A historic town hall

FIRST WORLD WAR veteran William Frederick Stone died aged 108 in January 2009. He moved to Watlington in Oxfordshire in 1986 and lived the rest of his life in this small town. A popular figure in the town, he would have often passed the place’s Town Hall, which had been in existence even longer than him.

The name Watlington is probably derived from ‘tun’, meaning ‘fence’ or ‘enclosure’, and the people of ‘Wacol’ or ‘Waecol’, who also gave their name to the famous old road known as Watling Street. The town is close to another ancient cross-country route, the Icknield Way (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Icknield_Way). There is evidence that there was a settlement at Watlington in the 6th century AD. The current street layout was already established by the 14th century and that there were inns in the town by the following century. During the English Civil War (1642-1651), Parliamentary troops were billeted in the town on the night before the Battle of Chalgrove Field on the 18th of June 1643, a battle in which their opponents, the Royalists, were victorious (www.britishbattles.com/english-civil-war/battle-of-chalgrove/).

Twenty-one years after the battle, in 1664, Watlington’s town hall was built by Sir Thomas Stonor (c1626-1683). He lived at Stonor Park, which is 4.7 miles south east of Watlington. The Stonor family were Roman Catholics and retained their faith throughout the Reformation and suffered for that during the 16th and 17th centuries.

The brick town hall is unusual in that no two of its sides are equal in length and none of its corners are right angles (www.watlingtontownhall.com/history.html). Part of the ground floor is an arcade open to the outside air. This area was formerly used to hold markets. The first floor of the building served as a grammar school in the 19th century. The clock mechanism on the second floor is said to have come from the studios of the architect of St Paul’s Cathedral, Christopher Wren. This is not the only timepiece on the outside of the building. The other is a sundial, which has been gilded with 24 carat gold. The town hall was extended in the later 17th  or early 18th century (https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101369012-town-hall-watlington#.YH28eehKhPY)  and was restored faithfully in the 20th century. Currently, the first-floor room, the former school, and beneath it, the under croft, are available for hire for social and other functions.

We came across the town hall quite by chance when driving home from visiting the Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row. Today, we revisited the town on our way back from seeing several other places in Oxfordshire, about which I hope to tell you in the near future. Driving through England on roads other than motorways takes one through small towns and villages and many of these have features worth stopping to examine. Apart from the town hall, Watlington is a charming old place with several half-timbered buildings, cafés, and shops. Once again, a day trip to the countryside near London has proved rewarding.

St John’s finger

finger

It might have been in the Bargello, or more likely in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, both in Florence (Italy), that there was (and probably still is) an exhibit that captured my imagination when I was a young child. Amongst a collection of holy relics housed in elaborately crafted silver and glass containers, there was one holy relic that looked a bit like the stub of a discoloured cigar. It was, so the museum label stated, a bone from the index finger of St John the Baptist. Whether it was or was not, this item fascinated me, and even haunted me.

Many years later when I was looking into the story of St Appolonia, the patron saint of dentists, I read that one of the miraculous properties of the body parts of dead saints is their ability to reproduce themselves – a feature that must have been useful for those who used to sell such things. I am glad that I had not known this when I used to stare fascinated at St John’s finger, which I then believed to be exactly what it claimed. That would have spoilt my amazement, which I always felt when I saw that piece of bone in its ornate container.

 

Photo from flickr