Walk 134: Henley on Thames Circular…Beatles, Pudding Stones & Princess Anne

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 3.08 miles (4.96km)

Time to walk: A town walk, so shops etc to look at, plus a chance to sit by the river & watch the world go by. Therefore no time limit allocated

Difficulty: Flat, easy & all on hard surfaces

Parking: There’s several car parks around the town, but be careful as some are rather pricey

Public toilets: Cafes, bars etc plus some public ones in the park by the river

Map of the route:

Henley on Thames sits on the River Thames in Oxfordshire, 23 miles southeast of Oxford & 9 miles northeast of Reading. The first record of the town dates from 1179, when it’s recorded that King Henry II “had bought land for the making of buildings”. King John granted the manor of Benson & the town & manor of Henley to Robert Harcourt in 1199

The existing Thursday market, it’s believed, was granted by a charter of King John & the existing Corpus Christi fair was granted by a charter of Henry VI. Henley suffered at the hands of both parties in the Civil War & later William II rested here on his march to London in 1688. The town’s period of prosperity in the 17th & 18th centuries was due to manufacturing of glass & malt, & trade in corn & wool. Henley on Thames supplied London with timber & grain

The town is a world-renowned centre for rowing. Each summer the Henley Royal Regatta is held on Henley Reach, a naturally straight stretch of the river just north of the town. The event became “Royal” in 1851, when Prince Albert became patron of the regatta

We did this walk, which follows the ‘Henley Trail’  a couple of weeks after the Regatta & some of the structures were still in place. Shall we go & see what the town has to offer?

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk round Henley begins right in the middle of the town, facing the beautiful old Victorian Town Hall…

This is a real hub & there’s several good old watering holes here, two of them being ‘The Three Tuns‘ & ‘The Argyle

2. Probably the third building on the site, the current town hall was built in 1901 & is the only one that occupied this position. Plans for the present town hall go back to 1897, the year of Queen Victoria‘s Diamond Jubilee. Replacing Bradshaw’s building was a highly controversial decision, but HT Hare, architect of the recently completed town hall in Oxford, was appointed in 1898, & the new town hall was completed three years later

3. Walk up the left side of the Town Hall along Gravel Hill…

In the Market Place, on the right, is the Old Fire Station Gallery, which is housed in the converted fire station

Gravel Hill really does have some lovely properties, many of which date back to the early 15th century. We’ve tried to discover where the name comes from, but couldn’t find anything

4. Look out for the small public garden towards the top of the hill. You’ll notice an apple sculpture which was donated to Henley by the people of Leichlingen in Germany in 2012 to celebrate the twinning of the two towns. Leichlingen is a centre for apple & berry growing

Nearby is something we’ve never seen before…a ‘Pudding Stone’…

Puddingstone is a popular name applied to a conglomerate that consists of distinctly rounded pebbles whose colors contrast sharply with the color of the finer-grained, often sandy, matrix or cement surrounding them. The rounded pebbles & the sharp contrast in color gives it the appearance of a raisin, or Christmas pudding. There are different types of puddingstone, with different composition, origin, & geographical distribution – fascinating!

5. Further up the hill, on the right, are the ornate gates to Friar Park, a 120 room Victorian net-gothic mansion built in 1889. It was formerly owned by eccentric lawyer Sir Frank Crisp & was purchased in January 1970 by musician & Beatle, George Harrison, where he lived until his death

In early 1972, Harrison installed a recording studio in a guest suite, which at one stage was superior to the one at EMI’s Abbey Road Studios. By 1974, the facility had become the recording headquarters for his company, Dark Horse Records

Harrison put the whole property up as collateral in order to fund Monty Python‘s ‘Life of Brian‘ after their original backers, EMI pulled out at the last minute. As a huge fan of the Pythons, Harrison simply wanted to get to see the film, something that his friend Eric Idle has often described as “the most expensive cinema ticket in movie history”

During Crisp’s time at Friar Park, the grounds were regularly open to the public. Following the murder of John Lennon the gates were locked & security features such as fences & video cameras were installed. Despite these measures, an intruder, Michael Abrams, broke into the residence in the early hours of 30 December 1999, attacking Harrison & his wife Olivia, leaving him with five stab wounds & a punctured lung

