Memories of Henley
If you’re driving from Oxford to London, as I was privileged to do as a third-year undergraduate with a car, you have two main routes: the A40 via Stokenchurch and Beaconsfield, nowadays more often the M40, or the A4130 following the river via Dorchester, on to Nettlebed and down the hill to Henley-on-Thames.
I often chose Henley for the pleasure of driving along the river bank and crossing the 18th-century bridge that frames the finish of the royal regatta. As Jerome K. Jerome wrote in Three Men in a Boat, a town on the river makes a sweet old picture, a perfect place ‘in which to dream of bygone days’.
Period motoring and boating
The romance and allure were made all the more intense for arriving in a 1932 Morris Minor two-seater convertible, in which I liked to imagine myself as Sebastian Flyte driving through the pre-war lanes of Brideshead Revisited. Later I was invited into the Stewards’ Enclosure to watch the rowing and drink inordinate quantities of alcohol, along with ‘Arry and Lord Fitzgerald’, as Jerome put it. Even in 2008 the bustle of the river had a timeless quality, especially when steam launches passed by, cleaving the water as silently as swans. It could have been 1908.
Early life of Adam Hart-Davis
In 2018 I discover that Adam Hart-Davis, who is to speak at the Henley Literary Festival about his book Very Heath Robinson and all manner of wonderfully inventive gadgets, was born in Nettlebed and brought up in Henley-on-Thames. He had a 1935 Austin 7, the other leading economy car of the period, but sadly can find no picture of it. He does, however, have many more memories to add to the story of those bygone days.
‘During the war my dad wanted to get my mum out of London; so from his friend Peter Fleming he borrowed a house in the country – a remote farmhouse in the middle of the Nettlebed estate, four miles west of Henley – and that is where I was born. I lived there with the family for 20 years, although in due course my elder siblings went off to school and then to work, and dad spent most of his time in London, coming home only at weekends; so I was mostly alone with my mother.
‘I first went to school in Henley, and when mum collected me after my first day, I said (according to her) “I’ve been to school, mum”. I thought that was it, not realizing there were a dozen long years to follow.
‘Because the farm was a mile from a public road, and further from civilization, I soon learned to ride a bicycle, and needed my bike to visit friends for occasional games of tennis and golf – one of my friends lived beside the second green of Henley golf course, and we used to sneak through the hedge and play a round on quiet mornings. I also used to play tennis in the annual tournaments at Phyllis Court.
‘We sometimes went down to enjoy the river in and near Henley. I remember swimming across it, and I remember various trips in rowing boats and punts, especially to Shiplake, where there was a lock with huge gates and bulrushes. We did go to the regatta, but only to visit the funfair. I was later invited into the Stewards’ Enclosure, although I cannot remember when, or why, or by whom.
‘Of the town itself I remember the station, where the steam trains came puffing noisily in on Friday nights, bringing dad home. I remember the town hall, and the market place in front of it, with Boots on one corner, where my mum borrowed library books. There was a wonderful hardware store, or ironmonger, called Dennis C. Lord & Son, which had everything that a small boy could want, especially for building gadgets.’