Tim Koch: To Be A Pilgrim…

Richard Way in Friday Street, Henley-on-Thames

HTBS’s Tim Koch has revisited Henley-on-Thames. Here is his report:

Anyone who has been lucky enough to make a visit to Henley-on-Thames during the Henley Royal Regatta will know what a delightful experience this is. For those who missed it, a video of the HTBS visit to last year’s ‘Royal’ is here.

However, a trip to this lovely English town is worthwhile at any time, not just for five days in June and July.

Leander Club

For those interested in rowing there are five places in Henley that merit a ‘pilgrimage’. Sited on opposite sides of Henley Bridge are two of them, Leander Club and Regatta Headquarters. I always have the idea that they are guarding the entrance to the sacred waters of the regatta course. Unfortunately, neither is open to the general public but you may catch a glimpse of some of the stars of British rowing (past and present) going about their business.

Henley Royal Regatta Headquarters

For anyone who normally attends the regatta, walking the famous 1 mile 550 yard (2,112 metres) course from the bridge via Remenham Village to Temple Island is a strange experience. Where, for a few days in the summer there is elegant chaos, you find only open fields. Further, not a single drink of Pimm’s is to be had. For this, continue on past the regatta start to the Flower Pot, the archetypal English country pub.

The entrance to the River & Rowing Museum.

A visit to the River and Rowing Museum is an obvious choice for the remigiumophile*. The permanent exhibits and the temporary exhibitions cover not only the history of rowing but also the town of Henley and of the river in all its aspects. It also caters for children, notably with its ‘Wind in the Willows’ attraction. The award winning building is set in lush riverside meadows and, if you wish to make your visit truly memorable, it is licensed for wedding ceremonies. A full review of the Museum will appear on HTBS in the coming months.

The final place of pilgrimage in Henley for those interested in rowing is Way’s Rare and Second Hand Bookshop in Friday Street. This delightful little shop sells general antiquarian and second hand books but also has a rowing section containing everything from leather bound Victorian tomes on ‘aquatics’ to the most recent paperback on high performance sculling. They sometimes have rowing prints and ephemera but the rowing memorabilia which decorates the shop is, unfortunately, not for sale. At this point I would usually put in a link to their website, but, to complete the slightly Dickensian air, they do not have one. If you put ‘Way’s Bookshop’ into a search engine, the best you will do is find some complementary user reviews. This is typical:

‘This is a beautiful tucked away antique and second hand bookshop. It is so full of books that it can be a bit hard to know where to start, but the owner is lovely and extremely helpful, should you want something specific…’

While I agree with these comments about Diana, one of the owners, she is also very modest and I have failed several times over the years to persuade her to give me an interview – until now.

In an age of obtaining books from the Internet and from large high street chains (a subject that HTBS has covered before) an independent bookshop in a small country town seems to be an anachronism. This was not the situation in 1977 when Richard Way and Diana Cook bought the shop. The previous owner had a small selection of books of interest to some visitors to the regatta but Diana and Richard started to build up this part of their trade, initially selling older books but eventually also stocking new publications. Richard was a wooden boat builder and so already had some knowledge of rowing and the river but for Diana it was to be the start of having to become something of an expert on rowing and its history.

As already mentioned, Way’s Bookshop does not have a website but this does not mean that it does not have a healthy national and international trade; it is simply conducted by letter and telephone. Diana does not deny that putting their stock on the Internet would increase business but she doubts that the extra turnover would cover the increased costs, particularly of extra staff.

In the past Way’s has handled the large and important rowing libraries including those of the rowing journalist and historian, Geoffrey Page and also of a past Henley Chairman and Leander President, Harold Rickett.

Diana Cook successfully runs the Richard Way Book Shop the old-fashioned way.

When I asked Diana what proportion of the shop’s trade was in rowing books she claimed that she has deliberately not worked out the figures on this. She suspects that the general sales ‘subsidise’ the rowing section and, if Way’s were entirely motivated by profit and loss, there would be little shelf space devoted to things aquatic. One fact of modern life which Diana feels that she may have to confront is that many people who trade online in new books sell them at cost and make their profit on the ‘postage and packing’. A bookshop cannot compete with this and she is considering not stocking new publications in future. This would be a sad but understandable move for a place that is so much more than a place to buy books. It is also a publisher, a club, a research centre and a meeting place for old and new friends. It deserves the support of the rowing community so, next time you need a rowing book, do not order it online, visit or contact Way’s and deal with a real person who offers polite and knowledgeable service. You will not get this from an Internet dealer – even if they are named after a South American river.

*Remigiumophile (noun) I have just made this word up. It means ‘a lover of all things related to rowing’ and is from ‘remigium’, the Latin for ‘at oars’ or ‘rowing’. I know combining it with ‘phile’ is mixing Latin and Greek but so does the word ‘television’. If anyone with a classical education can improve on this, please do so – otherwise history will record its first use here (maybe).

(Photograph & copyright: Tim Koch)

2 comments

  1. Well done, Tim. The great appeal of these pictures for me is that they show the real 51-weeks-of-the-year Henley, not the chaotic Henley of Regatta Scrum week. Why any sane person would willingly put up with that carnival (especially year after year) seems to me quite incomprehensible.

  2. Like most readers of HTBS, I am not sure that I agree with your thoughts on Henley Regatta but perhaps the peace of Henley Reach can only be truly appreciated by comparing it with regatta time? Years ago I visited a Japanese garden in Kyoto. It was exceptionally peaceful save for every minute when there was a loud ‘thwack’. This was caused by a large section of hollow bamboo balanced upright on a pivot and placed by a waterfall. As it filled with water it would reach ‘tipping point’, empty itself and fall back to its original position, causing the noise. I asked my Japanese companion what the point of this was and she explained that you could only properly appreciate the silence if it was occasionally broken. Very Japanese.

    Tim.

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