim Palace was built as a gift to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, from Queen Anne and a grateful nation in thanks for his victory at the Battle of Blenheim on 13th August 1704.

Today, the Palace is home to one of the most important and extensive collections in Europe, which includes portraits, furniture, sculpture and tapestries.

Amongst the many treasures to be found in the State Rooms are the famous Marlborough Tapestries ( the 'Victories Series') in the Green Writing Room and the First, Second and Third State Rooms.

Chastleton House

Perhaps one of the finest remaining country houses of the early 17th century, Chastleton was built between 1607 and 1612 as a statement of wealth and power by prosperous wool merchant, Walter Jones.

Despite the Jones family having found success and riches in the booming cloth industry, Walter Jones fabricated a grander ancestry for himself, and Chastleton was built to demonstrate how far its owner had climbed the social hierarchy with its sophisticated architecture, lavish interiors and advanced garden layout.

Over the next 400 years however, the family become increasingly impoverished, and Jones’ heirs never rose above the status of country gentry. Family legends tell that Irene Whitmore-Jones, owner of Chastleton in the 1930s and 1940s, was fond of telling visitors that her family had lost all their money ‘in the war’, by which she meant not the recent world war, but the Civil War 300 years earlier.

Mapledurham House

Mapledurham "the maple tree enclosure" appears in Domesday as two manors, Mapledurham Gurney belonging to William de Warenne, while Milo Crispin, Lord of the honour of Wallingford, owned the smaller Mapledurham Chazey.

The larger manor takes its name from Gerard de Gournay, to whom it passed as a marriage portion. It passed again by marriage in about 1270 to the Bardolfs, who were here for about 120 years, until the death in 1395 of Sir Robert Bardolf, esquire of the body to Edward III and Richard II and builder of the aisle, which bears his name. The manor passed in 1416 to his widows nephew, William Lynde, whose grandson sold it in 1490 to Richard Blount of Iver; it has belonged to his descendants ever since.

The Blounts claim descent from a Norman family, Le Blond, who came over with William the Conqueror.

The Abbey at Sutton Courtnay

The Abbey’s name is a little misleading, encouraging visitors to imagine it must have functioned as an Abbey, at some point in its long history, but this is not so.

In 1280 The Abbey at Abingdon, commissioned the building, which began life as a rector’s house, it is believed to have been during the Victorian era, as a possible nod to its romantic heritage, that the building acquired the name ‘The Abbey’.

The two-storey building is constructed from stone and timber with clay roof tiles, though originally the roof would have been a thatched. Four ranges (or wings) are arranged around a central courtyard, making The Abbey a ‘textbook’ example of the English medieval Manor House, and awarding it a Grade 1 listed building status.

The oldest part of the building was originally built in timber frame, and consisted of the north and west ranges, the library and Great Hall, in the late 13th century they were encased in stone to stabilise the structure. The prominent King-strut trusses in the Great Hall are an exciting and unusual feature, in that they were never hidden by a ceiling.

The library and dining room in the north range, feature two fourteenth century windows and evidence of a third. This space was intended as a Great Chamber to partner the Great Hall. It had the same open roof structure as the Hall until the 19th century, when the space was divided into two separate rooms, the dining room and library.

The Ashmolean Museum

The Ashmolean came into existence in 1682, when the wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University. It opened as Britain’s first public museum, and the world’s first university museum, in 1683.

Though the collection has evolved considerably, the founding principle remains: that knowledge of humanity across cultures and across times is important to society.

A laudable intention, but the uncomfortable truth is that much of the collection was inevitably selected and obtained as a result of colonial power.

The Pitt Rivers Museum

The Museum was founded in 1884, when General Pitt-Rivers, an influential figure in the development of archaeology and evolutionary anthropology, gave his collection to the University of Oxford.

Pitt-Rivers's interest in collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects came out of his early professional interests in the development of firearms. Later he started to collect many other varieties of offensive and defensive weaponry, and then objects other than weapons.

It is generally believed that Pitt-Rivers himself did very little field collecting but, in fact, he did obtain objects while on active service in Malta and during the Crimean War. Later in life he seems to have collected objects during working trips and holidays abroad.

The vast majority of objects, however, came from dealers, auction houses, and fellow members of the Anthropological Institute.

The General gave his collection to the University of Oxford on condition that they built a Museum to house it, appoint a lecturer to teach about it and maintain the general mode of display. The Museum first opened to visitors in 1887 and was fully open by 1892.

Wayland's Smithy

Wayland's Smithy is an atmospheric historic site about a mile's walk along the Ridgeway from the Uffington White Horse. A Neolithic chambered long barrow, it was once believed to have been the home of Wayland, the Saxon god of metal working.

Human remains found on the site indicate that 14 people were interred in an earlier burial structure between 3590 and 3550 BC. Between 3460 and 3400 BC a second far larger barrow was constructed on top. It is the ruins of this that can be explored by visitors to the site today.

The Taston 'Thor Stone'

An impressive seven-foot tall standing stone, told in local folklore to have been a thunderbolt cast down from the skies by Thor, God of storms, according to Corbett (1962), and first recorded in the late thirteenth century in the survey of the Chadlington hundred.

The name Thor Stone is recorded in the etymology of the name Taston dated 1278 CE as Thorstan. Very close by is an old stone cross, placed there - it is said - to abate the evil influences that were supposed to come from this truly ancient standing stone.

The Devil at Barnard Gate

According to the story a man travelling from North Leigh to Barnard Gate was accosted by the Devil in the form of a fiery serpent. The serpent surrounded the man so that he could not escape for a number of hours, but the man did eventually manage to escape and fled back to North Leigh.

The man later returned to the spot in the company of a group of friends, presumably hoping to confront the creature, but the serpent was nowhere to be seen. There seems to be no further explanation of why the man was targeted by the devil in this way.

Adwell Cop and Poppet's Hill

The hill to the southeast of the village of Adwell is topped with a bronze age barrow, but the site has also been long associated with fairies.

In folklore, barrows such as Adwell Cop were often considered to be doorways or portals to the fairy realm and it is not uncommon to hear tales of people encountering fairies such sites.

The 18th-century Oxfordshire antiquarian Reverend Thomas Delafield recorded the story of a traveler who saw a group of fairies singing and dancing on top of the barrow at Adwell Cop. The song the fairies sand went:

'At Adwell Cop there stands a cup.

Drink the drink and eat the sop,

And set the cup on Adwell Cop.'

The fairies seen at Adwell Cop may not be the only supernatural creatures living in the area. A mile to the northwest near Stoke Talmage is a hill called Poppet's Hill, which derives its name from an Old English word meaning 'Goblin's pit'!

Minster Lovell Hall and Lord Lovell's Bride

The picturesque ruins of Minster Lovell Hall, a 15th century Oxfordshire manor house, lie in a beautiful rural setting beside the River Windrush. They include a fine hall, tower and nearby dovecote.

Minster Lovell Hall was built in the 1430s by William, Baron of Lovell and Holand - one of the richest men in England. It was later home to Francis, Viscount Lovell, a close ally of Richard III.

After several changes of hands the hall was abandoned and eventually demolished in the 18th century, leaving the extensive remains that stand today.

And here's the famous Victorian ballad:

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