Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Malt house is a key part of Henley’s brewing heritage

WHEN Mr and Mrs David Welsh moved into their Grade II-listed Henley home at 59 Market

WHEN Mr and Mrs David Welsh moved into their Grade II-listed Henley home at 59 Market Place back in 1977, they discovered more than just a house, writes LUCY BOON

A BIT like rowing, Henley and brewing go hand in hand. At one point, our town had more than five breweries and 50 inns. No wonder some of our streets are named for the pubs that once lined them.

Barley from the area was malted in one of our town’s many malt houses — by 1823 Henley had at least 12 maltsters and 42 malt houses within its boundaries — and, of course, the Thames was the ideal way to transport the end product.

With Henley’s 18th-century brewing activities came prosperity, meaning the majority of old buildings in the town centre were built at this time.

On the south side of Market Place, built by a “property entrepreneur” likely influenced by British interior designers and architects such as William Kent and James “Athenian” Stuart, a group of three iconic buildings are a wonderful example.

Incorporating what is now the Henley Baptist Church/d:two (the original structure was sold in 1878 to become the church and its administration quarters Melbourne House), this includes number 61, and number 59 — christened the Malt House in a nod to its heritage.

“Beautiful historical houses in Henley like the Malt House come on to the market once in a blue moon,” said Alexander Risdon, sales negotiator at Knight Frank, which is marketing the property.

The house has spent the past 38 years in the Welsh family: Jennie, David and their two sons, who went to school at nearby Shiplake College. Their eldest, Alex, still lives locally.

“I was a housemaster at Shiplake back then,” said David, “so it made sense for the boys to go there. The boys loved growing up in this house and we have all made great memories here over the years.”

The typical London townhouse of the 18th century was a brick-built, flat-fronted house on four or five floors with regularly spaced sash windows and often a canopy over the front door.

Floors were normally made of pine imported from the Baltic and in many cases were left bare and simply scrubbed to keep them clean. The wealthy would have added rugs from the Middle East.

As in the previous century, the ground floor was sometimes used as a shop or for running a business — the business of number 59 being the adjacent large maltings at the rear of number 57, which was demolished, but shows up on a conveyance plan of 1877. It was probably the master maltster who lived at number 59 originally.

Houses were built with no front garden, fronting on to the pavement. As such, the Malt House is a textbook example — a wonderful five-bedroom town house set over four storeys, incorporating a cellar (ideal for a case of wine or two as it was cold, but not at all damp when Standard Property poked her nose in there), ground floor with very large kitchen/breakfast, dining, living and drawing rooms, and first and second floors housing five bedrooms and two bathrooms.

The windows are all original wooden sash, some of which have double glass for sound- and draft-proofing. A few are spectacular bay windows as in the master bedroom and the extra-large sash in the dining room, which is the grandest room in the house.

“We use this room for proper dinner parties,” said Jennie, “since it takes full advantage of the natural daylight from the south-facing garden.”

The house also has two original fireplaces (not including the bricked-shut furnaces in the cellar). Fireplaces of the era tended to be fitted with stone, marble or painted wood surrounds, with an iron basket grate on the floor of the hearth (this last the Welshes still have in the drawing room).

“We use the living room fire all the time in winter, and apart from relaxing it’s where we curl up with the TV. However, the fireplace in the drawing room would need to be reinstated if you wished to use it,” said Jennie.

This is a lovely, welcoming room and Jennie’s favourite place in the house. Another bay window gives a view of Market Place, and the walls still have their original pine panelling, mellow and full of character, that make for a warm, welcoming feel.

“We had to strip this down when we moved in as it was all painted white,” said Jennie. “We prefer to see the real materials — the wood — so many of the original doors are also stripped back.”

The other things the family did when moving in was to discard modern shelving, run electricity out to the garden, and move the kitchen from the current site of the dining room, to the back of the house, where the extra-long space meant a breakfast room could be easily accommodated.

French doors from here give easy access to the garden terrace, which is ideal for outdoor entertaining.

“Apart from making these improvements, we like to think we’ve kept and decorated the Malt House much like it would have appeared in the mid-1700s,” said David, who is responsible for choosing the wooden Rococo-style surround for the drawing room fireplace, antique neoclassical mirrors and original 18th-century paintings throughout.

“We think the maltster lived here in the house’s living quarters, and oversaw the huge maltings next door,” said David.

