Abingdon is an ancient Borough and Market Town which claims to be the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in England. Standing on the west bank of the River Thames it used to be the County Town of Berkshire but has been in Oxfordshire since 1974.
Notable people who visited Abingdon include William the Conqueror who came to the abbey at Easter in 1084, and Samuel Pepys who came here with his wife. He recorded in his diary entry for 9th June 1668 that ’at night come to Abingdon, where had been a fair of custard, and met many people and scholars going home, and there did get some pretty good music and sang and danced until it was time for supper which cost 5s’, and that the next day they were ‘up and walked to the hospital very large and fine’, ‘so did give the poor 2s 6d’. The ‘hospital’ was the Long Alley Almshouses in St Helen’s churchyard.
Edmund Rich was born here in 1170 and he went on to be elected Archbishop of Canterbury in 1233.
Abingdon has a custom of Bun Throwing on special occasions. The earliest instance of the custom was to celebrate the Coronation of King George III in 1761. In 1838 one thousand buns were thrown to crowds to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Coronation. Buns were thrown to celebrate the end of World War II, to mark the millennium in 2000, and in 2002 to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s succession in 1952. June 2006 saw four thousand buns thrown from the roof of the County Hall by Councillors and Freemen to crowds waiting in Market Place below in celebration of the 450th anniversary of the granting of Abingdon’s Borough Charter in 1556 which was received from Queen Mary I. The buns thrown are specially baked for the occasions.
The most striking building in Market Place is County Hall which was often referred to as the Town Hall. It was built between 1678 and 1682 by Christopher Kempster of Burford. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner wrote ‘Of the free standing town halls of England with open ground floors this is the grandest’, Celia Fiennes described it as the finest town hall in England, and John Betjeman described it as an ‘exceedingly handsome’ building.
East St Helen Street from the south of Market Place leads down to St Helen’s Wharf and St Helen’s Church past some of the finest domestic architecture in the town.
St Helen’s Church has a steeple which rises one hundred and fifty feet above the south end of East St Helens Street. It is a spacious church with five aisles. It is unusual in being wider than it is long and it is the second widest parish church in England. The Lady chapel has a fourteenth century painted roof.
The three almshouses surrounding the churchyard are Long Alley, Twitty’s, and Brick Alley Almshouses.
Abingdon with its long history, delightful architecture, and position on the river Thames, is well deserving of its former status of a county town.