FLOATING DOWN THE RIVER


HENLEY-on-THAMES

Henley is a moderately sized market town which uniquely has a positive and welcoming attitude to the river.To think of Henley is to think of the river and boats, they are inseparable. According to Charles Dickens, Henley is 'the Mecca of the rowing man'.

MOORINGS

There is nowhere else on the Thames that has so much mooring available for recreational boaters. Admittedly there is a charge for these moorings, however it is reassuring to know that at most times of the year it should be possible to find a place to moor. The exception of course is during Henley Royal Regatta week when moorings have to be pre-booked well in advance.

There are four sections of river bank available for boats. On the north bank, downstream of the lock and opposite Rod Eyot Islands, there is a stretch available alongside the park, useful for those with children. These have recently been repaired and have rings fitted. There are also rings in the moorings on the opposite bank downstream of the bridge. These two sections are the best for those who prefer to be within walking distance of the town.

The remaining two sections of moorings are both downstream. Fawley Meadows lie between Phyllis Court and Fawley Court. They are ideal for those who like open space and perhaps to light barbecues. Mooring pins will be required. Henley itself is still not too far away, probably a 15-20 minute walk away.

The final section is further downstream on the opposite bank near Temple Island. This is Remenham Meadow. The moorings are generally fairly quiet, though as they are on the towpath side of the river there will be walkers and cyclists passing by. Mooring pins will also be required here. It would be a long walk into Henley along the towpath and over the bridge.

HENLEY ROYAL REGATTA


For most of the year Henley is a comparatively quiet market town but that all changes in the first week of July. Henley Royal Regatta is an event that brings visitors from all over the world to the town. International crews compete, international visitors come to join in the social spectacle that is inextricably part of the regatta, and occasionally they may even watch the races.

The regatta developed from simple beginnings. In 1829 crews from Oxford and Cambridge Universities held their first boat race between Henley and Hambleden. Ten years later the first regatta proper was held. The event grew in popularity and importance, especially when Prince Albert became its patron in 1851 allowing it to be upgraded to the Henley Royal Regatta.

Originally it was a two day event with the course being from above Temple Island to the bridge. In 1906 it became a four day regatta followed in 1924 by the cutting of the new one and a half mile straight course. In 1986 the regatta was extended to five days to enable several events to be included, with the Grand Challenge Cup for eights being the most prized trophy. The races now start from Temple Island and end by Phyllis Court. The course takes approximately seven minutes to cover, so that most days there are two races taking place on the course with 5 minutes between each start.

Preparation starts many weeks earlier with grandstands and large entertainment marquees being erected on the river banks and booms laid to separate the race course from a narrow navigation channel in the river itself. Immediately prior to the event the swans are removed to a safe sanctuary, whilst during the days of the regatta itself caterers are kept busy supplying the many visitors, who arrive in their finery, with food and drink.


FROM THE RIVER

One of the best ways to view what Henley has to offer is from the river itself. For those without their own boat it is possible to hire rowing or small motorboats or to book a trip on one of the large river steamers which cruise up and down. Between the two locks, Marsh, upstream and Hambleden, downstream there is much of interest to see.

On the south bank on either side of the bridge there are two buildings important in the rowing scene. The ultra modern Regatta Headquarters, designed by Terry Farrell was officially opened by the Queen in 1986, whereas The Leander Club building was completed in 1896.

The Leander Club itself dates as far back as 1818 and prides itself on being the oldest and most prestigious rowing club in the country. Members can be recognised by the pink ties and socks that they wear and by the pink blades of their oars and sculls.

Today it is possible to catch a glimpse of our Olympic Gold medal winners Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pincent setting off to practice from the Leander landing stage.

Further downstream on the north bank are three impressive buildings. Firstly Phyllis Court which today is a large private club, but formerly was a celebrated home to distinguished Henley families. The present building was built in 1837 replacing an earlier mansion. It now provides the club members with numerous recreational activities as well as an ideal riverside setting.

Further downstream stands Fawley Court built by Sir Christopher Wren in 1684 for Colonel William Freeman. Later Grinling Gibbons was responsible for the interior woodwork and Capability Brown landscaped the grounds in 1770. Like many buildings of a similar age Fawley Court has had a chequered history. In the 19th century it was sold to the MacKenzie family and during the Second World War it was used by the Armed Forces. After the war it was bought by the Marian Fathers of Poland for use as a college. The college is now closed but Fawley Court is still in use for retreats.

Opposite Fawley Court on a small island Sambrooke Freeman asked the designer James Wyatt to erect a summer house based on the design of a classical temple. This is now known as Temple Island, the elegant starting point of the Henley Regatta Races. It was completed in 1771.

Originally the building had one room at water level, the main room with its ornate Etruscan decoration, above and the cupola on top. Alterations were made by W.D. Mackenzie who had the ground level raised and the lower door and windows filled in to enable the folly to become habitable.

