The Vale and Downland Museum is a local museum in the market town of Wantage, Oxfordshire, England. Its galleries present the cultural heritage of the Vale of White Horse region around Wantage. There is a Victorian kitchen, Iron Age skeleton and a bust of Sir John Betjeman amongst its attractions, along with a cafe serving homemade food. During school holidays there are several themed days, most of which are 'entry by donation'. The museum also acts as a community hub holding a weekly Women's Institute market, several book groups and various drawing, knitting and needlework classes. The museum is located in the Old Surgery, Church Street, in the centre of the town. The museum has around 1,500 books, pamphlets and periodicals in its library.
Towards the west, above Uffington, the hills reach a culminating point of 261 m (856 feet) in White Horse Hill. In its northern flank, just below the summit, a gigantic figure of a horse is cut, the turf being removed to show the white chalky soil beneath. This figure gives name to the hill, the range and the Vale. It is 114 m (374 feet) long and highly stylised, the neck, body and tail varying little in width. The origin of the figure is unknown. Tradition asserted it to be the monument of a victory over the Danes by King Alfred, who was born at Wantage, but the site of the Battle of Ashdown (871 CE), has been variously located. Moreover, the figure has been dated to the Bronze Age, so it pre-dates the battle by many centuries. Many ancient remains occur in the vicinity of the Horse.
On the summit of the hill there is an extensive and well-preserved circular camp, apparently used by the Romans but of much earlier origin. It is an Iron Age hill fort named Uffington Castle, after the village in the vale below. Within a short distance are Hardwell Castle, a near-square work and, on the southern slope of the hills near Ashdown House, a small camp traditionally called Alfred's Castle. Further to the West, there is Liddington Castle. A smooth, steep gully on the north flank of White Horse Hill is called the Manger, and to the west of it rises a bald mound named Dragon Hill, the traditional scene of St George's victory over the dragon, the blood of which made the ground bare of grass for ever. But the name may derive from Celtic Pendragon ("dragon's head"), which was a title for a king, and may point to an early place of burial.
To the west of White Horse Hill lies a long barrow called Wayland's Smithy, said to be the home of a smith who was never seen, but who shod the horses of travellers if they were left at the place with payment. The legend is elaborated, and the smith appears as a character, in Sir Walter Scott's novel Kenilworth, and in Rudyard Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill. The Vale as a whole appears at the beginning of Tom Brown's Schooldays, as the scene of innocent Saxon boyhood adventures, before the eponymous hero is sent away to school at Rugby. Rosemary Sutcliff's 1977 historical novel Sun Horse, Moon Horse takes place in the Vale, telling the tale of the White Horse's creation in ancient Celtic times. The White Horse has been carefully cleared of vegetation from time to time. The figure has remained clear of turf throughout its long existence, except for being covered as a precaution during the Second World War. The cleaning process, known as the Scouring of the White Horse, was formerly made the occasion of a festival. Sports of all kinds were held, and keen rivalry was maintained, not only between the inhabitants of the local villages, but between local champions and those from distant parts of England. The first of such festivals known took place in 1755 and they died out only subsequently to 1857.
In the Main Gallery you can discover the fascinating story of the Vale of White Horse and the adjoining chalk hills – which are known somewhat confusingly as the Downs! Amazingly, the Vale was once the bottom of a tropical sea but is now home to many hi-tech industries, so they feature everything from fossils to Formula 1. From the Stone Age to the Atomic Age, the exhibits make connections between the distant past and the present. There are Two specially produced short films, narrated by David Attenborough, introducing visitors to the Vale and its history. There are over 3,000 objects from the collections on display, with lots of ‘hands on’ opportunities. A range of interesting multimedia, video and audio exhibits are displayed in nearly 3,700 square feet of exhibition space (about 335 square metres). A 7.9m (almost 26ft) long model railway is the new exhibit in the Main Gallery of the Museum in Wantage. The Railway through the Vale exhibit provides some much needed emphasis to the relevance of railway transport to local trades and industries of the area. Space does not allow a true representation of the Great Western Railway near to Wantage, but this model does bring a flavour of the railway as it passes through the Vale downland. Undulating landscape, chalk cuttings, woodland, horses, and grazing sheep & cattle are all represented. Children, and many adults, will be especially attracted to the interactive aspect of the Railway through the Vale exhibit. Press one of the buttons on the exhibit and a train will travel from one end to the other and then back again – all with realistic acceleration and top speed. There are two trains here; one is a 1930s diesel railcar in GWR brown & cream – nicknamed the flying banana, and the other, a 2-car diesel unit – a 1987 a type 155 Sprinter. To get technical, the trains are both from the current Hornby catalogue, and the track is by Peco – OO gauge with code 100 rail. Most of the landscape, including the many trees, is constructed from materials imported by Bachmann Europe PLC and readily available in many model shops.
The Museum and Visitor Centre comprises a complex of several buildings, most of which are old and not historically designed with access for people with disabilities and Prams in mind. Considerable improvements have been made, enabling the majority of the Museum, garden and services to be accessible to wheelchair users, those with walking and sensory difficulties. Unfortunately, the Upper Gallery temporary exhibition space, the library and the Discovery Gallery are not accessible. However, arrangements can be made for visitors who wish to access the resources in the library. Additional facilities include a WC for people with disabilities (including baby-changing facilities), a wheelchair for the use of visitors and induction loops on the reception desk and in the auditorium. The Museum aims to enhance the visitor experience of those with visual or hearing impairment by using a range of interpretation methods in its displays including audio with induction loop (in the auditorium), video, computer interactive displays, and open displays where the objects can be touched. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Vale & Downland Museum, Church Street, Wantage, Oxfordshire OX12 8BL
Transport : Didcot (National Rail) then bus (X1/X32). Bus Routes : 31, 34, 38, 82 and BB4 stop close by.
Opening Times : Monday to Saturday 09:30 -16:30; Closed Bank Holidays
Tickets : Free, Donations are welcome
Tel. : 01235 771447