The town grew up around its abbey, founded in 676, on the banks of the Thames. The 15th-century abbey gatehouse still survives, and the granary contains a reconstruction of an Elizabethan theatre where performances are given in the summer. Stones from the ruined abbey were used in the 19th century to build an artificial ruin.
St Helen’s Church contains a medieval Lady Chapel on the ceiling of which is painted a ‘Tree of Jesse’; a representation of Christ’s genealogy often illustrated in medieval stained glass and painting. The County Hall in the market place is attributed to a design by Christopher Wren or one of his masons, and now houses the town’s museum. The school is said to have two masts from the Mayflower built into it. The Crown and Thistle pub was a temporary home for John Ruskin following his appointment as the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford in 1869.
Best known for its cakes and its cross of nursery rhyme fame, Banbury dates from Saxon times, though few pre17th-century buildings survive. This is largely due to a peculiar trait of demolition among Banbury’s inhabitants. In the 17th century they petitioned Parliament to pull down their great castle so that the stone could be used to repair damage caused to the town by two Civil War sieges. In the 18th century they blew up a church rather than restore it. The original Banbury Cross was destroyed too, in an upsurge of Puritanism 300 years ago. The present cross dates only from 1859. The ‘fine lady’ of the rhyme is believed to have been a member of the Fiennes family, who still live nearby at Broughton Castle. The ride to the cross was probably a May Morning ceremony.
Burford’s narrow, three-arched bridge over the River Windrush is built of old Cotswold stone, as are the picturesque houses and inns that line its wide, climbing main street. The church of St John the Baptist, with its impressive spire, is one of the largest in Oxfordshire. The Grammar School, the Crown Inn and the Bear Inn are Virtually unchanged since the 15th century, and the Priory, though largely rebuilt in the early 19th century, still bears the arms of William Lenthall, who, as Speaker of the Long Parliament, defied Charles I. The Cotswold Wildlife Park lies south of the town in Bradwell Grove Estate.
A mile or two to the south of the village lies a megalithic long barrow named Wayland’s Smithy. In Norse legend, Wayland was the blacksmith of the gods, and manufactured swords and armour that rendered their users invincible. Using coins left for the purpose he also, according to local legend, shod horses that were left there overnight.
The Great Western Railway put Didcot, until then a quiet, thatched village with a handsome 15th-century church, on the map. Today the Great Western Society is a poignant reminder of the glories of ‘God’s Wonderful Railway’. Its painstakingly restored collection of steam locomotives, rolling stock and other railway memorabilia is overlooked by the 20th-century power station, a landmark from all over the Berkshire Downs.
The Royal Regatta on the River Thames each year in early July, has made Henley internationally famous. The regatta, which was the first event of its kind, growing out of the first Oxford-Cambridge boat race here in 1829, is now firmly established in the calendar of the affluent. The town is enhanced by its old coaching inns, its Regency houses, and of particular note are the 18th-century S-arch bridge, the Norman-towered Perpendicular church and 15th-century Chantry House. Fawley Court, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and is now the Divine Mercy College, and contains a museum devoted to the Polish Army. The furnishings are by Grinling Gibbons. Two miles west the Elizabethan Grey’s Court retains 14th century fortifications and has a donkey wheel used in Tudor times for raising water. Four miles north west is Stonor House and Park showing some of Britain’s earliest domestic architecture.
William Morris, the poet, designer and printer, lived here from 1871 until his death in 1896. His home was the gabled Elizabethan Kelmscott Manor, and a woodcut depicting it formed the frontispiece of his book, News from Nowhere. The house was restored in 1968 as a Morris Museum; it can be seen by written arrangement with the owners, the Society of Antiquaries.
Situated beside the River Windrush, which ambles companionably by, Minster Lovell is the most beautiful village in the area. It is, then, strange to find its ruined 15th-century hall so haunted by tragedy. Francis Lovell (or ‘Lovell the Dog’ as his critics called him) was a follower of Richard III. After the disaster at Bosworth, he escaped to the Continent. Two years later, he unwisely returned to England to carry out a plot against Henry VII and to put the pretender Lambert Simnel on the throne. Hounded by the authorities, he found sanctuary in the Hall, where he went to earth in a small room. And there, by all accounts, he starved to death when the only servant who knew his whereabouts died. In 1718, a skeleton sitting at a table, with the skeleton of his faithful dog, was discovered, during alterations. Another tale, that of the Mistletoe Bough, concerns the bride of one of the Lovells Who, during a game of hide and-seek hid in an old chest, the lid of which she could not then raise. She was never found . . . but years later a skeleton was found in that chest.
