Tracy Spiers has an abundance of fun in the Oxfordshire market town of Abingdon

The more I write about the wonderful towns in the Cotswolds, the more I realise they mirror parts of my personality. Delve into their histories, and they are in fact rather quirky and often carry out weird and wonderful antics.

Take the Oxfordshire town of Abingdon, as an example. Now the people here really do know how to celebrate a King’s coronation in style. The town’s dignitaries order thousands of currant buns, take themselves and the said creations up 100 steps to the top of the County Hall and throw them to the crowds below. It literally rains buns for about half an hour until every one has been thrown.

I digress for a moment because I can relate to such a gesture. For 2023, I have committed myself to create a weekly visual pun and post it on social media every Monday, which I call Pun Day. The week my lovely editor, Candi, commissioned me to write a piece on Abingdon – which I admit I have never visited before – my visual pun was of three buns dancing. It was of course A-BUN-DANCE. So then to visit a town, which literally celebrates in abundance with the very items I drew, made me laugh – and feel at home.

Great British Life: 'A-bun-dance' by Tracy Spiers'A-bun-dance' by Tracy Spiers

Writing ahead of an event is always a little tricky as there is always a danger the said event may not happen. But Abingdon has been throwing buns for Royal occasions it’s believed since the coronation of George III. It is up to the town council to decide when a bun throwing event takes place.

Last year some 5,000 buns – which are like hot cross buns without the crosses – were made and thrown in honour of the late Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee on Saturday, June 5. The town didn’t anticipate that 11 months later they would be hosting another bun throwing to mark the coronation of His Majesty King Charles III.

It is a certainly a crowd-puller and one that the people of Abingdon embrace with gusto. To catch a bun is quite something – but to catch one with a special mark is even better. For some these buns are considered too special to eat. In fact, many bun-catchers don’t eat them, they preserve them.

Theresa Froude is manager of Throwing Buns café, situated to the side of the County Hall, and probably has one of the best ground views of the bun throwing events. It also acts as a good shelter, too, once the buns start falling from the sky!

‘The King’s coronation is my third time of seeing the throwing buns event. The sense of community in Abingdon is amazing. They do make it a big deal. For the Platinum Jubilee they had fireworks, for the Coronation, there will also be a party in the park,’ says Theresa.

Great British Life: Crowds in the Market Place for the 2016 bun throwing. (c) Abingdon County Hall MuseumCrowds in the Market Place for the 2016 bun throwing. (c) Abingdon County Hall Museum ‘We want buns!’

‘The town crier starts shouting out in the square and in the next few minutes you can’t see the ground because it is loaded with people,’ continues Theresa. ‘They all start shouting “We want buns!” and then there is a countdown. It’s amazing and so loud and then all the buns start falling. It is such a great atmosphere. Some of our customers collect the buns and varnish them.’

Visiting Abingdon on Easter Saturday gave me a glimpse of what the town square looks like on a busy occasion. The Rock Choir were singing, and Jim Humphreys – one of Abingdon’s town criers, in his splendid green attire – was out calling in the crowds. Later, a group of Morris dancers gave their entertaining display, and there was a lively, vibrant buzz about town as folk enjoyed the glorious spring sun, surrounding stalls and café culture. I caught up with Jim and asked him about the bun throwing events.

‘This market square is full of people,’ he says, ‘and the buns are thrown from the roof of the County Hall, so called because Abingdon used to be the county town of Berkshire before Reading took the title.

Great British Life: Bun line-up at the late HM Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee celebrations. (c) Martin WackenierBun line-up at the late HM Queen Elizabeth's Platinum Jubilee celebrations. (c) Martin Wackenier

‘There are so many buns that it takes about half an hour to throw them all. Some people will catch the buns and eat them, others will catch them and carefully dry them and glaze the, so that they can keep for decades. I have still got one that I caught 10 years or so ago,’ says Jim. I ask him if he will be on duty for the 2023 bun throwing. But apparently as Abingdon has so many shouts, as he calls them, the town has a bank of criers to call on.

‘We have about six or seven men and two ladies who act as town crier,’ he tells me. Looking at his elaborate outfit, I am intrigued and ask him does one suit really fit all?

‘You wouldn’t believe it, but it just hangs well no matter who wears it.’

As previously mentioned, a proportion of the buns made – usually one in 10 – have a special motif on them referencing the specific occasion. For Queen Elizabeth’s Platinum Jubilee it was the number 70; for William and Kate’s wedding in 2011 it was the letters W and C.

An exceptionally well-preserved bun from bun throwing for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887 is sometimes on display in Abingdon Museum, which is housed in The County Hall. The bulge in the bun centre is a crown, flanked by the letter ‘V R.’ It is believed the bun tradition stems back to the reign of George III, when they were originally handed out before it changed to the buns being thrown.

‘The museum is reputed to have owned even older buns. The 1956 publication Abingdon and Its Treasures lists buns from the coronations of George IV, William IV and Victoria as being on display at the museum. However, there is no trace of them in the collections now. Perhaps they eventually deteriorated too much,’ says Elin Bornemann, collections officer.

