Oxfordshire is a county covering about 1000 square miles, contained largely within the Thames Basin. Between Henley and Wallingford lie the beginnings of the Chiltern Hills, while in the north are the most easterly hills of the Cotswolds as well as rich farmland based on the clay soil that stretches up from Oxford to the Midlands. In the east, Henley is one of many attractive Thames-side settlements, towards the west are Faringdon and Witney, and in the north, Bicester, Chipping Norton and Banbury. The county is of course dominated by its capital, Oxford, which from the 12th century grew from a small and little known market town into one of the major seats of learning in the world. It also prospered as a central point of communication, first as a stopping point on coaching routes and later with the coming of the canals and the railways. Industry grew, too, and in the suburb of Cowley, Lord Nuffield’s Morris car works were a major employer. Many palaeolithic, mesolithic and neolithic finds have been made in the county, but the most eyecatching early archaeological feature is the Uffington White Horse from the Iron Age. Dorchester and Alchester were the most important sites in Roman Oxfordshire, the Saxons built many settlements along the Thames, and the Danes over-ran the area in the 10th and 11th centuries. The county was heavily involved in the Civil War (1642-1651) and the towns of Oxford (for three years the Royalist headquarters), Banbury and Wallingford were all besieged by Parliamentary forces during the conflict.
Reputed to be the oldest settlement in Oxfordshire, this attractive riverside market town has more than 300 listed buildings from various periods. The Thames has always played an important role in its life; in 1829 the first varsity boat race, between Oxford and Cambridge, took place here on the river and, within a decade, the event was enjoying royal patronage. First held in 1839, the Henley Regatta takes place every year in the first week of July, is a marvellous and colourful event with teams from all over the world competing on the mile-long course. Scores of tents and striped marquees are erected on the Berkshire side of the river and champagne flows freely.
Opened in 1988, the River and Rowing Museum is a fascinating place that traces the rowing heritage of Henley, the river’s changing role in the town’s history, and even provides the opportunity to ‘walk’ the length of the River Thames, from source to sea, taking in all the locks. Housed in spacious, purpose-built premises designed by the award-winning architect, David Chipperfield, its exhibits include the boat in which the British duo, Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent, won their gold medals at the 1996 Olympics. A major attraction re-creates Kenneth Grahame’s much-loved tale The Wind in the Willows. In a spectacular walk-through exhibition visitors can meet all the familiar characters and places in the book, with EH Shepard’s illustrations brilliantly brought to life. The Museum is open from 10am every day.
Henley was the site of Rupert’s Elm, where Prince Rupert is said to have hanged a Roundhead spy. A portion of the tree is preserved in this museum. Also situated on the riverbank, beside the town’s famous 18th- century five-arched bridge decorated with the faces of Father Thames and the goddess Isis, is the Leander Club, the headquarters of the famous rowing club.
Apart from the boating, which is available throughout the summer, and the pleasant walks along the riverbanks, there are many interesting shops, inns, and teashops in the town. Buildings of note include Speaker’s House, home of Speaker Lenthall of the Long Parliament who lived there in the 17th century, some attractive almshouses around the churchyard, and Chantry House, which dates from the 14th century and is believed to be the oldest building in Henley.