Witney: A Quiet Town in Unquiet Times

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Witney, a modest country town twelve miles to the west of Oxford, has stood in one form or another for centuries. Its small size, and the modern, blank-faced housing estates which are springing up in a ring around the original town (in keeping with many areas of Britain, Witney has been instructed to provide thousands of new homes over the next few years), seemingly declaring it to be merely a conurbation serving Oxford and Banbury, are belied by the town's history. The persistence and prudence of the people of Witney have allowed them to survive and thrive, as demonstrated during many turbulent periods, and are being shown again in the present Foot and Mouth Crisis.

Driving in from Oxford on the A40, visitors catch their first sight of the town from the brow of Oxford Hill: a neat quilt of older, cinnamon buildings clustered with modern redbrick developments. This is the town centre, the spine of which is High Street, offering the usual array of newsagents, electricians, banks, shoe shops, and tea rooms, with original dwelling places radiating out from it. Continue down Oxford Hill and swing onto High Street, and you will pass on your left 'Witan Way', named for the Witangemot, or council meetings, held by Anglo-Saxon settlers (evidence of whom can be found on Corn Street which stretches away from the other end of High Street). In 969 King Edgar signed over a tract of land called 'Wyttanige' to one of his thegns; maps of the time show a piece of land which was effectively an island in the Old Channel of the River Windrush, connected to the mainland by a causeway on its north-easterly side. The notion of a community, which is self-contained yet anchored to the outside wo rld, seems highly apposite. Throughout history, Witney appears to have been close to the centre of many events, whilst not always at the centre of them.

Continue down High Street, past a well-frequented Somerfield's supermarket on the right and an outlet of Boots the Chemists on the left. Further on, you pass a chic Ask restaurant and a pub on your right: opposite them stand the Corn Exchange, a civic meeting place now used for special events (Terry Waite, the former hostage, gave a speech and signed books there last Christmas), and the town's cinema. Corn Street is on your right. Ahead of you lies Church Green, a picturesque common where John Wesley delivered sermons (commemorated by 'Wesley Walk' shopping lane off High Street). There is a sober and well-tended war memorial in front, lined on both sides by grey stone houses, some now turned into businesses (a hairdresser's wares can be seen through the bay window of one, the town's career service is accommodated in another). Witney's first church, St. Mary's-on-the-Green, stands at the far end. It was built in the thirteenth century by Bishop Peter des Roches as part of a general updating of the town, which also included the laying of a new market place. A sharp eye might make out a carved monkey that escaped and scampered up the side of the tower. Beside St. Mary's there is a short row of small, dainty cottages, administered by the Church, for the use of its employees and other deserving families.

From the churchyard, you can make out a white canopy behind a screen of trees in the grounds of a grand house to one side of the Green. The house is now a community care centre; beside it are the excavated remains of a bishop's palace. Witney's geographically central position led to its growing importance in national affairs from the mid-1000s onwards. Stigand, Bishop of Winchester, began the construction of the Palace, which was modified and developed by his successors. From 1129-71 the see of Winchester was held by Henry of Blois, King Stephen's brother. The period 1135-50 witnessed a civil war between Stephen and Queen Matilda, who laid claim to the throne. Henry initially supported his brother, hoping his loyalty would be rewarded with the addition of the see of Canterbury to that of Winchester (as had been done for Stigand). …