The parish of Harpsden is a strip of land just south of Henley-on-Thames stretching over two miles almost due west from the River Thames. Its shape has changed little since it was carved out of the royal hunting ground of Binfield along with other similar strips about the year 880 AD, when Alfred King of Wessex was building a ring of forts around his kingdom to protect it from Viking incursions. The point of carving out these strips was to attract manpower to help build, maintain and defend these forts by offering viable estates to willing takers.
The fort nearest to Harpsden was at Wallingford, where the Saxon earthworks can still be seen today, although the later Norman castle has spoilt their symmetry. While Harpsden was thus organised as a human settlement by the Saxons, that is not to deny that there is evidence of previous human activity. Indeed there is a palaeolithic site at Highlands Farm that contains Stone Age material that may date back 100,000 years or more, but which has still to be properly excavated, then, very much later, the Romans, or perhaps more probably, Romanised Britons,arrived and built a fairly modest villa on what is now the 13th tee of Henley Golf Course on the western edge of Harpsden Wood.
Nor was this the only Roman or Romano-British building found in Harpsden: a second, cruder building existed near the southern edge of High Wood, though this may have been used just for farm animals. As far as is known at present these buildings were created and used between the first and fourth centuries and were completely abandoned by about 350AD. Thereafter the land probably reverted to forest to be used occasionally for hunting deer until King Alfred took a grip of his kingdom’s defence.
The first mentions of Harpsden – spelt in typically erratic ways – occur in a charter of King Edgar’s dated 966 and in the tax record known as Domesday Book made for William the Conqueror in 1086, where Harpsden is shown as having ” 5 hides “ ( i.e. perhaps 200 acres of arable land),and, significantly, a Saxon lord of the manor, called Alfred, who owed feudal obedience to a Norman bigwig called Miles Crispin. Alfred himself had 4 slaves, 12 “villans” and 1 “border”- i.e. 17 employees.
Thereafter life seems to have been largely uneventful for the manorial lords of Harpsden who probably “owned” and farmed the whole of Harpsden valley from Harpsden Court, which was about twice as large as it is today: indeed it should be remembered that Harpsden remained a manorial estate rather than a village until well into the 19th century. Along the way they acquired the neighbouring manor of Bolney, beginning with its church, in 1453, by which time Bolney church had been abandoned for some years, possibly because of the river flooding, which, incidentally, may well explain why Harpsden and Badgemore, respectively south and north of Henley and both on higher ground, appear in Domesday Book but the lower lying Henley does not.
Harpsden Court probably reached the height of its prosperity in the 16th century , by which time much of the valley was farmed by tenant farmers living in their own houses, some of which still survive (e.g. at Hunts Green and in the back of Bellehatch Park. We know what the estate looked like because it was beautifully mapped for the owner by John Blagrave of Reading in 1586, a map most of which has survived in the Bodleian Library in Oxford which enables one to identify some of the same fields today.
The last family to own the Harpsden estate were the Hodges , who bought it in 1855 and sold it in stages before the last in the line, John , a bachelor, died in 1924, but not before he had endowed a trust to preserve a number of facilities for the residents. These now include the village hall, a cricket field, a football pitch, a playing field for smaller children and two cottages.
Harpsden is now a small village threatened with losing some of its traditional land to the growing town of Henley-on-Thames but the ecclesiastical parish boundary still matches the medieval estate of Harpsden cum Bolney.