The island was acquired on lease by the Regatta Stewards in 1987. They set about the challenging task of restoring the building. When we first saw the folly it was painted white and was visible from a long way upstream. The layers of whitewash were removed to reveal the original decorative features and the building has now reverted to a more subtle cream. However it still remains as a distinctive focal point as one looks down river and sees the folly 'dramatically set against a background of graceful trees.'(Cecil Roberts 1935)

One more impressive building on this stretch of the river is a little further downstream. It's original name is Greenlands, though we know it as Henley Management College. The first known Greenlands was in 1480. During the 17th century Civil War Greenlands was occupied by Royalist troops and suffered a six month long siege by the Roundheads, after which the house was severely damaged. The present Greenlands is a stunning 19th century Italianate mansion set in beautifully kept gardens. At the end of the 19th century it was owned by the newspaper magnate WH Smith who became Viscount Hambleden.

One more building worth viewing and visiting is the new Henley River and Rowing Museum. It is to be found in Mill Meadows upstream of the bridge and a short walk from the town moorings.

This architecturally impressive building was designed by David Chipperfield and was officially opened by the Queen, arriving by boat, in 1998.

We recently spent an afternoon at the museum and were struck by how spacious and airy it inside. There are several galleries, some of which include interactive exhibits, covering the history and traditions of the River Thames as well as the sport of Rowing and the history of Henley. It is open daily, apart from Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New year's Day, and is certainly well worth a visit. It has recently been awarded the accolade of Museum of the Year. Well deserved.


IN THE TOWN

Henley is full of very old buildings and buildings with interesting histories. Here is some information about a few of them. For a more detailed review it is worth visiting the Tourist Information Office which has a useful booklet 'A Walk Round Henley on Thames' compiled by the Town's Archaeological and Historical Group and a simplified leaflet 'Henley Heritage Trail' produced by the Town Council.

In its early development the town grew around a few roads which led down to the river, which was so important for trade and travel. One of these, Hart Street is probably the oldest and was once the main street. Because of our name, we wondered if it was named after a family of Harts, but it appears to be named after the Old White Hart pub. This was the oldest known pub in Henley, but it is pointless looking for it, for despite its history, it had been in existance since about 1429, sadly the brewers Brakspears closed it in 1996.

Looking up Hart street

Looking down Hart street


The Parish church of St Mary the Virgin is to be found at the river end of Hart Street. It is thought to date back to 1204, though parts have been altered and added to over the centuries. The tower, made from flint and stone, was built in 1540. It is 118 feet high.


To one side of the church, through the churchyard, can be found the Chantry House. A chantry house was one that was built to house the Chantry Priests who were paid to sing masses for the salvation of souls.There are doubts as to whether this particular building was used for such a purpose, it has been known as the Chantry House only since the end of the 19th century. however it is thought to date from about 1400.

Despite the doubts it is an interesting building to look at. From the churchyard it has two storeys whereas from inside the courtyard of the Red Lion Hotel there are three storeys, the extra storey being the lowest floor.


Also in the churchyard are two sets of Almhouses.Of the row of brick almhouses, ten were funded by Humphrey Newberry in 1664 and four by Mrs Ann Messenger in 1669. Due to disrepair all were rebuilt in the middle of the 19th century.

Bishop Longland's Almshouses are to found on the north side of the churchyard. This white stuccoed building was moved here in 1830 from its original position near the Angel Inn where they had been built in 1547. at that time the elderly men and women who lived in them would receive fourpence a week towards their upkeep.


Going up Hart Street will lead to Falaise Square (formerly the Market Place) which is dominated by the Town Hall. This is a comparatively new ediface having been built in 1901 to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. The Town Hall houses the helpful Tourist Information Centre.


New Street lies parallel to Hart Street. Here can be found the Kenton Theatre which claims to be the fourth oldest in England. It's first performance was held in November 1805, however from 1632-1790 the building was in use as a Workhouse.


Walking down New Street towards the river are two more historic sites. On the left handside with two tall towers is the old Malthouse. This closed as a working malthouse in 1972 and has since been converted to residential use, but is still worth a look.

On the opposite side of the road is the site of the brewery itself. Brakspear's Brewery, which closed in 2002, was the last of many Henley breweries. It had been in existance since 1779 and supplied the many pubs in Henley and the surrounding area.


As important as the river in the development of the town, is of course the Bridge. The present attractive stone bridge was built in 1786 to the design of architect William Hayward of Shrewsbury. Stone was used from Headington Quarry near Oxford. For 87 years until it was paid for, it was a toll bridge.

There are five arches, the centre one is the main one for navigation.
On the keystones on either side of this central arch are carvings created by Mrs Anne Danner. Facing upstream is the head of the female Isis and facing downstream the head of the male Father Thames.
This present bridge replaced the one carried away by the great flood of 1774, though it appears that the earliest record of a bridge goes back to the early 13th century.


This is only a brief glimpse of what can be seen in Henley. There is much more, so a leisurely walk around the town can be a rewarding exercise. For those not interested in the architecture and history then there are many shops, especially for clothes and antiques, there are restaurants and of course numerous pubs where the local Brakspear beer can be sampled.

Finally Henley plays host to other events apart from the Regatta. The very popular Henley Music Festival makes use of the marquees during the week following the Regatta,followed a few weeks later by The Traditional Boat Rally which is held on Fawley Meadows over one weekend in August. For anyone with an interest in looking at boats this is well worth a visit.


Click here to return to:

Places to visit

Copyright The Harts