An agreeable Thames-side market town downriver from Oxford, Abingdon used to be the county town of Berkshire even though it has officially been in Oxfordshire since 1974. The 17th-century County Hall is a striking monument on the Town Square, and holds a compelling museum with a viewing platform on the roof.
Abingdon grew up around an abbey, large portions of which survive in its domestic buildings, while Abingdon Bridge, standing in some form since the 15th century helped the town develop in the late Medieval period.
When the sun is shining there’s no finer place to be than by the Thames, watching the river traffic floating by, ambling along to the quaint Abingdon Lock or taking little ones to the lido and splash park at Abbey Meadow.
1. Abingdon Abbey
Abingdon is named for its abbey, founded in the 7th century by one of the Kings of the West Saxons.
The abbey held real importance in its first centuries as it was endowed by a line of Anglo-Saxon kings, but was wrecked by the Danes in the 9th century and sequestrated by Alfred the Great shortly after because he defeated the Danes, and didn’t feel that he was properly rewarded by the monks for his efforts! The abbey bounced back in the 10th century and prospered until its dissolution under Henry VIII.
Now, although the abbey church has gone, many of the monastic buildings are still standing.
These are the bakehouse, exchequer, the marvellous long gallery with timber framing, the gateway and St John’s hospitium, a hostel for pilgrims.
St Nicolas’ Church, covered below was also attached to the abbey as a place for laymen to pray.
2. Abbey Meadow
Bounded by the Thames to the south, Abbey Meadow is an endearing park starting at the end of the Abbey Close.
You can visit for a riverside walk (dodging the geese!), admiring the narrowboats and yachts moored by the path.
This will lead to you to the picturesque Abingdon Lock, and a weir and watercourse first built by the abbey’s monks in the 10th century to power mills.
In summer the park is treasured by families for its outdoor heated pool, as well as an interactive water park open until September.
The park has lots of mature trees providing shade, a fenced dry playground for little ones and lots of picnic benches if you bring a packed lunch.
3. Abingdon County Hall Museum
The arcaded County Hall on the south side of the Town Square is a Baroque wonder, completed in 1682 and designed by a student of Christopher Wren, Christopher Kempster, who worked on St Paul’s Cathedral.
The raised arches below are for a market, while there was a courtroom on the first floor.
Refitted from 2010 to 2012, the museum mixes the County Hall’s original features with lots of interesting displays on the town and its area.
You can check out an MG sports car (the MG car company was based in Abingdon until 1980), as well as an ichthyosaur skeleton and a collection of buns.
Dried and varnished, these buns are relics of bun-throwing ceremonies in Abingdon, a peculiar local tradition on special occasions like the Millennium, the Queen’s Golden Jubilee and royal weddings.
A viewing platform has been set up around the cupola on the roof, for the finest view in the town.
4. St Helen’s Church
From the Thames, the spire of the Grade I St Helen’s Church is the main feature of Abingdon’s silhouette.
The earliest portions of the building are 12th and 13th century, even if the church’s origins are known to go back as far as the 7th century.
Most of the stonework is 15th and 16th century and there’s a lot to take in.
On the north side of the nave is the Lady Chapel, which has a sublime painted ceiling dating from 1390 depicting the Tree of Jesse.
Close by at the east end of the north aisle there are beautiful monumental brasses from the 1400s to the 1600s, and a fine panelled altar tomb from 1571. The church’s brass chandeliers range from the 1500s to the 1700s, the pulpit goes back to 1636 while the white marble font is 19th-century and appeared at the Great Exhibition in 1851. Out in the churchyard, the Long Alley Almshouses here are from 1446, while Twitty’s Almshouses and Brick Alley Almshouses date to 1707 and 1718 respectively.
5. Thames Path
A National Trail tracks the course of the Thames from its source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier in Charlton.
The route mostly uses the riverside towpath dating from the Industrial Revolution, and is beautiful in Abingdon, with a tree-lined section west of the Abingdon Bridge, looking across to the almshouses and church.
