The Ock Mill Inn – how to repurpose a building
Abingdon-on-Thames, Oxfordshire is an historic town to the west of London, with much to see. There are many fine buildings including the Guildhall, Abingdon School dating from 1563, and the Old Abbey, destroyed by Henry VIII during his infamous land grab, now known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries (1536 – 1541), and well worth a visit if the visual delights of nearby Oxford (8 miles to the north) have begun to pall. The Abbey was said to have been founded circa 675 by Cissa, the King of the West Saxons, and a powerful tribal chieftain who ruled over the area which is now modern Wiltshire and Berkshire. During the period 866 – 871, the marauding Danish hoards destroyed the Abbey, but it was rebuilt by King Eadred (reigned 946 – 955).Water has played a large part in the history of the town of Abingdon. Not just access to the Thames, which has always been a major trade route (and a gateway for successive waves of invaders), but in 1810 the Wiltshire & Berkshire Canal reached the town, and gave indirect access to the huge manufacturing centre of Birmingham, the coalfields of the South and East Midlands, and the potteries of Stoke. Abingdon grew.The little River Ock, with its name possibly being derived from one of the Celtic words for salmon (‘orc’), a tributary of the River Thames, joins that river towards the centre of town. Indeed, Kelley’s ‘Directory of Berkshire’ for 1883, states,
‘Between the chalk downs in the west and the Thames, runs its feeder, a small river called the Ock, falling into the Thames at Abingdon’.
A clear stream, having permeated through deep chalk measures in the Vale of the White Horse, it has its own small flood plain off to the west near Abingdon Common. Here, just off Marcham Road, we find evidence of use of the Ock for the generation of power. There have always been mills on the Ock, for as long as water power has been tapped, and one for grinding corn was noted in 1180. The Abbey also owned fulling mills. Woven cloth is ‘fulled’ by being pounded by heavy power-driven wooden hammers in a solution of water, stale urine, Fuller’s Earth (a mix of hydrous aluminum silicates) and a surfactant; this fills in the gaps between the warp and weft threads, by felting the cloth, and de-greases the textile, ready for dyeing. I hope that none of you ‘have been kept on tenterhooks’, because you would be treated like the ‘fulled’ woolen cloth, which was stretched out on hooked frames (usually in a meadow) to regain some of its original dimensions as it dried. Owners of the corn mills on the Ock (which also ground other grains and legumes as well as wheat) and the fulling mill, often kept the the level in their mill ponds high so they would have plenty of power and this, obviously, adversely affected the Abbey’s mills. As you might imagine, this gave rise to legal disputes, especially in the 16th century. Here we can see a surviving mill building, which probably dates from Georgian times – the River Ock is just out of picture to the left. It is constructed in stone, with brick window surrounds, and has modern roof lights inserted in the steeply pitched roof. One thing of note is that tie-rods have been installed at some stage in the building’s history; note the ‘S’ shaped load-spreaders high under the ridge on the end wall. This would be to correct a bulging wall, possibly due to settling over the years. This mill, which stands squarely on the Ock flood plain, had been abandoned for many years according to local sources, when in 1990 plans were floated to re-purpose it as a hotel. The Premier Inn has 27 rooms – including those in the newer brick-built extension – and there is a ‘Beefeater Inn’ family restaurant on site. What was I doing here? Well, there was an air show I had to work at the former RAF Abingdon airfield a few miles away, and this particular ‘value hotel’ kept the expenses down! Oh, and a few of you might have noticed that the county in which Abingdon is located is given as Oxfordshire, yet details are supplied from Kelley’s 1883 ‘Directory of Berkshire’. Both are correct, in that Abingdon was formerly in the old county of Berkshire. Indeed, Abingdon used to be the county town, but lost that status to Reading in 1867; it became part of Oxfordshire during the re-organization of 1972.
The Ock Mill – a pleasant place to stay, with lots of history behind it!