As its name suggests Henley on Thames is a town that sits on the banks of the River Thames in Oxfordshire. This pretty market town dates from 1179 and still retains many historical buildings but it’s the rowing regatta that’s held every summer that it’s probably most famous for. The Henley Royal Regatta attracts thousands of people from all over the world and is one of the highlights of the English social calendar The train from London takes about an hour making it an easy day trip from the capital.
I start my visit at the Town Hall, a grand Victorian building designed by Henry T. Hare and built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1901. A previous town hall that stood on the same site was dismantled brick by brick in 1899 and rebuilt nearby as part of a private house.
Behind the Town Hall is Gravel Hill where there are numerous 15th century houses, the area is known as Upper Market Place. It was also home to the old fire station which is now a gallery.
The small public garden at the top of Gravel Hill contains an example of a pudding stone, a relic of the last ice age. These stones were often used to make kitchen worktops as they gave the appearance of mottled red marble after being commercially polished.
From here I can see the gate house to Friar Park, a 120 roomed mansion built in 1899 as a weekend retreat for Sir Frank Crisp, an eccentric London solicitor. This private house which can’t be seen was the former home of Beatle George Harrison.
Walking down West Street is entirely different to the gate house of the mansion I’ve just mentioned. This area was once the site for destitute agricultural workers and their starving families. Each night tramps used to gather outside the work house gates hoping for a meal and an overnight stay.
Opposite the work house gates is the Row Barge pub. The sign above the door shows Princess Anne being taken up the regatta course in 1977 in a replica of a royal barge that was built for the film “A Man For All Seasons”.
By number 34 West Street there is an entrance and through it and across the courtyard is the Kings Arms Barn, which has been dated by its timbers to 1602.
Henley has had a market since the 13th century, it was held on a Thursday to avoid competition with other local markets. The market would have sold grain and items brought up the river from London, as well as leather, metal and textiles produced in the town. The market has been held in its current location only since 2000 when the road was pedestrianised.
Just off the Market Place to the left is Bell Street and it’s here that I find Henley’s oldest surviving house, the Old Bell Public House. It has been tree ring dated to 1325 and is probably the remaining wing of a much larger house.
Opposite and a little further down is the Bull Inn, one of the oldest inns in Henley, boasting walls up to a metre thick. The pub is supposedly haunted by the ghost of a young woman and the smell of tallow candles. On the front of the building there are two plaques, one for the Royal Exchange and one for Sun Insurance. Until 1868 Henley had two fire brigades and depending on who you were insured by depended on who put the fire out, the owner of this building used both and took no chances.
New Street heads down to the river and got its name as it was not part of the original medieval town.
There are many interesting half timbered houses and some lovely 18th century buildings here made from local brick. Barnaby Cottages were built as two houses between 1450 and 1500 and contain high quality timber framing and substantial floor joists.
Also on this street is the Kenton Theatre which was built in 1804 on the site of the towns work house. It is the country’s fourth oldest purpose built working theatre.
At number 58 is Anne Boleyn Cottage. The many blocked key holes in the door testify to the age and value placed on locks. It was common practice in those times to take locks and keys with you when you moved.
Further down New Street is the original site of the Brakspear Brewery. It housed a 200 foot deep artisan well that provided 38 million gallons of crystal clear spring water annually. The building is now a hotel.
At the bottom of New Street is the River Thames. On the opposite bank is the Leander Club, the home of British rowing founded in 1818. It is one of the oldest rowing clubs in the world.
Henley was once the fourth largest internal port of the British Isles, shipping grain, malt, wool and local timber to London. The returning boats would bring basics like salt, but also luxuries like glass, silk and fine wines for wealthy families and the colleges of Oxford. The flat bottomed barges typically took four or five days to sail up from London. The riverside buildings that can be seen today were constructed in 1889. The ornate plasterwork on the exterior is by a local craftsman called Cook and can also be seen in other parts of the town.
The current Henley Bridge took four years to build and was completed in April 1786. The original bridge of 1170 was wooden and had been badly damaged in the Civil War, it was built slightly upstream. The stone abutments are still standing from that original bridge and are in the beer cellar underpinning the front section of the Angel on the Bridge pub. The heads carved over the central arches represent Thames and Isis and were sculpted by Anne Seymour Damer.
Not far from the bridge is the Red Lion Hotel, a major coaching inn from the 1600’s catering to the gentry. The hotel has hosted many famous guests including Charles I and Oliver Cromwell. The Prince Regent, later King George IV is reputed to have eaten 14 of their lamb chops at one sitting.
St Mary’s Church on Hart Street is 12th century in origin but was enlarged and largely rebuilt in the early 15th century, there were further alterations in the 1840’s.
In the churchyard there is a memorial to the singer Dusty Springfield who lived in the town before she died.
Behind St Mary’s Church is the Chantry House, the only Grade I listed building in Henley. It is thought to have been built around 1450 by a wealthy merchant, and may have originally been used as a granary.
The row of almshouses on the west side of the churchyard were a gift of Bishop Longland in 1547 and were rebuilt here in 1830 having been moved from the other side of Hart Street.
The Speakers House on the left hand side of Hart Street is thought to be where William Lenthall was born. He was the Speaker of the House of Commons during 1640 to 1653 (the Long Parliament) and openly defied the King, but was later pardoned.
Blandy House about half way up Hart Street was home to Francis Blandy, a widowed solicitor and his unmarried daughter Mary. Following a disagreement about a dowry, Mary gave her farther a lethal dose of arsenic. She was hanged at Oxford Castle.
Since the 1640’s Duke Street was barely wider than a single carriage, it was widened in 1870 when the whole western side containing medieval shops was demolished. Tudor House near the corner of Friday Street is an original Tudor building.
Number 10 Thameside is the Old Granary, a fine 16th/17th century building that is featured in Siebrerecht’s 1690 painting of Henley. Granary and storehouses would once have been all along the river frontage.
Baltic Cottage sits on the corner of Friday Street and Thameside and dates back to 1438. Its ground floor lies 1.5 feet below the modern street. It probably once adjoined the river frontage before the east wing was added in around 1800. Friday street probably derives its name from the medieval fishponds that used to lie at the eastern end of the street, Friday traditionally being the day when fish replaced meat on the menu.
I’d been lucky with the weather so far and had planned to walk along the river to Marsh Lock, however someone thought otherwise and it started to pour with rain, and with no sign of it clearing up I decided to head back home to London having enjoyed my time in Henley.