Benson, Oxfordshire


Benson, Oxfordshire

infobox UK place
country= England
latitude= 51.6210
longitude= -1.1106
official_name= Benson
population=
civil_parish= Benson
shire_district= South Oxfordshire
shire_county= Oxfordshire
region= South East England
constituency_westminster=Henley
post_town= WALLINGFORD
postcode_district= OX10
postcode_area= OX
dial_code= 01491
os_grid_reference= SU616917

Benson is a village and civil parish in the English county of Oxfordshire, with a present population of about 4,500. It is located north of Wallingford at the foot of the Chiltern Hills (close to the Ridgeway, just outside the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty) at the confluence of a chalk stream (Ewelme Brook) and the River Thames, next to Benson lock. Because it lies on the northern (eastern) bank of the Thames, Benson has always been in Oxfordshire, unlike nearby Wallingford and Abingdon, Oxfordshire, which were part of Berkshire until the 20th Century. The village's name was originally Villam Regiam (The Kings town) and later Bensington (until the early 19th century), and came from Anglo-Saxon "Bænesingtun" = "farmstead of the people of [a man called] Benesa". The village is reputedly the site of the Battle of Bensington.

The village occupies the site of an ancient British town (there is evidence of human presence dating back to the Palaeolithic period - around 10,000 BC), and there is known to have been occupation during the Roman period, though Benson’s written history dates back only as far as 571 AD.

The village is built on the river silts and gravel just above the surrounding marshy land that gives nearby villages (Preston Crowmarsh, Crowmarsh Gifford) their names. The fertile land which surrounds the village meant that farming was the main source of employment until the 20th Century.

Recent excavations at the site of a new housing site at the junction of St Helen’s Avenue and Church Road revealed evidence of early Neolithic (3500 BC) and later Bronze Age/early Iron Age (11th–8th centuries BC) pits and postholes, as well as a possible later Bronze Age roundhouse and three early/ middle Saxon (5th–6th centuries AD) sunken-floored buildings and a small Saxon enclosure.

The village was taken by the West Saxons in 572 AD who established a 'Royal Vill'. The Saxons held Benson until 775 when they surrendered it to the Mercians, whose king, Offa, wanted a stronghold on the Eastern bank of the Thames. At the time of the Domesday Book (1066 – 1088) Benson was said to be a royal centre of great importance.

Benson is one of several key sites of the English civil war located within South Oxfordshire, lying between the site of the battle of Chalgrove Field (which took place on the morning of 18th June 1643) and Wallingford Castle, reputedly the last Royalist stronghold to surrender, and close to the Royalist cities of Oxford and Newbury. Oliver Cromwell’s army destroyed Wallingford Castle stone by stone, and the stones were then used to build part of Windsor Castle. At Benson itself, a building is still known as the Court House from the time that King Charles I held court there when en route to Oxford.

The river at Benson gained a flashlock
 in 1746, 
but Benson weir collapsed
 in 1783, necessitating the construction of 
Benson Poundlock in 1788. Benson Lock was rebuilt in 1870.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries Benson became an important staging post for coaches travelling between London and Oxford. At its peak, there were four large Inns and ten smaller alehouses in the village, as well as a Blacksmiths.

The decline in coaching, enclosure and the agricultural depression led to a dramatic fall in population, so that the 1831 population of 1300 fell to 960 by 1901.

Among those who moved away was the family of Reginald Robinson Lee, aged about 16 when they moved to Hampshire. Reginald was born in Bensington in 1870, the son of William Lee (schoolmaster) and his wife Jane, and was baptized at the church of St. Helen, Bensington on 19 June 1870.

 Reginald signed-on to the Titanic in Southampton on 6 April 1912, aged 42. He was in the crows' nest with Fred Fleet when the iceberg was sighted at about 11.40 p.m. on 14 April 1912, and survived the tragedy, being rescued in lifeboat 13.

 He subsequently testified before the board of trade inquiry. He died on 6th August 1913 whilst serving aboard the Kenilworth Castle.

The failure to extend the Cholsey branch line beyond Wallingford (there was a plan to link it to Watlington, which would have meant a station at or close to Benson) left the village increasingly isolated as passenger transport between London and Oxford increasingly went via a railway which ran nowhere near the once-vital coaching stop.The village recovered as motor coaches (and increasingly private cars) became more important, and Benson gained a number of roadhouse-type cafes - early 20th Century equivalents to the Coaching Inns that had gone before.

