Monday, 27 September 2021

Town’s best known street is terrific primer on the past

LUCY BOON’S semi-regular town history spot looks at a local street name where a piece

LUCY BOON’S semi-regular town history spot looks at a local street name where a piece of Henley’s past may even be for sale. This week: Hart Street

THE best known of all the streets in the town, Hart Street runs from Henley Bridge in a straight line to Market Place.

There has been a street here since at least the 1100s, when Henley was a busy market town and a centre for local corn traders.

With Henley later becoming an important stopping place for horse-drawn coaches from London, it’s not surprising we find so many carriage-sized entrances dotted along Hart Street.

What is no longer evident is the row of houses down the centre of Hart Street, which was called Middle Row. These were demolished in 1790 to make the approaches to Henley’s new bridge less cluttered.

The most important building on the street is probably St Mary’s Church, which dates from around 1204, although the tower was added in 1543. The current seats, floors and stained glass windows are from the 1800s, as is the current roof and clock.

Since the Sixties, the conservation of historic buildings in Henley has slowly but steadily increased, with one building having special attention from locals — the Catherine Wheel Hotel.

It was threatened with demolition in 1961 as part of a redevelopment but an appeal by locals stopped the move.

Now a Wetherspoon’s, you’d be forgiven for not realising The Catherine Wheel actually dates back to 1541.

Named after St Catherine of Alexandria, St Mary’s Church has a chapel dedicated to her and the pub sign showing Catherine and her wheel refers to her Roman execution by one of the torture devices of the time — the breaking wheel. (Now you know this, you might never see those whizzing Catherine wheels on Bonfire Night in the same light.) When the Romans tried to get her to renounce her Christian beliefs, the wheel is said to have miraculously broken at her touch. Unfortunately for Catherine, the Romans still had swords, so she came to a sticky end nonetheless.

At the opposite end of the street the Red Lion Hotel was rebuilt in the 1700s to attract the more wealthy travellers.

Opposite is another iconic pub, the Angel on the Bridge. This is thought to date from the early 1700s, being partly rebuilt when our current bridge was constructed in 1786. In 1801 the landlord put up posts and rails outside so that customers’ horses could be tethered here, along with travellers mooring up for a meal and a pint.

The Little Angel, on the other side of the river, was built much later, and is said to be named for simply being smaller than the one on the bridge.

(At one time there were around 50 pubs/beer houses in the town, so it was handy to know that if there was an “angel” in the name, it was located at one or other end of the bridge.)

And then there’s Hart Street’s namesake, the Old White Hart Hotel (currently the Italian restaurant Zizzi). The White Hart Inn is mentioned in records surviving from as far back as the 1400s, but it was largely rebuilt before it had become one of Henley’s most important coaching inns.

By the 1700s, the inner courtyard set behind the street was used for bull-baiting and cock-fighting, and it even had a raised gallery all around, so you could watch the action. The gallery was later covered over in the 1800s — a time when up to four coaches per week were travelling to London.

A few years later, there were as many as 18 coaches stopping at the White Hart on some days of the week, which meant offering stabling for at least 70 horses.

It was around this time that some of the older buildings on Hart Street were altered by the addition of timber-framed facades. So although our feature property this week, 32 Hart Street, was built in the 1500s, the timbers were later treated with a dark stain and more elegant Regency-style features were added.

By the Victorian era — “a period of peace, prosperity, and refined sensibilities” — the house was home to veterinary surgeon Edward Millett, his two daughters, and one servant. From the outside, the house would have looked almost exactly as it does today.

According to records, in 1911 the Milletts sold it to professional photographer William Marshall, his wife and son, who is said to have passed it on to a Miss Greenly in the Fifties (known for her strawberry patch in the long burgage garden).

It was then bought by the Frankenburg family, who have owned the property for the past 60 years.

Whatever is next in store for 32 Hart Street is down to one of you, dear readers, as it is currently looking for the next chapter in its long history...

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