Henley River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames is one of our most local museums. It is super family friendly attraction we are lucky to have on our doorstep although until recently I had no idea just how much it has on offer for children. I have popped in there for coffee and cake many times and have always been keen to visit by myself. For some reason though I always imagined it to be aimed at an older audience and so put off visiting until Roo was a bit bigger.
Roo’s bedtimes recently have seen us making a start on The Wind in the Willows. So far Roo is really enjoying the exploits of the riverside animals and worryingly seems to identify with mischievous Toad. Knowing that the River and Rowing Museum have an exhibition dedicated to Kenneth Grahame’s famous waterside children’s story I thought perhaps the time might finally be right to visit.
The River and Rowing Museum couldn’t be more perfectly placed. Down on the side of the river Thames in the famous rowing town of Henley-on-Thames, the museum’s glass and wood-clad exterior blends well into the surroundings. You can stroll down to the river in under a minute to apply your new knowledge and for families there is a large green perfect for picnics and two great playgrounds to choose from. If you are travelling by train then Henley train station is just a couple of minutes walk away from the River and Rowing Museum.
Entry to the River and Rowing Museum costs £9.50 for an adult and £7.50 for concessions and children over four years old. Littlies get in free. Not knowing quite what to expect and whether our visit would be a ten minute quick scan round or a lengthy stay, this seemed quite steep to start with. Your ticket gives you unlimited access to the River and Rowing Museum for a year from your original visit though so actually, if you are planning on making more than one trip then it offers excellent value for money. Car parking in the dedicated car park at the back of the River and Rowing Museum is free for visitors to the museum, cafe or shop though don’t get caught out by parking at the front of the museum which is pay and display.
Inside Roo headed straight for the The Wind in the Willows exhibition. She was entranced. The exhibition has been set out to depict the major scenes and events from The Wind in the Willows. Every scene had been recreated faithfully using the whimsical style of the illustrations from the book itself. Beth loved the little animals turning on their carousel like stand on the windowsill beneath a large willow tree and Roo was particularly taken with the recreation of Toad Hall complete with a radiant Toad, his rather sceptical friends and a his motor car pride and joy – “poop poop”!
The exhibition did have a few issues. So realistic were its darkened underground scenes that Roo got quite scared and visibly jumped when a loud snore sounded from behind one of the tableaux. On our second visit (it wasn’t enough to put her off coming again – the opposite in fact) the lady at the front desk offered us a torch a for Roo to borrow which was a kind thought. I rather think Roo enjoyed reliving the scary bit though – the torch didn’t get much use!
For older children with longer attention spans, there is also an audio guide for The Wind in the Willows exhibition. For Roo and Beth though, looking at all the different scenes with their minutiae of detail was enough. The scenes were set out well enough that even children unfamiliar with the book would leave able to glean some knowledge of its characters and feel, hopefully enough to discover the whole story for themselves!
The Wind in the Willows exhibition exhausted, I envisaged the rest of our visit to be fairly swift and with little to interest the children. Wrong again. We popped into the temporary exhibition “Through the Looking Glass – illustrations by Arthur Rackham” . Roo is yet to discover the world of Alice in Wonderland so the characters in many of the paintings were strange to her but I was surprised that she still found plenty to interest her and wanted to know what was going on. The museum had provided family guides to the exhibitions (a bit old for Roo) and some magnifying glasses for use in the museum. The latter, even though it wasn’t that useful for the art exhibition’ had at least the effect of making Roo stop and take in the prints around her with a lot more attention than she would have done left to her own devices. There was also a beanbag I noticed in one corner. A nice touch.
Upstairs we whizzed past the photography exhibition in the River gallery. Roo was much more enthusiastic about the very large oak log carved into a rustic boat as our ancient ancestors would have used to move about and trade goods on the Thames. The River gallery plots the river’s history, culture, geography and wildlife from its start to the current days through exhibits and interactive displays that open up its subject matter an audience with a wide age-range. Roo and Beth skipped past most of the more traditional displays but I was amazed at the amount of attention Roo paid to a video projection detailing the change in course of the Thames caused by the last ice age and even Beth, to her delight, managed to find a stuffed otter and mink in a floor level display unit that the rest of us above-knee-height folk had completely missed.
