Saturday, 7 August 2021

THAMES: 13) The Castle Vanishes

Privilege Forts like to appear immortal. That after all is how privilege protects itself: by seeding the belief that it’s innate, essential, morally ordained, rather than a violent seizure of power within history.
Can you look on a Tower of London or a Windsor Castle, and dare imagine the scene without them there?
How about the Thames’s other great castle?
Yes. There was a third. It was every bit as mighty, massive and politically consequential as the other two. Unlike them it actually had to fight off siege after siege after siege. And it did. It capped the entire set of core English strongholds; only those two were a match for its power and prestige.
Ever heard of Wallingford? Thought not.

Today the river brings us to a Privilege Fort of yesterday, although its retirement appears more comfortable than most. Nestled at the bottom of the Oxford Plain where once it guarded the Goring Gap, the little town of Wallingford potters quietly about in the rustic margins between Oxford and Reading. But get up close and poke it, and you might just get it to tell you the story of its days as the capital of the royal centre, the unbreakable shield of dynasties, and the pivot of those conquests, rebellions and civil wars in whose bloody crucible a shape was first carved for the English nation.
Which begs the question: What happened to it?
The castle once filled this entire plateau. Does something like that simply disappear? From memory as much as from landscape?
Perhaps it was murdered. Wallingford was also the later-life home of the detective-novel writer Agatha Christie – recognised by Guinness as the best-selling fiction writer of all time – as well as a principal filming site for the TV drama Midsomer Murders. One is advised to stay alert to suspicious middle-class people with knives and poisons leaping out from its innumerable little corners like this one.
This mystery awaits in a straight strike north from the Goring Gap. This is more or less a two-phase walk: there is the spruced-up high-bourgeois white fantasyland beyond Goring and Streatley, followed by a wilder push through Berkshire bush the rest of the way. All in all it’s very green, and if you can bear the typical all-pervading English structural injustice then it actually offers some really nice walking on a warm summer’s day like this one.
The river north of Streatley. There’s plenty of space to walk around people on this one, but be considerate on occasional narrower passages through foliage.

Among those injustices, do not forget, of course, that this country’s self-inflicted COVID-19 disaster goes on. While most of this route is out in the open, social distancing, face masks, and general hygiene considerateness are strongly advised in the built-up settlements and on public transport.
North from Goring Bridge, with the Swan Hotel of Streatley at left.
Start: Goring Bridge (nearest station: Goring and Streatley)
End: Wallingford Bridge (nearest station: Cholsey – 10 minutes by Bus 136 from Wallingford Market Place)
Length: 11.2km/7 miles
Location: Berkshire – West Berkshire; Oxfordshire – South Oxfordshire
Topics: Streatley, Moulsford, Wallingford: Saxon fort, Norman castle, English ruin

We begin by crossing back to the west riverbank for a quick duck through Goring-on-Thames’s counterpart of Streatley. The village’s name, suggesting a clearing (leah) on a road (stræt), identifies its long strategic importance. Most likely the road in question is the old north-south Roman road through the gap in the chalk hills, though it could also refer to the far older east-west Ridgeway.
The Swan Inn that dominates the Streatley riverside goes back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, though is thought to be considerably older. Its current incarnation is as a posh hotel, restaurant and rental space for functions.
Behind the Swan is Streatley’s St. Mary’s Church, a nineteenth-century extensive rebuild of a Norman thirteenth-century structure (which itself likely superseded one still older).
From there it’s straight into the woods and back to the river.

Hemmed in by the Berkshire Downs, Streatley is tiny, with Goring getting most new development when the railway came through. It ends almost as soon as it began, conceding the riverbank to a succession of farms and open fields.
For now the path is the remnant of the old working towpath, where horses once pulled barges along the river. Today’s terrain is easy walking for the most part.
Flower meadows abound on these reaches.
Meanwhile the lavish property-playgrounds of Goring sprawl their monied way up an east bank replete with gardens, follies and boatyards. Their growling lawnmowers puncture the chorus of insect and bird chirps, while the water itself endures a regular traffic of their pleasure-cruisers.
