Buckingham, but not the Palace

A LARGE GOLDEN SWAN with wings outstretched towers over the small town of Buckingham, once the county town of Buckinghamshire (until the 18th century, when Aylesbury took over this role) and now home to a respected private university, with whose founding my late father was to some extent involved. The gold-coloured copper swan surmounts a clock above the roof of an elegant late 18th century building on Market Square. Built in about 1783, this is The Old Town Hall, but not the oldest that the town has known.

The Old Town Hall was built to replace an even older one constructed in 1685 at the instigation of a local Member of Parliament, Sir Ralph Verney (1613-1696), during whose life the Civil War occurred. Initially on the side of the Parliamentarians, he fell out with them and fled abroad for a few years. After King Charles II gained the Throne, Verney returned to England where he served his people and the monarch.

In 1882, the clock was added above the Old Town Hall and upon this was placed the Swan of Buckingham, the borough’s crest. The wrought iron canopy over the main entrance was added early in the 20th century. The façade of the Old Town Hall faces another building, a well-known landmark and tourist attraction in the town, The Old Gaol, built in 1748 with its façade added in 1839.

The Old Town Hall was used for municipal administration until the 1960s when the local government headquarters were established elsewhere in the town. Now, the building is home to a firm of solicitors and the large metal swan high above their offices provides a nice perch for groups of the town’s pigeons.

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.