Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire: River and Rowing Museum

IMG_20160410_131126794_HDRAt last, a museum with riparian entertainments, as Hyacinth Bucket (that’s pronounced Bouquet!) would say.  Actually, though I like rivers just fine to look at, I’m not really a fan of any of the “riparian entertainments” like rowing, canoeing (ugh, especially not canoeing), kayaking, etc.  Which is not to say that I have anything against boats; I think I might enjoy boating if I wasn’t expected to power it myself, but I don’t give a hoot about rowing, especially in the context of the Oxbridge races and the Henley Regatta, which seem like one of those odd, unnecessarily elitist British traditions I’ll never fully understand. But the rowing stuff was only one gallery of the museum, so it still seemed worth a visit.

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Especially because it was another one of those partners with the National Art Fund, so woohoo, free entry for us!  Otherwise it’s £11, and I’m sure you can guess what I’ll say about that. Yep, it’s kind of steep, though maybe not quite as bad as I was expecting taking into consideration how large the museum ended up being (but still, I think 6 or 7 quid would be more fair).  They had a temporary Hockney exhibition on when we were there, and I really don’t have strong feelings about Hockney one way or the other.  I mean, he looks just like Bubbles from Trailer Park Boys (I HATE that show, but my boyfriend loves it and has made me watch it), and he draws a lot of penises (penii?) which I really don’t have a problem with, so I liked the exhibition well enough, or I would have if there wasn’t this security guard giving me the evil eye from the corner the whole time (two mean security guards in two weeks, what did I do to deserve this?).  It was really uncomfortable for me to walk around with him glaring daggers at me for no apparent reason (I did loudly make fun of Tracey Emin, maybe he was a fan?), but once I got to the other side of the room where I couldn’t see him anymore, it was fine.

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Once we got to the permanent galleries upstairs, we were directed by a sign on the door to start with the rowing gallery, so we did.  Even though, as I said, rowing holds no interest for me, this actually ended up being more interesting than the river gallery on account of the not-particularly-child-friendly interactive things.  This of course didn’t stop children from playing on them, even though there were signs specifically telling parents to supervise their children, because when someone with short legs tries to use a rowing machine, guess what happens?  They fall off and get hurt, which is exactly what happened to some little girl whose parents let her run amuck (I know this well, because I used to play around on my mother’s rowing machine when I was a kid even though she told me not to, and I usually ended up hurting myself somehow).  But, now that my legs are of an adult-length (or as close as they’re gonna get, I do kind of have stumpy legs), I enjoyed using the rowing machines, which told you what capacity you were working at (compared to a professional rower, I guess).  And the old Greek ship replica, and the machine where you had to try to row in sync with the computer, which I was really bad at, while a woman’s voice loudly urged us to stroke faster and harder in an embarrassing way.

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While I was interested in the parts about the history of other boats, like whale boats, and about how flagrantly the Victorians cheated at boat races, I skimmed over a lot of the stuff about the Regatta and other “rowing traditions.”  They did have Steve Redgrave’s boat though, and a bunch of other Olympic artefacts, as well as what I think was the first boat to win the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, if that appeals to you.  There was also a section about some endurance race tackled by a bunch of wounded soldiers which seemed kind of cool.

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There was another temporary gallery upstairs, this one hidden between the river and rowing galleries (I think the only way you could access it was by first going in the rowing gallery), but it just appeared to be pictures of “hair art,” as in, really bizarre hairstyles, so I didn’t spend a lot of time in here.  I instead headed for the river section, which was apparently more child-friendly than the rowing bit, at least judging by the children running back and forth between the length of the gallery, completely ignoring the colouring section and other interactive parts that were directed at them (I know I’m old and grumpy, and I don’t care).

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This was, I suppose, more about the ecology of the river than its history, though there was some of that as well.  The whole first section was devoted to child-orientated displays with different animals that live around rivers, followed by sections about flooding and water conservation.  There was a case about the history of locks and lock keepers that caught my attention.  I quite like the idea of being a lock keeper, just sitting in your cottage somewhere and only emerging to work when a boat arrives, but I hate being outside, so I’d probably loathe it, in reality.

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After discovering Father Thames, I really only had eyes for him.  They had a whole display of river-themed prints, and I liked most of them, but Father Thames is the only one I feel I need to own.  They didn’t have any in the museum gift shop though, and it was a numbered print, so it was probably limited edition, and therefore, expensive.

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The river gallery turned into a “bridge gallery” that actually went over the river (points for incorporating the Thames into the museum design), and mainly contained a big mural that I guess was supposed to depict the river, but was mostly just blobs of colour unless you stood really far back (I can see the boats now in the photo of it, but they were hard to make out in person, especially with the sun reflecting off of it).  This led into the Henley-on-Thames history gallery.  It didn’t get off to a great start, as the first few cases were cram-jammed full of local history artefacts with really small labels, so it was hard to appreciate the objects individually (though I did notice that the sausage box was on loan from another museum, and it amused me that an old sausage box would be in such high demand).