This one has the lookout turret for a cleverly-disguised subterranean bunker, no doubt for sheltering from the consequences of the English caste system.
Here on the west side, what was probably once a working inlet has been repurposed as a water feature for well-off residences.
A pleasant wide meadow then opens up, popular with such dog-walkers, picnickers, small children and fishing parties as are a frequent sight through this section. Here the pleasure-craft back up as they queue to get through Cleeve Lock, the only lock and weir we will pass today.
Some sizeable hard-worked thistles here.
Cleeve Lock is one of the smaller ones, built first in 1787 then rebuilt in 1874. Cleeve was a separate village that has since been absorbed into Goring.
The old mill with the weir has joined the ranks of Goring’s lavish private mansions. River travellers like to note that the downriver reach to Goring Lock is the Thames’s shortest between locks, while the upriver reach to Benson Lock (beyond Wallingford) is its longest.
Beyond the lock the property-incursions grow gradually sparser. To the west, views open up of golden wheat fields trailing off the Berkshire Downs.
The Leatherne Bottel on the east bank is another old establishment that has since been fancily done up by the leisured classes, in this case into the Don Giovanni Italian restaurant. It is something of a celebrity-magnet, but the site’s repute goes back at least three or four hundred years to when its springs were said to have medicinal properties and drew visitors over great distances.
A heron keeps a watchful eye on passers-by.
Eventually the river ducks into a copse of willow trees at Runsford Hole, a pocket of denser greenery that precedes the approach to the only settlement on this side between the Goring Gap and Wallingford.
Regrettably there’s lots of this too. In fact the land belongs only to itself, and you should refrain from the activities listed here out of consideration for the actual land and others who use it, not imaginary claims to its ownership.
Runsford Hole is obscure. Few clues remain as to where the name comes from, or what feature on this bit of river afforded it a name in the first place. These willows appear to be coppiced; perhaps they were regularly managed and harvested in earlier times. Osiers, they call them in that capacity. You can make lots of stuff out of them.
Younger willow shoots up thick here, necessitating a little pushing through their growths.
Now here’s another imaginary line. It is hereabouts that the wayfarer passes, unremarked, from Berkshire into Oxfordshire. However this has only been the case since the administrative reforms of 1974. For over a thousand years prior Berkshire extended some way further up the Thames’s western flank, beyond the Berkshire Downs and out across the Vale of White Horse.
To the west, the farmed slopes of the Berkshire Downs roll into the Oxford Plain. The Vale of White Horse runs off between these foothills and the Thames’s uppermost reaches.
It’s quite nice here. You could almost forget what a state this country is in. Almost. Countries which forcibly deport people for their skin colour don’t deserve to be allowed to forget it.
Suddenly there materialises a built embankment lined with small boats, followed by the re-emergence of affluent residences. It is the approach to Moulsford, a village that briefly breaks up this old Berkshire rurality.
One of these parts’ more bizarre riverside properties: Moulsford’s ‘Egyptian House’, completed in 1999 under apparent commission by a professional Egyptologist.
Moulsford was traditionally a manor held from Norman times by the ennobled Carew family, though more recently it has served as a hotel, US Air Force facility, and a nursing home before falling into private control. To more immediate aggravation it gave rise to another set of riverside property-grabs, thus forcing the towpath onto the opposite bank past another manorial remnant, the hamlet of South Stoke.
With the demise of the Moulsford Ferry by which the river workers got around this problem, wayfarers are left with no choice but to detour inland up the A329, the descendant of the old Roman road.
The Beetle and Wedge Boathouse – now another fancy restaurant – sits on the former timber wharf which ran the ferry until 1967. Its name records its prior incarnation as a workers’ trading inn: a beetle in this sense was a mallet used for driving wedges into logs, which would have been split here then floated down the river.
For all its long history, the road through Moulsford today has little to recommend it. The village is upper-bourgeois residential with a couple of prestigious private schools.
Moulsford’s little church, with distinct timber bellcote, is an 1840s Gothic Revival piece that replaced a twelfth-century chapel.