Although a flourishing industrial town has grown up at Cowley where Lord Nuffield founded his bicycle and later his Morris car works, alongside Matthew Arnold’s city of ‘dreaming spires’, Oxford remains a university town, par excellence, its streets dominated by the stone-built walls and quadrangles of its ancient colleges and in term-time by flocks of black gowned undergraduates on foot or on bicycle. The Broad, where that famous Oxford institution Blackwell’s Bookshop is to be found, the High, Cornmarket and the narrow lanes leading off them are the centre of university life, and where most of the old colleges, public houses frequented by the students, good restaurants and shops are to be found.
Between the villages of Great and Little Rollright, on the edge of the Cotswolds, are the Rollright Stones. There is a Bronze Age stone circle known as the ‘King’s Men’, a solitary standing stone, known as the ‘King Stone’, and at a distance, a group ofstones called the ‘Whispering Knights’. All date from before 1500BC and were probably used in funeral ceremonies.stones called the ‘Whispering Knights’.The legend is more picturesque, however: a local king and his men were said to have met with a witch on this spot. She promised the king that‘ if he could see the neighbouring village of Long Compton from the hill he would be king of all England. Of course, he was sure that he could, and went to look, but the witch had raised up a thick mist and he and his men were turned to stone. The Whispering Knights were supposed to be a group of malcontents already plotting to overthrow their leader.
Three miles outside Oxford, Stanton St John was the birthplace of John White (1573-1648), Fellow of New College, Oxford and a founder of Massachusetts. White led the West Country emigration when he was Rector of Dorchester, Dorset. A stone over the door of his original home near the church records his birth. Milton’s grandfather also lived. here. Marston, on the northern edge of the city, was Cromwell’s headquarters during the seige of Oxford in the Civil War.
From Uffington the most famous of the white horses is clearly visible – the semi abstract quality of its 374ft-long figure suggests that it may have been cut by Iron Age Celts, though the theory that it commemorates King Alfred‘s 9th-century victory over the Danes remains popular. White Horse Hill, a well-known viewpoint overlooking five counties, retains traces of an Iron Age camp. Nearby are the earthworks of Uangton Castle, standing on the line of the ancient Ridgeway. One and a half miles south west of the village lies the so-called Wayland’s Smithy, a Stone Age barrow within a larger, later one; how the legend of Wayland the Smith, a mythical Scandinavian figure, the maker of invincible weapons, came to be associated with the much earlier barrow, is unknown. Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth owes much to these legends. Uffington’s church has some fine Early English work, with an octagonal tower, a set of eleven consecrated crosses and many lancer windows.
Settled by Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans, the town received its charter in 1153, granted by Henry II whose right to the throne was confirmed in the Treaty of Wallingford. Its castle was one of the last Royalist castles to fall in the Civil War; used as a prison until 1652, it was then demolished.
A quiet town with cobbled streets and 17th and 18th-century houses, Wantage lies at the foot of the Berkshire Downs in the Vale of the White Horse. King Alfred the Great was born here in 849 and his statue stands in the market place. Parts of the church of St’s Peter and Paul date back to the 13th century; it has a 15th century hammerbeam roof, some fine wood carvings and the tombs of members of the Fitzwaryn family, into which Dick Whittington married. In 1873 the first steam tramway in the Country began operation here, the line remaining open until 1948.
Woodstock’s 18th-century elegance made this one of the most beautiful small towns in England. Woodstock continues to draw visitors because of its proximity to Blenheim Palace, Sir John Vanbrugh’s grandiose masterpiece built for John Churchill, the Duke of Marlborough. The house was begun as a gift from a grateful nation to the Duke after his victory over the French and Bavarians at Blenheim in 1704. There is a Canadian connection in that the Duke had been Governor of the Hudson Bay Company 1685-92. One of its main attractions is the room where Sir Winston Churchill, grandson of the 7th Duke of Marlborough, was born on 30 November, 1874. His mother was the American Jennie Jerome. The parklands were landscaped by Capability Brown, who dammed the River Glyn to make Blenheim’s fine lake. The tower of Bladon parish church can be seen through the only break in the parkland’s tree-lined vista. In the churchyard are the graves of Sir Winston and his parents Lord and Lady Randolph Churchill.