Pevsner, Pepys and the Mystery of the Disappearing Balcony: a Pevsner Walk around Abingdon

Back at the start of July - according to our own breathless publicity - we organised a 'unique and one-off' walk around Abingdon in the company of Dr Simon Bradley, editor of the new revised 'Buildings of Britain' series, updates of the original Pevsner guides from the 50s and 60s.

The walk was a huge success - in fact, it was more than that. Thanks to a combination of a knowledgable and passionate guide, gorgeous weather, generous volunteer help, the magical buildings we visited and event a few serendipitous elements (including a choir and bell-ringers) - it was genuinely one of the best events we've ever organised. Nicki and I are usually too keyed-up, and in full-on control-freak mode when we run events to enjoy them fully, but in this case we both had a relaxing enjoyable time.

Anyway, a lovely event. But as we limited the numbers to 50, there were lots of disappointed people. In fact, we had a waiting list of more than 50 who couldn't attend. So, as soon as the event was over, we hastily - and shamelessly - talked everyone (including Dr Bradley) to return to Abingdon and run a Pevsner walk "the second". It took place last Monday, and - if anything - was even better than the first.

Starting in the Mostly Books courtyard garden, Dr Bradley quickly introduced himself, the walk and - importantly - the Pevsner guides. These are legendary amongst those that are passionate about this country's architecture, but the full story of the workaholic German emigreƩ polymath - Dr Nikolaus Pevsner - was one we had to wait for until the end of the walk, brilliantly summarised by Dr Bradley over wine and strawberries in the Abbey Buildings.

One with the walk. It was out of the bookshop, turn right, up Stert Street to the Abbey Gateway, between the Guildhall and St Nicolas Church. As Pevsner himself said "'99 out of 100 people nowadays do not look at buildings at all unless by special effort… Those who care to embark on expeditions of their own will find that looking at houses can be entertainment as well as an object lesson, a family well as a treasure hunt.".

Dr Bradley used this small corner of Abingdon to illustrate the vast number of styles and changes that can exist in buildings - the stories these changes tell, and the detective work that often needs to be done to uncover how a building has changed. In the picture above, the 'panel' in the abbey gateway wall used to be the window of a Porter's Lodge, and when the lodge was removed and the window bricked up, the inside roof was repaired in the older style.

Above the Abbey Arch for example is a catholic statue of Mary, notable for surviving the Reformation...

...and the side wall of St Nicolas Church, for example, was rebuilt after its damage during a riot in the town.

The upper-half of the Guildhall is in a Georgian style, simply built on top of the older building - and the curious 'dangling' (I think Dr Bradley used the term 'naive') columns is actually because there used to be a balcony here - and why it disappeared is something of a mystery.

It was then across the road and down East St Helen Street, to the back of County Hall (Abingdon Museum). Pevsner didn't mince his words about this building in 1966: "Of the free-standing town halls of England with open ground floors this is the grandest". Here is a shot of the back of the museum from the air, courtesy of the Friends of Abingdon Museum:

There are plenty of buildings up and down England with a claim to be linked with Sir Christopher Wren, but the evidence for this building is strong. Built by Christopher Kempster, a stonemason and architect who worked with Wren on St Paul's Cathedral, the building has technology - particular in its windows and floor - that was state-of-the-art for the time (1680).

(In fact, if you stand under the hall arches and look up, the rather medieval-looking wooden roof is a later addition hiding the more modern floor.)

What Dr Bradley did point out - and the reason for coming round the back of the building - is that the back stairwell is a 'bolt-on' probably drafted at a later stage. I've certainly never noticed it, but when you are up close it's a remarkable clash of styles, with half-hearted attempts to blend in with what may have been an original design by Wren (and obvious from the aerial shot above).

We then headed down East St Helen Street to St Helen's Church:
It's the second widest church in England (with 5 aisles), demonstrating the wealth and status that Abingdon once had, and home to an impressive medieval painted panelled ceiling that I am ashamed to say I never knew existed.
We split into two groups - one group stayed to admire the church, the other visited the Long Alley Almshouses, and possibly the most remarkable place on the walk, the Christ's Hospital Hall.

The Long Alley Almshouse are run by Christ's Hospital, Oxfordshire's oldest charity which traces its origins back to an ancient chantry, The Guild of Our Lady, in 1247 (possibly older).

An impressive porch contains paintings by Oxford painter Sampson Strong:

(here's a link to a painting of Thomas Wolsely by Sampson Strong - but of the Almshouse paintings, this is my favourite. The language seems very contemporary somehow: "God is well pleased"...)

No photos are allows inside Hospital Hall, a compact but dazzling Jacobean hall, complete with a row of tudor sandbuckets along one wall. By the door is a poor box, into which Samuel Pepys placed 2s, 6d on his visit here in June 1668 (David Rayner's fabulous 'Abingdon Walks' website includes a Pepys walk for the interested).

Then it was back up East St Helen's Street to the Guildhall, and a brief look across to the Old Gaol...
...although I was more interested in this arts-and-crafts style chimney breast, outside the Roysse Room, designed by the architect Harry Redfern, who achieved fame as the chief architect of the New Model Inn, part of the state-owned brewery set-ups around important munition centres during the First World war (again, never heard about this - an absolutely fascinating part of British wartime history).

Finally, into Thames Street, up the steps through the Unicorn Theatre - and then into the Checker, part of the surviving Abbey Buildings, for refreshments in the Long Gallery. The Friends of Abingdon did an amazing job of serving up strawberries and cream, and wine, whilst Dr Bradley talked about the room and answered questions.
All that remained was for Dr Bradley's obligatory pose with the bookseller, clutching copies of the new Berkshire edition of the Buildings of England guide (it's official name):
("But Abingdon isn't in Berkshire." you say. Ah, but it was, and Yale have (somewhat controversially) stuck to the original country boundaries used by Pevsner himself, which pleased a number of people who still remember the stalinist re-assignment of north-Berkshire to Oxfordshire in the 1970s, and which still rankles).

Our thanks to Dr Bradley, to the Friends of Abingdon (particularly Hester Hand and Jenny Berrell), to Michael Matthews and the other trustees of Christ's Hospital, and to Linda Barker and the wardens at St Helen's Church who opened it up especially for us. Plenty of other people helped out on the evening - our sincere thanks to them, because it wouldn't have been half the event if it hadn't been for the help they offered.

Both events were superb - as I say, two of the best of events we've ever organised and I would love to think we could do something heritage-wise every year...


  1. This sounds an excellent excursion - and I love the quote from Pevsner's Treasure Hunts. I've recently finished a biography of Pevsner - the website for the book is at - and I'm interested in collecting original edition paperback Pevsners. Could you tell me whether you have any for sale?
    Susie Harries
    Susie Harries

  2. Susie - that's a cracking website, when is the book published?

    Sadly I haven't any originals (though I know several of our customers have the original Berkshire editions).

    So let me know more about the book - having had my appetite well and truly whetted about Pevsner, we may well be up for an event...

  3. Publication next year, by Chatto - and an event would be excellent, perhaps in cahoots with the Pevsner Guides, as it will be the 50th anniversary of the publication of the very first Buildings of England volume ?

  4. Let's do it! Please get in touch once you know a date and we can plan accordingly...

  5. Wow. I'm sorry I missed them. Do put me down on waiting list no.3 if you do another.