Monday, 18 October 2021

Market Place at the heart of town’s rich history

FROM Roman remains under the floors of Bell Street, to mediaeval treasures hidden behind Georgian fronts

FROM Roman remains under the floors of Bell Street, to mediaeval treasures hidden behind Georgian fronts in Hart Street and Edwardian mansions on St Andrew’s Road, Henley’s different faces change from street to street. In LUCY BOON’s (very) semi-regular history spot, she chooses one well-known street, which may even have a piece of history for sale. This week: Market Place

HENLEY has a rich history, as those who live here well know, and like most British towns, its street names reflect this.

Some of them match their important destination (Reading Road), some reflect their location (West Street), some are named after famous locals (Luker Avenue, named after the Henley Standard’s very own Charles Luker). Yet many are named after the livelihood-giving pubs that once graced them (Henley used to have around 50 inns, so it’s not surprising).

Our town’s main highway, Hart Street, is one of the latter, named after the Old White Hart Hotel, which is currently the Italian restaurant Zizzi.

And at the far end of Hart Street, the very core of the town, Market Place, the site of our town hall, weekly market, and home to many of Henley’s early properties, such as number 59 Market Place (see story on page I).

Hart Street used to be called High Street, its width showing that it too was very much part of the town’s market place — probably its earliest — laid out together with the long burgage plots at either side at the time of town’s founding circa 1170.

As with the Malt House at 59 Market Place, there were many large maltings behind the town’s street frontages. The only still-surviving one in Henley lies behind the elegant 18th-century 18 Hart Street (now the offices of finance company Courtiers).

These maltings still have their tall kiln and the 90ft-long range of malt floors — brick- and flint-built, but timber-framed inside. An even older back range can be found behind the simple brick façade of number 25 Market Place, now leased to bedroom specialist Feather & Black, but still owned by non-profit organisation Henley Municipal Charities, having been bequeathed by one Wm. Barnaby in 1585.

Prior to this, number 25 was yet another pub — the Rose & Crown. More recently, it was part of our town’s only department store, Facy, which, amazingly, has existed on Market Place since 1896.

If you look closely at the sash windows above the current shopfront, you will see that three of them are mock windows — not blocked up because of the window tax of the 1800s, but put in to give the building’s earlier timber-framed front a symmetrical look. (On the inside you can still see the posts and rails of the earlier structure.)

The long range behind this brick frontage is well preserved and retains one of Henley’s most elegant roof structures — a medieval scissor brace truss that has been tree-ring dated to 1471.

Other Market Place facades hiding much earlier buildings include the Oxfam shop, which had mock framing stuck to its face around 1930 to improve the look of a stucco front complete with Georgian windows, which were hiding — and still do — a timber-framed, jettied building from the 16th century. Putting up mock timber framing seems to have been very fashionable in the Twenties and Thirties — a shame, some might say. Especially when simply uncovering the real medieval treasure would have been easier.

The Old White Hart, too, has a mock Tudor façade, and this conceals a wonderful medieval building with remnants of a crown post roof and a 13th century vaulted cellar to which the courtyard layout with its large lodging ranges was added in 1530.

Even Hart Street’s Wetherspoon chain pub the Catharine Wheel, with its Georgian façade, hides a building from the 1500s. Little can be seen of this today, except for some moulded ceiling beams in the left-hand bar.

But the next time you have an ale or two in the Catherine Wheel, you might raise a glass to its historic past as it is named after one of Henley’s former saints, St Catherine — patron saint of wheelwrights. (St Mary’s Church also has a chapel dedicated to her.) The saint may no longer be remembered on her feast day of November 25, but you can still see her with her wheel on the pub sign outside.

• With thanks to Ruth Gibson of Henley Archaeological & Historical Group.

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