This riverside village, much loved by film and TV location crews for its timeless qualities, hides a wealth of interest in the course of its long history.
The Olde Bell hotel, once the guest house of Hurley Priory, carries the date 1135 above its entrance, giving it claim to be one of the country’s oldest pubs. The name may derive from a sanctus bell rung there to summon the Prior when persons of distinction came seeking hospitality.
The parish church was formed from the nave of Hurley Priory’s church, occupying about half of its original length. Two fine barns built in the fourteenth century stand in the centre of the village, the tithe barn with its dovecot now being mostly hidden behind high walls.
Hurley may have had an early Anglo-Saxon church founded by St Birinus as he converted the Thames Valley in the 7th century. No evidence of such a church has been found but it would have offered a good site. Hurley stood at a fording place in the river – the name Harley-ford directly across the river provides evidence of this – and the nearby prehistoric Danesfield hill fort, situated on a chalk cliff which towers over the Thames, is further evidence of the strategic importance of this spot (Danesfield was investigated by AiM as part of its ROMADAM project). Hurley is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles in 894 when the Danes are reported to have passed through it en route from Essex to Gloucester. Further evidence of the importance of Hurley can be found in the record that Editha, the sister of Edward the Confessor, may have been buried in the church here.
The conquest by William of Normandy brought great changes to Hurley. Asgar, who’d was given the land by Edward the Confessor and was his Master of Horse, was removed as Lord of the Manor and replaced by Geoffrey de Mandeville, a right hand man for William at the Battle of Hastings. There’s a reminder of this change to Norman ownership to be found upstream at Frogmill Spinney where a house that had its origins in this time bears the curious name of ‘Poison Ducks’. This is a corruption of the Norman French ‘poisson duc’; in other words, this was the home of the keeper of this stretch of river on behalf of the Norman lord of the manor. In the Domesday Book, Hurley is recorded as being a larger settlement than Marlow
The biggest change ever to affect the village happened when Geoffrey de Mandeville founded a Benedictine priory in 1086 in memory of his first wife. The Priory was central to the life of the village for 450 years until Henry VIII’s reforms swept it away in 1536. Its Abbot and monks were more fortunate than most at the Dissolution as they could retreat to the protected mother house at Westminster, taking with them the Priory’s 562 charters, which still exist. These charters reveal that the Abbey of Westminster had exchanged one of its London properties to acquire a forested area near its daughter house. The London property exchanged for Hurley Wood was no less than Covent Garden.
After the Dissolution, Hurley’s monastic estate passed into the hands of John Lovelace in 1545 and this family then became Lords of the Manor. The Lovelaces built a mansion called Ladye Place on the site of the ruined Priory. The first Sir Richard Lovelace went on an expedition with Sir Francis Drake and it’s been said that their fine Elizabethan mansion arose in 1600 from “the legalised piracy of a licensed buccaneer”.
The most significant of the Lovelaces was John, the 3rd Lord Lovelace, who played a significant role in the Glorious or Bloodless Revolution of 1688. He was an ardent anti-Catholic who’d been jailed for complicity in the Rye House plot to assassinate King Charles II and his brother and heir James. Lovelace became a staunch supporter of the cause for the Protestant William of Orange to take over the throne from the Catholic James II. The crypt at Ladye Place, once part of the original Priory, became a centre of plotting and it’s said that fellow aristocratic conspirators would enter by way of underground tunnels that led from the river to the crypt to avoid detection. This crypt, which still stands in private grounds on the old monastic estate at Hurley, became a centre of pilgrimage for those who valued the liberties that had been safeguarded by the plot hatched there. William of Orange and George III both visited this crypt where commemorative tablets record this momentous event in England’s history.
This 3rd Lord Lovelace, however, was a dissolute individual – the Master of an Oxford college said he drank a Quart of Brandy every morning – who left the estate heavily in debt. His son, having no estate to inherit, went to America where he became the Governor of New York State. A township there called Hurley commemorates the link with Lovelace’s Berkshire home. The last Lovelace heir in America died without issue and the line became extinct.
We may think that lotteries are a modern phenomena but this isn’t the case. A later owner of Ladye Place was a Mrs Williams, the sister of the Bishop of Rochester, who having only bought two lottery tickets, ended up winning separate prizes of £2000 and £500 out of which she purchased the estate. Ladye Place later passed to two brothers called Kempenfeldt, a name of Swedish origin, one of whom was an English admiral. Tradition has it that the brothers had planted two thorn trees in the grounds in which they took great pride. Arriving home one day, Gustavus noticed that the tree planted by his brother, the Admiral, had withered, which he thought a bad omen. Word arrived that same night that Richard Kempenfeldt and an estimated 900 souls had perished off Portsmouth when HMS Royal George sank in August 1782. Until the last century, Ladye Place had fine grounds in which were magnificent Cedar of Lebanon trees that were reputed to have been brought back by crusaders from the Holy Land, a story that might not be implausible considering the proximity of the Templar Order at one time in Bisham.
