Saturday, 20 October 2018

Is this part of our medieval bridge?

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have unearthed what is believed to be a piece of Henley’s medieval bridge.

ARCHAEOLOGISTS have unearthed what is believed to be a piece of Henley’s medieval bridge.

The chunk of wood, which is about 2ft 6in long and weighs several pounds, was dug up near the Angel on the Bridge pub in Thames Side.

It was the largest of a number of items found by archaeologists for Thames Water, which is carrying out sewer repairs beneath Singers Park.

The utility firm asked the experts to step in after its workmen hit a disused brick culvert while digging to reach the pipework.

This contained a green glass beer bottle marked The Brewery, Henley-on-Thames, which was the name of the former W H Brakspear brewery in New Street.

There were also two clay tobacco pipes and a fragment of earthenware. All are well over a century old and were buried at varying depths of more than 6ft.

Further investigation unearthed the wooden artefact, which is wedge-shaped and blackened with age.

It is not yet known what type of wood it is nor how old it is, but Network Archaeology is investigating.

It is likely to undergo carbon dating, which can tell the precise age of organic matter such as wood.

Once the team has inspected and catalogued all the finds, it is expected that they will be offered to a suitable custodian in the area.

Members of the Henley Archaeological and Historical Group were invited to visit the dig and view the items.

Viv Greenwood, the group’s archaeology liaison officer, said the wood might be piling from the previous incarnation of Henley Bridge.

The current stone crossing, which is Grade I listed, was built in 1786 and replaced a wooden structure dating back to at least the 13th century.

The stone foundations of the old bridge can still be seen in the basements of the Angel on the Bridge and the Henley Royal Regatta headquarters on the opposite bank.

A 1698 painting by Jan Siberechts, which hangs in the River and Rowing Museum, depicts a timber walkway supported by stone pillars.

Mrs Greenwood, of West Street, Henley, said: “We’re hoping the wood turns out to be medieval as that would be hugely significant.

“However, we can’t be sure at this stage because so much flood prevention work has been done in that area over the centuries.

“It would have been brilliant if there was some bark on the wood as it would have been much easier to identify but unfortunately there wasn’t.

“It’s always fascinating to find remnants of the past that have become stuck in time. You see pictures of the old bridge but this could be another tiny snapshot of it in the present.”

The bottle was made in London by Alexander and Austin in the 1870s but is likely have been transported to Henley by boat and filled by Brakspear, whose New Street brewery opened in 1812.

It was almost intact, although the the neck had been broken off.

The smaller of the pipes dates back to the 1600s while the other one was probably produced by Henley pipe-maker Mary Pickman between about 1770 and 1810,as it is stamped with the initials M and P.

The earthenware shard is part of a Bellarmine jug, a type of 17th-century German stoneware that bore the face of a bearded man on the neck.

The fragment shows part of a decorative rosette which would have been further down the body of the vessel.

The culvert itself had been laid on a bed of crushed brickwork from the medieval period.

Mrs Greenwood has given a talk on the items to the archaeology group. She also took Andrew Hunn, of Network Archaeology, on a guided tour of the museum.

She said: “The pipes were a particularly rare find as you often find the stems but it’s far less common to find the bowls intact.

“The bottles are also of interest because they show trade was alive and well in Henley. That riverside area was very important because there were only five locks between Henley and London but a lot more in the other direction towards Oxford.

“Items like grain were taken to Henley and then shipped downstream while other traders walked their animals down the slipway to water them. You can find historic artefacts buried almost anywhere but I’m sure there are lots beneath Henley’s waterfront because it was such a hive of activity.

“We know there was some kind of bridge there in Roman times though it was further upstream towards Temple Island.

“There are so many areas around Henley where you might find old Roman and Anglo-Saxon remains. Some fighting during the English Civil War took place up by Fawley Court so you’ll find things like shot and cannonballs there.

“Thames Water and Mr Hunn were both very enthusiastic and keen to share details of their finds with us, for which we are incredibly grateful. Mr Hunn really enjoyed visiting the museum and took a genuine interest in the history of the town. He was extremely careful and professional so we can’t thank him enough.

“Those items are important evidence of how vibrant commerce was at the time and give some insight into how Henley became the thriving town it is today.”

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