And then you carry on going east to Wallingford (above), which has one of the oldest royal charters, dating from 1155, and the site of a huge castle that was dismantled by Cromwell. It’s an Alfredian burh and still has a mediæval street pattern. Wallingford has the mace on which the House of Commons mace is modelled (it was buried and so survived the Civil War). People there were very excited about ideas for where new housing was going to be and the architect-planner Terry Farrell came down to take part. He pointed out that the area around Wallingford used to be marshland, so if you look at the pattern of surrounding villages they form a circle around what was the marsh. So his proposal, which was never taken up, was that you should put houses in a circle around Wallingford.
Wallingford is the former home of Agatha Christie, who is buried in the churchyard in Cholsey. Sutton Courtenay, just north of Didcot, is where George Orwell is buried, and is also the home of Helena Bonham-Carter. Other notable residents today include Sandy Shaw, Brian Eno, and Frank Williams, of Williams Formula One.
Being close to Oxford, the area has benefited as Oxford’s economic importance has grown through research morphing into business. After the war, Harwell was built, for nuclear research. The site was chosen partly because it was close to Oxford, and to London, but, if not exactly in the middle of nowhere, at least not in a densely populated area. The workers were brought in on blue double-deckers and you can still occasionally see one surviving in somebody’s garden. Harwell provided the core of an amazing concentration of research and development that explains why this area is now so affluent. You have the diamond synchrotron, the two ISIS stations, you have Culham up the road doing nuclear fusion. There are links to high-tech businesses in Milton Park plus Oxford Research. An organisation called Science Valley UK now promotes the area as a place to invest in high-tech research.
Letcombe Bassett is the model for Cresscombe in Jude the Obscure, because of the watercress meadows that used to exist around it. Dean Swift sat under a tree which still survives in the garden of the old rectory there. And Letcombe Regis was the last place in England where the Riot Act was read.
DP: What would you say the legacy of King Alfred is at the moment? He doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as well-known as King Arthur, even though many more facts are available, including that he actually existed.
EV: Alfred has rather fallen out of fashion. I don’t think people have a huge knowledge or understanding of what he achieved in terms of effectively uniting England. It’s amusing that Wantage is so far from the sea and yet King Alfred founded the Navy. Wantage is known as Alfredston in Jude the Obscure. Amongst all the archæology around here, I understand there’s a monastery to the east of Wantage that’s largely unexcavated that was probably the site where Alfred was born and grew up. People in Wantage like the fact, and I like to tell people, that this was King Alfred’s birthplace. The difficulty with Wantage’s heritage of Alfred is that people tend to associate him much more with Winchester than Wantage. But it’s worth reviving Alfred’s story, I think.
DP: The Coalition promised to abolish the Regional Development Agencies and all that went with them. It’s largely done so, but the regions themselves remain, with Wessex partitioned between ‘the South West’ and ‘the South East’. Is it inevitable that they will go on being enshrined in legislation for one purpose or another, or would you see a possibility in the long-term that we might get more ‘history-friendly’ regions like Wessex being used for, say, tourist board purposes?
EV: I’m very open to that idea. I love the idea of the counties in England being the governing unit of the country, but logistics and common sense gets in the way. It’s a lovely idea to have, for example, an Oxfordshire police force but whether that would be as economic and effective as Thames Valley Police is another question.