Friday, 22 October 2021

The fort that Frank built

AFTER a difficult period in the early-to-mid 19th century, Henley’s fortunes revived in the late Victorian

AFTER a difficult period in the early-to-mid 19th century, Henley’s fortunes revived in the late Victorian and Edwardian period as the railway and the Regatta helped turn it into a fashionable social, leisure and commuting centre close to London.

This resurrection in Henley’s fortunes was reflected in renewed building and suburban expansion, as confidence and prosperity returned and local builders and developers recognised the opportunities. At a higher social level, the building of villas and larger houses spilled beyond the southern suburbs and the Fair Mile into the surrounding countryside.

The most spectacular example is Friar Park on the town’s western edge, built around 1887 as the luxurious weekend retreat for the eccentric lawyer Sir Frank Crisp (1843-1919).

Designed by little-known architect M Clarke Edwards, the house is an architectural fantasy in red brick, stone and terracotta, but the name Friar Park wasn’t his creation. In fact, the name came from the field the estate was built on.

Crisp loved the neo-Gothic style Edwards fashioned, so it’s no surprise to lerarn that Crisp supported and perhaps influenced the design of the Congregationalist Church (Christ Church) built in 1907 on Reading Road. (You can even see Crisp’s name inscribed on the tower — said to be an ironic tribute to his father, who had negative dealings with the church.)

When Crisp eventually moved into his magnificent estate in 1889, he became as much known for his parties as he did for his sense of fun.

He was a keen horticulturalist and commissioned landscape architect and civil engineer Henry Ernest Milner to design the gardens, including caves, grottos, underground passages, and the alpine garden which features a 20ft replica of the Matterhorn. (Yes, really.) And let’s not forget the statue of a monk holding a frying pan with holes in it (a plaque reads: Two Holy Friars).

When Crisp died the estate was bought by Sir Percival David, before later being donated to the nuns of the Salesians of Don Bosco. The building was about to be demolished because they couldn’t afford to pay for the upkeep when Beatle George Harrison rescued it in 1970.

While renovating it, Harrison discovered Crisp’s eccentric homilies inscribed inside the house and around the property — prompting him to pen the song Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let It Roll). The song has been described as a cinematic journey through the grand house and grounds. He also immortalised the grand building and its surrounds in his 1976 song Crackerbox Palace.

But when he wasn’t up in London, where did Frank Crisp live when he was building Friar Park? Well, according to local sources, that would be another “eccentric” local property at the Henley end of Greys Road...

Famed as the man who built Friar Park, Frank Crisp’s little-known bolthole is hidden away on Greys Road — and now it’s available to rent, writes LUCY BOON

“PEOPLE often stop on the road to ask what it is like inside the house,” say landlords Nina and Simon of their wisteria-clad property that overlooks Henley’s Greys Road.

Victorian gothic in style, Rockfort (the name gives it away, really) can be likened to a mini-fortress at the top of a sheer ‘cliff’.

But don’t let that put you off — this is a far from austere four-bedroom home with high ceilings, warm polished wood floors and an inviting feel.

“It is a special place, with natural light pouring all around and I think it would warm anyone’s heart,” adds Nina.

Once the home of one John Crocker — a founder member of the Henley Archaeological & Historical Group and the “fountain of all knowledge about all matters to do with Henley” according to local historian Ruth Gibson — on buying the property in 2013, Nina and her partner Simon were surprised to hear of its link to one of Henley’s most infamous former residents.

Built around 1900 over three floors, the house was created purely so that Crisp and his family had somewhere local to stay during the construction of Friar Park on Gravel Hill. Carefully choosing the location of this ‘bolthole’ meant Crisp could keep watch on construction from another hill.

The window in the main bedroom protrudes from the building and faces directly towards Friar Park, with a 270-degree view.

“We were told that our property was built by Sir Frank in order to oversee his mansion being built,” says Simon. “The window on the third floor protrudes from the frame and would have provided the perfect view, before later on the houses and trees filled in the space.” To get to the front door means using the steps that have been ‘carved’ out of the hillside.

At the top is a brick-formed ‘sentry box’ keeping watch — no doubt another of Crisp’s japes.

“It’s just left of the gate as you enter on to the property,” continues Simon. “We use it as a quiet perch from which to watch the summer sunset.” The sentry box is shaded by a 100-year-old wisteria which blooms twice a year, and almost guides you to the front door.

On entering the hallway on the lower ground floor, being greeted by the moulding of a friar bearing an uncanny resemblance to Crisp gives a nod to the building’s heritage.

Nina explains: “We are still not clear if this is Frank Crisp depicting himself as a friar or just of a general friar’s face, but it is a warm and welcome reminder of Henley’s wonderful history and this house’s role in that.”

The interiors also have a distinct ‘touch of Frank’ about them, with stained glass, mouldings and ornate cast iron radiators.

“The house is said to contain the items that were not good enough for Friar Park,” says Nina. “We have lovely stained glass framing the top of the French doors to the kitchen. We also have mouldings in white, which depict country life and I think they perfectly frame the entry to the garden. Many of these mouldings are imperfect, but clear in their depiction.”

Imperfect they may be, yet they are most reminiscent of the 120-room Victorian neo-Gothic mansion over on the next hill.

Speaking of the view, the one from Rockfort’s main living room, through the large bay window, takes in all of Henley, and is one of the best features of the house. This room also has a small ‘library’ to one side — one can imagine Crisp poring over design books and documents here.

Standard Property thinks it would be a great place to cosy up this winter. The house has been made especially snug since Nina and Simon gave the original sash windows some double-paned glass, and a wood burner was installed in the fireplace a few years ago.

A rear extension to incorporate a second bathroom with a rolled top, claw foot bath, was carried out before Nina and Simon’s time.

Rockfort’s garden is also a lovely aspect of the property. It is south-facing and the couple say the sun pours in through the stained glass in the morning, even in winter.

“It moves along, lengthwise, throughout the day, highlighting each stained glass pane as it goes,” adds Nina. “This is such a great property and it’s so close to town. Whenever we have gatherings, I somehow think Frank would have approved of the continuing gaiety.”

For more information, call Katie White at Hamptons International on (01491) 736000.


Rockfort, Henley

Bedrooms: four

Bathrooms: two

Reception rooms: three

Other: garage at road level, utility room, living room ‘library’, stunning views over Henley, historical significance, immaculate condition

Ready from: December 1

Rental price: £3,200pcm (plus fees)

Agency: Hamptons International on (01491) 736000

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