This article was first published in May 2003 as part of the Harwell Parish Plan.
In 1985 Harwell celebrated one thousand years as a village. Over that period there have been many changes, but perhaps none so significant as those in the modern era. From its roots as a small village steeped in a rural tradition, the parish of Harwell is home to about 2800 people from many walks of life.
Harwell cherries still make their annual succulent appearance, but locally and even around the world the name is now as much, if not more, famous for its association with ‘The Atomic’: the site of what was the Harwell Laboratory of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA), now the Harwell International Business Centre, the home of a diverse range of scientific, technical and commercial activities.
Many of the current inhabitants of the parish, however, have no connection with either of these historic claims to fame, and in many respects Harwell at the start of the twenty first century is as varied a community as many similar large villages in south eastern England.
Harwell is 3 miles southwest of the centre of Didcot in what is now Oxfordshire, but which until 1974 was North Berkshire. The parish – part of the Vale of the White Horse District of the County – extends up to the present western edge of Didcot in the east, to just beyond the Didcot-Swindon railway line in the north, to Rowstock in the west and in the south to a part of the Harwell Business Centre site, including residential areas in North Drive and South Drive.
The ‘village’ part of the parish includes a conservation area and many listed and other old buildings. The older part of the village mainly lies around and to the east of the High Street that runs through the village and is the B4493 joining Didcot to the A417 Reading to Wantage Road. The western side of the village owes much to post war developments, and includes the modern primary school.
The High Street itself was the scene of a disastrous fire in April 1852, which was responsible for ruining many of the original dwellings along much of its (then) length. Despite this, the oldest house in the village – now called Lime Tree House, once the guest hall of the Bishop of Winchester – lies on the western side of the High Street. The village church – St. Matthew’s – was built in its present form mainly during the period 1190 to 1325.
Two features probably contributed most to changing the face and environment of Harwell in the last part of its millennium.
- The building of the Great Western Railway in the nineteenth century led to the transformation of Didcot from the original tiny village into what is now a large and growing town, putting nearby villages like Harwell into proximity to an important transport and business hub – and under threat of losing their rural character.
- Then the choice of the downs above Harwell for the site of a new RAF station, opened in February 1937, led, after the Second World War, to the choice of this redundant airfield as a site for Britain’s atomic energy programme. The airfield was taken over for this purpose in January 1946. Many of the people who came to live in the parish in the two decades or so from then on, causing the population to grow significantly, came because of an association with the Harwell Laboratory or one of the other institutions on the ‘site’.
Others came because of employment in Didcot, Oxford and other nearby towns. More recently, perhaps over the last twenty or thirty years, the population of the village has become yet more diverse as commuting from Didcot Parkway Station, travel by car further afield to work, and other changes in employment and living patterns have mingled many new people with the longer established village communities.
Harwell is indeed a ‘Village for a Thousand Years’ (and a few more!), but also a place that wants and needs to look to the future, surrounded as it is by many of the opportunities, and threats, characteristic of its time and environment.
“Village for a Thousand Years” was the subtitle of the book produced in 1985 for the Harwell Millennium celebrations.