6. Walk back down the other side of the garden, which is West Street…

This area was once one of the poorest in the town, being frequented by destitute agricultural workers & their families. Opposite The Row Barge pub was the workhouse where people hoped to get a meal & a bed for the night. Times have changed as The Row Barge is a very nice establishment

The Row Barge is one of Henley’s oldest coaching inns. Have a look up at the pub sign. You’ll see Princess Anne being rowed up the regatta course in 1977, in a replica of a royal barge built for the film ‘A Man for All Seasons

7. Continue down West Street, with its great views over the town…

At the corner of Kings Road’s a fairly new bar / restaurant which could indicate that ‘The Hof’s’ in town

8. Turn left along Kings Road & then right, to find the Kings Arms Barn which started life at the very end of Queen Elizabeth’s long reign in 1601/02 as a stable to the former inn & public house. When we visited there was a lot of building work going on, so we couldn’t get a great view

9. Walk back to the main street…

This wide area lends itself to festivities &, when we were there, there was a spontaneous dancing session. Click on the ‘play’ buttons…

10. Turn left into Bell Street…

On the right’s the oldest known house in Henley, which was built in 1325 & is now occupied by ‘The Old Bell‘ pub. It was first converted into a pub called ‘The Duke of Cumberland’ in the 1760’s

11. Another of the town’s most famous establishments is slightly further down Bell Street…’The Bull‘. Local brewers, Brakspear first began brewing in the garden of 65 Bell Street. Larger premises were soon required & the brewery on Bell Street closed in 1812 & moved to New Street where it remains today, though it was converted into residential flats & a hotel in October 2002. This was when Brakspear’s brewing moved to Marston’s Wychwood Brewery in Witney, Oxfordshire

The Bull has been a pub since 1564 & was a coaching inn from 1744 to 1850 for those travelling between London & Wallingford. The walls of the pub are reputed to be over a metre thick & it’s supposedly haunted

12. On the corner of New Street’s the world-famous Asquiths Teddy Bear shop

Turn right here & head towards the river…

13. New Street contains some really interesting & diverse buildings. A tablet on the wall on the right shows that the two properties known as Barnaby Cottages were built before 1582 & divided into five separate houses

Across the road’s the Kenton Theatre which was founded on 7th November 1805 on the site of an old workhouse, & is the fourth oldest working theatre in the UK. From 1813, the theatre closed & became a non conformist chapel, a school, unused for a period, a church hall & a store for theatrical scenery. It opened as a theatre again in 1935 & currently seats 240 people

14. Over the road’s two slightly wonky looking tudor cottages which date back to the 1500s. Cross & have a look at Anne Boleyn’s…

The door contains several old, blocked up keyholes. This is because in those days it was traditional for previous owners to take their keys with them when they sold the property

15. Almost next door’s the former brewery buildings of Brakspear brewing company. The brewery moved here from its Bell Street premises in 1812. In 2002 it licensed the brewing of its beers to Refresh UK, owner of Wychwood Brewery & the brewery ceased production & closed. The site was sold & part of it converted to a Hotel du Vin boutique hotel

16. Back over the road’s a late 17th, early 18th century fine property called the ‘Bishop’s House’…

Finally, at the bottom of New Street is the River Thames. A few week’s previous, it was all hustle & bustle around here with the structures for the Regatta still in place

17. Turn right & walk towards Henley Bridge. Walk through the entrance of the Red Lion Hotel into the courtyard…

The exact date this old coaching inn was built is unknown, although many people date it back to the early 1500’s when it may have been constructed to house the craftsmen building the nearby church . The earliest recorded guest was Charles I who stayed in the hotel in 1632 on his way from London to Oxford. The original Coat of Arms, painted above the fireplace in one of the rooms, has been preserved and glassed over following its discovery during alterations in 1889. These alterations included the addition of the porch upon which the effigy of the Red Lion was placed and the building of the central hall where previously an archway had led to the courtyard

Other famous guests include Dr Johnson & possibly George IIIGeorge IV is also supposed to have visited the Red Lion &, apparently on one occasion he ate fourteen chops!

