Heard of Wallingford? Probably not, but in the Domesday Book of 1085 it was named as one of only 18 towns in the country with more than 2,000 inhabitants. Wallingford was BIG in the middle ages. Founded in the 9th century at the lowest point of the Thames, a natural fording place, it still has the same medieval layout.
‘I’m going to see a castle built by William the Conqueror’ , I announce. ‘Want to come?’ The husband’s face glazes over – that’s a no then. Just 20 miles from home, this market town sits between Oxford and Reading. It’s a short drive along country roads swirling with falling leaves. The whole world is orange right now, which brightens up the short, dark Autumn days.
With a population of around 12,000, Wallingford is clearly not as significant as it was in the 11th century, and since 1141 it does have a bridge, so no more wading across the Thames is necessary. Good news, as it looks quite deep to me… After parking the car, I start by walking along the old Saxon earthworks that once fortified the town on three sides. The town once filled this whole area, but now there are two large parks, the Kine Croft and the Bull Croft.
Next, I head for the Castle Gardens. This walled enclosure surrounds the old moat, empty now except on the very wettest days. On the other side of the channel are the earthworks where William’s castle once stood. Only a few remnants remain now of the structure that was begun in 1067. I’m quite relieved I didn’t bring the husband now- he would probably be quite scathing, ‘Not much of a castle!’.
Fresh from the Battle of Hastings, the Conqueror was made welcome in the important town of Wallingford, and he rewarded the citizens with a mighty fortress and an extra hour before curfew. The lucky locals were allowed to stay out until 9pm rather than the usual 8pm. Woohoo! Restrictions are nothing new, you see.
Today the Castle Meadows are peaceful, but in the past they were anything but. Wallingford Castle was a royal residence for almost 600 years and it saw plenty of drama during that time. In the 12th century a fierce civil war, known as The Anarchy, broke out over whether the throne should go to the King’s daughter, Matilda, or her cousin Stephen.
Wallingford was loyal to Matilda, even though it wasn’t common for a woman to inherit in those days. I’m liking this place already – very forward thinking. Unfortunately, Matilda didn’t become Queen, but thanks to the support and refuge provided by the town, the Treaty of Wallingford ensured that her son would become King after Stephen. Oh well, it’s better than nothing!
In the 13th century, dastardly old King John used Wallingford Castle in his battle against the Barons prior to the Magna Carta. Thanks to him, it became even more fearsome as a fortification, one of the largest and most impressive in England. Hard to believe now, but it once looked like this…
The Castle was next involved in uproar in the 14th century, when Edward II contraversially gave it to his closest friend, and perhaps lover, Piers Galveston. Galveston and the King held a tournament at the castle in 1307, where Piers made the mistake of winning against members of the nobility. They never forgave him for his arrogance, and this led to his murder in 1312.
Moving on to the 15th century, the Tudor dynasty began right here at Wallingford Castle when a wily Welshman named Owen Tudor managed to seduce the widow of Henry V. Their grandson would go on to take the throne, but ironically their great-grandson would prove the downfall of Wallingford Castle. Henry VIII didn’t like the place, and to add insult to injury he started to take away stone from the buildings to extend his home at Windsor, just along the Thames.
The Castle finally met its end in the 17th century, when the town was faithful to the Royalist cause of Charles I, who was holed up in Oxford. Wallingford was the last stronghold to surrender to the Roundheads – seriously, these people are amazing! Oliver Cromwell decided that Wallingford was too much of a risk, and ordered the total demolition of the fortress.
Since the demise of the castle, the most illustrious residents of the town have been Agatha Christie and Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby in Midsomer Murders (Causton is actually Wallingford). On a grey day in lockdown you can certainly imagine dark deeds taking place here (there are a few alleys to skulk along) but I’m sure it looks quite different in the sunshine.
The town itself is made up of just a few narrow streets allowing one way traffic only. There were once 14 churches here, of which just three remain. It does still have a large number of old pubs and coaching inns, the oldest of which, The George, opened in 1517. More evidence of the good taste of the Wallingfordians.
The last part of my walk takes me along the river on the Thames Path, my favourite route, although it’s not at its most beautiful today, a brown, muddy-looking torrent. Another successful venture into the past to keep me entertained during lockdown. Where next?