A short walk along the riverside past Henley Bridge and the Red Lion Hotel, where legend has it that the Prince Regent once ate 14 lamb chops at one sitting, will bring you to Mill Meadows and the River and Rowing Museum. Its exterior of oak, glass and steel, with curves evoking boathouses and the sturdiness of local barns, marks it out from the rest of the town, and won it recognition as the Royal Fine Arts Commission Building of the Year in 1999. Inside, you can get perspective by starting with the gallery devoted to Henley’s history. While the displays feature the original cinema, nearby historic houses and much else, the river theme is inescapable. Even the charming rhubarb-and-custard blazers from Brown’s Outfitters are regatta-inspired. The Rowing Gallery claims that blazers originated from rowing, with the team from St John’s College Cambridge opting for a vivid scarlet which ‘set the water ablaze’. Whether you’re in a blazer or not, you can admire the various boats from all over the world, sit in a Greek trireme (which had three banks of oars) or try your own technique on an indoor rower.
The Wind in the Willows Gallery is the highlight of the Henley River and Rowing Museum © Peter Jay
The museum’s least obviously river-based content is its Piper Gallery, focusing on the life and works of John Egerton Christmas Piper (1903–1992), who lived for almost 60 years in an old farmhouse in nearby Fawley Bottom. Piper’s talents included printmaking, painting and the design of opera and theatre sets; he developed an interest in rural churches and collaborated with John Betjeman on the Shell Guide to Oxfordshire. The Piper Gallery offers a well-designed and intriguing cross-section of Piper’s life and works. However, the museum’s highlight is the Wind in the Willows Gallery. With a torch in one hand and an audio guide to remind you of the story, you walk through 3D models, spooky lighting and whimsical music as it recreates the tale of Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad. From the beginning of the story, as Mole does his spring cleaning, to the dramatic climax in which the friends eject the Weasels from Toad Hall, this is a total delight. No doubt your anticipation of the visit may be heightened by the road sign, coming from Medmenham, warning of toads in the road (the sign is shortly before the entrance to Henley Management College, but we don’t think it’s a satirical comment on the College alumni).
If you want to learn more about the history of the River Thames pick up a copy of our guide to the area: