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Around Abingdon: Sunningwell

There are a number of places around Abingdon which have been connected with the town throughout history, often because the Abbey owned a number of manors in the area. One of these places is Sunningwell, which is just north of Abingdon. In this post, I take a closer look at Sunningwell and pick up a few interesting details about its history.

The name Sunningwell comes from the Anglo-Saxon Suninggawelle in the 10th century and Soningewell in the 11th century.

Sunningwell was owned by Abingdon Abbey for a long time. Various bits of land around it were granted to other people at various times, but the manor of Sunningwell remained with the Abbey from the 13th century until the dissolution in 1538. After the dissolution the land came into the possession of the king, who granted it in 1545 to three men: Robert Browne, Christopher Edmondes and William Wenlowe. These three transferred the property in 1546 to Sir John Williams. His heirs were his wife Margery and his daughter, also Margery. The daughter was married to Henry Norreys, the ancestor of the Earls of Abingdon, and therefore an important name in Abingdon’s history. However, the life interest in the property was purchased in 1583 by Isabel, Margery’s sister, and her husband Richard Huddleston, and Henry Norreys makes no further appearance in this brief history of Sunningwell.

View of Sunningwell, photo by Tristan Kear

The manor was passed down in the Huddleston family, then sold to the Baskerville family, until the last of the Baskervilles, who had no legitimate children, sold it to Sir John Stonhouse and contented himself with an annuity of £80 for the rest of his life. The Stonhouse family played a part in Abingdon’s history for many years and in many ways. Most famously their dispute with the Blacknalls over fishing rights resulted in the creation of the Monks Map, one of the museum’s most precious treasures. But that is a story for another time. With Sir John’s purchase, the Stonhouse family owned both Radley and Sunningwell, and both estates were eventually inherited by George Bowyer. You might remember Admiral Bowyer from a previous blogpost – like the Stonhouse family, the Bowyers appear at various points in the history of Abingdon and surroundings. Admiral Bowyer’s descendants held onto Sunningwell longer than Radley, which they had to rent out when they got into financial difficulties. But the Sunningwell estate was mortgaged to a Mr Disney from Ingatestone in Essex, who foreclosed in 1884 and took possession of the estate. The last lord of the manor appears to have been his son, Edgar Norton Disney, who sold most of the property in 1912.

The church at Sunningwell, St Leonard’s, has a couple of interesting stories to tell. One of its rectors, from 1625 to 1649, was Samuel Fell, who, the Victoria County History tells us, ‘died in Sunningwell in 1649 of shock caused by the news of the execution of Charles I’.

unknown artist; Samuel Fell; Christ Church, University of Oxford;

Samuel Fell was originally from London. He had a career in the church and at Oxford University, becoming Dean of Christ Church and Vice-Chancellor of the university. His death however might have been brought about less dramatically. As a conspicuous Royalist in the Civil War, he was summoned by Parliamentary visitors to Oxford and imprisoned when he declined to appear. He was then deprived of all his university offices and retired to Sunningwell. Such stressful events are not conducive to anyone’s health, and the news of Charles I execution might only have been the last straw.

The County History goes on to tell us that Samuel Fell was ‘the father of the more famous Dr Fell, who seems to have been born here’. John Fell, Samuel’s eldest son, also had a career in the church and at Oxford. Like his father he became Dean of Christ Church and Vice-Chancellor, but also Bishop of Oxford. He initiated ambitious building works at Christ Church and promoted the building of the Sheldonian Theatre. He also practically managed the Oxford University Press, where he showed himself dissatisfied with the type they used for printing and had type and printers imported from Holland.

Lely, Peter; John Fell (1625-1686), Bishop of Oxford; Christ Church, University of Oxford;

However, most sources give Longworth as John Fell’s birthplace, and indeed it seems that his father only became rector at Sunningwell after the birth.

While we are on church matters, here is another interesting tidbit from the County History of Berkshire: ‘In the 18th century a curious custom was observed at Sunningwell on Shrove Tuesday. The children of the village celebrated the approach of Lent by chanting at each house this verse:—
“Beef and bacon’s
Out of season,
I want a pan
To parch my peason,”
finishing the performance by throwing stones at the doors.’

