Violence on the streets a big problem in `little England'

Trouble by the Thames: Henley counts cost after teenagers go on rampage
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The Independent Online
JAMES CUSICK

Henley-on-Thames, the riverside "little England" town, redolent of rowing, regattas, straw boaters and plenty of Pimms, is struggling with a new addition to its tourist attractions.

For the second time this year, the supposedly genteel image of the town has been destroyed by Saturday night street violence. Over the weekend, 10 youths were arrested after confrontations with local police armed with riot batons and reinforced by dog handlers.

Now the town is anxiously awaiting this week's edition of its own local newspaper. "I am sure we're about to become the Brixton of sleepy Thames Valley," said one local shopkeeper. But while the town is divided over whether it has suffered a full-scale street riot or the aftermath of an alcohol and drugs-induced teenage rampage, the youths on the streets yesterday were not looking forward to this weekend.

Outside the Three Tuns pub, the fashionable watering hole that attracts teenagers from as far afield as Reading, a huddle of youths held their own verbal inquiry into what happened last weekend. They blame the police.

Inspector Ali Dizaei blamed the town's "little Jeremys and little Henrys" who he claimed pelted his police station with stones, shouted racial abuse, and threw bricks through a police Land Rover window - all during two hours of midnight mayhem. A similar rampage occurred earlier this year, shortly after the heavy policing for the July Royal Regatta had been reduced.

Arriving in Henley almost a year ago, the Inspector promised a clampdown on a local drugs and drink problem identified as out of control. He promised increased policing.

The youths outside the `Tuns' yesterday reacted by saying: "The Old Bill were totally out of order." One, describing Saturday, said: "They hit people with riot batons. Dogs went for us. Eventually there was fighting on every street corner and in the car park. That's not usual here."

The fear now is that either everything will now go quiet for a while or the trouble will worsen this weekend. "People might now come here thinking `let's go there and do some damage'," said another teenager.

Around Hart Street, Bell Street and New Street, shopkeepers who had their properties damaged in the "rioting" were divided over what had happened. Asquiths teddy bear shop had one of its period windows damaged and two bears stolen. The shop, according to assistant Catherine Saker, has been damaged before during similar trouble. "However, two bears stolen is not gang warfare," she said. "It is getting worse here, but it's no worse than any other similar place in England."

College lecturer Richard Paines, who teaches at the large sixth form college in Henley, said: "The problem here is that in Henley there is little entertainment for young people, apart from the pubs."

Sarah Gregory, who owns a gift shop on Bell Street, described the episode in terms of inconvenience, rather than terror. But she said some of the elderly residents nearby regularly have their doors kicked in, with some "too terrified" to leave their homes on Friday and Saturday nights.

Publicans along Hart Street, leading to the town hall and the police station, played down last weekend's trouble. An employee at the Catherine Wheel, which employs weekend bouncers, dismissed tales of riots with "nothing happened really".

Others, awaiting this weekend, disagree. One shop owner, who asked not to be named, said: "Like many places in Britain you need only scratch the surface and the image goes." The Royal Regatta was only one week in the year. "The rest of the time we have to deal with what the rest of the country is dealing with."

nEleven youths were arrested in the town of Market Drayton in Shropshire on Sunday night after gang fighting.

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