3 places that used to be in Berkshire
PUBLISHED: 16:21 30 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:21 30 October 2017
Some of our neighbours actually used to have Berkshire addresses – and we’d always welcome that back, says Sue Bromley. Meanwhile, visiting is easy
All kinds of nonsense went on in the 1970s, and we’re not talking about orange and brown sofas, strikes and The Three Day Week, or Slade being the Christmas No1 on and on and on. No, a better musical choice might be the 1974 chart-topper ‘When Will I See You Again’ by the Three Degrees, not only because the lovely Sheila Ferguson used to live at Bray, but because that was the year a whole chunk of our county was shovelled into Oxfordshire.
Now, if a place lies between the Berkshire Downs and the Thames, you’d expect it to be in… Berkshire. It’s the rural landscape with historic towns and villages, ancient battle sites, The Old Berkshire Hunt plus the point-to-point and Pony Club, and the first home of The Berkshire Yeomanry. Lockinge we miss you, and the same goes for Faringdon, once Berkshire’s most westerly town.
If that’s not enough, the clincher must surely be that poet Pam Ayres MBE was born at Stanford-in-the-Vale, definitely then in our county. She may now live in the Cotwolds, but Pam is Berkshire through and through. But back to 1974 when The Local Government Act was implemented, resulting in places up and down the country shifting borders, some even being re-named. For us this meant waving farewell to the likes of Abingdon and Wantage and the villages of The Vale of the White Horse (plus the Uffington chalk horse itself, still a cause of discontent). When all this was proposed the then MP for Newbury tried to halt it and campaigns continue to move the horse back into what was historically Alfred the Great’s poweful land of Wessex, rather than Mercia where it’s ended up.
Without actually galloping anywhere, Berkshire was ‘psychologically’ shunted closer to London, because what we got in return was Slough from Buckinghamshire. In the interests of fairness, we should perhaps record that Caversham joined Berkshire from Oxfordshire early in the 20th century.
Should we stand on ceremony? Well, just for one month we don’t, with a visit to those places which are actually more ‘family’ than neighbours. If the magnificent Berkshire Yeomanry (now part of 39 (Skinners) Signal Regiment) with its heroes like Trooper Fred Potts VC of Reading plus the HQ at Windsor can keep the Uffington White Horse on its badge, we have no problem with crossing this particular border.
This used to be the county town of Berkshire and is one of the places with a strong claim to being England’s oldest town – there’s no doubt that people have lived here since hunter gatherer days. In medieval times the Abbey of St Mary was at the centre of the top end of European religious and cultural life. Not surprisingly, it was one of the first to be ruthlessly targeted when Henry VIII began the breakaway from Rome.
Charter markets are held at Market Place every Monday from 8am to 3pm and farmers markets take place on the third Friday of the month.
There’s also a Local Excellence Market, held quarterly, when local food producers, craftworkers and retailers sell goods from Oxfordshire and counties next door (like ours!) Around the Market Place you’ll find lots of family-run independent stores and eateries, tea rooms and old pubs.
All our old market towns like to be described as ‘historic’, but this one is very special as it’s the 9th Century birthplace of none other than King Alfred the Great. You can see a statue of the legendary ruler in the market place. It was commissioned in the late 19th century for philanthropist Lord Wantage, a friend of Florence Nightingale. He was also one of the founders of what was to become The British Red Cross Society.
Poet Laureate John Betjeman also lived here for many years. He was a churchwarden at Uffington and there’s a Betjeman Memorial Park with statue. When you consider the depth of his work it’s perhaps unfortunate that the most known connection with Berkshire is now the 1937 poem which begins ‘Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now’. Only a proper read reveals that Betjeman was using the town as an example of rapid industrialisation and wanted any bombs aimed at profiteers and those responsible for poor housing conditions. He later regretted its harshness, eventually that he’d written it at all.
But back to Wantage – and make sure you look up and down during a visit. The 17th and 18th Century cobbled streets are a delight and the architecture delights at every turn. The Vale and Downland Museum in Church Street opens Monday to Saturday. There’s a lot to see at the museum, it’s great for families and on Fridays Wantage Country Market is run there by the WI from 9.30am to 10.45am, offering local produce including jams, chutneys and cakes.
Markets are held in the town centre on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with a farmers market on the last Saturday of the month.
The Ridgeway path runs through Berkshire to Avebury in Wiltshire; passing through Uffington, with its White Horse etched into the hillside, cantering across the chalk downs since the Bronze Age, writes Venetia Hawkes.
National Trust ranger Andrew Foley’s tip for the best view of the horse is Marsh Way, the road rising out of Woolstone village – where he also recommends the White Horse pub.
Up on White Horse Hill, picnic areas have views across six counties. A short walk from the car park over grassy downs, dotted with orchids in summer, leads to the giant figure on the hillside. Tantalising glimpses of a huge eye or foreleg of a creature are only fully visible from the air, and yet it was carved from the chalk at a time when only birds had that view. The horse looks down on Dragon Hill, by legend the place where St George slew his dragon, its summit remaining bare chalk ever after, poisoned by the dragon’s blood. More recently Dragon Hill was the site of undercover assignations – atom physicist Klaus Fuchs smuggling secrets of the hydrogen bomb to Russian agents there in the 1950s.
A mile’s walk along the Ridgeway from the White Horse is Wayland’s Smithy, a Neolithic burial chamber. In a glade under beech trees standing stones loom, guarding the long barrow entrance, like a gateway to some fairy otherworld. “At this place lived an invisible Smith,” begins an 18th Century account, “and if a traveller’s horse had lost a shoe upon the road, he had no more to do than to bring the horse to this place with a piece of money, and leaving both there for some little time, he might come again and find the money gone, but the horse new shod.”
The White Horse itself is reputed to rise from the hillside and gallop across the sky to Wayland’s Smithy once every century to be reshod. It was last supposed to have happened in the 1920s, so is due to visit again soon.
• The ultimate Berkshire walking guide - With the North Wessex Downs, Windsor’s Long Walk and a whole host of beautiful towns and villages, Berkshire is an amazing place for a stroll