23 November 2023

Berkhamsted’s buildings
reflect the history and
legacy of an old market
and coaching inn town

The Town Hall on Berkhamsted High Street, with its distinctive façade, was built by a charitable trust in 1859 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Berkhamsted is an old market and coaching inn town on Akeman Street, the old Roman road that linked Watling Street just north of Verulamium (near modern St Albans) with the Fosse Way at Corinium Dobunnorum, now Cirencester.

This road running east-west across southern England is about 117 km (73 mi) long and the route may have been an older track, upgraded by the Romans. Its runs through Hemel Hempstead, Berkhamsted, Tring, Aylesbury, Alchester, Stonesfield, Chesterton, Kirtlington, Ramsden and Asthall.

Akerman Street, the royal importance of Berkhamsted Castle, the wool trade and the later development of the Grand Union Canal and the railway from London , ensured the prosperity of the town throughout the middle ages and beyond.

The old coaching inns, each with a wide opening by the side leading to former stables at the rear, are reminders of the day when Berkhamsted was once a major staging post for coaches on their way to and from London.

The architectural legacy of the town, alongside the churches and castle ruins, includes the Victorian town hall, a Caroline almshouse, half-timbered Tudor houses, and a High Street shop that some claim is the oldest shop in England – or, at least, the oldest extant jettied timber-framed building in England.

Curious and unique street names too survive from the 17th century, such as ‘Grab-All Row.’

The Swan, the Crown and the King’s Arms … three old coaching inns side-by-side on the High Street in Berkhamsted (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Town Hall on the High Street is an ornate neo-Gothic building with a distinctive façade. It was designed by the eccentric Victorian architect Edward Buckton Lamb, and was built by a charitable trust in 1859 to house a new market hall and the Mechanics’ Institute, and to provide a large public meeting room.

The Town Hall was extended in 1888-1890, and after years of neglect and dereliction was restored between 1982 and 1999. It now includes a restaurant facing onto the street and community facilities above, including space for weddings, public meetings and concerts.

The architect Edward Buckton Lamb (1806-1869), who designed the town hall, has been described as a ‘Rogue-Gothic Revivalist’ who ‘gloried in repetitive notchings and chamferings’. The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described him as ‘the most original though certainly not the most accomplished architect of his day.’

Yet, Benjamin Disraeli chose him to remodel Hughenden Manor, and Lady Marion Alford, the mother of the young Earl Brownlow, chose Lamb to design the Town Hall in Berkhamsted.

The Market House replaced the Tudor Market House that had burnt down in 1854. The freehold of the old market house was owned by the Duchy of Cornwall but leased to Earl Brownlow, who received all the market rents.

The Duchy agreed to release Brownlow from his obligation to rebuild the burnt-out building provided he gave at least £500 towards the new Market House. Brownlow also had to hand over the market rents to the Town Hall Trust for 99 years, after which the rents would revert to the Duchy of Cornwall. Brownlow bought the freehold of the market rights from the Duchy in 1863.

From 1859 and until well into the 20th century, it was known as the Market House and Town Hall. The front part of the building was used for trading and to store market stalls. The first floor was used by the Berkhamsted Mechanics’ Institute, with a library, museum, card room and billiard room. The garden was first created in 1890.

The Town Hall Trust bought the freehold from the Brownlow estate 100 years ago in 1923, ensuring that the trust would receive the market rents in perpetuity.

But by the 1970s the town hall had been closed, partly because it failed to comply with fire regulations, partly because the income it generated was insufficient to maintain the building. It was neglected and derelict and as a major dispute dragged on for over six years it was threatened with demolition.

As the corporate trustee, the council was advised that the building was beyond economic repair. It decided to build a new hall behind the High Street façade, but its efforts were frustrated, at first because of a defect in the title, and later by a moratorium on local government capital spending. Meanwhile, the building continued to deteriorate and became the victim of vandalism.

In desperation, the council tried to sell the building, but the Charity Commission refused permission because of local objectors. The Rescue and Action Group included three local schoolboys, and the objectors were supported by well-known Berkhamsted personalities, including the author Graham Greene, the broadcaster Richard Mabey and the composer Antony Hopkins.

