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History of Faringdon in the Royal County of Berkshire
by David Nash Ford


Cotswold Fringe Market Town

Cole's Pits, in the parish, were a local tourist attraction as early as 1687. Were they pit dwellings? For Saxons? There are 273 pits within 14 acres. They are between 7 & 22ft deep, and up to 40ft in diameter. Coll may mean "a hill" or a river name, "the River Coll"; or it may be a personal name, Coll or Col. Legend does say that Old King Cole lived here. The pits, however, are probably Neolithic flint mines like those at Grimes Graves (Norfolk).

Some say King Alfred the Great burnt his famous cakes at Faringdon, though this episode is usually assigned to Athelney in Somerset. The Wessex Kings certainly had a Saxon Palace in Faringdon, probably near the church. In 925 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

King Edward [the Elder] passed away, in Mercia, at Faringdon, and his son Aelfweard very soon after - sixteen days - at Oxford; their bodies lie at Winchester.

Some, however, think this incident happened at Farndon-on-Dee (Chesh).

Later, in 1144, Robert, Earl of Gloucester built a castle in Faringdon Clump (an old Iron Age hillfort) at the behest of his son, Philip. Philip had been holding Cricklade Castle (Wilts) for his aunt, the Empress Matilda, but had suffered badly from Royalist attacks and wanted another friendly stronghold in the Thames Valley. Unfortunately, no sooner had the place been built than King Stephen arrived to lay siege to it. Robert refused to send reinforcements and, after only a four-day siege, the castellan, Brian De Soulis, capitulated. Soon after, Philip, exasperated by his father's inactivity, surrendered up Cricklade and joined King Stephen's cause. Rumour had it that the two Imperialists had conspired together, letting the enemy into Faringdon by night in order to safeguard their own futures. The castle was partly excavated in 1935, when some of Stephen's men, who had fallen in the assault, were found in the encompassing ditch. The dig preceded the erection of, what may be, the latest folly in England. Faringdon Folly is a 140ft brick tower built on a whim for Lord Berners. It has a lookout room at the top.

In medieval times the place was sometimes called Chipping Faringdon, on account of its well-known market. Faringdon Abbey stood in the town for a very short time: between 1203 & 5. It was quickly moved to Beaulieu (Hants). The Beaulieu foundation legend about King John's gift of land for a monastery after a nightmare in which he was whipped for being nasty to a bunch of Cistercian Monks, belongs therefore to Faringdon and not the greater Abbey which replaced it. A grange was built on the old Abbey site and kept at Faringdon right up to the dissolution. Aerial photography has revealed its site just north of the town. The Salutation Inn probably relates back to this religious association of the town, for it refers to the Archangel Gabriel's Annunciation to the Virgin Mary. The Crown Hotel in the market place has a Georgian facade, but it hides a pretty courtyard with a 14th century range and Jacobean staircase. It faces the old tuscan-columned Town Hall, one of the two old-style 17th century market halls left in Berkshire.

Faringdon House was, for many generations, home of the Pyes, an interesting family who originated in Wales: the name comes from Ap Hugh meaning "Son of Hugh". Their most famous family member was a very bad 18th century poet laureate who is referred to in the rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence as the Pye in which the 24 blackbirds were baked! During the Civil War, the town supported the King, as did the Lord of the Manor, Sir Robert Pye Senior. A considerable Royalist garrison was stationed here as an outpost from Oxford. The King was a visitor after retreating from the Second Battle of Newbury. Sir Robert's son, Sir Robert Pye Junior, however, was a Roundhead, the brother-in-law of the staunch parliamentarian, John Hampden. To top matters, Fairfax ordered Pye Junior to command the forces besieging his own father's house. The manor was in ruins by the time it surrendered in June 1646 (the present house is c.1780), and the church spire had been blown to pieces. The churchyard is thought to be haunted by the headless ghost of Sir Robert's son, Hampden. His wicked step-mother is supposed to have had his head blown off at sea! In the church, you can still see one of the parliamentary cannon balls that attacked it. There are also some beautiful monuments to the Unton family of Wadley House (Littleworth), notably that of Sir Thomas and his wife (1533) which shows the One Tun rebus that plays on their name. Faringdon Church was a Saxon Minster, but the present building is mostly 13th century. This was the period in which it had its own anchoress, named Childlove. Unlike many hermits, she was quite well off. Having property to maintain her, she rented it out to Oseney Abbey for a substantial annual return.

The large black Berkshire Pig, now a rare domestic breed seen mostly in preservation establishments, was developed in this area of North Berkshire. The local farmers who originally bred them would, no doubt, be surprised to learn that their meat is now a Japanese delicacy!

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