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Abingdon's Architecture

Explore a former county town and then view it from a classic riverside path.

Distance 7 miles (11.3km)

Minimum time 2hrs 45min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Medium

Paths Field paths and tracks, stretches of road and Thames Path. Town and village streets (roads can be busy), 4 stiles

Landscape Flat farmland and meadows south of Abingdon

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 170 Abingdon, Wantage

Start/finish SU 503941

Dog friendliness On lead in Sutton Courtenay; not ideal in Abingdon

Parking Small car park south of the church at Sutton Courtenay

Public toilets Various, including Old Gaol Leisure Centre and Abbey Meadow Park

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© AA Media Limited 2015. © Crown Copyright Licence number 100021153

1 From the car park, turn left to the road, joining the adjacent tree-lined path. Take the turning for Milton and follow the road to a former pub. Turn immediately right to join a footpath. Cross a footbridge to some cottages and swing left to a kissing gate. Keep left at the immediate fork and follow the path alongside the Mill Brook. Cross a double stile and a footbridge and continue to the next stile and footbridge.

2 Turn right to join a track, following it between fields. Further on it narrows to a muddy path running between hedges. Make for the road, turn right, then bear left at the next junction, following Drayton Road. Take the second signposted right of way on the right.

3 Keep ahead when the path merges with a wide track and, when it curves left by a pair of cottages, look for a stile on the right. Go diagonally across the field, briefly cutting through undergrowth into the next pasture. Keep quite close to the left boundary and aim for some tall trees and houses in the distance. Make for a footbridge in the top right-hand corner of the field. Walk ahead towards the outskirts of Abingdon and join a tarmac path. This is Overmead.

4 Turn right at the road and walk through the housing estate to the T-junction. Turn left and keep alongside the Thames to the Old Anchor Inn. Pass the pub and then turn left by some almshouses. Keep the Church of St Helen on the right and head for the road. Cross over into East St Helen Street and make for the Old County Hall.

5 Turn right to reach Bridge Street, pass the Broad Face pub and cross the River Thames to the far bank. Go down the steps on the left to the tow path, pass under the road bridge and walk along the riverside path. Pass an illustrated map of Abingdon, go through a gate and cross meadows alongside the Thames, passing the ancient Culham Bridge on the left. Follow the line of Culham Reach and keep beside the water until you reach a sign for Sutton Courtenay.

6 Once over the cut follow the path across fields and back to the Thames. Cross several bridges and weirs at Sutton Pools and keep ahead at the road, passing The Wharf on the right. Follow the village street to the parish church and return to the car park.

From a distance, driving along the nearby A34, Abingdon doesn't look much. It's all business parks and out-of-town shopping centres. But leave the car behind, stroll its ancient streets and you'll be pleasantly surprised at what you find. Until 1867 Abingdon was the county town of Berkshire, later it was swallowed up when Oxfordshire greedily expanded her borders as part of the controversial county boundary changes of 1974.

The town was originally developed around its famous abbey, founded in ad 700 and dissolved in the reign of Henry VIII. The abbey was destroyed by the Danes in the 10th century, though work began to rebuild it and William the Conqueror spent Easter here in 1084. His son Henry I appointed the Italian Abbot Foritius in 1100 and the abbey was soon acknowledged as a symbol of power and prosperity. Some of the Abbey's outbuildings still remain today, including the Gateway, over which there was a room used as a prison until the 19th century.

Often compared to Oxford's magnificent Sheldonian Theatre, the splendid Old County Hall in the Market Place was completed in 1682 by Christopher Kempster of Burford, one of Wren's master masons during the building of St Paul's Cathedral. The Old County Hall is a perfect example of English Renaissance architecture - imposing and grand for such a small town. South of the Market Place is the Old Gaol built by Napoleonic prisoners of war between 1805 and 1811.

The spire of the 15th-century St Helen's Church soars above the town and can be seen for miles around. The church, which is partly 13th-century, is 108ft (33m) wide and yet only 97ft (30m) long. Inside there are five aisles, a 200-year-old candelabra and a splendid medieval painted ceiling in the Lady Chapel, representing the Tree of Jesse.

Next door to the church are the Long Alley Almshouses. These comprise Long Alley, Brick Alley and Twitty's. The oldest, Long Alley, dates from the mid-15th century. The diarist Samuel Pepys came here in 1668 and put a donation in the almsbox.

Abingdon is very much a river town, with its buildings laid out along one bank of the Thames. From the meadows on the opposite bank it is reminiscent of a seaport, with all manner of sailing craft adding a dash of colour during the summer months.

Much of Abingdon's prosperity came from cloth manufacture and the historian John Leland noted in 1549 that the town 'standeth by clothing'. In more recent years the MG car plant provided Abingdon with regular employment until its eventual closure in the 1970s.

While you're there

Visit Abingdon Museum, which occupies the Old County Hall. As well as local archaeology and exhibitions, the museum houses the Southern Arts Craft Collection, which can be viewed by appointment. On the last Saturday of the month, between May and October, the balconied roof is open to the public. It was here that buns were thrown to celebrate the coronation of George III, beginning a tradition that is still upheld on royal occasions.

Where to eat and drink

Abingdon has a variety of pubs from which to choose. The Old Anchor has a range of home-cooked food and a patio garden, while the Broad Face menu includes baguettes, jacket potatoes, toasties, ploughman's lunches, chicken Kiev and ham, egg and chips. The George and Dragon at Sutton Courtenay is a well-established village pub.

What to look for

The 12th to 14th century church at Sutton Courtenay is well worth a look. Herbert Asquith (1852-1928), British Liberal Prime Minister between 1908 and 1916, is buried in the churchyard, as is Eric Blair (1903-50), better known as George Orwell who, of course, wrote Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Blair took his pseudonym from the River Orwell in Suffolk.

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