Current affairs

5th February 1999 at 00:00
Frances Farrer finds a fascinating flow of information as she dives into a museum where the river is the star

The River and Rowing Museum - the name seems to have been dreamed up with the aim of producing few ripples in the imagination. But those who take the plunge will find a collection of surprising diversity. There is more to rowing than is immediately obvious, and much more to the river.

Even a quick tour of the museum, on the river's edge at Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, shows that rowing's appeal stretches beyond the sports enthusiast, with important lessons for archaeologists and physicists.

And the Thames itself is revealed as a biological and historical marvel. It is now the cleanest urban river in Europe, supporting a wide range of aquatic life including salmon, a great indicator of water purity. It has also been the source of more archaeological finds per cubic metre than any other site in the British Isles. Water and watermen are beautifully presented in five galleries, with many interactive models and audio-visual presentations.

The gallery glorifying the boat is perhaps less obviously exciting, although the foyer display of the Royal Thames, a replica of the royal barge of 1689, is enough to make anyone's mouth water. Amazingly opulent in its livery of red velvet, gold braid and many gallons of gold paint, the original carried six passengers and was pulled by six men with a steersman.

The foyer also offers fine recordings of river voices, including those of lock-keepers and of Bob Crouch, barge master to the Queen. He remembers when ships' crews on the Thames had their every need, including libraries and vicars, supplied by boats working the river.

The rowing gallery proper starts with the Greek Trireme, a warship powered by 160 oarsmen, and of particular interest to sixth-form classics students and to a key stage 2 group from the local Trinity Primary School, who visited when they were designing their own boat. The action models proved a great help in the study of structure.

Their teacher, Maureen Smith, says work on forces was made easy by consideration of the outrigger, an outboard rowlock, just one of many examples of practical demonstration. "The children were riveted," she says. "Many primary teachers will find this clear view of physical principles a real plus." The group also enjoyed trying - and mostly failing - to row as fours in a mock-up competition boat.

The museum's inevitable sports element comprises boats and still and moving images, including an oddly compelling video of various boat race winners talking about their feelings. You can be amazed as much by the thin, light-hulled shells of today's racing boats as by their cumbersome wooden counterparts of the 1820s - relative speed might be a worthwhile subject for investigation.

A further two galleries look at Henley's relationship with the river. The latter is the star. Does everyone know that the Thames is fed by lakes beneath the Cotswolds and that the water at the source is especially pure? That there are more forms of aquatic life there now than there were even five years ago, since many fish species are coming back and re-establishing themselves?

Local schools will find the town history element useful, but for the general visitor, the story of the 220-mile river provides a great source for the study of history, biodiversity, geology and geography, with a nod towards literature and music.

Settlements along the river have been dated to Palaeolithic times, and the river has been a place of pilgrimage. Archaeologists have retrieved thousands of weapons from the depths, including a Saxon log boat which is on display. And during the Middle Ages the river banks were home to about 40 monasteries, important economic centres for whose trading activities old Father Thames was as important as a motorway is now.

Indeed, the river has always been important to trade. The Romans used it to travel inland from the Channel, and the medieval form of lock, which was more like a weir, remained in use right up until the mid-18th century. It was often operated by the millers, who used the river to drive their mill-wheels and grindstones. When there had been little rain and river levels were low, the millers were loath to let the water go, and fights with disgruntled bargemen were commonplace. A working model demonstrates the scientific part of the story.

The museum is helped by its location and the extraordinary number of stories generated by life on the river. Maureen Smith says, "It's an interesting part of the Thames, there's a lock and several bridges - and it's a good place to have a dip."

The Port of London is another big topic. Film of the Thames Barrier is complemented by stories of the Thames watermen, who rowed people along and across the water and whose livelihood was threatened by 19th-century bridge building. Until about l800 there was only the famous London Bridge, covered, like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, with shops. As more bridges were built, the watermen rose up in fury.

The education room is available for practical work and includes the simplest demonstration of river development ever devised. A huge tray with layers of sponge and sand, into which you create rain by boiling a kettle against a pane of glass until the sponge (rock) is saturated and then the sand. Then the water starts to flow on top.

The River and Rowing Museum, Mill Meadows, Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire RG9 lBF. Tel: 01491 415607. Book first. Pupils pound;3.35 each, adult helpers free

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