Where does the Wind blow through the Willows?
In Henley-on-Thames! Henley is a historical town on the banks of the Thames River, just upstream from London and it is a perfect destination for families.
Preparing for a trip to Henley-on-Thames is pure fun. Start by reading the Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Graham as a family. Even better, listen to the book on tape (or CD) beside a roaring fire or on a long car journey; there is lots in the book about warm hearths and fast motorcars. You’ll also want to walk in Henley so you may want to get some good walking shoes for everyone in the family, preferably shoes with good traction, decent support, and at least a little water resistance. Don’t forget good socks. Then, get your kids in walking shape. Take some long walks on gentle terrain. Perhaps do some errands by foot, take a hike in the woods, walk home from the bus or school, or just head out without the car and see things from a slower perspective. Maybes sample some American hot chocolate varieties in preparation for the trip. You’ll discover that hot chocolate research may turn out to be quite valuable.
I’d start the visit in downtown Henley-on-Thames. The square is filled with outdoor café seating in the summer; cozy pubs allow children in the winter. There are little antique shops and several second-hand shops on Duke Street for browsing. The Tudor House on Duke Street (which is, conveniently, in a tiny Tudor house) is a one-of-a-kid collectibles shop. It might not be fun with very young children but definitely take a visit if you have trustworthy kids or teens (or a lot of patience). You’ll find treasures and a bit of history (mixed with some recent junk) stacked to the ceiling, hanging from the ceiling, in the back garden, in the back room, and upstairs as well – pewter mugs, old tins, keys, mismatched china plates, doorknobs, costume jewelry, spoons, and every other sort of collectible. Around the corner, on Friday Street, is The Ferret, my favorite. It is a real antique store but with a range of prices and a lovely selection of interesting items displayed throughout interconnecting rooms. I once purchased a nearly perfect (only one missing spoon) china picnic set for just 28 pounds from this shop. On a more recent trip, I saw old violins, delicate tea and saucer sets, and beautiful silver charms. You might want to sample Maison Blanc, the French bakery on Duke Street while you’re in the neighborhood and then head north, across Hart, to Bell Street (which seems like an extension of Duke Street and it is, but it gets a new name when you cross to the other side of Hart).
A walk along Bell Street with its lovely curve and narrow sidewalks offers parents a chance to enjoy the shop windows and old architecture. If you didn’t bring stale bread with you to Henley, buy an extra roll for later swan-feeding at the Waitrose grocery store just behind Bell. At the very end of the Bell Street shops, on the far corner of the last block, is Asquiths World Famous Teddy Bear Shop. The quaint Tudor house is home to hundreds of bears and dogs, hedgehogs, mice, and kittens; small and large; and all cuddly and soft. Just looking in the window is worth the walk. Venturing inside is dangerous to the wallet but lots of fun.
Once you extricate yourself, head toward the river, and head upstream (South again, to the right). I’d suggest staying on the town side of the river for now but perhaps wander out on the old stone bridge to gaze at the boat traffic and remember that Henley was once a medieval river port. As you wander upstream, you’ll pass ducks and geese, as well as swans if you’re lucky. The swans all belong to Her Majesty the Queen of England so please be respectful. They get rounded up and counted once a year at in July during the annual Thames swan count. Ask your kids how they would figure out the exact number of swans along the River Thames and all its tributaries? Tour boats are parked along the river. Boat rides run the gamete from summer sunset cruises to Christmas tours. You might also consider a stop at the Chocolate Theater Café on your way out of town. The Chocolate Theater Café offers 25 different varieties of hot chocolate. If you’ve done some advanced hot chocolate research, make sure to sample, compare, and contrast.
Past the shops, the path continues between the river and a wonderful wooden playground. There are benches for weary parents. In summer, the riverside parks hosts a little carousel and several refreshment stands.
At the far end of the park is the highlight of a young child’s trip to Henley-on-Thames, the Wind in the Willows museum. Admission is reasonable and the museum is a delight. Three-dimensional narrated dioramas tell the story of Frog and Toad’s adventures. Each scene warrants a discussion – “Can you find the …?” or “What do you think will happen next?” It’s an experience that truly deserves the word “magical” as it is packed with hidden details, enchanting characters, and tiny paintings. The museum café is full of light and a nice place to rest while having a look at real riverside willows, even on a rainy day. Upstairs is the River and Rowing Museum, a fun stop for older kids with several active exhibits, including the history of oars where you can try rowing in the hull of a ancient Greek Trireme. In keeping with the riverbank theme, a short distance out of town is Toad Hall, a garden center that hosts a Christmas bazaar.
The other fabulous thing to do with kids in Henley is walk. Yes, it’s fun simply to go walking. Americans sometimes miss the point of walking for the sake of walking but it’s not lost on the British. Walking is wonderful. The scenery changes quickly, the exercise is valuable, and the slower pace helps a visitor truly gain a sense of place. The easiest walk is to simply head downstream on the towpath (across the stone bridge at the edge of town) and along the course of the Henley Royal Regatta. It’s just over a mile to Temple Island. The kids can walk freely if they’re old enough not to tumble into the river. There are beautiful houses for parents to ogle and plenty of ducks and boats to entertain the kids. For details on extending the walk, explore The Chilterns website where you’ll find a children’s quiz (with answers in a separate document) as well.
For a slightly more ambitious walk and an injection of British countryside, walk out of town along Bell Street, and then onto the Fairmile (less than a quarter of a mile total, road simply changes names again). Just past the entrance to Rupert Hills Playing Fields, there is a wooden gate that marks a public right-of-way. The path takes you up to a green meadow full of ancient oaks and grazing sheep. You are allowed to enter the field through the clever humans-only gate but please stick to the path as it is a right of way through private property and not a public park. Walk through the path to the village of Fawley and beyond. Perhaps on to another B&B for the night?
There are so many more walks in the Chilterns. If your kids are ready, pick up a guidebook that details the walks. I found more than a dozen on Amazon searching “walks in the Chilterns”. The British do really have the hang of this. There are guides detailing walks that can double as pub-crawls or short walks from pubs. Other guides identify stops for tea or historical villages. At least for your first walk with kids, I suggest focus on hot chocolate, and end your walk with a bit more in-depth research.
Ashley Steel is the Traveling with Kids Editor for Wandering Educators. Ashley co-curates www.familyontheloose.com. She and her husband Bill wrote “Family on the Loose: The Art of Traveling with Kids” just published by Rumble Books and available on Amazon.com (http://www.amazon.com/Family-Loose-The-Traveling-Kids/dp/0615696538), Amazon.uk, and all the Amazon.eu channels.
All photos copyrighted by Bill Richards and E. Ashley Steel 2012.