At the north end of the village the buildings and sports fields of Moulsford Preparatory School (boys only, because this is a shamefully gendered country) occupy a large riverside complex. Here they seem to be expanding across the road to build an additional school facility for smaller children.
Moulsford has one other major structure, which faces explorers who make it past the settled area and find the farm track back to the river.
Looks familiar?
Moulsford Railway Bridge is a monumental four-arch Isambard Kingdom Brunel piece much like its nearby counterpart at Gatehampton. Like that one it was constructed at the end of the 1830s to run the Great Western Railway up to Oxford, and has remained in decent service since with few structural alterations.
A boardwalk helpfully enables walkers to proceed through the westernmost arch without getting wet.
From this angle you can see it’s actually two bridges. They added the second in the 1890s to increase capacity, building it as close to Brunel’s design as they could.
From here the grass grows taller and the brush thicker with life. A more immersive nature walk through wooded fields and marshes offers a temporary respite from the nightmares of humankind.
Before, beyond, and through it all, there is the river.
Others have come and just as surely gone. No-one can own it or claim special entitlement to its services. All are its guests.
During an ITV interview in 2017, then-Prime Minister Theresa May, when asked to identify the naughtiest thing she’d ever done, infamously replied that she’d run through fields of wheat as a child. The blank stares might have subsided by now but the very image of English wheat fields may be forever tarnished by the association.
A Red Admiral butterfly. Crickets thrum through the meadows here, and a professional birdwatcher was encountered with camera fixed resolutely into the trees. This unbuilt stretch has got to be one of the most biodiverse on the middle Thames.
Even here however, this people’s dodgy history necessarily intrudes on the scene.
Sightings of these World War II pillboxes grow more frequent as we follow the river into Oxfordshire. One is led to suspect they were systematically installed under a single operation.
Goodness knows what this one is. It’s thoroughly overgrown and plastered with warning signs. Gateway to another world perhaps (if only).
By the time the towpath returns to this bank we are in Cholsey Marsh, a protected nature reserve. A rare riverside marsh that hasn’t been drained for agriculture, it provides a haven for birds like kingfishers as well as some very uncommon lily and snail species.
Historically the marsh extended further. On its inland side (up a road called Ferry Lane, where presumably an old ferry provided crossings between towpath segments) the village of Cholsey grew up in the Anglo-Saxon centuries on what was then an island in the marshes called Ceol’s Eye. It later passed to Reading Abbey, whose monks built a barn there in the fourteenth century to hold the taxes that farmers paid them in produce (tithes). Apparently one of the most massive barns ever built in the world, it was torn down in 1815 when later occupants lacked money to pay for its repair.
Cholsey Marsh.
Beyond the trees on the far bank is the tiny village of North Stoke.
Local hunter-gatherers toil for their dinner.
One of the most affirming experiences of exploring on foot has to be encounters with professional dog-walkers at just the moment the dogs are splashing in the river. Timed correctly, they will all bark and run at you and take turns to jump, pressing their wet paws on you and sniffing and nuzzling till you stroke them.
It’s pleasant out here. Make the most of it while you’re there, for you’ll still get your daily gaslighting by the Tories when you turn on the news in the evening.
This is one of a pair. They’ve set it back to cover the field...
...while on the opposite bank its partner perches over the water. In the event their defensive contributions were precisely nil. These days they no doubt make the country more vulnerable by keeping nationalist narratives of World War II salient in the minds of passers-by. Do they feel exceptional, when these enter their line of sight? As their minds fill with images of treacherous Europeans lurking hungrily round the edges of the picture, do they cast their support for those in their politics who feed on their xenophobic paranoia? As the Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole has observed, the English have never truly recovered from winning that war.
There. A field. No nationalists in it. It’s happy for you to stand in it no matter where you’re from or how much money you have. Let’s build bunkers to fortify it against the Home Office.
It’s not actually hiding. It’s trying to make you think it needs to hide, in order to imply that all foreigners are nefarious.
Slowly but surely, the bush falls away as people’s gardens creep up to the riverside. Wallingford is close.