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Farther on the gallery opened up more though, so I could get a better look at things.  There was a whole case devoted to Mary Blandy, who I’d definitely heard of before, though I can’t quite remember where (I read way too many books about murderers).  She was a local woman who slowly poisoned her father with arsenic, allegedly at the instigation of her bigamous husband, and was ultimately hanged for it.  Speaking of hangings, they also had a part of a tree that Prince Rupert hanged a Parliamentarian from during the English Civil War.  Oh, and this cool time capsule buried in the 18th century by this guy who said he hoped that if “curious posterity should examine this old rubbish, it may find something to give pleasure, and perhaps profit since some arts are dying out,” which cracked me up.  The capsule was full of old pottery and glass shards.

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Kenneth Grahame also lived in the area at one point, and so there was a whole Wind in the Willows gallery. I must confess that at the time I visited this museum, I had never read nor watched Wind in the Willows, so I had no idea what was going on in here.  In fact, I kept referring to Toad as a frog, because that’s what he looked like, being green and all (he looks more like a toad in the original black and white illustrations).  But I am happy to report that I have since remedied the situation, immediately checking Wind in the Willows out from the library when it opened the next day, and it really is a delightful little book, though I’m still not sure how big the animals are supposed to be in proportion to the people for Toad to be able to pass as a washerwoman and to drive cars and such, but to also be able to hang out in burrows.  It was confusing.  Also, toads don’t have hair, Kenneth Grahame, and I’m not sure I would refer to their hands as “paws” either, but still, delightful.  “Poop-poop!”

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That said, even though I didn’t know what was going on when I walked through this gallery, I still said it was “magical,” which turns out to be exactly how the museum describes it on their website, so I guess it had the desired effect on me.  It’s basically just a dark cave-like room that you walk through and look at scenes (life-size?  Well, maybe, if I could figure out how big the animals are actually meant to be) from the book (or maybe the TV show, it seemed like there was a bigger emphasis on the weasels in here than there was in the book), but it helped that we were the only ones in there, and that there were buttons to press that made some of the tableaux move.

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So I have to give them credit where credit’s due, and say that despite the high admission price, and the out-of-control children (not the museum’s fault), it really was a fun museum, and I definitely enjoyed myself far more than I was expecting, given the emphasis on rowing and all.  3.5/5.

Also in the area (well, about a twenty minute drive away) is this thing called the Maharajah’s Well, in the village of Stoke Row, which was built by a 19th century maharajah who was friends with the Lieutenant Governor of India’s North West Provinces.  The Governor (who happened to come from Stoke Row) told the maharajah that his village often suffered from droughts, so the maharajah chose to endow them with a well so the poor people of the village could have free water.  So it is very India-in-the-age-of-Empire looking, with a gold elephant on top, and is pretty cool.  You basically just rock up, park across the street, and take a few pictures, no big deal, but it was neat to see so I’m glad we made the slight extra effort while we were in the area.  Oh, and this Steve Redgrave (and rowing partner, whatever he was called) statue back at the museum kind of creeped me out, so enjoy this large image of it!




    1. Thanks! My hopes were not high going into it, but I was pleasantly surprised, so I hope you will be too if you decide to visit it someday (I probably still wouldn’t recommend going out of your way for it though)!

  1. Oh my god, I’m so glad you mentioned not having read Wind in the Willows because I’m in that boat. My mother used to have me check it out of our school library once in a while because she really liked it – and somehow I still never read it! I will have to get on it. (A toad with hair, though?)
    I think I’d like to visit this one – some very cool stuff! Like you, I’d rather not have to canoe across a river, but I love all the history that springs up around them. And, more specifically, all the stuff that gets lost in one. I’ve read about the “mudlarks” that sift through the detritus of the Thames when the tide’s out and the number of artifacts they find. I’ve always thought that’d be a lot of fun.
    I love the expression on Father Thames face – he looks more than a little shifty.

    1. Yeah, Toad has hair, and disguises himself as a human (successfully) at one point. It gets weird. I still liked it though.
      I know about historical mudlarks (as in, really poor Victorians who had to dig through the banks to find stuff they could sell for scrap, I’m guessing in pre-Embankment years), but I didn’t realise people still did that sort of thing. I wouldn’t think that most of the stuff they find would be very pleasant, but maybe every now and again you happen on a treasure. I’m just thinking of those unsolved murders where bags of body parts were found in the Thames, but of course that was back in the 19th century too (but they found a headless body in the Wandle, which I used to live right by, just a few years ago, when I was still living there! Eek!). It also reminds me of gong farmers, because I love their euphemistic name!

      1. Ha! I’d never heard of gong farmers before and had to look them up – man oh man, the things I don’t know… Yeah, I’d expect the likelihood of finding body parts in the river is higher than I’d like to think. Lake Ontario sure gets its share too. But happily, the modern mudlarks find all sorts of more cheerful stuff. They’ve found Roman coins and statues, medieval children’s toys, swords and even a 30,000 year old rhino skull. A further plus is that the items don’t get pocketed (well, at least most don’t) – they’re given to the Museum of London. …wow, sorry, that turned into a weird advertisement for mudlarking on the Thames.

  2. I agree, very funny – but it has the opposite effect on me! I now know enough, I don’t need to see it – and that statue is seriously bad. I like the thing with the elephant though.

    1. That’s probably the most sensible decision – for all that the collection was enjoyable, I wouldn’t go out of my way to go back (it was the kind of place where once is enough, so perhaps reading a review would suffice!). I did forget to mention that they had wigs and glasses so you could dress up like David Hockney (not that that would sway you or anything), but I was so creeped out by the guard glaring at me that I didn’t partake.

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