Train-ing for Henley

A current advertising campaign by the Great Western Railway (GWR) is based around images reminiscent of those in Enid Blyton’s “Famous Five” children’s adventure books of the 1950s. While a series of advertisements set in various locations suggest that a day out by train could be an adventure, going afloat in a quadruple scull with sweep oars, no outriggers and a dog as cox is one adventure that most of us could do without.

24 April 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch goes trainspotting. 

While GWR’s artwork may be peculiar, their text is correct, Henley really is closer than you think – there are less than ten weeks to go before Henley Royal Regatta 2023. If you are planning to attend, it is likely that you will be arriving by train. The branch line, single track since 1962, starts at Twyford, which is on the main line running from London to Reading, and runs for 7 km to Henley via Wargrave and Shiplake.  

Although rarely given credit, it was the arrival of the railway at Henley in 1857 which “democratised” the regatta, making it accessible to those who did not live within walking distance or who could not afford the time and money that the use of horse-drawn transport required. 

The Henley & South Oxford Standard of 26 July 1895 reported that there were 17,696 train passenger journeys during the 1886 Regatta, but this had risen to 32,388 by 1895.

The arrival of vulgar “day trippers” and those hoping to financially exploit them by selling all sorts of trinkets, foodstuffs and services may have not pleased those privileged few who had come to regard Henley as their own private garden party, but the increased attendance probably secured the future of the regatta.

Cheap rail fares opened Henley Regatta to one and all.

The railway not only brought the crowds to Henley, it also enabled many people to go to the Oxford – Cambridge Boat Race after it moved to the Putney – Mortlake Championship Course in 1845, making it a day out for ordinary Londoners (the five-and-three-quarter-mile stretch between Westminster and Putney used between 1836 and 1842 was not so spectator friendly).

A London railway station on Boat Race Day, 1872.

The Railway Age had another aquatic effect when it enabled the “Golden Age of the Thames”, the late-Victorian pleasure boating boom when large numbers of people of all classes seemed determined to get afloat in every craft imaginable. Trains brought the masses on day trips to centres of boating such as Richmond, Maidenhead, Reading, Staines, Windsor, Henley and Oxford. Further, by moving freight transport from river to rail, commercial wharves could be converted to leisure boat use.

Edward Gregory’s 1897 painting showing Boulter’s Lock at Maidenhead on a summer Sunday.

Returning to Henley, its branch line Wikipedia page states:

Henley had long flourished due to its location on the River Thames, and the road bridge there which formed a focus of road traffic. By the seventeenth century it was an established coaching stop, and it was only in the railway age that the dominance of the town was brought into question.

British History Online continues:

In 1839–40 the Great Western railway line from London to Reading left Henley stranded, destroying the river and coaching trades and initiating a period of decline in the town. With the belated construction of a branch line to Henley in 1857, however, the railway took over many of the earlier functions of both river and road, conveying the heavy bulk goods formerly transported by barge, and above all facilitating the town’s transformation into a social and later a commuting centre. 

Henley Bridge, 1840.

Henley Station’s Wikipedia page shows how the demands of the regatta have dominated its layout:

The station was opened by the Great Western Railway on 1 June 1857. It had three platforms, mainly to serve the intensive service for regatta traffic, for which purpose they were lengthened in 1891 (and 1904)…. The original train shed and station building, which were to the north of the present station, were removed in 1975 and the site sold. The platforms were reduced to two (in) 1969 and then to just one in 1986. The present building was erected in 1985 to serve the one remaining platform.

The 1985 building was part of a joint development with Hallmark Cards which erected an office building on part of the site vacated when the railway line was shortened by 200 feet.

The front of the pre-1975 station building on the unimaginatively named Station Road.
The old station (left) was just over the road from the Imperial Hotel (right). The existing hotel building and attached shops are still clearly recognisable in this picture.
One of the then three platforms during the 1911 Regatta. 
A GWR Henley poster from c.1925.
The old station, dressed up for the 1954 Regatta. 
Since 2005, the Henley branch has been marketed as the “Regatta Line” with a logo of four oars and a stylised image of Henley Bridge.

Film of Henley Station during the 1899 Regatta which has been digitally remastered and colourised can be seen starting 40 seconds into the video below.

This was part of a longer film of Henley Royal Regatta in 1899, more of it can be seen from 42 seconds in here.


  1. Now I know why I can never find the Station – Its moved since the 1960s and is hidden 100 yards down the side road.

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