Welcome to Sunningwell
Sunningwell is an ancient settlement in a fold of the slopes which lead down from Boars Hill towards Abingdon. The name, along with that of its sister community, seems to be first recorded in the year 821 as ‘Sonnyngwella cum Baiwurda [Bayworth]’ in a charter which reveals its origins. The ‘well’ is the pond still to be seen at the centre of the village: it is fed by an underground spring warm enough to prevent it from ever freezing. ‘Sunning’ preserves the memory of an early Saxon clan led by a certain Sunna, evidently important in the Thames valley, since they also founded Sonning, Sunningdale and -hill and Sunbury, which are grouped close to one another many miles downstream. We know nothing more about these people, or about any of their predecessors, though the remains of brick kilns on the hillside above the village testify that the Romans knew this area. Legend has it that Sunningwell formed the original site of the Benedictine monastery which was then relocated beside the river at Abingdon. At all events the village became part of the extensive lands of the abbey throughout the Middle Ages.
The only survival from that period is the church. The present building is mainly fifteenth-century, in the perpendicular style, though parts, including the chancel, are earlier. The fine tower, newly restored, and with a good peal of six bells, is typical for its time, but it stands on the site of another where Friar Bacon, the scientific genius of medieval Oxford, is said to have studied and conducted astronomical experiments two hundred years before. Inside the church (which is usually open for visitors during daylight hours) note the roofs, which contain some ancient work, and the prominent ‘poppy-head’ bench-ends, worn by the touch of generations of worshippers. There are some interesting monuments. Inconspicuous among them is a simple floor tablet near the altar to ‘S.F.’: Samuel Fell, rector here, but also dean of Christ Church in Oxford and a highly controversial figure in his time. He died just two days after the execution of Charles I in 1649 – supposedly from shock, since he had worked closely with the King during the Civil Wars. Samuel’s equally factious son John, who occupied the same university office in the 1670s and 1680s, is immortalized as the very epitome of a vaguely unpopular person:
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.
The reason why I cannot tell …
Most unusual – indeed unique – is the seven-sided porch with renaissance features which is attached to the west end of the building, under the shade of an ancient yew. This porch was the gift of a Tudor rector, John Jewel, who went on to become bishop of Salisbury and author of a famous defence of the newly-established Church of England. When the church was renovated in the nineteenth century, it acquired another exceptional feature. The Victorian designer, J.P.Seddon, a friend of the pre-Raphaelites, not only added the pretty stained glass in the east window. He also laid down an encaustic pavement in the chancel incorporating tiles which show some of the visions from the Book of Revelation, and which – as an expert has recently shown – are to be found nowhere else in England.
The village contains a number of other old buildings, notably two farms now converted into private accommodation: Church Farm almost opposite the church and Beaulieu Court Farm at the top of the rise behind it. The nineteenth-century Rectory is likewise no longer used for its original purpose, since the benefice was united with Radley during the 1980s. Beyond it, however, what began as a mock-Elizabethan private dwelling is nowadays the ‘Flowing Well’ public house. Further in the direction of Bayworth stand Sunningwell House, with an attractive eighteenth-century facade, and across from it Sunningwell Manor, with a late medieval jetty, or projecting upper storey. This was the home of a prominent campaigner for women’s rights, Una Dugdale, who had married her husband and fellow-crusader, Victor Duval, at a ‘suffragette’ wedding (without promise of obedience etc.) in 1913. The Victorian school behind the pond abuts an older cottage, and it was this house, or one close by, where the painter J.M.W. Turner used as a young man to stay with his uncle. We can imagine him walking the path from here to Oxford over Boars Hill and sketching drafts along the way for some of his celebrated views of the city.
For centuries after the dissolution of Abingdon Abbey under Henry VIII, most of Sunningwell belonged to a large estate. Early owners were the Baskervilles, who lived in style at Bayworth until profligate and eccentric living took their toll. Once the manor house disappeared the lords of the manor were non-resident. In the eighteenth century the families of Ston(e)house and Bowyer added Sunningwell to their holdings at Radley. Then the estate passed to the Disneys of Ingatestone in Essex, who sold up in 1912, at which time many of its 38 cottages passed into private ownership. Other major changes took place around that date. Substantial properties began to spread on Boars Hill, part of which lies in Sunningwell parish, and more modest ones at Whitecross on the way to Wootton. There was expansion also of the neighbouring settlement of Bayworth, around its pleasing little chapel built in 1900. As the twentieth century proceeded, many of the traditions of the historic agrarian community were lost for ever.
Nevertheless, Sunningwell itself remains a small and largely unspoiled village, with a population of about 200 and many local activities. In the 1990s an attempt to develop the glebe field around the church for housing was successfully resisted, as the House of Lords, in a test case, declared the area to be a communal green. There is no longer a shop, but other amenities subsist. The old school, which closed in the 1970s, is now a thriving centre for the arts; while a new school on the edge of the village likewise thrives, with 80+ children from Sunningwell and its vicinity on the roll at present. The village hall, on the opposite side of the road from the church, was built a hundred years ago and is widely used for meetings and social events. Our oldest communal institution must be the charity for the poor, first mentioned in the reign of Edward III; but in modern times the cricket club, which plays on a pretty recreation ground to the Wootton side of the village, can boast a continuous history back well into the nineteenth century.
B.E., 45 Sunningwell, March 2011