Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Photographer captures elements of Henley

AN AMERICAN photographer has portrayed 12 months in the life of Henley in his latest book.

AN AMERICAN photographer has portrayed 12 months in the life of Henley in his latest book.

Jim Donahue, who moved to the UK in 1997, chronicled all of the town’s main events between January and December last year.

The 52—year—old attended the Henley Royal Regatta, Henley Festival, Rewind Festival, the Henley Show and most nights of the town’s Living Advent Calendar with his Canon 6D camera.

He also took landscape images of the surrounding countryside and documented various aspects of everyday life.

The finished volume, called Portrait of Henley-on-Thames: British Country Landscapes, Traditions and Community Life, is divided into four sections based on the seasons.

Each contains shots of the flora and fauna that can be seen at that time of year.

There are pictures of churches, village halls and shops as well as monuments and other places of interest like the Maharajah’s Well in Stoke Row, the Henley Business School at Greenlands and the Fawley Court estate.

Other subjects include the annual ploughing match at Dunsden, the Christmas pantomime at the Kenton Theatre in Henley and athletes training at Leander, Upper Thames and Henley rowing clubs.

Mr Donahue visited a pub quiz at the Bird in Hand in Greys Road, Henley Town Council’s annual mayor—making ceremony at the town hall, fixtures at Henley’s rugby and cricket clubs and several village fetes.

He attended an acoustic gig at Magoo’s bar in Hart Street, a meeting of Greys Women’s Institute and concerts by Henley Choral Society and Henley Symphony Orchestra.

He also observed two pheasant shoots at the Phillimore Estate in Binfield Heath and at a private property in Swyncombe.

Mr Donahue, an IT contractor who also runs a photography business, was born in Massachusetts and grew up in Chicago then lived in New Jersey, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington DC as an adult.

He came to the UK for work and initially lived in London before moving to Cookham, Pangbourne and finally Whitchurch, where he is deputy parish council chairman, in 2007.

The Hardwick Road resident took up photography about a decade ago as he was volunteering on aid projects in Africa and wanted a record of them. He published his first book, a photo album of Whitchurch, in 2012 and followed this with another on Pangbourne a year later. While working on the latter, he decided Henley would be his next project. He said: “I do a lot of mountain biking around that area and I’m fascinated by the scenery because it’s absolutely beautiful.

“I often ride from Stoke Row to Nettlebed, Stonor and the Hambleden Valley and I think that part of the world is particularly stunning. For me Henley was the ultimate challenge because there’s so much going on. I already knew a lot about the town but there was so much more that I wanted to find out.

“I realised it would require a lot of planning so I was constantly making mental notes of the things I would need to cover while working on the Pangbourne book. The most helpful thing was getting to know people within the community. I started by visiting a Henley Town Council meeting and they were very receptive to what I was doing.

“Peter McConnell, the town centre manager at the time, helped me to get press passes to the regatta and Henley Festival. Without exception, every person I approached was keen to take part and helped me get what I needed. “It’s hard to pick a favourite image because it was great to meet so many people and see such a range of places and events.

“When I walk down the street in Henley now, I keep bumping into people I worked with so I feel I’ve become part of the community. There’s a core group of residents who organise a lot of things but it’s a very friendly town in general.

“At first I worried that some people wouldn’t give me access but everyone’s very proud of their community and happy to show it to others. There’s so much going on that it wasn’t easy deciding what to include. I could have easily spent several years working on it.”

The book was published last month and Mr Donahue said feedback had been positive. He said: “It’s early days but everyone I’ve spoken to really likes it.

“It makes you appreciate how lucky you are to live in such a beautiful place where so many things happen.

“America has beautiful scenery but it’s usually in national parks that people drive to for camping trips and holidays.

“The countryside here is right on your doorstep and very well—preserved. It’s integrated into daily life so you can just go outside and take a long walk or ride.

“There are community activities in the US that might revolve around a church or your children’s school or sports team but there’s more on offer here and of a better quality.

“You don’t see things like village fetes in America, apart from maybe neighbourhood barbecues on July 4. They don’t really have pub quizzes or even a pub culture. Some of the things in the book are fairly unique to Henley, especially the rowing. I had been to the royal regatta before but I knew very little about the sporting side of it.

“It was fascinating to learn how the racing is structured and how important it is to the rowers. I think a lot of people just go there to party and don’t pay attention to what’s happening on the water.

“I was very impressed with how hard the clubs train all year round and didn’t realise how many other events they compete in.”

Mr Donahue said his fellow countrymen admired Henley’s sense of tradition and its thriving community of independent shops. He said: “They wear casual clothing to everything so they love how people dress up at the regatta, especially to meet the dress code for the Stewards’ Enclosure.

“My mother—in—law and her husband are coming over next year and they’re really excited about seeing it for themselves. I’ve been giving them advice about their outfits. There are mayors and town councils in the US but they don’t have the pageantry like the mayor—making ceremony, the town sergeant’s staff or the robes and chain of office. Americans love that kind of stuff.

“Business in Henley is also vibrant, which I highlight in the book. I know there’s concern whenever a shop shuts but units in the town centre are generally occupied and I think it’s thriving. There’s a bit of a rivalry with Marlow and sometimes it looks like Henley isn’t faring as well. However, Marlow has more national chains so I feel Henley has somewhat more character.

“It’s very different in America — there’s a big history of high streets shutting down and people all driving to big out—of—town shopping malls instead. Some high streets have found their niche but that’s more for things like coffee shops than retail.

“In California, where my sister lives, a lot of malls try to replicate the feel of an old—fashioned, outdoor high street but it’s not the same as Henley or elsewhere in Britain. Here we’ve preserved our shopping districts from day one and integrated them with the rest of the town, which is far nicer.

“There is a lot more land in America but people aren’t as concerned about building on greenfield sites or woodland. Books have been written about the problem of ‘suburban sprawl’ and highways covered in strip malls, Wal—Mart supermarkets and fast food restaurants.

“Some people think it’s a poorly—planned travesty and that doesn’t happen in England. It’s remarkably well—controlled for a relatively small and densely—populated country. America has some beautiful towns which have fought to keep their identity but in general it doesn’t have that mindset. I think that’s one of the huge differences.”

Mr Donahue has not yet committed to his next book but is thinking of covering another town in the Thames Valley like Reading, Marlow or Ascot.

He said: “Creating this book was sometimes very tiring, especially around Christmas. There are so many events from the Living Advent Calendar to the late—night shopping festival and various carol concerts. I remember Martin Akehurst, who was mayor back then, telling me it was a hard time to survive!

“This was mostly a personal project to improve my photography but I hope I’ve provided a service to the community and that people will appreciate it. A lot of the things I’ve photographed are timeless but I hope the book will also have some historic value in years to come.”

Portrait of Henley-on-Thames costs £16.99 and may be purchased at several of the town’s businesses including the Bell Bookshop in Bell Street. Alternatively, visit

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