The village church's tower (rebuilt in 1794) has a clock on each of the four faces with hours displayed in Roman numerals. On the east-facing side the clock face erroneously has the nine o'clock marker painted as 'XI'. The eleven o'clock marker is also XI. This mistake gained fame during World War 2 when the Nazi's English speaking propaganda broadcaster, Lord Haw Haw (William Joyce), promised an air raid on "an airfield near the village whose clock had two elevens", and RAF Benson was bombed soon afterwards.

The church itself is partly ancient, according to John Marius Wilson's Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales, "variously late pointed Norman and decorated; has a modern tower; contains a Norman font and two brasses; and is very good."

The parish includes the hamlets of Fifield, Roke, and Crowmarsh-Battle or Preston-Crowmarsh. The village is often confused with RAF Benson which is a well-known RAF camp. RAF Benson was the centre for RAF Photographic Reconnaissance during the second World War, and its Supermarine Spitfire and de Havilland Mosquito aircraft flew vital missions over occupied Europe, bringing back the battle damage assessment pictures after the Dams raid, for example. This period of the Station's history is reflected in the use of a full-scale replica of a wartime Spitfire PR.Mk XI on the main gate - this having replaced a genuine Spitfire PR.MK XIX that has been restored to flying status. Vera Lynn, 'the forces Sweetheart', visited RAF Benson to entertain the troops, reportedly singing “The white cliffs of Dover” at the station.

The Station retained a recce role for some years after the war, with Avro Lancaster, Spitfire, Mosquito, Gloster Meteor PR.Mk 10 and English Electric Canberra PR.Mk 3 aircraft. The station was subsequently an RAF Transport Command base, most notably with Armstrong Whitworth AW.660 Argosy aircraft, and was a home to the RAF's overseas ferry units. The Station is the former home of the King's Flight (later the Queen's Flight). It is today the home to three squadrons of Support Helicopters (No. 28 Squadron RAF, No. 78 Squadron RAF and No. 33 Squadron RAF with Merlin and Puma helicopters) and to the Grob Tutor light aircraft of the Oxford University Air Squadron RAF. Massive investment has been made in a modern flight simulator facility for the Chinook (not based at Benson), Merlin and Puma. RAF Benson is now also home to a mobile Catering Support Unit and a Mobile Meteorological Unit, and the Thames Valley Police's Chiltern Air Support Unit bases one of its Eurocopter EC 135 helicopters at Benson. A yellow MBB Bö 105 belonging to the Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance Trust (headquartered at Grove Park), Maidenhead, moved from White Waltham to Benson in January 2007. The RAF airfield boundary is immediately adjacent to the village, and the aerodrome's construction closed the former 'London Road'. The RAF station buildings are on the opposite side of the airfield to Benson village, adjacent to the village of Ewelme.

The future of RAF Benson is in doubt, since Project Belvedere is looking into closing at least one of Joint Helicopter Command's airfields. These include Benson, Odiham, Aldergrove, Yeovilton, Middle Wallop, Wattisham and Dishforth.

Despite lacking a railway station, and despite its relative distance from the M4 and M40, Benson is today a thriving commuter village, with one school (separate primary and junior schools recently combined, allowing one to be sold off for housing development), a pre-school for 2.5-5 year olds, a doctor's surgery, two Pubs (down from five since 1990 - the casualties having become private homes) and about a dozen small shops, including a supermarket and a dispensing chemist. The brook still runs through the village - and is home to trout and to an invasive species of American crayfish!

A large garage and Vauxhall main dealership on the main Oxford road just outside the village has an on-site McDonalds (with drive through) and a Marks and Spencer food outlet.

Though parts of the village remain picturesque, unsympathetic modern development means that it is not 'chocolate box pretty' like nearby Dorchester, and aircraft noise can be significant, so property values are low compared to many of the surrounding villages.

The village is also a well-known frost-pocket, sometimes recording the lowest night-time temperatures in the UK. This minor climatic quirk may have led to the village's part in the development of modern meteorology, with an important meteorological observatory being located in the village in the early 19th Century.


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