The Elizabethan mansion became derelict and was eventually pulled down in 1838. Much later, a smaller house also called Ladye Place was erected near the church. Later Lords of the Manor were the Clayton Easts of Hall Place – now the Berkshire College of Agriculture – which then became Hurley’s Manor House. If ever a family seemed to be cursed, it was the owners of Hall Place. Among the litany of premature deaths in the family, one was drowned off Ryde in the Isle of Wight in 1866. Only 10 days later his brother also died and their joint funeral was held at Hurley church where a monument commemorates this sad event. Another member of the family died suddenly in 1932, aged just 24, while playing with his pet mongoose of the lawns of Hall Place as his new wife sat by him. Little wonder then that local rumour was that he’d been struck down by the curse of the tomb of Tutankhamen. Although he had gone adventuring in the desert, he was, in fact, still a schoolboy at the time the tomb was opened. A year later his young widow was killed in an aeroplane accident. They are reputed to be the model for the young aristocratic couple featured in ‘The English Patient’, an award winning book and film.
The second house in Hurley to bear the name Ladye Place was purchased in 1924 by Colonel Rivers-Moore, a retired Royal Engineer. He was intrigued by the surrounding monastic remains and determined to undertake archaeological investigations as the site had hardly ever been touched. He was particularly intrigued by the prospect of finding the tomb of Editha, Edward the Confessor’s sister, whose ghost, known as the Grey Lady, was supposed to haunt the place. By a stroke of luck, a particularly dry summer revealed the outline of the old Lovelace mansion, which stood on the remains of Hurley Priory and trial excavations started. It’s reputed that family members then
began to have visions of a monk instructing them where to find discoveries and that they held séances to seek guidance as to where they should dig.
In the summer of 2007, a party from the Thames Valley Dowsers investigated the reputed underground tunnel that runs from the Olde Bell hotel to the remains of the old Priory behind the church. A cupboard in a bar at the Olde Bell reveals a crumbling staircase entrance which is supposed to lead to the tunnels. Next door to the hotel, Hurley House had a trapdoor through which access to the tunnel had been gained. Dowsing highlighted two tunnels that run from the Olde Bell to the old Ladye Place crypt and then to a property known as the Cloisters, the remains of the old Priory behind the church. Set into the Cloisters’ lawns are gratings which cover entrances to underground tunnels that have been explored and led to the moat, underpinning the stories of the plotters in 1688 surreptitiously entering the crypt by tunnel.
The Williams family who lived at the now demolished Temple House, midway between Hurley and Bisham, were disliked by Queen Victoria for their bad influence on Edward, Prince of Wales. One of the future King’s many mistresses was General Owen Williams’s sister, the Countess of Aylesford, whom he would visit at Temple House. There was a driveway to Temple House leading off Hurley High Street – its entrance gate pillars can still be seen next to the Olde Bell flanking the current footpath. Local rumour has it that Edward would also convey another of his lady friends, Lillie Langtry, to Temple House via this back entrance in a coach with drawn blinds. The entwined initials of General Owen Williams, one time MP for Great Marlow, can still be seen on the exterior of the Olde Bell.
There was a pre-war jibe which went “Are you married or do you live in Maidenhead?”. This referred to the racy image which the town acquired in the 1920s and ’30s, when it became a playground within easy reach for London’s fast set. Guilo Trappani, once the owner of Skindles hotel in Maidenhead, that was the focus for the bright young set and their racy activities, later became mein host at the Olde Belle which then attracted a variety of celebrities and was also favoured by the late Princess Margaret. The hotel and its restaurant acquired the same kind of exclusive reputation back then as a couple of well-known contemporary restaurants at Bray now enjoy. Mill House was also then used as a hotel where ‘temporary honeymoons’ were enjoyed on weekends. In 1933, the Daily Mirror ran a centre page spread about nude midnight bathing at Hurley lock which had people flocking to the village.
During the Second World War, American troops were stationed at Hurley, which became a centre for communications and intelligence activity, with tales told of American agents arriving by boat at the old water gate of Ladye Place. Prime Minister Winston Churchill, General Dwight Eisenhower and President Franklin Roosevelt all stayed in the village at some time during this war period. An American truck driver seeking to take a short cut across the river to get to the RAF station in Danesfield House sank the Medmenham Ferry. The inventor of the swimming tank that was used at the D-Day landings, Hungarian-born Nicholas Straussler, lived at the Refectory and tested models of his amphibious tank in the moat in its grounds*. And Londoners fleeing the Blitz camped out in tents and built temporary shelters on the river meadows. This was the origin of the extensive caravan park that now exists and the reason why bungalows line the riverside up towards Frogmill, having been built before present day planning restrictions on such developments applied. The Dutch royal family, headed by Queen Wilhelmina sat out the war, reportedly with the country’s gold reserve, at nearby Stubbings House, guarded by Dutch military and police who built their own encampment in Maidenhead Thicket.
This small village, which appears so quintessentially English, has thus made its own rich contribution to history over the centuries.
By Jeff Griffiths
* I gratefully acknowledge the assistance of the REME Museum of Technology, Arborfield, in researching this information.