18. At the rear of the courtyard’s the beautiful Chantry House…

We’ll see more of it when visiting the church shortly, but the lower part was constructed around 1400. It today acts as the church hall & is available for private hire

19. We now arrive at Henley Bridge. The current bridge replaced an earlier wooden structure, the foundations of which can be seen in the basement of the Henley Royal Regatta headquarters nearby on the Berkshire side. However, the remains of two stone arches on both sides of the river indicate the existence of an even more ancient stone bridge prior to the timber structure. This bridge has been identified by some authors as the bridge which the Romans crossed pursuing the Britons in 43AD, however it’s never been proved

The current bridge was originally designed in 1781 & cost £10,000 to build. In August 2010 it was damaged by a boat called ‘Crazy Love’ & cost £200,000 to repair

20. Across the road is one of the town’s most famous watering holes ‘The Angel on the Bridge‘, which opened in 1728. If the weather’s good there’s an excellent riverside terrace

Go through the door, turn left & have a look at the two brass plaques on the floor at the bar. They mark where Grace Kelly & Max Miller once stood. The actress visited the pub to celebrate in July 1949 when her brother Jack won the diamond sculls at Henley Royal Regatta for the second time in three years

Miller would stay in a caravan on Wargrave Road while he was appearing in Reading & would rehearse his act in the bar & observe the reaction of other drinkers. Apparently he rarely bought others a drink so when once he actually paid for a round for all the regulars the landlord had the plaque made!

21. Turn right past the front entrance of the Red Lion Hotel…

…& begin to walk up Hart Street towards the centre of the town again. On the left’s a property known as ‘The Speaker’s House’, known because it was the birthplace of politician William Lenthall. He went on to become Speaker of the House of Commons between 1629 & 1640

22. It’s time to explore the church which is dedicated to St Mary the Virgin…

It’s thought the church dates back to around 1000AD. The first recorded priest was Aumericus de Harcourt, who was granted the position following a spell as chaplain to King John. The current building can be dated to the 13th century, but there have been several additions over the centuries

The inside is well worth exploring…

23. Walk into the churchyard to see the other side of the Chantry House…

Have a look round the graveyard near the almshouses to find a memorial to singer, Dusty Springfield. Dusty lived in the town & her funeral service was held at the church in 1999. Some of her ashes were sprinkled here

24. The area around the entrance to the graveyard is also worth exploring, with its hanging garden…

…& decorative fountain that’s dedicated to Greville Phillimore, who was a curate & rector in the town

25. Continue up Hart Street passing the huge Catherine Wheel coaching inn which was a flourishing business in the 19th century. We stayed there overnight & can recommend it

At the junction turn left into Duke Street, which was once known as Duck Street as a stream populated by ducks flowed across it on it’s way to the Thames

26. On the corner with Friday Street’s the rather quirky building known as ‘Tudor House’, now an antiques & collectables shop…

Continue along Duke Street passing the attractive Gladstone Terrace on the left & stopping  outside The Manse with its blue plaque to Reverend Humphrey Gainsborough who was an English non-conformist minister, engineer & inventor. He was also the brother of the artist Thomas Gainsborough

As an engineer & inventor, Gainsborough made several important innovations & James Watt included may of his ideas on his steam engine. The lock, weir & footbridge at nearby Marsh Lock were also designed by him along with several other locks

The blue plaque shows that Gainsborough lived here at The Manse next door to Christ Church United Reform Church

27. Turn left into Station Road. The Great Western Railway came to town in 1814 & the grassy area on the left was once where a large train turntable was situated

At the bottom of the road, the walk arrives at the river once more, so turn left towards the bridge again. This is an attractive riverside walk with boats of all shapes & sizes moored up…

28. Turn left into Friday Street where, on the corner, you’ll find Baltic Cottage which dates back to 1478 & originally formed part of an open-hall house. Between 1944 and 1966 the house was used as the ticket office for the Henley regatta

Continue along Friday Street, turning right into Duke Street once more to arrive back in front of the Town Hall where we started this walk

So that’s our brief stroll round Henley, which only touches some of the central points. If you have time, it’s worth walking right along the Thames at the bottom of Station Road where you’ll find a rather pleasant park

There’s plenty to explore in this town so…

Go Walk!