To the east is an open field, Rye Farm Meadow.
Almost counter intuitively for a river that flows west to east, if you strike out east from Abingdon you’ll go upriver and will reach Oxford in about four hours.
At Iffley Lock, be sure to make a diversion for the Church of St Mary, one of England’s best pieces of Romanesque architecture.
Closer to home, Abingdon Lock (1790) is under a mile out of Abingdon and a small tourist attraction selling ice creams and drinks from the lock-keeper’s house
6. Abingdon Bridge
Up to 1422, when this bridge was first completed, the only way across the Thames at Abingdon was by ferry.
Abingdon Bridge was built with local limestone, and unusually for the time was constructed at the behest of the townsfolk rather than the Abbey, and funded by the guild, the Fraternity of the Holy Cross.
It is actually two crossings in one, bridging the main navigation channel on the Thames at Burford with Nag’s Head Island, and from there to the town proper.
Once finished the bridge transformed Abingdon’s fortunes as the only road crossing on the Thames for miles.
The 15th-century structure has been modified many times, first to ease navigation after the arrival of Abingdon Lock in 1790 and then repeatedly in the 19th century and again in 1927 to give more room to road traffic.
With riverside benches, flowerbeds, a tearoom and a celebrated pub, Nag’s Head Island is a gorgeous place to be in summer, and an embarkation point for boat trips on the Thames.
7. St Nicolas’ Church
At Abingdon’s Market Place, St Nicolas’ Church has been around in some form since 1170 when it was built on the gateway of the Abbey of St Mary.
This was a place of worship for the abbey’s laypeople and servants.
One important early member of the congregation was St Edmund of Abingdon (1174-1240) who became Archbishop of Canterbury.
Repairs to the south wall were needed after riots in 1327, while the embattled bell tower and many other elements are from an expansion in the 15th century.
Look for the chapel to the north of the nave, which has a stunning Renaissance monument for the mill-owner John Blacknall and his wife Jane, both of whom died from the plague in 1625. In his will John set up a charity that still provides fund for the church and less fortunate in the parish.
8. JET, Culham Centre for Fusion Energy
The UK’s national laboratory for nuclear fusion research is effortlessly close and is an essential visit for the scientifically minded.
The Culham Centre for Fusion energy was built in the 1960s on a former airfield and has the world’s largest and most powerful tokamak (producing controlled fusion reactions in hot plasma). This is JET, the Joint European Torus.
Many of science’s great steps in the science and engineering of fusion have happened at this very place.
In recent years the facility has been assisting in the construction of ITER, an international fusion project in France, essentially a larger version of JET.
What’s exciting is that you can visit Culham for free on open evenings, taking place every few weeks on Wednesdays.
You’ll be given an introductory talk and then led on a tour of JET, as well as the UK’s own fusion experiment, MAST (Mega Amp Spherical Torus).
9. Harcourt Arboretum
Oxfordshire’s finest collection of trees lies a little further on from the Culham Science Centre.
In 150 acres, the Harcourt Arboretum is a satellite University of Oxford botanic garden, boasting one of the UK’s finest conifer collections and open to the public for £5.45 for a day ticket.
The arboretum is on what used to be the grounds of Nuneham House, landscaped in the 19th century to give a stirring greeting to anyone visiting the property.
The pinetum, growing monkey puzzle trees and giant redwoods (some of the oldest in the UK), dates from this time, while there’s a glorious bluebell wood, a lime wood, ponds, wildflower meadows, an acer glade (ablaze in autumn). You may also happen upon livestock like Oxford Sandy and Black pigs and Castlemilk Morrit sheep.
10. Pendon Museum
A labour of love taking shape since the 1950s, the Pendon Museum shows immersive and large scale dioramas depicting the countryside of the Vale of the White Horse as it was in the early 20th century.
You can marvel at model railways, detailed villages and rolling green countryside.
