Abbey Gardens – Award-winning Green Flag Status Park

Abingdon has two parks with 19th century origins: Albert Park which was purpose-built to provide recreation for the townspeople and the Abbey Gardens which were originally a private garden laid out by Edwin J Trendell on the site of Abingdon Abbey.

In 1853 Mr Trendell purchased Abbey House, now known as Old Abbey House. It stood in extensive grounds of some 16 acres, boasting a formal Italian garden and a rock garden with gothic ruins which have continued to mislead unwary visitors into thinking it is Abingdon Abbey.

In addition there were paddocks, orchards, a boating lake and boathouse adjacent to the Mill Stream plus a gardener’s cottage, large greenhouse, stabling, cowsheds and piggeries.

The estate was bounded on the north by the railway sidings and the lane now Abbey Close to the south. The western boundary abutted the rear walls of properties in Stert Street. To the east lay open countryside.

In 1923 Abingdon Borough Council bought Abbey House from the executors of Bishop Randall who had succeeded Trendell as owner. The house and gardens were a very attractive proposition providing office accommodation for all council officials and a flat for the newly appointed Town Clerk.

The extensive grounds would provide space for a new highways depot with access from Station Road, and the portion alongside the railway was a valuable building site. The gardens were already suitable for public recreation.

Alderman A E Preston, one of the negotiators, considered the meadow land might provide suitable sites for bungalows. There was general agreement was that this historic site should be in public ownership.

In the late 1920s the Borough Council began to sell plots for development on the north side of the grounds. The Berkshire Territorial Association was the first to secure land to build its new Drill Hall, later used by the Girl Guides.

The church authorities secured a plot behind St Nicolas’ Church for a parish hall, partly financed by selling individual bricks to parishioners. The large greenhouses and orchard were rented out as a market garden to local greengrocer Mr Williams, whose lease also included a large meadow where the council had grazed its own horses before adopting the internal combustion engine.

In the early 1940s land was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence as an army salvage depot. In 1946 the council proposed that this area should be cleared by the military, the surface covered with ash and rolled before being handed back. Progress was slow; two years later, councillors were still expressing dissatisfaction.

Development of the grounds for light industry began in earnest in the mid-1950s when 6 acres of the former grazing meadow were sold to William Press & Sons Ltd., probably widely remembered for converting local homes to natural gas in the early Seventies. The new access roadway, a continuation of the former Station Road, allowed the land next to the railway line to become a mixed development of offices and light industrial units. Local printers, Burgess & Son, moved from cramped premises in Stert Street to a site adjacent to William Press in 1962 and the DHSS - forerunner of the DSS – occupied offices here in the early seventies. A new cattle market with pedestrian access from Stert Street opened in 1958 and survived until 1988.

The most memorable sight was the 165 feet high MasterVision Trust aerial soaring above the tree tops. This venture brought cable television to Abingdon in 1962. Many Abingdon residents will remember the loops of cabling which reduced the number of television aerials sprouting from the town’s chimneys. At first the council was cautious about the project, particularly the proliferation of wires, but eventually block wayleave consents were granted to all council-owned properties and permission given in 1961 to site the mast to the north east of Station Road in William Press’s compound. The Trust was wound up in 1972 but the mast survived until 1982.

Within a decade, under different local administration, the area underwent a second radical transformation to make way for Waitrose (opened 1994), new offices for VWHDC, and the extension of Abbey Close to connect with the Vineyard necessitating the demolition of the Church Hall. The gardens have undergone major refurbishment and the site is a scheduled ancient monument. What would Mr Trendell have made of it all?