Cornwall & The South: Pt 49 – Hungerford, Berks

On the way back to Lancashire from Hampshire, we stopped in the town of Hungerford in Berkshire, a charming little place, and set out to explore…

Hungerford:

Status: West Berkshire, Berkshire, Town, England

Date: 15/08/2015

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: N/A

Attractions: Kennet & Avon Canal, Hungerford Town Hall, Canal Bridge, GWR Bridge, Hungerford Post Office, Three Swans Hotel etc

Hungerford has a stunning canalside walk, along the Kennet & Avon Canal. The 87 mile waterway reached Hungerford in 1798, travelling from the harbourside in Bristol, to the River Thames in Reading via the Rivers Avon/Thames as well as the purpose built canalway.

Back in the day, the Canal was a major route through this area of the country, transporting goods between the major cities. Hungerford had it’s own wharf on the Canal, where goods could be loaded and unloaded. Indeed Hungerford’s Church of St Lawrence is the furthest building East to use Bath Stone, which was only made possible using the barges along the canal.

Canal travel was slowly made redundant with the arrival of the railways, and after the GWR (Great Western Railway) opened a branch line to Hungerford in 1847, the Wharf began to diminish, and goods were moved to cargo trains. After it was later extended, the railway ran the same broad route as the Canal had, from Bristol to London via Reading and Hungerford.

In the distance we could see one of the 105 sets of locks which line the route. As the Canal is no longer used for cargo, it is primarily a leisure route, hence the number of Canal Barges. You can travel around most of England via the various Canals, from Guildford in the South, as far north as Lancaster.

The arrival of the Canal necessitated a new bridge across the gap, added in the 1790’s. To the right is the Canal Towpath, where a horse would have pulled the barges through the town.

Leaving the Canal behind us, we moved up onto the High Street, and headed for the Town Hall, whose Clock Tower we could see in the distance. On the left is the Crown Post Office…

…a stunning red brick building completed in 1914. It also has one interesting feature that most people probably overlook. If you look to the right of the Red Phone Box, underneath the second window along from the main door, you can just see a very small gap in the brickwork.

This was actually intentional, and allowed patrolling policeman to get a foothold to pull themselves up to check the safe through the Post Office window.

The history of the Postal Service in Hungerford goes back several centuries. In 1660 what was known as the Great West Road, one of six major postal routes ordered by King Charles I connecting the major ports/cities of England was rerouted through Hungerford, en route from Bristol to London.

Much like the Canal, a new bridge was needed to carry the railway through the town, starting in the 1840’s.

The track was later doubled by 1900, and in the 1950’s a new bridge was constructed, using the GWR Livery. The date of 1862 shown on the bridge is in reference to the original bridge built here. The railways actually reached Hungerford in the 1940’s, however it wasn’t until 1862 when an extension took it across the High Street, and East of the town towards Devizes and beyond to London.

The line here would eventually provide a direct line from London to Somerset around 1906, cutting out a long detour to Bristol for trains heading South West.

Hungerford Town Hall & Corn Exchange is the towns standout landmark, visible from either end of the High Street, with the Clock Tower rising above the other two or three storey buildings.

Designed by Ernest Prestwick (Lancastrian Architect from Leigh), it opened in 1870 and has two distinct parts. At the front lies the main Town Hall complex, consisting of the Magistrates Room, and the Town Hall meeting room on the first floor. To the rear is the Corn Exchange, the largest room in the building.

Although overall it looks like a reasonably small building from outside, if you look on somewhere like Google Maps you can tell it is quite a long building, with various rooms to the rear.

The Town Hall sits on the edge of a small cobbled area lined with shops, many of which date back as far as the late 16th, and early 17th centuries. It’s a charming area, and the length of the High Street is almost entirely free from modern development.

Directly opposite the Town Hall lies the “Three Swans Hotel”, a stunning little building that has it’s origins as a Coaching Inn from the 18th century. You can still see the archway in the centre which would have led to the rear stables, where riders could change horses to continue their journeys.

Hungerford lies on the route of the A4, which crosses the North end of the High Street past the Canal Bridge. The map shows it as “Bath Road”, a historic name which came about after Queen Anne (1665 – 1714) became the Patron of the city of Bath. I mentioned earlier how Hungerford lay on one of the original six major postal routes (London – Bristol), originally devised by King Charles I.

Hungerford would have been an important stopping point, not only for mail, but for travellers as well, and the Three Swans was one of many coaching inns along the route. The M4 Motorway was named after the A4 as it followed the same broad route from the Capital towards Bristol, showing the importance of the long distance route.

I think Hungerford has been one of the most fascinating little towns we have visited, and it is amazing the amount of history we have managed to uncover in just a short amount of time. From the missing brick at the Post Office to aid police officers, to its importance on the national postal route network, Hungerford is a great place to explore.

We had one final stop on the way home, the village of Aldbourne over the border into Wiltshire, famously the site of one of Doctor Who’s most popular episodes from the 1970’s…

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