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Murder Most Midsomer: How Life and Art Flow Together in the Market Town of Wallingford

By Dana Huntley 
Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: January 30, 2013 
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Back in the 9th century, Wallingford was a border town, linking Wessex and Mercia at its ford across the Thames. It was a frontier town, fortified by Alfred the Great as one of the most important Saxon "burghs" against the rampages of invading Vikings. Two centuries later, William the Conqueror ordered a castle built to control those same Saxons. It dominated the Thames Valley for the next 600 years. After the fortress became the last garrison to hold out for the king during the Civil War, Parliament had the castle razed in 1652. In those more violent centuries, law and disorder often depended on who was holding the weapons. Only the earthwork ramparts of Wallingford Castle remain today, splayed across quiet gardens and meadows in the heart of town at the river's edge.

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Since the 17th century, of course, both law and the administration of justice have become more codified. For that, much credit is due Judge William Blackstone. A young professor of law at nearby Oxford University, Blackstone was appointed Magistrate (or "Recorder") of Wallingford in 1749 and purchased the property here in 1758 that was home until his death in 1780. Here, Blackstone wrote and published four volumes called Commentaries on the Laws of England that became the first codification of English civil law. Just a few years later, Blackstone's Commentaries formed the basis of the new United States Constitution and legal system. The guidebook to Wallingford asserts a bit optimistically, "Blackstone's is a familiar name to most Americans."

The judge and father of English jurisprudence was a churchwarden in the town parish of St. Peters, and actively campaigned for the church's rebuilding in the 1770s, contributing significantly to the building of its spire and donating its Communion Silver. On Blackstone's death in 1780, he was buried in St. Peters and his memorial adorns its aisle. Unhappily, the church is no longer an active house of worship, but you can sign out the key at the Town Hall TIC.

If Wallingford has a historic role in law, however, it also takes great pride in its connection to those lovely English murders. For the town was also the home of Agatha Christie. The unexcelled master of the genre moved to Wallingford in 1934 with her husband, archaeologist Sir Max Mallowan, and lived in the community until her death in 1976. Their home, Winterbrook House, is privately owned today, but sits behind a hedge just off the street on the southern outskirts of town. A blue plaque marks the house. The best-selling author of all time (with more than 4 billion books and counting), Dame Agatha Christie generated more corpses and solved more murders than even Midsomer Murders can boast. While Christie took care to avoid local publicity, her one active involvement was to serve as the president of the Sinodun Players from 1951 until her death. She and her husband had reserved seats for the troup's performances at the Corn Exchange.

A regular worshipper at St. Mary's Church, Cholsey, on Wallingford's southern edge, Dame Agatha and her husband are buried together in the corner of Cholsey churchyard. A mossy tombstone marks their graves. It's not hard to imagine Dame Agatha popping in to the butcher's shop or arriving with Sir Max for a local theatrical production. It's not hard to imagine Miss Marple sitting on a bench in the market square, or DCI Barnaby greeting his wife in front of the Town Hall. Causton is, after all, meant to be an English "Our Town"—a nowhere and everywhere far from the urban noise and tarmac—where life is peaceful and timeless and values are untrammeled. It's what we want in our world, even if that's not the world we live in day-to-day.

Wallingford fits the bill just right. The Wallingford Museum (in the pretty 15th-century Flint House) unpacks its proud local history delightfully, complete with Christie's typewriter, books and correspondence, as well as details of the town's anonymous celebrity as "Causton." Judge Blackstone lies peacefully beneath the spire of St. Peters. Meanwhile, children play down in the water meadows next to Wallingford Bridge in the spire's shadow. And someone has to water all those hanging flower baskets. Sometimes life imitates art perfectly.


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2 Responses to “Murder Most Midsomer: How Life and Art Flow Together in the Market Town of Wallingford”


  1. 1
    Bushman Bob says:

    I just love this revelation. Wallingford and indeed Oxforshire, are in reality very tranquil and peaceful places.

  2. 2

    [...] Murder Most Midsomer: How Life and Art Flow Together in the Market Town of Wallingford [...]



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