This would have been a large and very long barn-like structure, stretching from the front of number 57 right to the back boundary of the current d:two nursery building. “It had to have a lot of floor space to allow the wetted barley to be spread out and to control its sprouting through continuous turning, by hand-held shovels — a very labour-intensive process,” said Ruth Gibson, a local historian and secretary of Henley’s long-established Henley Archaeological and Historical Group. “We still have an ordinance survey map of 1878 that shows the large malt house on this site.”

Of course, hops were also used to make beer and Ruth thinks that at one time hop-drying was carried out in the small barn behind the malt house — which still stands there today. This is a beautiful old timber framed building underbuilt in brick and flint, and stands at the bottom of the Welshes’ garden. It predates the main house by around 150 years.

“The barn probably started life as a stable or agricultural service building, but was later remodelled to house a hop kiln, which is why it’s a bit of a hotchpotch,” said Ruth Gibson.

“Looking up at the ceiling you can still see the perfectly surviving timber framing for the circular chimney opening — all that survives of the furnace and its superstructure. In reality, it is all that survives of the former substantial maltings on the two sites — an activity commemorated in the name given to number 59 Market Place, although ironically the small barn-like building itself, in its present form anyway, was far too small to be used for producing malted barley on a commercial scale.”

Owner David has cleverly adapted the barn to become his art studio and he regularly shows his oil paintings at local galleries including the Old Fire Station Gallery opposite the house.

“I love shutting myself away in the hop barn,” said David. “It gives such a great light for my type of work.”

David sells his paintings on his website

With so much history, you’d expect the house to come with its resident ghost.

“Funnily enough, one of the first things the previous owner asked us on moving in was, ‘Have you seen our ghost yet?’” said Jennie. “My eldest swears he saw an old lady sitting at the end of his bed — although he thought it looked like his late grandmother.”

Jennie also tells of the time the previous owner, an antiques dealer who ran a business out of the house, came downstairs for breakfast to find that all the paintings had been removed from the walls and placed face down over the floors.

“That was certainly spooky,” said Jennie. “However, I’ve never seen or felt anything myself. In fact, the feeling of the house is warm and welcoming — very happy. This atmosphere is part of the reason we bought the house in the first place.”

If it’s easy to fall in love with the house, the garden of the Malt House has a wow factor all of its own. Having once been part of a larger orchard, the remaining plot is large even by non-Henley standards (those living in Henley will know that postage-stamp-size back gardens are considered the norm).

“The garden is shown on the earliest maps of this area,” said David. Today’s incarnation, which has previously been included in the National Garden Scheme, is essentially made up of three parts — a top terrace that is ideal for entertaining, a long courtyard garden, and at the end, adjacent to the hop barn which is framed by a wisteria arbour, a large open lawn that is certainly large enough to kick a football around.

“I installed an automatic watering system throughout, so it’s easy to look after,” adds David. He is also responsible for the garden’s lighting system which has been implemented to show off the planting to its advantage — especially the long courtyard section with its series of ‘secret’ ponds and curving box hedges.

The area has an abundance of mature wisteria, multiple fig trees (indeed, bowls of ripe figs covered the kitchen counter when Standard Property visited) and whitebeams, which give clusters of white flowers in spring followed by speckled red berries in autumn.

The top terrace pond also has a water feature, which David says is extremely popular with the local frogs, adding: “We’ve had to put a ramp in for them so they can get in and out safely.”

Adds Jennie: “With all that we have done to this place, and all the memories we have created here, it will be with a heavy heart that we say goodbye to the Malt House.”

She hopes the next owners will be a young family. “The bedroom set-up makes this house ideal for families, as does the large open-plan kitchen/breakfast area. Plus, the garden is a proper family-sized affair.”

“And yet,” interjects David, “number 61 next door was recently bought by a ‘downsizer’. It’s a versatile house in a great location, easy to walk to the shops, river and more. It will tick many people’s boxes.”

“There is so much going on in Henley,” adds Jennie. “Of course the regatta and other river-related festivities, but also as a community, you can’t beat it.

“Apart from the fact that our boys and grandchildren live locally [granddaughter Libby is currently in a play at the Kenton Theatre], Henley as a location is why we will certainly be staying here when we move.”

For sale with Knight Frank at a guide price of £1,750,000. Call (01491) 817830 for more information.

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