At the far end of the River gallery is the highlight for families visiting the River and Rowing Museum. Here, in a light, glass windowed section of the museum, is a dedicated hands-on science and nature section. Roo had fun matching up riverside animal’s feet casts with their footprints and listening to the call of visiting birds to the Thames on the interactive information boards. She also enjoyed learning about animal food chains by matching pictures of river predators and prey to a rough jigsaw diagram. We didn’t linger too long over the pike and its sharp teeth!
Drawers in the display units contained more traditional exhibits such as butterflies and birds eggs, made cunningly all the more exciting to children by being hidden. I wonder if that was an intentional thought behind their location? Beth’s highlights were the bird call buttons and climbing up the steps to peer out the window at the watery nature area given over to providing an ideal habitat for water voles amongst other creatures. It was nice to have a dedicated kids’ area where I could let her wander a little whilst I looked in more detail at some of the displays with her big sister without constantly having to stop Beth from poking or climbing on something she shouldn’t. Having said that, the museum does suffer a little from the popularity of its kids’ educational area and perhaps an under-supervision of children in it – several of the bird call buttons were out of action and there were several pieces missing from quite a few of the different hands on activities around the area. Not enough to spoil our visit luckily but enough to feel a bit sad as replacing and maintaining this kind of great resource for children presumably cannot continue indefinitely in a museum.
Through a temporary exhibition of beautiful natural furniture (oak chairs – I’ll be back for you when my numbers come up on the lottery…) and our visit took us on into the gallery dedicated to Henley-on-Thames’ rich rowing history. Here there is huge volumes of information on rowing as a sport, Henley’s famous regatta and the various traditions, clothing and club society that has grown up around it. I would highly recommend a visit to those a little hazy on rowing if visiting Henley during regatta – there is a great 3D map of the race course as well as plenty of detail on the most important viewing and timing spots and the details of the event itself.
Given my pre-school charges, both our visits were at a much more superficial level. Having admired the rowing boats, including the one Steve Redgrave scooped up his fifth gold medal in at the Sydney OIympics, she was keen to give rowing a go herself. There is a fun Row Together feature where you get to have a go at rowing in time through an audio recording of a race. Roo loved this and had quite a lot of attempts before I could persuade her to move on. She even got Granny involved on our second visit although I think team Baby Routes needs a bit more training before we will be ready for any regattas! She also insisted on having ago on the indoor rowing machine with her modest declaration of ‘I’m pretty good at rowing’ following this brief introduction no doubt spelling stardom for her at some future Olympics… I have my hankies at the ready and a space for her medals reserved on the wall!
Having reached their museum limit, Roo and Beth had a quick potter in the colouring and reading kids’ corner before heading downstairs to the cafe. The food and setting here is lovely and not unreasonably priced but don’t try and get in the cafe at 1200 during school holidays – it was packed! We came back at 1300 and it was much pleasanter although ten minutes later people were being told to wait up to fifteen minutes for a table.
On a sunny day of course you have the option to picnic by the river. If you’re feeding the ducks whilst you are down there with more environmentally friendly seed then prepare for disappointed children – the wildlfowl in this area have grown accustomed to sharing the bread rolls from people’s lunches it seems. Roo was quite put out when they turned their nose up at her seed and swan off to where someone was throwing bread a bit further on.
Overall we had a great two visits to The River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames. The museum has been thoughtfully set out to appeal to children and adults alike with something to appeal to different ages and education levels as children grow up. The museum covers a much broader range of topics than I had originally envisaged. The nature and geographical information on the Thames of particular interest to this outdoorsy family, given we spend so much of our time exploring these environments on our walking adventures. My only advice would be that if you have small children to visit the museum as much as possible outside of busy school holidays and weekends as you can – you are likely to have the educational area largely to yourself (except for the occasional school party) and the cafe, which is well worth treating yourself to, will be less crowded. A perfect museum outing in Henley-on-Thames for a rainy day trip or to combine with a riverside walk in good weather.
You can find full details of opening hours and special events and exhibitions at the River and Rowing Museum website.