Late Again
Fifty Years Since We Stopped Wing Airport

Secrets of Olney, Part 1

Wooden town sigh  OlneyOlney's town sign, in the Market Place.

Part One of Two

The town of Olney, pronounced “Ohney” by many locals, lies on the River Great Ouse. There’s been a river crossing here for a long time, and a minor Roman road crossed the river about where the present bridge lies. It’s the home of the yearly Olney Pancake Race.

There’s plenty of free parking in the town. In the middle of the Market Place there’s a three hour limit, but on the roads nearby it’s just an hour. Away from the Market Place there’s no time limit on the High Street.

Olney has a great many old buildings, but I’ve just picked out the ones I found most interesting. I’ve divided the walk up into two halves, both about a mile and a quarter long. The second half of the guided walk will be published here next week.

Secrets of Olney walk 1 of 2


The Market Place

First go to 24-25 Market Place, on the corner furthest from the main road. Built in the 16th and 17th Century building, there’s a date stone, (AD 1654) high on the front of No. 24.

On the right hand end of No. 25 is an arched passageway through the building. It appears to be private, but it’s actually a public footpath; you can see the sign in the photo.

Mind your head when you walk down it; it’s a bit low. There’s a nicely moulded wooden beam on the right hand side that holds up the end wall of No. 26.

You’ll see a tall oast house at the end of the alley, where beer hops were dried in kilns. To get a better look at it, cross the road at the end of the alley and turn right. You’ll also see the rear of the 18th Century Dove Cottage. Keep going round to the right for a better view of both.

Oast house and Dove Cottage  OlneyThe Oast house, and Dove Cottage.

This road takes you back to the Market Place. On your left is the Cowper and Newton Museum. This house, Orchard Side, was the home of William Cowper, the renowned 18th Century poet. He was great friends with John Newton, composer of Amazing Grace.

Just the shop and gardens are open now, and you can visit the summerhouse where Cowper wrote. The museum looks forward to fully opening when restrictions allow. Take a look at the front of the building.

If you think it looks like it bows out, that’s because it does. It’s all quite stable, but there are places inside where the floors have dropped quite a bit.

Market Place  Olney24 & 25 Market Place, and the passageway.

A Coaching Inn and a False Front

Cross to the main road side of the Market Place, and have a look at the wooden town sign.

You have probably seen photos of the South side (it shows the pancake race), but at the top of this post is a photo of the North side I took a few years ago, on one of the few days each year it gets direct sunlight. That side shows lace making and shoe making, two great industries in the town.

Go across the main road via the Pelican crossing. This end of the Bull Hotel is 17th Century, and used to be The Saracen’s Head inn. Turn left and walk along in front of the Bull. As it says above the carriage arch, it was a coaching inn.

The second building after the Bull is 5 and 6 Market Place. The shop front is 19th Century, but it’s hiding a 17th Century timber framed building, as you’ll see if you walk up the side alley. Go up the steps at the end, turn right, and walk along the Co-op car park. You can get a look at the backs of the buildings you've just seen the front of, on your right.

Turn right at the end and walk back to the main road, by 11 Market Place. It has a plaque up on the wall on the main road side marking the start line of the famous Olney Pancake Race, and you are now going to follow the course.

Alley and half timbered building  OlneyThe 17th Century side of 5 & 6 Market Place.

The Pancake Race Course

Use the Pelican crossing again then turn right. Keep walking past the end of Market Place, along the street and round the corner to the Church Hall.

Built in the mid 19th Century and first used as a church school, it has now gone full circle; it’s a nursery school. On race day, you can come here to eat pancakes in the main hall. On the other side of the road is an 1840 row of nicely made terraced houses.

Further on, turn left into Church Street. The early 18th Century vicarage on your left was the home of John Newton, great friend of William Cowper, Olney’s curate-in-charge, composer of Amazing Grace and leading light in the abolition of slavery.

Head towards the church, but don’t go in the gate; just keep walking along Church Street. About half way along the churchyard wall is another plaque, and when you pass it you’ve completed the race course. The 2020 race winner completed it in one minute, six seconds. How long did it take you?

The Church

There’s a gate into the churchyard by the East end of the chancel. Part of the churchyard is a wildlife refuge. The tomb of John and Mary Newton lies to the South of the church in the corner of the churchyard and a curious coffin shaped stone tomb lies at the foot of the tower.

The church was built between about 1330 and 1400 in the Decorated Gothic style. Olney’s 185 ft tall church spire is unusual for Bucks, but are common in Northants, the next county along.

St Peter & St Paul’s is a large and very nicely proportioned church, quite light and airy because of the lovely big windows. Once conditions allow, I recommend you look inside.

There’s a footpath at the West end of the churchyard that takes you to the main road. At the end, go left. The first bridge is over the old mill race. The mill is long gone, so this water barely flows at all, but there’s a good view of the church from here. Cross the main road, and go left.

St Peter & St Paul  OlneySt Peter and St Paul's church from the bridge.

The Battle

Next to the town’s entry signs is a monument to the men on both sides who died in the 1643 Civil War Battle of Olney Bridge.

More of a skirmish, it started when Royalists under Prince Rupert surprised the Parliamentarian forces in the town, who retreated to the bridge and held it against Prince Rupert's forces. It’s not the same bridge. This one is 18th Century, though widened in 1975.

Walk back to the town, keeping on this side of the road. In the wide mouth of Weston Road is the car showroom of local Aston Martin restorer Desmond J. Small. There are some very nice cars in there.

Cross Weston Road then go back over the Pelican crossing next to The Bull Hotel. You’ve finished the first half of the Secrets of Olney walk.

There are plenty of places to get food and drink in and around the Market Place, including coffee shops.

Part two will be posted here next week.

If you have any comments or questions about this post, please leave a comment below.
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There’s a little known rhyme about the Battle of Olney Bridge.

On a quiet day in 43, Prince Rupert snuck to town,

Old Oliver’s men, at the local tavern,
Caught with their breeches down,

Some died by the sword, some the musket,
The river it ran quite red,

But Oliver’s men, they stood their ground,
And Rupert and his men they fled .

November 1643

Roger Bradbury

I'd never heard that before. Thank you, Howard.

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