This is unusual. Unlike most riverside residences we’ve witnessed, this string appears happy to have the towpath run across their lawns. With their regular benches and berths, they create the sense of a rare liminal zone that’s within the private fences but also comfortable for the public to exist in them.
Shield? Gong? Cooking pot? Ritual summoning instrument?
When the river doesn’t like it, it takes it back.
One last peculiar little village peeps across from the east bank here. I haven’t a clue how you’re supposed to pronounce Mongewell, but apparently it’s an Anglo-Saxon reference to the spring of someone called Munda. Its historic significance goes back way further, given its extensive Iron Age earthworks whose embankments and cuttings run east into the Chilterns. Perhaps they were defensive; more likely they eased access into the hills for routes like the Ridgeway.
More recently Mongewell manor house and its park were used by the RAF during World War II. It then became a Jewish boarding school called Carmel College, known for its eccentric Modernist architecture and – as seems so typical in this institutionally abusive country – an appalling sexual abuse scandal that didn’t properly emerge till two decades after the school’s closure in 1997.
Mongewell Park’s boathouse. The buildings stand derelict, and are occasionally used by film crews as they wait for developers to turn them into unaffordable housing.
This high up its course the water appears to glide so gentle, but as ever in its history there can be no underestimating its power. This is a fresh memorial to a local called Dean Luckett, who appears to have died in early July this year after getting into difficulties in the river during a fishing trip.
The A4130 bypass carries road traffic around Wallingford. The bridge’s construction in 1993 came with investigations into ancient archaeological sites on both banks, which it was positioned so as not to disturb.
No, you definitely do not want to tie or latch up any cows you might find in this field. Cows cannot be expected to take kindly to such an exercise. Also, there weren't cows.
The combination of river water and toxic politics has here given rise to a hairy alien life-form.

And now the fences and buildings hem in the towpath, dragging it at length into the goal of this section.
This house is the remnant of Wallingford Lock (a.k.a. Chalmore Lock), which only existed from 1838 to 1883. Used only in summer to raise the upstream water level, it fell into disrepair as the rise of the railways took money off the river, and was finally removed in the face of local opposition.
And here we have one of the firmest signs yet that we have entered Oxford University’s sphere of influence. This is no less than the headquarters of the Oxford University Boat Club, resurrected here after its original base, in Oxford itself, burnt down in 1999. Its rowers train rigorously here for the annual Boat Race in west London.
And as a couple of hotels and Wallingford’s own boat club (formerly a malt-house) enclose the riverside, we are funnelled towards Thames Street and into Wallingford proper.
At first sight, Wallingford is just another well-placed river crossing whose fertile fields and strategic routes have drawn settlers since at least the Bronze and Iron Ages. As is its way, the river has taken good care of their tools, ritual offerings and human remains, occasionally yielding samples to the inhabitants of today.
The way into Wallingford lies down ye-olde village streets like these, hemmed in by quaint houses which no doubt harbour the kinds of murderous interests Agatha Christie wrote about.
Wallingford has no fewer than three parish churches, plus several for more niche denominations. St. Leonard’s, here in the southeast corner near the river, is its oldest. Its Anglo-Saxon herringbone stonework is visible here, although much of the building had to be restored after heavy damage in the Civil War.
Closer to the bridge is the medieval church of St. Peter’s, likewise blown up in the Civil War then rebuilt. In another sign that Wallingford is special, this church’s doors are actually open so you can go in and poke around. Here in its floor is the tomb of William Blackstone (1723-80), probably England’s most influential judge, whose Commentaries on the Laws of England were foundational to both English and American law (including of course in the racist, sexist and property-fetishising ways for which both systems are traditionally known).
Wallingford’s name appears to derive from Welsh people’s ford in Anglo-Saxon Old English. It is of note that by following the road west from here you do eventually end up in Wales, but in those centuries ‘Welsh’ was a generic term among the Anglo-Saxon immigrants for the Celtic/Sub-Roman people who already lived here (and from whom the modern Welsh, who call themselves not Welsh but Cymry, ‘our fellows’, descend). The suggestion is that they had a significant presence in this settlement, and that as in much of England, the process by which the Anglo-Saxons superseded them was lengthy, complex, varied, and still incompletely understood.