The town clerk advised the council that it no longer bore responsibility for the town hall. A new trust was established in 1979, and the town hall was restored between 1982 and 1999. The ground floor was converted into a shopping arcade in 1983, and was officially opened by the actor Bernard Miles (Lord Miles), one of the trust’s patrons, on New Year’s Eve, 31 December 1983.

The arcade prospered throughout the 1980s until shopping patterns changed. The ground floor arcade has since become a restaurant, and is now Prime Steak and Grill.

No 173 High Street is regarded as the oldest extant jettied timber-framed building in England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Across the street from the Town Hall, No 173 High Street is considered to be the oldest extant jettied timber-framed building in England. It has been dated by dendrochronology of the structural timbers to between 1277 and 1297, when Berkhamsted was a large, prosperous wool trading market town.

The building was given a Victorian façade and was used as a pharmacy in the 19th century. But its historical significance was not recognised until 2001, after the mediaeval timber framing was exposed during renovation work.

Investigations suggest it has always been a shop, with evidence of an early jeweller’s or goldsmith’s shop with a workshop behind. Newspaper headlines at the time claimed England’s ‘oldest shop’ had been discovered. The age of the building makes it a contender for the title, but there is doubt about how long it served as a shop. It is now believed to have originally been a jettied service wing to a larger aisled hall house that has since disappeared.

The building has received grants from English Heritage. It is now Grade II* listed and is the premises of Sterling estate agents.

The Tudor Court House is a fine example of a 16th century timber-framed building (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The pretty Tudor Court House beside Saint Peter’s Church dates from the 16th century and is now the parish hall. It is a fine example of an English timber-framed building of red brick and knapped flint with a jettied wooden first floor.

The present building is Tudor in origin but may have been built on the site of an earlier, mediaeval building. It has also been known in the past as the Church House and the Town Hall.

The Court House was originally used as the courts of the Manor of Berkhamsted and today serves as the church hall for Saint Peter’s. It could be considered as the town’s first town hall as the town council, created by a royal charter from by James I in 1618, first met there.

The corporation included a Bailiff or Mayor and 12 chief burgesses, and fell into abeyance in the 1660s.

The Court House had a variety of uses over the years. It was a school from 1838 until the 1870s, and then a court house. Meanwhile, Lord Brownlow bought the Manor and Honour of Berkhamsted, with the exception of the castle, from the Duchy of Cornwall in 1863. This included ownership of the Court House, which was leased back to trustees at a nominal rent.

During World War I, the Court House was used as an orderly room. During the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918, it was used as an extension hospital. During World War II, it was used as a school once again to cope with the surge in school children among the war-time evacuees.

Today, the Court House is the church hall for Saint Peter’s parish.

Dean Incent’s House was described by Sir Nikolaus Pevsner as ‘the best house in Berkhamsted’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Across the street from Saint Peter’s Church on the High Street, Dean Incent’s House is a timber-framed building. Sir Nikolaus Pevsner described it as ‘the best house in Berkhamsted.’ It dates from the late 15th century and is the birthplace of John Incent (1480-1545), who was the Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, from 1540 to 1545.

Evidence suggests an older mediaeval building stood to the rear of the house, at right angles to the High Street. Part of this older house was incorporated into the Tudor house which was built facing the High Street.

The house belonged to Robert and Katherine Incent in the late 15th century. Robert Incent was secretary to Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, the last royal resident at Berkhamsted Castle, wife of the Duke of York and mother of two kings of England, Edward IV and Richard III.

John Incent was a chaplain to Henry VIII during Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the king appointed Incent Dean of Saint Paul’s in 1540. He founded Dean Incent’s Free School in Berkhamsted in 1541, using land he appropriated from the monastic hospital of Saint John the Baptist during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. The school is today’s Berkhamsted School.

Dean Incent’s House was a traditional tearoom and restaurant from 1930 until 1970, and it was listed in 1950. Later it was used to house schoolmasters at Berkhamsted School. The interior has original exposed timber framing. David Sherratt, one of the resident schoolmasters, uncovered extensive remains of wall paintings in the house in the 1970s. These paintings are thought to date from the late Tudor or early Jacobean era.

The house is now a private dwelling and is not normally open to the public.

The Sayer Almshouses date from 1684 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

At the west end of the High Street, the Sayer Almshouses, on the corner of Cowper Road, were given to the town by John Sayer, a prominent local resident.

