THE riverside site of Wallingford’s Boathouse Restaurant (fig 1) is a little corner of the town with a fascinating history.

A drawing by June Strong (fig 2) based on documentary evidence shows that the site was once an inlet of the Thames.

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Situated close to the town’s East Gate on the end of Wallingford Bridge, and to the main gateway of Wallingford’s royal castle, it served as a castle wharf.

This was also the point where the water from the castle moats was controlled to sluice down into the Thames. So, from the 11th-15th centuries it was an area dominated by the castle.

As the castle diminished in importance in the 16th century we find reports that the Mayor and burgesses had rights ‘to fish with rods’ off the shelf of land by the bridge – a pleasant occupation for the privileged!

After the castle’s final active service in the 17th century Civil War its walls and gates were destroyed, but its moats survived and still drained into this area by the bridge, where there were now two small islands in the old wharf area.

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We know from a 1707 document that there was a right of way for people to cross the drainage channel to gain access to the riverside meadows (‘Queen’s Arbour’) using what is now the passageway to the riverside path.

By the 18th century, trade with London by barge had increased, with Wallingford boats laden with local malt going downstream to supply the London breweries.

Boats coming upstream were assisted in safely passing the narrow bridge arches by attaching a rope to a winch on ‘Winch Eyot’.

An 1803 engraving by Thomas Hearne (fig 3) shows the island with its round winch on the right.

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In 1809 a great flood – the highest ever recorded for the Thames – swept away the centre of the medieval bridge.

The rebuilding in 1811 included today’s three large central arches and a widening of the bridge by seven feet on its north side. The work also partially infilled the old inlet.

In 1835 the site was leased by the Wallingford Gas Light and Coke Company which erected the town’s first gas works there on the infilled ground, but maintaining the old drainage channel.

The arrangement is clearly shown on a map of c.1837 and a contemporary drawing (fig 4 and 5).

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Flooding was still a problem however, so in 1875 the gasworks were re-sited to the west of the town.

By then the castle moats had been drained and the old outlet was re-routed. The site now had only a shabby landing stage with ‘unsightly’ sheds.

In 1891 these were replaced with a proper landing stage and a smart two storey building with boathouses below and rooms above.

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This building forms part of the modern Boathouse restaurant.

Flooding can still be a problem; high flood marks are recorded near the steps adjacent to the bridge, including one for 2003 which reached the top terrace.

Many images of the floods are on display at Wallingford Museum.

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