Routes and connections: The civic character of The Relais, Henley-on-Thames

A significant design intervention in the refurbishment of The Relais Henley (formerly The Red Lion Hotel) was the opening up of the corridor between the reception and what is now The Clipper Restaurant. This was, of course, important to the operation of the hotel, improving the flow through the building and creating a direct connection between the reception and the restaurant. Access to the lobby is via a late nineteenth century entrance, which is set back from Hart Street, allowing for some separation from the flow of traffic. Our heritage consultant, Dr Kathryn Davies, refers to the remodelling of a carriageway in the 1880s and its conversion to ‘a grand entrance marked by a projecting porch surmounted by a red lion’. This sense of arrival is enhanced by the opening up of the reception, the heart of the hotel, to create a generous sense of scale. The scale of the spaces adjoining the reception expand and compress from the intimate to the expansive: porch, lobby, corridor leading to the restaurant and courtyard. We have restored The Clipper Restaurant to a double height volume with the removal of a recently installed first-floor guestroom.


Alongside operational factors, our intention was also to reintegrate the hotel into the civic fabric of the town, reinstating the connection between Hart Street and the courtyard. The hotel is within the Henley-on-Thames conservation area and, as such, is already a focal point of the town. Indeed, it has functioned as an inn ‘since at least the mid-sixteenth century’ (Kathryn Davies). During the course of the nineteenth century, with the construction of a railway to Twyford (followed by a branch line to Henley), the decline of the river as a major route for travel and trade adversely affected the town’s economy. However, with the launch of the Henley Regatta in 1839, and the subsequent flourishing of leisure pursuits on and around the river, new economies have developed. This is of significance to the life of the hotel, which overlooks the waterfront on Thameside.


The courtyard, accessed from The Clipper Restaurant or a carriageway on Thameside, is important  to the hotel’s relationship to the waterfront and the river. Around the courtyard there are a number of structures built and altered over time and having had different uses including the Grade I listed Chantry House. Dating from ‘around 1500’, The Chantry House is situated between St Mary’s Church in Hart Street and the Thameside courtyard. Writing on the ‘multi-phase’ nature of the hotel, Davies notes that The Chantry House was ‘unlikely ever to have been a chantry house’ but ‘has always had some commercial function.’ Also in the courtyard is a Grade II listed structure, ‘dating from at least the eighteenth century’ and referred to as stables. Although it was ‘possibly never used for stables but for stores and ancillary hotel accommodation.’ Another structure which was, in fact, used as stables, has been converted to a guest room. The Chantry House connects the hotel with the town and its civic fabric as a thriving medieval market town to the present. In fact, while the ground floor of The Chantry House is accessed via the courtyard of the hotel, the two upper floors are reached from the St Mary’s churchyard. A pergola with outdoor seating links The Clipper Restaurant with the courtyard and is in a direct line of sight with The Chantry House.


The emphasis on routes and lines of sight through the hotel, linking and expanding spaces that had been closed up and compressed in previous refurbishments, was central to our design concept and the reintegration of the hotel’s relationship to the town and the river.

Routes and connections: The civic character of The Relais, Henley-on-Thames

17 Nov 2021

Yvette Greslé

The Relais Henley: Historical layers and the Charles I wall painting

The site of The Relais at The Red Lion (Henley) includes architectural elements that extend from the fifteenth century through to the present day. The construction of the Chantry House, situated between St Mary’s Church in Hart Street and the Thameside courtyard of The Relais, has been dated to 1461 by means of dendrochronology. Historical layering is also evident in a wall painting which dates to 1632, during the reign of Charles I, and is in fact the monarch’s coat of arms.

The Relais Henley: Historical layers and the Charles I wall painting