Sunday, 19 January 2020

Wargrave Local History Society

FOR the November meeting of the Wargrave Local History Society, Diana Coulter explored Sonning through the history of 10 of its buildings.

She is an architectural historian, who lives in Sonning, and led the Sonning and Sonning Eye Society’s contribution to the Sonning Conservation Area Appraisal.

Diana began by using an aerial photograph to explain the layout of the village centre. Apart from the church, most buildings were constructed of brick, flint and timber, with little use of stone.

The first site that Diana described was that of the Bishop’s Palace. Sonning was part of a large estate which belonged to the Bishops of Salisbury throughout the medieval period and the palace was the principal building, dominating the hill overlooking the River Thames.

The bishops were powerful men and with Sonning being close to Windsor and the court, it was a convenient place for a bishop’s residence.

The site has never been made a scheduled monument but archaeological excavations were carried out in 1912 by Charles Keyser and interpreted by Harold Brakspear.

Sadly, they ignored anything above the medieval layer, so the evidence of later developments was lost.

Brakspear did, however, produce a plan — based largely on what they wanted to find.

The earliest hall was later converted to have rooms for the bishop and a larger hall built on its south side, possibly around the time that the bishop was granted a licence to crenellate his buildings in 1337.

The layout and dimensions would appear to be very similar to the surviving Bishop’s Palace in Salisbury.

One notable event in its history was when Richard II’s child bride, Isabella of Valois (sometimes known as the “grey lady”) was held there after the king’s downfall.

The bishops were able to retain the palace until 1574, when the estate was exchanged with Crown lands in Wiltshire and the land was then sold by Charles I to some London merchants in 1628. The Rich family owned it for the most of the 17th and 18th centuries and it then belonged to the Palmers into the early 20th century, when the estate began to be broken up and parts sold off.

Alongside the large gates at the entrance to the Bishop’s Palace site is Turpins, a substantial late medieval house. It is a timber-framed property with a brick facing. Its position close to the Palace showed that it was occupied by someone of importance within the community.

Diana suggested that when the bishops gave up their Sonning lands the use of prestige buildings in the village would probably have changed. Instead of those who worked the land being taxed, the land would have been rented to farmers who could develop it as they wished.

Turpins had a large area of land behind the house, including part of the present churchyard, where pigs and cows would be kept, fruit grown and grain stored.

Further east, on the corner of High Street, stands the Green House. Sometimes known as a lobby entrance house, it was built with a first floor, either side of a central chimney, and had two rooms to the left of the entrance and two to the right, with a staircase behind the chimney. (Ivy Cottage and Forge Cottage in Sonning are of similar construction.)

An extension was added in the 20th century by the local builder, Sidney Paddick. The windows are typical of the 1690s, being double hung, where the top part does not move.

The brick parapet around the edge of the roof is a design feature introduced to create a fire break following the Great Fire of London.

Diana then described not a building, but the Rich memorial in Sonning church. Thomas Rich had bought the Sonning estate in 1654 and it remained in the family until 1795.

He was a Turkey merchant, meaning he traded in goods such as wines and carpets from that area.

A member of the Vintners Company in the City and of the East India Company, he was also a City alderman and became MP for Reading in 1660 and was knighted in 1661.

The monument is one of the top baroque memorials in this country, of Italian style, and was described as “dangerously catholic”.

However, the Victorian vicar of Sonning, Canon Hugh Pearson, thought there was nothing more deplorable than this and had it removed from its purpose-built chapel.

The Mill at Sonning was recorded in the Domesday Survey in 1086 and milling continued there for nine centuries until the work was moved to a larger mill at Tilbury.

The present structure was built following a fire in 1797 and was unusual in using roller mills rather than flat grindstones.

It closed as a working mill in 1969 and in due course was converted to a dinner theatre, which opened in 1982. The auditorium is housed in the former granary.

Water power is still important there as an Archimedes screw generates electricity.

Rich’s successor, Richard Palmer, had a house built in neo-classical not far from the Bishop’s Palace.

The Palmer family dominated Sonning through most of the 19th century with Robert Palmer becoming a Berkshire MP in 1859. The property passed down through the family until in the 1880s Henry Golding Palmer had the house transformed in a broadly Jacobean style by the architect Henry Woodyer.

It became the home of the Reading Blue Coat School in 1947.

The Palmers were considered good landlords. They provided a boys’ school in Thames Street, a water pump and the Robert Palmer Cottages for retired estate workers.

The cottages were built in 1850 and later had kitchens and bathrooms added. Behind each was a large garden, sloping down to a stream that runs through the village, where each tenant could grow fruit and vegetables.

As not all the present tenants wish to use this area, some are now used as allotments by other villagers.

The Deanery, which occupies land where once the Deans of Salisbury had houses, is the most secretive of Sonning’s properties.

Surrounded by high brick walls, it feels fortress-like when seen from Thames Street and the best views of it are from the church tower.

Now Grade I listed, it was built in 1901 for Edward Hudson, the editor of Country Life magazine, and comprises a house around an inner courtyard, designed by Edwin Lutyens. The gardens were laid out by Gertrude Jekyll.

Inside, there is a double height hall reminiscent of the halls of medieval houses. It now belongs to Jimmy Page, the Led Zeppelin guitarist.

The last house Diana described was Pool Court, which dates from the 1970s. Located within the conservation area, its roof is in the style used by Lutyens — not so surprising as its architect, Francis Pollen, had begun his working life working on the Lutyens archive.

In 2017 an application to demolish it was turned down in part as its removal would affect the character of the conservation area.

The next meeting of the society will be our Christmas party on Tuesday, December 10. On Tuesday, January 14, Aldon Ferguson will recall the role of Women at Danesfield and Phyllis Court during the Second World War.

Meetings are held at the Old Pavilion at Wargrave recreation ground and start at 8pm. For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit

Peter Delaney

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