A well-attended walking tour of Hurley was held for the Marlow Society Local History Group on 5th July. It began at the Olde Bell hotel, which lays claim to being the oldest hostelry in continuous use in the country, having originally been the guest house of Hurley Priory. While it carries the date 1135 above the front entrance, the buildings seen today date from the 15th and 16th centuries.
All four sites visited on the walk were once part of the Benedictine Priory, whose foundation around 1086 was arguably the most significant event that has happened to Hurley. This riverside village has a colourful history. As well as the many visitors that the Priory’s guest house, with its proximity to Windsor and London, would have attracted over its 450 years of existence, the village shared a racy reputation with Maidenhead in the early 20th century.
Giulio Trapani, the owner of the famed Skindles hotel in Maidenhead, the focus for the ‘fast set’ who would travel out from London to cavort at these riverside locations, later became the patron at the Olde Bell, which also attracted its own bevy of celebrity figures over the years. Another owner was a Mr Brock of the Brock Fireworks Company, who also owned the well-known Mirabelle nightclub in London. On the front of the hotel are the entwined letters O and W, the monogram of Lt.-General Owen Williams, who had also once owned the Olde Bell. The Williams family were the ‘Copper Kings’ who resided at the now-demolished Temple House close to the village. Owen Williams was an Equerry to the Prince of Wales, later Edward VII, and he and other family members abetted this royal’s wayward lifestyle.
Hurley played a significant role in World War II. US Naval Intelligence and other American units were based in the village, which also housed British General Post Office personnel looking after vital telecommunications links. Just across the Thames is Danesfield House, home to the aerial reconnaissance interpretation centre. A BBC documentary first screened earlier this year, ‘Operation Crossbow’, showed how 3D photos, analysed at what was for many years known as RAF Medmenham, thwarted Hitler’s weapons of mass destruction at the end of WWII. Churchill and Eisenhower are both reputed to have stayed in the village over the course of the war.
The second location visited was the old Ladye Place crypt. It was originally the crypt to the Priory and, following its dissolution in 1536, a fine Tudor mansion called Ladye Place was erected on the same site. The crypt is mentioned in Macaulay’s History of England as a centre where conspirators met to ensure the succession to the throne of William of Orange in the ‘Bloodless Revolution’ of 1688. William of Orange and George III both visited this crypt where commemorative tablets record this significant event in England’s history.
It has traditionally been believed that an underground tunnel runs between the Olde Bell and the site of the Priory. Macaulay himself mentions that the anti-Catholic plotters against James II would enter the Ladye Place crypt via a tunnel from the riverside to avoid detection. The author of this article knows of a number of accounts of villagers exploring this tunnel system. A member of the tour party, who was raised at Hurley House, right next door to the Olde Bell, told how family members had entered the tunnel below this property via a trap door. All the accounts suggest that the tunnel’s dimensions required explorers to crawl along it. A photograph of the tunnel hangs in the bar of the Olde Bell next to an inglenook. Beside the fireplace is a door that reputedly once gave access to the tunnel. The author believes from his investigations as an archaeological dowser that there are, in fact, two separate tunnels running from the Olde Bell to the site of the former Priory (see map).
The parish church was also visited. Its long narrow nave, with mainly Norman windows and doorways, is a remnant of the Priory church. It contains a tomb to members of the Lovelace family, the lords of the manor after the dissolution of the Priory. Sir Richard Lovelace had sailed with Sir Francis Drake and greatly improved his mansion, erected in 1545, with his share of the Spanish booty. There are also memorials to later lords of the manor, the Clayton Easts of Hall Place, now the Berkshire College of Agriculture. 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 the Isle of Wight in 1866. Ten days later his brother also died and their joint funeral was held at Hurley church where a monument commemorates this sad event.
We then had access to the Refectory and the Cloisters, two private houses behind the church. We were shown the soaring roof of the former frater range and the extensive grounds to the rear of the church, a building that once extended a further 90 feet when the Priory existed. Here is also to be found the old monastic fish pond and a remaining portion of moat on which Nicholas Straussler, a Hungarian-born inventor and former resident of the Refectory, tested models of the amphibious tank that was used in the D-Day landings at Normandy. Also of interest within these grounds is the pillared water gate of the original Ladye Place. While this Tudor mansion – one of the finest in the county – had been pulled down by 1838, another large house which took the same name was later erected close by. This was purchased in 1924 by Colonel Rivers-Moore, a retired Royal Engineer, who determined to undertake archaeological investigations as the old Priory 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, the Grey Lady, was supposed to haunt the place. By good luck, a dry summer revealed the outline of the old Lovelace mansion, which had 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 make discoveries and that they held séances to seek guidance as to where they should dig, work that was carried out between 1930-1938.
The group also looked at the circular dovecote and two large barns dating from around the fourteenth century to the west of the church. The one now turned into a private, walled residence, Tithecote Manor, is reputed to have been refurbished with York stone slabs from Blitz-damaged London streets.
An article on ‘Hurley’s Hidden History which provides a fuller account of the village, can be found on the Archaeology in Marlow website at www.archaeologyinmarlow.org.uk
A version of the above article was written for the Marlow Society Summer Newsletter, Number 87, August 2011. Its author has also provided the accompanying photographs.
By Jeff Griffiths