Great British Life: Bun catchers in Abindgon. (c) Martin WackenierBun catchers in Abindgon. (c) Martin Wackenier

Bun preservation

She admits she has a couple of the Platinum Jubilee Buns of 2022 and has preserved them for posterity. So, for those who have caught a coronation bun from the May 2023 Bun Throwing, what is the best way to look after it?

‘To preserve them I don’t rely on lacquer or varnish. This could become sticky in the long run,’ explains Elin. ‘The best way to preserve buns is to dry them out. I usually do this by putting them into the oven on a low heat. The main concern is to prevent mould growth and removing any moisture does just that. The drawback is that the buns became quite hard and brittle and prone to crumbling, so like other museum objects they must be handled with care.’

During my trip to Abingdon, I had the privilege of visiting Abingdon Museum. It is well worth a visit, and I highly recommend paying £2 to go to the rooftop where the bun throwing takes place. It was such a perfect day to get a great view of the town and beyond and, with helpful signage to point out key historic landmarks, it really helps paint a picture of past and present. Here you can see where the old early 19th-century gaol was, St Nicholas Church which was built for the monks in the former Abbey, and St Helen’s Church as well as the busy market square.

Great British Life: The Guildhall buildings and surviving Abbey buildings. (c) Tracy SpiersThe Guildhall buildings and surviving Abbey buildings. (c) Tracy Spiers

Abingdon’s story

The Museum tells the story of Abingdon. It is reported to be England’s oldest town. Archaeologists extensively investigated the Vineyard area of Abingdon before it was redeveloped in the 1980s. Significant evidence was found showing that the town centre has been continuously inhabited since 700BC. One artefact which generates a lot of interest is The Monks’ Map, a 16th-century map of the River Thames.

The Museum also celebrates the MG factory in Abingdon, where over the decades, several models were designed specifically for speed record attempts. Its secret workshop was established to work on the record breakers, all named “EX” followed by a number. The first was EX120, which achieved 100mph in February 1931, the first 750cc car in the world to do so. It also achieved a run of 100 miles in one hour during the same year.

Great British Life: View of St Nicholas Church and the Abbey Gateway. (c) Tracy SpiersView of St Nicholas Church and the Abbey Gateway. (c) Tracy Spiers It is also reputedly home to the Abingdon sea monster! Over 150 million years ago, while dinosaurs roamed the Jurassic landscape, Abingdon was submerged beneath a shallow tropical sea full of ammonites, belemnites, and other exotic sea creatures. Among them swam huge marine reptiles such as Pliosaurus, a ferocious marine reptile with a crocodile-like skull and a smile of dagger-like teeth. Its barrel-shaped body was propelled through the water by four gigantic flippers. At least 20 metres long, Pliosaurus weighed several tons, ate ichthyosaurs, and for around ten million years was Europe’s largest predator.

Abingdon’s Museum displays a skeleton of an ichthyosaur and a vertebra of a giant pliosaur in one of the drawers underneath.

Coming back to present day, local quilters have created ‘Alphabet Quilts’, an exhibition which runs until the end of June, inspired by the alphabet in its many forms. These range from depicting a single modern letter, medieval forms on silk to whole alphabets in books and quilts and a tactile version devised for blind children. A joint project of an Abingdon Alphabet portrays the town’s history, people, and places.

Great British Life: J is for Jubilee. This quilted image shows the dates of bun throwing at Royal jubilee celebrations. (c) Tracy SpiersJ is for Jubilee. This quilted image shows the dates of bun throwing at Royal jubilee celebrations. (c) Tracy Spiers

The Bun Quilt

Upstairs in the Museum’s attic room, there is a fantastic item called The Bun Quilt by Judy Harris and fellow quilters Ann Jennaway, Christine Wootton, Kath Lloyd, and Anna Christiansen, which celebrates some of the Museum’s artefacts and the bun throwing ceremonies including the occasion when the late Queen Elizabeth II visited the County Hall, by train, to officially open the refurbished County Hall in 1956. After the opening ceremony, she watched the bun throwing from a special platform at ground level.

One of Abingdon’s photographers, award-winning Martin Wackenier, owner of Devine Times Photography, has been on official duty for the bun throwing events. He explains first-hand what it is like to capture such a fun and unusual occasion.

‘I have been very privileged to capture the last five bun throwing events in Abingdon and each time, the town's people never let us down, turning up in their hundreds if not thousands, all hands stretched out, bellowing: ‘We want buns, we want buns!’ says Martin.

‘One year the rain was so torrential that some of our residents brought their umbrellas and turned them upside down to catch as many buns as possible.’ Umbrellas are now banned for safety reasons.

‘It is such a unique celebration and in the 15 years I have lived in Abingdon, every bun throwing has brought such fun, togetherness and joy to the town and its traditions,’ adds Martin.

This tradition which celebrates with a-bun-dance, is here to stay, as will hundreds of buns – carefully preserved in many Abingdon homes as mementoes to show the next generations.