John Sayer was Charles II’s chief cook and a friend of Samuel Pepys. A plaque on the façade of the almshouses bears his name, his coat of arms and the date 1684.

The Berkhamsted coat-of-arms decorate the façade of the Town Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Daily prayers in the Kingdom Season
with USPG: (19) 23 November 2023

The ruins of a large, three-aisled early Christian Basilica (Basilica A) in Philippi, dating from the end of fifth century CE (Photograph: Carole Raddato, Frankfurt / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Patrick Comerford

In this time between All Saints’ Day and Advent Sunday, we are in the Kingdom Season in the Calendar of the Church of England. This week began with the Second Sunday before Advent (19 November 2023).

The calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship today (23 November) remembers Clement (ca 100), Bishop of Rome, Martyr.

Throughout this week, I am reflecting on the seven churches in cities or places that give their names to the titles of nine letters or epistles by Saint Paul: Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

My reflections this morning follow this pattern:

1, A reflection on a Pauline church;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The imposing basilica next to the Forum in Philippi and its gagantic pillars, also known as Basilica B (Photograph: Carole Raddato, Frankfurt / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Saint Paul’s Philippi:

The Apostle Paul wrote 14 of the 27 books the New Testament. He founded several Christian communities in Asia Minor and Europe from the mid-40s to the mid-50s AD, and wrote letters to the churches in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Philippi, Colossae and Thessaloniki.

The Letter to the Philippians is the eleventh book in the New Testament. The Letter is attributed to the Apostle Paul and Saint Timothy is named as the co-author or co-sender.

Philippi (Φίλιπποι, Phílippoi) was a major Greek city north-west of the island of Thasos. It was established by colonists from Thasos in 360-359 BCE. The original name of the city was Krenides (Κρηνῖδες, ‘Fountains’), and it was renamed by Philip II of Macedon in 356 BCE.

The town offered control of the local gold mines and the route between Amphipolis and Neapolis, part of the great royal route running east-west across Macedonia and later a part of the Roman Via Egnatia. Philip II preserved the city’s autonomy within the kingdom of Macedon, but Philippi became fully integrated into the kingdom during the last years of the reign of Philip V of Macedon (221 to 179 BCE) or the reign of Perseus of Macedon.

The archaeological remains include walls, the Greek theatre, the foundations of a house under the Roman forum and a small temple dedicated to a hero cult.

After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, Caesar’s heirs Mark Antony and Octavian confronted the forces of the assassins Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus at the Battle of Philippi in 42 BCE. The city was refounded as Colonia Victrix Philippensium, was renamed Colonia Iulia Philippensis and then Colonia Augusta Iulia Philippensis, and became a ‘miniature Rome.’

The Apostle Paul visited Philippi during his second missionary journey, probably in 49 or 50 CE, accompanied by Silas, Timothy and possibly Luke. When Saint Paul preached in Philippi, it was the first time any Christian ever preached on European soil. He visited Philippi on two other occasions, in 56 and 57 CE. His Letter to the Philippians dates from ca 61-62 CE.

A century later, Saint Polycarp wrote a letter from Smyrna to the church in Philippi ca 160 CE.

Although Philippi had one of the oldest churches in Europe, it seem to have had a bishop only from the 4th century. The first recorded church in the city is a small building. The Basilica of Saint Paul is identified by a mosaic inscription on the pavement, and is dated ca 343 from a reference by Bishop Porphyrios, who attended the Council of Serdica that year.

Seven churches were built in Philippi between the mid-fourth century and late sixth centuries. Some of them competed in size and decoration with the most beautiful churches in Thessaloniki and Constantinople. The church known as Basilica B has been compared with Hagia Sophia and Saint Irene in Constantinople. The complex cathedral that took the place of the Basilica of Saint Paul at the end of the fifth century was built around an octagonal church and also rivalled the churches of Constantinople.

The city was almost totally destroyed by an earthquake ca 619, and became hardly more than a village. The Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas rebuilt the fortifications on the acropolis and in part of the city ca 969. Bishop Basil Kartzimopoulos rebuilt part of the defences inside the city in 1077, and Philippi began to prosper once more as a centre of business and wine production.

