Henley-in-Arden: Valiant village with a heart of oak

PUBLISHED: 14:33 19 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:09 20 February 2013

Henley-in-Arden: Valiant village with a heart of oak

Henley-in-Arden: Valiant village with a heart of oak

Slow down as you reach Henley-in-Arden on the busy Stratford road. Park, get out, walk round and marvel at what's on offer in this top Warwickshire spot, reports Marsya Lennox

Henley-in-Arden: Valiant village with a heart of oak

Slow down as you reach Henley-in-Arden on the busy Stratford road. Park, get out, walk round and marvel at whats on offer in this top Warwickshire spot, reports Marsya Lennox.

O BEAUDESERT! Old Montforts lofty seat!

Haunt of my youthful steps! Where I was wont to range

- Richard Jago, 1767

The local poet, son of a parson and a career clergyman himself, Richard Jago would have spent happy hours playing on Henley-in-Ardens famous Mount, a few steps from his Beaudesert home.

When he wrote his magnum opus Edgehill, it was just over 500 years since the local lord, Peter de Montfort had died alongside the more famous and unrelated, Simon de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham.

It was a bloody end to their stand against the King at a time of rebellion against poor government and overspending.

Beaudesert and Henley suffered too, Peters castle and much of the surrounding settlement put to the torch.

We may feel that this village in Arden took its share in the awakening of that democratic spirit which was to shake England to its foundations, commented early 20th century chronicler Arthur Mee in The Kings England.

And despite the temptation to keep quiet in more violent times, Henley-in-Arden has a tradition of speaking out.

Unashamedly mature and middle-class, the towns population is notable for its high proportion of retired professionals, the sort who know whats needed, know when things are wrong and, most important, how to devote its own energies to putting things right.

Long time residents may remember the general election campaign banners strung out from first floor windows in the High Street back in 1979: Cheer up. The Tories are coming.

The Conservatives came went and are back again, though the political leanings of Henley remained unshaken.

You could put a blue rosette on a sheep on Henley Mount and people would vote for it, said parish councilor Bill Leech. The point was further proved in the last district council elections when Bill, himself, came a creditable second to the official Conservative candidate as an Independent Conservative, soundly beating all shades of red and yellow.

Much as they did 700 years ago, issues such as public spending, concentrate the mind of the chattering classes.

In a place where people take notice, nothing much gets past them. The older professionals who live in and love Henley know whats what, they dont suffer fools and they work tirelessly to keep the place ticking.

Currently, magnificent efforts are being poured into determined fundraising efforts to help preserve some of Henleys architectural treasure.

And in a town famed as a veritable museum of architecture, it seems astonishing that its down to these stalwart residents.

Recently, just three fundraising events made a staggering 10,000 towards the cost of maintaining the wonderful Guild Hall in Henley.

Some 30,000 is needed to repair the roof of this hugely important and historic building. The loss of a small rental from the Warwickshire Library Service, pulling out of the Guild Hall due to the widespread belt-tightening, is a real blow.

The Henley Festival events, including a gala fashion evening, showcasing the wares of Henleys rather wonderful clothes shops, were enthusiastically received, delighting the Guild Hall trustees and business community alike.

It goes to show that, whatever the challenges, Henley people rise to them. They dont believe in letting adversity or apathy win the day.

As council cuts also threaten community activities, for instance youth sessions at The Hub on the Henley School campus, the towns determined volunteers keep on volunteering and giving of their own time and energy.

Wendy Willmott is one of a team manning the local Heritage Centre, an impressive museum in another of Henleys loveliest buildings, the partly 14th century Joseph Hardy House. This has a choice of fascinating displays about life here through the ages and it is kept open by a rota of dedicated locals.

People visiting, even from Stratford, are really impressed, she said.

There is so much going on here, much more than anywhere else I have lived, said Wendy, who has had homes across the country from Kent and Liverpool to Solihull.

Wendy also teaches cooking, as a volunteer, at the Henley Seniors meetings at The Hub. You cannot but want to give any help and assistance you can when you see how hard so many people work for the community.

Historian Jonathan Dovey was brought up in Henley and is an acknowledged expert on the towns past, in demand for his lectures and for his scholarly contributions to Henleys exemplary Henley News website.

Typically, like so many of the towns hardest working residents, he has other hats, as a Guild Hall trustee and a member of the Court Leet, serving currently as a Butter Weigher.

The survival of the Court Leet is a rarity in England, Henley kept its historic court by special dispensation when others were disbanded, thanks to the towns own place in history. Though todays duties are mainly ceremonial, it is an august body of like-minded citizens who have a deep respect for tradition.

Jonathan knows how special Henley is, both past and present.

Its a small town so its more friendly. Stratford does what it says on the tin but Henleys attractions are less well known.

He is among the concerned townsfolk who have kept a close eye on the controversial market plans. Since Henleys famous market ceased operating, the future of the site has been a major topic.

Local opinion, clearly audible, succeeded in forcing some changes to the plans for housing development - reducing density and upping the number of affordable properties.

It would be a special developer, though, that could provide any new homes that held a candle to Henleys own period building stocks.

It seems certain that however many homes one could build in and around Henley, there would be willing takers.

Nicola Farmer of Henleys long-established John Earle estate agency is well aware of the draw of this location. There will always be a market for properties in Henley. Everything is here from the lovely shops to the nice wine bars and superb restaurants. There are the bus and train services and you are so central here.

Henleys own residents are remarkably good at keeping the place looking its best. The latest generation of community custodians have been performing particularly brilliantly, not least with their successful opening of the new Riverland Garden.

This formerly neglected site was transformed by local effort and some more determined fundraising, culminating in the official unveiling this summer.

Though Henley has lost its market, the market town tag is hard to shift. The historic charters that bestowed the right to hold markets are still part of the places status and history.

But Henley-in-Arden, as a single or joint parish, with Beaudesert, remains pretty well just a village in size. Its population of 4,000 is a mere third of Knowles.

In marketing or retail terms, its facilities are those of a smart little town. Its clothing outlets alone were able to wow the audience at the recent fundraising fashion show.

And led by the hardest-working few, even this relatively small population is happy to put its hand in its pocket for a worthy cause - a community that still knows how to punch above its weight.

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