Is Abingdon the oldest town in the country? David Ford examines the evidence . . .

There are many claimants to the title of the oldest place in Britain and each has its arguments for and against. In the end, it all comes down to definitions.

Locally, Abingdon has a very strong claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited town in the country.

While many towns and cities in Britain are very ancient, their status as a ‘town’ rarely dates to before Roman times. This is certainly true of cities like London or York, and also Abingdon's rival to longevity, the small town of Thatcham in West Berkshire.

The other rival for continuous occupation is Colchester in Essex. It was the capital of the Celtic Trinovantes and Catuvellauni tribes back in the Iron Age, but their old settlement is now farmland beyond Shrub End, the south-western suburb of Colchester, not actually below the town.

This is where Abingdon wins through. For an Iron Age settlement of similar date lies, not just in the general area, but immediately below Abingdon town centre.

Archaeology shows us that people have been living in central Abingdon since at least the early Iron Age, around the sixth century BC, and their settlement had many features of what we would call a town.

Towns are usually market and administrative centres with larger populations than other settlements. They may also have religious or defensive functions, or provide specialist services. Abingdon has produced more Iron Age coins than most other contemporary sites, and its inhabitants had access to a greater variety of imported items, such as pottery.

So its key position on the Thames seems to have assured its importance as a market.

Large numbers of corn storage pits found in the town may indicate it was also some sort of grain repository, perhaps associated with the local administration.

The most obvious sign of township, however, were Abingdon’s defences. By the late Iron Age, 33 hectares of wooden round houses were surrounded by a semi-circle of triple-ditches up to 12 metres wide and nearly three metres deep. They connected with the river to fill with water, like a gigantic moat. There was also a large earthen bank forming a ‘valley fort’.

So Abingdon’s town status started early — and it certainly continued throughout the centuries.

The Iron Age settlement developed into a small Roman town. It flourished in the 1st and 2nd centuries, when many of the buildings erected in the town were of stone.

A highly doubtful legend says the place was so important that the Emperor Constantine was born there.

His mother, St Helen, founded the parish church. In reality, there seems to have been something of a decline in the late Roman period, but the Saxons arrived in this area early and reinvigorated the town. Their cemeteries date from the early 6th century and include possible Frankish warriors.

The town’s famous abbey was supposedly founded in the 670s. It has recently been suggested that its early records really relate to a lost monastery at Bradfield in West Berkshire, but the first Abingdon Abbey was probably twinned with a nunnery at St Helen’s which does seem to have been there 50 years later.

The ‘Chronicle of Abingdon’, written at the abbey, shows the town to have been a bustling place in the Saxon period.

By the time of the Norman Domesday survey, in 1087, is was described as having at least ‘ten merchants dwelling before the gate of the [abbey] church’.

The abbey and the market at Abingdon ensured its survival as an important trading town throughout the middle ages.

The right to a market was first officially granted by Henry I in the early 12th century. Its control was so important that it caused severe riots and several deaths in 1327.

Sixty years later, the famous Abingdon Market Cross was erected in front of the abbey gates, a great sign of civic pride that was unfortunately destroyed during the English Civil War. After the dissolution of the abbey, the town was granted its first charter in 1555 and it became an official borough with a mayor, bailiffs and burgesses. Its superb town hall, built in 1678, later became the county hall, and Abingdon remained the county town of old Berkshire until 1867.

The canals of the 17th and 18th centuries and then the railway brought still more opportunities for economic development.

The town became famous for Morland's Brewery and MG Cars, and has now entered the computer age as a home to companies like Sophos.

Abingdon is a thriving town and has remained so for at least 2,600 years and, who knows, maybe longer. After all, beneath the north-eastern portion of the town lies a ‘neolithic causewayed camp’ — a tribal centre dating from 4,000 BC.