Though a fording spot for as long as it’s existed (it’s in the name), a bridge is attested at Wallingford since at least 1141. It’s gone through several incarnations, the present dating to the 1810s when it was rebuilt following flood damage. Tolls were charged to cross until the 1930s.
Take this Welsh road west and two towns down you come to Wantage, birthplace of Alfred ‘the Great’: king of Wessex, then of the unified Anglo-Saxon peoples. Alfred is known among other things for the decisive defeats he dealt to the invading Vikings in the 870s, with whom he agreed the partition of not-yet-England and spent much of his reign seeing to the Saxon part’s long-term defence. At the heart of his strategy was the construction of a network of garrisoned forts, known as burhs (whence today’s boroughs). These served to protect against further invasions while anchoring the commercial and administrative life of their regions.
Some burhs, such as Alfred’s capital at Winchester, were adapted from existing (often Roman or older) fortified settlements. Others were new, and of these Wallingford’s position was deemed of sufficient importance to warrant one of the largest such investments. This was the policy which raised a small ford town into one of the two largest burhs in the country (along with Winchester), accumulating within its ramparts a busy population, a rich trading and crafting economy and even its own royal mint, as well as a network of connected manors in the surrounding farmland. By the turn of the millennium Wallingford had become in effect the provincial capital of Berkshire.
Of all Alfred’s burhs it’s also one of the best-preserved. This is the Kinecroft in the town’s southwest corner, which together with the Bullcroft to its north were set aside for grazing cattle. The view is from its rampart – the original Saxon defensive earthwork, which lines its west and south edges in remarkably good condition. The Kinecroft is now a public park and is used by the town for big community fairs and festivals.
Such a deep and lasting heritage breeds fearsome fungi.
Wallingford High Street. This appears to be mostly residences, with the town’s main shops and civic facilities clustered round its market square instead. The town’s planned street-grid system and rectangular ramparts, both still very apparent, for a time confused the later English into believing this was a Roman settlement.
All of a sudden Wallingford was a massive deal. So vital it became for controlling England that when the Normans took over in 1066, it was one of the very first places Duke William made for after his victory in the Battle of Hastings. Struggling to get into London, he instead brought his army up here. Wallingford’s thegn (Anglo-Saxon lord), Wigod, was sympathetic to the Normans and allowed them to cross the Thames unopposed. It was here they obtained the submission of Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, thereby conferring legitimacy that defused much continuing Saxon opposition to William’s claims to kingship. Meanwhile one of William’s minions married Wigod’s daughter, thereby beginning the planting of the Norman political nobility in the region’s manors.
William had his own, more extreme version of Alfred’s burh strategy: the construction of colossal Norman castles both to facilitate military control and to awe the populace into submission. Straight away three of his most formidable went on the Thames to protect the heartland of his new realm, of which two, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, we have passed already.
And the third? Well, here already was a successful Saxon fortified town, ideally positioned so as to guard the chalk pass and the ancient east-west routes. Where better?
Wallingford Castle meadows, north behind the high street. Another of Wallingford’s public green spaces. Nice rampart, no?
And there we are.
Wallingford Castle shot up within five years of the Norman takeover. Like its counterparts it was a motte-and-bailey monstrosity, with two rings of walls and towers overlooking the river and ford. And beyond its obvious defensive statement it was built with a full range of facilities to support active royal and administrative work: a Great Hall, living chambers, courthouses, chapels, kitchens and dining rooms, bakeries and breweries and spice and wine chambers, clerical accommodation, armouries, prisons, stables, storehouses, jousting lists and animal pens.
This main block of surviving ruins, larger in itself than many entire castles, was merely part of one of its chapels. To get a sense of the full complex’s scale requires a look past these walls...
...and out across the hill, all of which was encompassed within the castle’s walls and yards. There’s nowhere you can stand that lets you fit the entire site in your field of view at once.
This scale model in the Wallingford Museum gives some idea of this thing’s magnitude. North is to the right. Note the river and bridge in the bottom left.