Philippi was occupied briefly by the Franks after the Fourth Crusade and the capture of Constantinople in 1204, and was then captured by the Serbs. It was abandoned in the 14th century after the Ottoman conquest. By the 1540s, the Turks were using the ruins as a quarry.

The first modern archaeological description, based on a visit in 1856, was published in 1860 by Georges Perrot. More extensive investigations by French archaeologists followed. Later excavations were interrupted by World War I, but continued until 1937, and the Greek theatre, the forum, Basilicas A and B, the baths, and the walls were excavated. Greek archaeologists returned after World War II and uncovered the bishop’s quarter and the octagonal church, large private residences, a basilica near the museum, and two others in the necropolis east of the city.

The present village of Filippoi is near the ruins of the ancient city and is part of the Greek region of East Macedonia and Thrace in Kavala. The archaeological site is a Unesco World Heritage Site due to its exceptional Roman architecture, its urban layout as a smaller reflection of Rome itself, and its importance in early Christianity.

There is a general consensus that the Letter to the Philippians consists of authentic Pauline material, and that it is a composite of multiple letter fragments from Paul to the church in Philippi. These letters could have been written from Ephesus in 52-55 CE or Caesarea Maritima in 57-59 CE, but it seems most likely they were written in Rome ca 62 CE, or about 10 years after Paul’s first visit to Philippi.

Many biblical scholars agree that Philippians is a compilation of fragments from three separate letters written by Saint Paul, edited into a single document in Greek, sometime during the 50s or early 60s CE:

1, Philippians 4: 10-20, a short thank-you note to the Philippian church for gifts.
2, Philippians 1: 1 to 3:1, and perhaps also 4: 4-9 and 4: 21-23.
3, Philippians 3: 2 to 4:1, and perhaps also 4: 2-3.

  In Chapters 1 and 2, Saint Paul sends word to the Philippians of his upcoming sentence in Rome and of his optimism in the face of death. He assures the Philippians that his imprisonment is helping to spread the Christian message, rather than hindering it.

In Chapter 3, he warns the Philippians about those Christians who insist that circumcision is necessary for salvation.

In Chapter 4, he urges the Philippians to resolve their conflicts with one another. He thanks them for their gifts and assures them that God will reward their generosity.

There is a sense of optimism throughout the epistle. Saint Paul is hopeful that he will be released, he promises to send Timothy to the Philippians, and expects visit them again. Chapter 2 also contains a famous Christological poem describing the nature of Christ, with the often-quoted concluding words (Philippians 2: 9-11):

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Saint Paul constantly tells his readers that the whole law is summed up in one single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Galatians 5: 5). On more than one occasion, he summarises the Christian message in this way. In the Letter to the Galatians, for example, he says: ‘The only thing that counts is faith working through love’ (Galatians 5: 6). He also writes, ‘For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.’ (Galatians 5: 14)

In the Letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul writes: ‘If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, and compassion and sympathy. Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind’ (Philippians 2: 1-2).

Papyrus 16 – Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 1009 – in the Cairo Egyptian Museum containing Philippians 3: 10-17, 4: 2-8

Luke 19: 41-44 (NRSVA):

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’

A floor mosaic with the name of Saint Paul (Παυλο) in the Octagonal Basilica in Philippi (Photograph: Berthold Werner / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 3.0)

Today’s Prayers (Thursday 23 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), is ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’. This theme was introduced on Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (23 November 2023, International Day for Tolerance) invites us to pray in these words:

Lord, we pray that women might receive greater acknowledgement for their role in sustaining our churches and our communities. Amen.

The Collect:

Creator and Father of eternity,
whose martyr Clement bore witness with his blood
to the love he proclaimed and the gospel that he preached:
give us thankful hearts as we celebrate your faithfulness,
revealed to us in the lives of your saints,
and strengthen us in our pilgrimage as we follow your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God our redeemer,
whose Church was strengthened by the blood of your martyr Clement:
so bind us, in life and death, to Christ’s sacrifice
that our lives, broken and offered with his,
may carry his death and proclaim his resurrection in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s Reflection (Ephesus)

Continued Tomorrow (Colossae)

The Forum in Philippi (Photograph: Carole Raddato, Frankfurt / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The ancient theatre in Philippi (Photograph: MrPanyGoff / Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)