Carry on Boating: the Bradt Travel Guide to Henley

25/01/2019 09:46

Written by Heather Haynes

'Believe me my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.' So said Ratty in The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame) and so might our illustrious leader, Adrian, have said when announcing the destination of our annual outing because we were going to Henley, that delightful Oxfordshire town on the River Thames. If there’s one thing everyone knows about Henley, it is that it is on the river, and where there is a river there are boats.

And like all serious travellers, we Bradt Guiders made preparation. Or at least we would have done if we had been given any notice. The afternoon before the proposed trip was perhaps leaving it too late to purchase seasickness tablets, inflatable life rafts, captain’s eye patches, tricorn hats and ice picks (yes, I’ve seen Titanic…). But, hey, we worked in travel, we were intrepid, we would manage. And at least we could speak the language…

Henley boat trip chilterns by Laura PidgleyThe view from the boat on a Henley river cruise © Laura Pidgley

That October morning dawned sunny and chill, but at least it wasn’t raining. We might yet avoid a creeping river mist or even a full-blown storm at sea. Everything depended on the boat – would it be able to withstand a troupe of editors, designers and marketing types, all rocking the boat and throwing bread to the ducks? Speaking of ducks, blocking our entrance to the actual boat were a pair of beautiful mallards flaunting and strutting their stuff along the riverbank as if to say ‘Look at me, I’m gorgeous.’ They posed for our snaps then waddled off.

But I digress. Once past the ducks, we hearty landlubbers bravely boarded the Hibernian for our river cruise. This was no creaking rowing boat, no oily barge, and barely a wobble to indicate we were afloat. This vessel was a splendid luxury cruiser, all shiny blue and red with polished glass and looking rather like a palatial floating assembly room with plush décor, while its huge windows allowed wonderful visibility of the rippling river, the riverbank and beyond. We settled down at once for a sparkling wine or two.

The Hibernian is one of a fleet of luxury boats owned by Hobbs of Henley, who have been boating on the Thames since 1870. This we learned as the captain effortlessly steered us first upriver towards Marsh lock and then, after performing an effortless three-point turn, downstream towards Marlow, relaying interesting snippets of commentary along the way. We cruised beneath the 18th-century Henley Bridge, famous for its five elliptical stone arches, and adjacent to this the Henley Rowing Club on the riverbank, where apparently the ex-Olympian gold medallist, Steve Redgrave is now captain. Right on cue, a determined crew of rowers in a sleek boat actually overtook our cruiser… it turns out they were the England team practising for their next race.

Henley boat trip chilterns by Laura PidgleyThe huge windows of the boat allowed wonderful visibility of the rippling river, the riverbank and beyond © Laura Pidgley

The weather could not have been better – glorious autumn sunshine - giving us the perfect view of the rolling green meadows, wooded hills covered in russet-coloured autumn leaves, and several imposing residences lining the Thames bank, so we took a vote on where our new offices should be when we have to move premises next March. Yes, one particular place would do – Fawley Court, which interestingly enough was said to be the inspiration for Toad Hall in Kenneth Graham’s aforementioned book. It was all looking very serendipitous. Yes, Henley would do very nicely – if is was good enough for Toad, it would be good enough for Bradt. All we would need would be a staff bus to take us there and back every day…

There was something incredibly relaxing and soothing about our boat trip. Whether it was the sun-dappled water of the Thames, the gentle motion of the cruiser, the view of the Oxfordshire countryside lazily drifting by, and perhaps the sleep-inducing effects of the wine, all thoughts of our unedited manuscripts back at the office dissipated and the words of Ratty resonated instead: “Simpy messing…about in boats – or with boats…In or out of ‘em it doesn’t matter. Nothing seems to matter, that’s the charm of it.” At which point Ratty crashed his rowing boat into the bank.

Unlike Kenneth Grahame’s fictional boatsmen, the crew of the Hibernian returned us Bradt Guiders to Henley as smoothly as the trip had begun, and our daydreaming had to be packed up and put away for another time. It was back to the real world, but feeling restored, reflective and relaxed.

For details of boats for hire visit the website of Hobbs of Henley

Want to find out more about fun days out in the Chilterns & the Thames Valley? Check out our comprehensive guide:

Slow Travel Chilterns & the Thames Valley

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