The hill overlooks the roofs of Wallingford town. The spire is St. Peter’s Church (the Blackstone one).

Wallingford Castle’s first great test came after the death of Henry I, William the Conqueror’s youngest son who sought to consolidate Norman rule (including by commissioning Reading Abbey). Despite Henry’s efforts he’d still presided over a feudal patchwork of self-regarding (and frequently armed) barons and priests more than any semblance of a coherent state, and his dynastic plans came to grief when his most promising heir and son drowned in the Channel in the White Ship disaster of 1120. Thus with Henry’s own death in 1135 came the disintegration of any reliable succession system, and in its place, a vicious two-decades-long power struggle between two of William the Conqueror’s grandchildren.
Of this pair, Henry I’s daughter Matilda – or Empress to her face – had the more compelling claim, backed up by direct descent as well as marriages first to the German Holy Roman Emperor (whence her title) and second to the Count of Anjou (now in France, then a powerful principality in its own right), giving her wide-ranging continental support, connections and resources. But her reputedly arrogant and domineering manner alienated many of the English barons and priests (or maybe they and/or later historians were simply misogynistic who knows?), such that when Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois (another combative French county) reached England first and declared himself king, a number of them threw their lot in with him. Many others, perhaps the majority, had no vested interest in one ruler or another and would direct their private armies for their own gain through the carnage and social breakdown that followed when Matilda, having secured Normandy, came in force across the Channel in 1139.
Later historians would call this period The Anarchy. It is hard to consider it a true civil war; unlike the Civil War five centuries later it was more an elite feudal free-for-all with no meaningful popular or constitutional stake in its outcome. But that hardly made it any less ugly and miserable for the people of both the urban centres and rural expanses over which Matilda’s and Stephen’s conflict, both direct and by baronial proxy, rampaged back and forth for twenty years. The fighting spread across the claimants’ realms on both sides of the Channel, swaying in favour of one side then the other, with either getting cornered or captured then escaping at least once.
But there was, perhaps, one pivot to which the contest kept returning; one stronghold which just wouldn’t fall.
Secured early by Matilda, Wallingford Castle was besieged by Stephen no fewer than three times in this war. But it proved just too strong to take, even when the would-be king had counter-castles built across the river to pile on the pressure. It also featured in what grew into one of the more mythic episodes of the war: Matilda’s personal escape from a surrounded Oxford in the winter of 1141, in which she is said to have fled by a postern gate at night, crossed the frozen river on foot, sneaked past Stephen’s armies in the camouflage of a white gown, and from there rode to the safety of her Wallingford garrison.
Within a few years the conflict had degenerated into a attritional slog, and by the 1150s into a stalemate in which everyone was exhausted. Stephen made one last committed attempt on Wallingford in 1152 and almost succeeded in starving the castle into submission – only for Matilda’s son with the Count of Anjou, the future Henry II, to come to its relief. By this point the worn-out nobles in both armies had had enough, and they went round their leaders to drag each other into peace talks.
The resulting Treaty of Wallingford of 1153 effectively ended the struggle in a compromise. Stephen got to keep the throne – but after he died it would be Matilda’s son Henry, and thus her Angevin line, that succeeded him. Conveniently for the latter, Stephen died the very next year, paving the way for Henry II to bring the Anglo-Norman and Angevin domains together into a singular realm. His marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine brought yet more land into a territory which now stretched from the Scottish frontiers to the French Mediterranean: a composite kingdom which was disparate, quarrelsome, and sure as hell unsustainable.
By a certain standard Wallingford Castle had succeeded, and spectacularly. William’s stronghold held the line long enough for his crumbling Norman legacy to reassemble under a far-reaching dynasty whose bloodthirsty ambitions, and failures to attain them, would drag England into its lasting unified shape; a dynasty that would get named for the yellow broom plant on the Anjou crest, the planta genista, that is to say, Plantagenet. But in more meaningful terms that legacy was bloody, violent and cruel. The pattern it set was for the terrorisation, starvation, imprisonment and torture of the populace beneath the violence of petty ruling-class power struggles – an effect heightened, not lessened, when the monarchs wrecked their own authority in this way, and so haemorrhaged it to local bullies and alternative power structures; that is to say, those barons and priests, who would trouble Henry II and his successors for centuries to come. And it would propel the Plantagenets into their long and futile war with the coalescing French, culminating in the loss of all these continental territories, another round of inward bloodletting in the Wars of the Roses, and the emergence, from their piles of corpses, of the Tudor dynasty that would build the troubled template of English modernity.
