Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows is one of those essential books of childhood – one that we all grow up reading. And with various TV adaptations and cartoons too, even if you haven’t read the book you are probably still familiar with the characters of Badger, Ratty, Mole and Toad.
The story follows the adventures of these four loveable characters and their adventures along the riverbanks – with a hefty dollop of social commentary about the disappearance of the old world and the coming of the new.
The river, which is almost as essential to the story as that of the four main characters, is based on the stretch of the Thames in Southern Oxfordshire, near where Grahame grew up and lived for much of his life. This is a fact that is celebrated at the excellent River and Rowing Museum in Henley-on-Thames.
There is a permanent Wind in the Willows exhibition at the museum, which in 2016 celebrates its tenth birthday. The exhibition uses 3D models, theatrical lighting and audio guides to recreate some of the magic of the story, and there is plenty of information on the life of Grahame and the development of the story. There’s also a first edition from 1908.
Using a set of headphones, visitors can walk through the whole book, from Mole’s spring cleaning to the recapture of Toad Hall. It’s great fun for the whole family, but little ones will especially love it. Ratty was actually a water vole so don’t miss Ratty’s Refuge, a water vole friendly garden with animal sculptures of the characters set in appropriate habitats which is located in the grounds.
Grahame lived close to the Thames for most of his life, although he moved several times. He is most closely associated with Pangbourne, which is just a couple of miles from Mapledurham House and Mill.
The house, with which Grahame would certainly have been familiar, bears a striking resemblance to the images of Toad Hall depicted in the original illustrations for the book by EH Shephard. So it’s not a big leap to imagine that this is where Grahame took his inspiration.
Anyone wanting to learn more about the Wind in the Willows connection is advised to visit the River and Rowing museum to see the exhibition. It’s open seven days a week from 10am to 5pm and there’s also a great gift shop where you can pick up an informative book ‘The world of the Wind in the Willows’ which explores the relationship betwwn the characters and the author, as well as your very own Toad, Ratty, Badger or Mole.