Below is the introduction to A Town Called Wallingford.
People who live in or around the town are very welcome to comment (and correct any mistakes!) either by using the contact form on this site or on my Wallingford Facebook posts.
The book itself is now finished and will be published in the spring. A full chapter list can be seen here.
Peter Adamson, February 2024
A town called Wallingford: Introduction
Friends who live in cities often imply that Wallingford is out in the sticks, the backwoods, the boondocks. Why would anyone want to live so far from the advantages of the city? Pressed, they will mention the cinemas and theatres, museums and galleries, bookshops and concerts, coffee shops and wine bars, bistros and restaurants and all the interesting events.
At this point, readers who live in and around Wallingford may be forgiven a slight smile.
When I first came to live in the area many years ago, the town might have been considered something of a backwater — a little too sleepy and with a centre that Leonard Cohen would have described as ‘deader than Heaven on a Saturday night’. But the world has changed. And there is a case to be made that it has changed for the worse in cities and for the better in small towns. Thankfully, city-dwellers don’t seem to have noticed yet, but over recent decades, most of the advantages and attractions of city life have become available in places like Wallingford — only with less hassle, frustration, pollution and expense.
I first became aware of this when a friend — a lifelong United Nations employee who had lived and worked in half a dozen of the world’s great cities — came to stay for a few days. Visiting Wallingford for the first time, she was astonished not only by what was available in the town but by how easy it was to access. On her return from Waitrose, for example, she reported that it was a better place to shop for food than any of the supermarkets she had known in Bangkok, New York, London, Geneva, or Florence.
Cinemas and entertainment? In recent years, there has not been a film I wanted to see, arthouse or box office, that I could not have seen at Wallingford’s Corn Exchange Theatre. And that’s with reasonable prices, no queues, a convivial bar, and, in the evenings, two large, free car parks just a step away across the town square. Is it this easy to go to the movies in the city?
As for wine bars, restaurants and coffee outlets, there are half a dozen independent coffee shops in the town, two or three of which serve a cappuccino as good as any you can find in Oxford or London or even in Italy (those who may consider this an outrageous claim are referred to Chapter x). There are also reviewed-off-the-scale wine bars, enthusiast-run delicatessens, small bakeries and sandwich bars, and a dozen English, Indian, Chinese, Thai, Greek and Italian restaurants and takeaways. As well as Waitrose and Lidl, there is the traditional Friday market going back to the granting of the town’s Charter in 1155 plus a weekly local producers’ market offering, among much else, organic fruit and vegetables and half a dozen different kinds of cheese made within seven or eight miles of the town. Venture only a little further afield to one of the many surrounding villages and you have pubs serving the kind of food in the kind of atmosphere that draws people from — the city.
Live music? As well as the Acoustic Ballroom, Wallingford’s annual ‘BunkFest’ brings thirty thousand people from all over Britain to listen to hundreds of performers at a dozen or more venues across the town. Classical music? The deconsecrated church of St Peter’s offers an elegant Georgian setting for chamber music while the English Music Festival is centred on Dorchester Abbey five miles up the road. Just off the town square is an independent bookshop owned and run with such knowledge and enthusiasm that it might have been the model for ‘You Got Mail’. Almost as close are a fitness centre, a squash club, a snooker club, and the county’s biggest specialist bike shop. And rare is the city dweller who lives within a few hundred metres of a heated open-air swimming pool, three public parks and a fifteen-acre sports centre with floodlit all-weather pitches.
Chapter x of A Town Called Wallingford tells the story of the Saxon town plan and the ancient earthworks that once defended Wallingford’s boundaries. Three of the four quarters of that original Saxon town survive today as the Bullcroft Park, the Kinecroft and the castle grounds (Chapter x). As a result, I would guess that Wallingford has a higher proportion of green public space within its boundaries than any other town or city in England.[i] Step outside those boundaries and instead of being in mile after mile of traffic-heavy suburbs you quickly find yourself in one of two designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty — the Chilterns and the Berkshire Downs — offering every kind of walk from the gentlest of dappled beechwood strolls to the slopes and views of the Wittenham Clumps. Just to the south of town are two of the oldest long-distance footpaths in Europe — the Ridgeway Path and the Icknield Way — while edging the town itself there is the Thames Footpath and a stretch of river so perfect for rowing that the Oxford University Rowing Club has moved its headquarters here.
The city-dweller might wonder what people do for a living in a place like this, as if expecting some kind of smock-wearing, pitchfork-wielding, hayseed-in-the-hair economic scene. Chapter X will, I hope, surprise even some of those who live here by what it reveals of the state-of-the-art technologies and globally important businesses located in and around the town.
Finally, the sheer number and variety of community organisations, events and services speaks to a spirit and a vibrancy that can be seen at a glance on the town’s Facebook groups. Those who associate Facebook with scams, trolls and vitriolic exchanges might be surprised to see post after post offering and asking for help and advice of all kinds so that social media is here seen at its best — both contributing to and benefiting from the sense of a common community.
I suppose I should concede that Wallingford may not be entirely typical. As any of its estate agents will tell you, it is regularly listed as one of the ‘top ten places to live in the South of England’. Whether it can remain so is another matter: all who live in or near the town know that the need for more houses is putting pressure on the schools, the medical centre, the roads, car parks and council services. Nor should it be assumed that the town is without problems or that all of its families share in the advantages of living in one of the most prosperous parts of the country (Chapter x). But sitting in the market square on a Saturday morning in spring, watching the town go about its business and listening to the lovely voice of Charis Anne Luke who occasionally sets up to serenade shoppers with hits from the movies, it is impossible not to reflect, with a gratitude that borders on guilt, that this must be one of the very best places in the world to live.
As with any place one comes to love, there eventually comes a wish to know more. More about those quiet castle ruins (Chapter x). More about the mysterious banks and ditches protecting three sides of the town (Chapter x). About the blue and white plaque commemorating one of the most influential people ever born in these islands (Chapter x). About the world’s best-selling novelist who made Wallingford her home for forty years and whose seated bronze figure now gazes out over the Kinecroft (Chapter x). About the Victorian mansion in a business park and the dramatic steel-and-glass wave of an office building where the by-pass meets the Reading Road (Chapter x). About the curfew bell that is said to have sounded out over the town every evening for a thousand years (Chapter x). About the two five-hundred-year-old coaching inns whose arched entrances yawn into the High Street (Chapter x). About the story behind the oddly out-of-place war memorial on the corner of a residential street (Chapter x). About the ‘great coffee shop takeover’ of the town centre (Chapter x). About the orphan son of a Wallingford blacksmith who became the greatest mathematician of the age (Chapter x). About a wildly improbable rumour that has circulated about the town for the last 200 years (Chapter x). About the four sisters on Thames Street who, despite Victorian prejudice, all became Royal Academy artists. About the official statistic that ten per cent of the town’s children are growing up in poverty (Chapter x). And about the future facing those teenagers heading up St George’s Road each morning on their way to Wallingford School (Chapter x).
All of these wonderings and more have occurred as I have walked the streets of the town, attended the talks in St Mary’s church and read through the shelves of local lore in our town’s welcoming library. And as Wallingford is as well connected to the internet as the city, it was easy for curiosity to slip into research. The result is this book — a hymn to small towns in general and to Wallingford in particular. And just as my earlier book Landmark in Time set out to add to the pleasure of those who know and walk the nearby Wittenham Clumps, I hope that this book will add to the interest and enjoyment of those who have grown to know and love Wallingford as we have over the years.
[i] In medieval times, most houses in Wallingford were concentrated in the south-east quadrant of the town.
Peter Adamson, Slade End, 2024