Wallingford’s fifteenth-century treasure chest, now on display in the Wallingford Museum. The wood is thought to be Prussian spruce, found only in certain parts of Eastern Europe and thus a symbol of the reach of the castle town’s trade connections.
The suffering of Wallingford’s population over twenty years of on-and-off siege was typical of this, but for its service to the Angevin settlement the new king rewarded it handsomely. The town became only the second in England to get a Royal Charter, granting it a vast range of privileges. Subsequent kings like John and Henry III would expand the castle, adding a third ring of walls and towers, and for several centuries it would serve as a favoured stronghold for monarchs who, in their perennial struggles with rebellious barons, oft fell back on it for its impervious reputation.
Which once more raises the question: what happened to it?
Decline, when it came, seems to have washed over Wallingford in waves. The mid-fourteenth-century bubonic plague pandemic devastated the town, which then found its recovery hampered by a growing rivalry with Abingdon upriver, especially as the latter built bridges and got the main London-to-Gloucester road diverted through it. By the rise of the Tudors the castle itself was crumbling round the edges, overlooked perhaps in part because the Wallingford area offered little to sate Henry VIII’s hunting obsession. A practice emerged of taking stones off it to improve his and his daughters’ preferred castles like Windsor. Cardinal Wolsey’s closure of Wallingford’s priory in 1525, in a prologue of sorts for his king’s subsequent rampage against the monasteries, must have done the town’s prosperity and prestige few favours either.
Nonetheless the castle was formidable enough to take the loss of a few bits of wall. Such was its tried and tested reputation that when the English fell about each other in their worst bout of bloodshed yet – the much more serious, gunpowder-charged business of the actual Civil War this time – Wallingford’s strength as a stronghold was remembered and called upon just as it had been so many times before.
When King Charles I failed to take back London in 1642, he pulled his army upriver and made Oxford his headquarters. This put Wallingford front and centre in the defensive ring of fortified towns by which the Royalists shielded their wartime capital from parliamentary assault. The king appointed one of his nobles, Colonel Thomas Blagge, as governor of the Wallingford garrison, and much as at Reading the populace was made miserable as soldiers got billeted in their houses and looted their crops, animals, valuables and building materials to repair and supply the castle.
In some ways they fared better than Oxford’s other satellites. Just as in its heyday, Wallingford Castle held the line as tides of English blood swept its surrounding towns and fields from one side to the other. It was secure enough for Charles to visit Wallingford in person on numerous occasions, and even for Colonel Blagge’s wife to give birth and hold a fancy Christening ceremony for the new baby. Its walls were impenetrable. They held even as the war turned against the Royalists everywhere else; even as in 1644 Abingdon above and Reading below both fell to Parliament; even the following year when the Royalist army was all but obliterated at Naseby; and even the year after that, 1646, when Oxford itself fell, leaving Wallingford on its own as one of the last Royalist holdouts in the country.
With Charles taken prisoner and the war (or at least the initial phase of it) all but lost beyond its walls, there was nothing left for Wallingford to defend. After a four-month siege Colonel Blagge surrendered it to parliament’s General Fairfax in July 1646, by mutual agreement and under very generous terms.
Once more the old castle had endured. The monarchy’s enemies couldn’t defeat it here; they had had to defeat it everywhere else instead. The castle had made, and survived, its final stand...
...only to die without a fight once the war was over.
With unrest lingering on into the 1650s, the parliamentary regime – that is to say, Oliver Cromwell’s military junta – feared that Wallingford’s Royalist sympathies might be re-ignited against it in future. In 1652 the order was given to slight, that is, demolish, the castle to the point where it no longer offered any military utility.