The workmanship and amount of hours that have gone into the museum almost boggles the mind.
Take the model locomotives and other rolling stock, all of which are totally handmade at a scale of 1:76 using photographs and records of Great Western Railway and London and South Western Railway trains.
The main landscape to check out is the Vale Scene, but there’s also a Madder Valley Railway and a Dartmoor Scene.
The museum is open all year on weekends, as well as Wednesdays during school holidays and Thursdays in August.
11. Millets Farm Centre
Out in farmland west of Abingdon, Millets Farm Centre is a mixed shopping destination and family visitor attraction.
You can stock up on lush fresh produce at the farm shop, while there’s a garden centre/nursery, “pick your own” fields with 30 different fruits and vegetables, and an assortment of other businesses for alternative beauty treatments, interior design and quaint weatherboard shepherd huts for people’s gardens.
As a day out Millets offers a falconry centre with more than 90 birds of prey, a maize maze, outdoor play area, indoor play barn and an old-time carousel.
Finally, the Animal Walkway has goats, rheas, horses, alpacas, cows and sheep in paddocks.
12. Thrupp Lake
On the north bank of the Thames as it flows out of Abingdon, the Radley Lakes are the result of gravel extraction over the last few decades.
Some of the quarries have been filled in with pulverised fuel ash from Didcot Power Station, while Thrupp Lake and the lakes around it have become a wetland reserve.
A walk on Thrupp Lake’s mile-long circular path is a treat in any season, but winter and spring are especially lovely.
In the colder months there’s a multitude of overwintering waterfowl, while in spring you can enjoy the blossom on the shore, and may spot some very cute cygnets, as well as kingfishers and herons.
Otters, which have made a comeback all over rural England, have also recently arrived on the shore here, although you’ll need to be patient to see them.
13. Trips on the Thames
As well as the fabled Nag’s Head pub, the river island at Abingdon is the place to go for fun on the Thames.
Abingdon Bridge Marine rents out diesel boats seating six to eight, for an hour, half-day or full day.
If you feel more comfortable navigating the Thames under your own power there are also rowboats available for up to five people.
The moorings at Abingdon Bridge Marine are also used by Salter’s Steamers, which schedules a daily cruise to Oxford in summer, seven days a week.
Travelling upstream, the trip takes two hours, and stops at Sandford Lock and Iffley Lock, taking in views of Oxford’s intercollegiate regatta course and the splendid Nuneham House.
14. Bothy Vineyard
The environmentally friendly Bothy Vineyard makes the most of the Vale of White Horse’s sandy soils and a gentle microclimate that grants the vines a longer ripening season.
Growing in the vineyard are cold-climate German grape varieties like Huxelrube, Bacchus, Findling and Ortega, as well as red hybrids also originating in Germany, like Rondo, Regent and Dornfelder.
Because the climate in Oxfordshire has subtle differences to German wine regions, Bothy’s crisp white and complex reds have their own character.
On a tour you’ll begin with an easy walk around the property, hearing about the history of the vineyard and the different factors that can affect a harvest.
After that the wine-making process is explained at the winery, followed up with a tasting session and nibbles.
You can book a private tour, but the vineyard is also open for casual “drop in” tours for individuals on select Saturdays tours throughout spring and summer.
15. Loose Cannon Brewery
Abingdon has a rich beer brewing heritage, and was home to the Morland Brewery from 1711 until production was moved to Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk following a takeover by Greene King in 1999. The local tradition was revived in 2010 with the foundation of Loose Cannon, a craft brewery, low on gimmicks but dedicated to making the best beer possible.
Take its original brew, Abingdon Bridge, which has a copper tone and floral aroma, or Bombshell, with citrus notes because it’s brewed with only pale malts.
Loose Cannon’s open nights have become a local institution, starting at 19:00 on the first Tuesday of the month.
You’ll be given a pint glass on arrival and will get to try six to nine beers, while poking around the brewery and chatting with the staff.