The church at Sunningwell, photo by Tristan Kear

Such a custom was not specific to Sunningwell. The custom of ‘shroving’, an activity which historian Ronald Hutton terms ‘a regional juvenile begging custom’, first appeared at the end of the 18th century in southern England and endured over the course of the 19th century, after which it died out. It is reported from villages in Somerset, Dorset, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Hertfordshire. It was thinly spread however, and not found everywhere. The custom was for children to knock on doors, recite or sing a standard rhyme and receive some food (usually a pancake) in return. The rhymes varied from place to place, but the sentiment was always the same. Around Basingstoke for example it went ‘flour and lard is very dear, please we come a shroving here; your pan’s hot and my pan’s cold, hunger makes us shrovers bold’.

The stone-throwing finish seems to have been borrowed by the youth of Sunningwell from a more violent version of the custom which prevailed further west in England, in western Somerset, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, and also in Carmarthenshire in Wales. In this variant, sometimes known as ‘crocking’, broken crockery would be left or thrown at the doors of those who refused to give anything. Sometimes children would throw something at the door first and then wait if anyone was forthcoming with food or pennies. This is what seems to have happened in Sunningwell. The custom waned during the later 19th century.

If you want to see Sunningwell for yourself, you can follow in the footsteps of Museum Assistant Shirley Buckle on a walk from Abingdon to Sunningwell and back. She discovered this walk in the summer, but it would be just as pleasant at any time of year:

I discovered this walk during Lockdown and it’s a very enjoyable walk.

I start my walk from Peachcroft Road, walking through the alleyways and paths of the estate. I then head towards Twelve Acre Drive and up towards Lodge Hill, looking at the fields on both sides which will be no more due to a new housing development being built in the next couple of years.  I then arrive at the top of the hill – looking to my left is Lodge Hill Car Sales.  On top of the garage forecourt building there is a full scale model of a WWII Spitfire plane.  Walking past this and onto the path I carry on over the bridge of the A34.  When the bridge has been crossed the fields open up to a view.  In the distance you can see Sunningwell village.

Footpath towards Sunningwell, photo by Tristan Kear

Further on for half a mile you come to a road junction signposted Sunningwell, Radley, Bayworth.  I turn left at the junction towards Bayworth, Sunningwell carrying on walking on the quiet road past hedgerows and fields on both sides.  I pass lots of walkers and people on bikes enjoying the nice weather.  I walk for one mile and I arrive at Sunningwell village. I carry on walking through the narrow twisting road towards the village centre.

Sunningwell is a small pretty village which has a community feel.  It has a public house, a church, village pond and an Arts Centre which used to be a Primary School.  At this point I decide to stop and have a well earned rest on a bench near the pond opposite the church.  There are wild flowers growing here – and nearby there is a lovely old tree which has had a bench added for people to stop and sit and admire the view of the village.

After a rest I decide which route to take back on my journey home to Abingdon.  I decide to go back through the fields to Dunmore.  I head for the signpost which says Radley.  After 400 yards there is a turning on the right which goes through a gate leading to a public footpath signposted to Abingdon.  I carry on walking on the footpath with fields and hedgerows towards a small bridge crossing the A34.  After crossing the bridge the path narrows taking me down a slight hill towards Dunmore estate.  Just before the wooden gate at Dunmore there is a slight opening on the right which turns into a trail through a wooded area which takes you to Tilsley Park.  Walking along the trail you can hear different birds singing loudly.  I carry on walking the trail for half a mile before arriving at Tilsley Park.  From there I cross Dunmore Road leading to a footpath which takes me through Dunmore Estate.  Passing Long Furlong School and Medical Centre.  The footpath then takes me to Oxford Road. After crossing Oxford Road I then head towards the Alleyways and paths of Peachcroft Estate and home.

The circular walk has taken me about three hours and I am ready for a cup of tea and a slice of cake!

Elin Bornemann (Collections Officer) and Shirley Buckle (Museum Assistant)


Victoria County History of Berkshire is accessible online, find Sunningwell here:

Details of the Shroving customs are taken from Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun. A History of the Ritual Year in Britain (Oxford University Press 1996)

Featured image: the well at Sunningwell, photo by Tristan Kear


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