And so, just like that, Wallingford Castle, invincible through half a millennium of sieges, was wiped from existence.
Aside from the main block of ruins and the earthworks, lone shards of masonry like this are all that survived the castle’s demolition and the looting of its debris for buildings elsewhere.
Today the ruins stand largely unremarked in the Castle Meadows.
These fine fellows now use the Castle Meadows for summer grazing.
Instead of walls and towers, the castle site now has only this one grumpy bull to defend it.
He does his best.
Wallingford’s days as a nationally-significant Privilege Fort were over. It had been plagued, shelled, impoverished, and ultimately eclipsed by the rise of more illustrious neighbours, leaving it to face a long slog to recovery in increasingly competitive industrial times. That said, it seems to have made a pretty decent go at it. Bereft of its castle and defensive purpose it gradually re-invented itself as a market town, adding brewing, malting and iron-founding to its steady agricultural base.
As with the Thames’s other industrial towns, most of those works made it well into the twentieth century before disappearing. Yet with all the caveats of viewing it through a stranger’s eye, Wallingford seems, on the surface at least, to have staved off the worst of the modern poverty and hollowing-out we have seen in many such towns left to struggle to find their way, such as Reading or Maidenhead.
Wallingford’s market square, revived to new importance in industrial times. The old Town Hall (centre) came up in 1670 after the restoration of the monarchy, and later had William Blackstone working there as the town’s legal advisor. Behind it is Wallingford’s third parish church of St. Mary-le-More, whose present incarnation is Victorian, but whose predecessor was damaged in the Civil War and rebuilt with stones from the castle.
The marketplace’s narrow streets are still lined with antique buildings, containing either traditional shops or modern ones. The ambience is refreshing, even if the English flags might set off alarm bells.
The old Corn Exchange: built in 1856, now a local cinema and theatre.
Perhaps Wallingford’s historical weight, the way it’s built into the very shape of the town, has given its inhabitants a stronger stake in protecting it. Or perhaps its position in a railway blind-spot, having lost its rail extension in the Beeching Cuts (it now runs only as a heritage railway), has diverted the more ravenous property speculators off its terrain. In any event Wallingford’s landscape seems to breathe more freely than most settlements in its position – its character preserved, its cobblestones and greenery cherished, its wealth clearly present but not ostentatiously flaunted.
One expression of this is its superb local museum, which is run entirely (and COVID-consciously) by local volunteers on a charity basis and has filled a tiny fifteenth-century flint cottage on the west road with thoughtful, detailed and immersive displays and archaeological finds. But Wallingford’s feel is perhaps exemplified best of all by its castle ruins. For all its storied gravity, no attempt has been made to sensationalise, touristify, or otherwise cheaply cash in on these stones. Instead they stand organically in a public park, left just as they are to tell their own story to those curious enough to seek it out. The ruins are free to enter and frequented by locals resting, strolling or having picnics, while cows graze what were once their walled-up yard, and small children roll yelping with glee down embankments which no longer offer their protection to the unaccountable English authoritarians of one day or the next.
Perhaps it’s better like this. The walls of castles like Windsor and the Tower still do what walls typically do: exclude. They keep your feet off the carpet, your hands off the treasures, your commoner’s scent out of privileged nostrils and your eyes off dirty national secrets (unless of course you can fork out for a ticket then keep to where you’re told.) Alone amongst them, the walls of Wallingford Castle no longer exclude. Their story, of the impermanence of power, is everyone’s to hear.
If you wish to explore this area yourself, be advised that Wallingford is the first waypoint on this journey without its own train station. Regular buses run between the market square and the closest station at Cholsey, which lacks facilities in or around the station, keeps its toilets and waiting rooms locked, offers no shelter or shade on the southbound platform, and is regularly passed by nonstop or heavy goods trains at high speed. But at least you can listen to the meeh meeh of sheep in the surrounding fields while waiting an hour for your train.
Very special thanks to the Wallingford Museum and its volunteers for informing much of this article, as well as their care for ensuring a safe visit in pandemic conditions.

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