Wind in the Willows Centenary

PUBLISHED: 13:12 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 08:57 21 February 2013

The tale encapsulated the popularity of the Thames in Edwardian times.

The tale encapsulated the popularity of the Thames in Edwardian times.

Nick Channer goes in search of the places and landmarks associated with one of our best-loved literary classics, The Wind in the Willows, first published 100 years ago this month...

In the BBC's Big Read survey of 2003 The Wind in the Willows was voted sixteenth in a poll of Britain's top books of all time. Its high rating comes as no surprise. This enduring classic has been entertaining both children and adults for a century. In fact, the book celebrates its centenary this month - it was first published on October 8 1908.

Created by author Kenneth Grahame for his son Alastair, The Wind in the Willows began life as a bedtime story and then continued as a series of letters written to Alastair when the boy was away on holiday. Today, the book is so well-known and well-loved throughout the world that it hardly warrants an introduction. The riverbank adventures of Mole, Badger, Ratty and, of course, the exuberant, boastful Mr Toad have a timeless appeal and Grahame's ability to endow the characters with endearing human traits and characteristics gives the story a unique, magical quality.

One of the youngest-ever secretaries of the Bank of England, Kenneth Grahame had already published two successful children's books before Meuthen accepted the manuscript of The Wind in the Willows. They did so only on condition that the author did not request an advance. The reviews were initially only lukewarm. In fact, the highest praise for the book came from an unlikely source.

Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, was sent a copy
and subsequently contacted Grahame. "I have read and re-read it and have come to accept the characters as old friends," he wrote. Roosevelt's ringing endorsement of the book led to The Wind in the Willows being published in the US. Not surprisingly, sales rocketed and the book was soon acknowledged as a great success.

The charm and appeal of the story are universal but they assume a particular significance in our region. Born in Edinburgh in 1859, Kenneth Grahame spent much of his childhood at Cookham Dean, near Maidenhead, and his latter years upstream at Pangbourne. The upper reaches of the Thames and the stretch
of river that forms the southern boundary of the Chilterns almost certainly helped to provide the inspiration and setting for The Wind in the Willows.

With that in mind, I decide to play literary detective and take a walk through the landmarks in Grahame's life and the chapters of his masterpiece. The most obvious place to begin my adventure is Cookham railway station, close to his much-loved childhood haunts. Well-placed stations and the flexibility of the rail network allow me the freedom to explore on foot without the inconvenience of having to retrace my steps.

From the station I pass close to The Mount, the house where Grahame lived with his grandmother following the death of his mother when the author was a small child. Just before Quarry Wood and the popular Winter Hill viewpoint, I reach Herries School. Grahame returned to Cookham Dean in later life and made his home here. From Herries - known as Mayfield in Grahame's day - I trace his steps the short distance to Quarry Wood, picking my way between fallen trees and towering beeches.

Suddenly, surrounded by coiled tree roots, leafy dells and mossy banks, I am immersed in the world of Kenneth Grahame's magical creatures. This is the Wild Wood he created on the page - 'a fearsome place but for the sanctuary of Badger's home' was how Grahame described it.

From Quarry Wood I cross the busy A404 to Marlow - itself a noted haunt of writers and artists over the years. On the reaching the 180-mile Thames Path
I begin my 'Willows' walk in the true spirit of the book. I may not spot Ratty, Mole, Badger or Toad but in places the willow-fringed river and its gloriously wooded banks still evoke the magic and atmosphere of the story.

On I go, beside the meandering Thames, past Temple Lock and Hurley Lock and on to Aston for a welcome pint at the Flower Pot. The pub has about it still a strong sense of the Edwardian era - when The Wind in the Willows was published. Strikingly preserved signs outside welcome boating parties and fishermen. Next stop is Henley where I break my journey to visit the excellent, award-winning River and Rowing Museum with its 'Willows' display and exquisite models, including the riverbank and Toad Hall.

Talking of Toad Hall, there are at least four houses on this stretch of the river that might well have inspired Kenneth Grahame. Harleyford Manor, near Hurley, is a possibility, as is the imposing Fawley Court just outside Henley. The house, glimpsed from the riverbank, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and built in 1663.

Beyond picturesque Sonning, I reach Reading, crossing the mouth of the Kennet & Avon Canal via Horseshoe Bridge. At Caversham I take a Thames cruise upstream to 16th-century Mapledurham House, another contender for Toad Hall.
Back on the towpath I head upriver to Mapledurham Lock and then on towards Pangbourne. Between the two villages I glimpse a gabled Tudor mansion that might easily qualify for inclusion on the list. There are those who believe Hardwick House is the definitive Toad Hall and there is certainly a look of the Wild Wood about the tree-clad slopes rising steeply behind it.

I reach Pangbourne. Relaxing over a cup of tea at The Ditty - a delightful tearoom and restaurant in the centre of the village, complete with walls decorated with the characters in the story - I study the book and the route of my walk on
the map. Like most authors, Kenneth Grahame has used poetic licence to create The Wind in the Willows. Interestingly, if you look at the book and the map closely, you'll see that just about all the features in the book exist in reality.

The Wild Wood is almost certainly Quarry Wood, Toad Hall is somewhere on this stretch of the river and the settings for Toad's colourful adventures have some basis in truth, too. Historic Reading Gaol might well have been the model for the prison where Toad was incarcerated, while the railway and the canal he travelled along after escaping could easily be the mid-19th century Brunel line running parallel to the Thames, and the Kennet and Avon Canal which meets the river at Reading.

Before making for Pangbourne railway station, I walk round the corner to look at the author's last home - Church Cottage. This is where his story finishes and my journey ends. Kenneth Grahame died here in 1932 and his funeral took place at the next-door parish church of St James the Less. The service was described in The Times. "The church was a marvellous sight - a blaze of glorious colour and sunshine - with masses of flowers, delphiniums and roses and willows gathered from the river that morning."

For a man who, through his creative genius, has given so much pleasure to so many people throughout the world, his grave in Holywell Cemetery, in Oxford, bears a most appropriate epitaph. It reads: "To the beautiful memory of Kenneth Grahame, husband of Elspeth and father of Alastair, who passed the river on 6 July 1932 leaving childhood and literature the more blest for all time."

See Ratty, Mole and Mr Toad in Henley

The permanent Wind in the Willows exhibition at the River and Rowing Museum in Henley heralds the return of Mr Toad, Ratty, Badger and Mole to the banks of the River Thames, whose creatures and landscapes provided the inspiration behind this classic tale.

E. H. Shepard's famous illustrations are brought to life via 3-D models that depict the adventures of Mr Toad, Ratty and their friends. The Museum has exclusive rights to use the original images by Shepard, who explored the meadows and willow-fringed river around nearby Pangbourne in search of settings for these classic illustrations.

The exhibition faithfully follows the original story line, using theatrical lighting and sound techniques to transport visitors on a journey through the whimsical world of The Wind in the Willows.

There will also be special events in October to mark the book's birthday. Tel: 01491 415600. Open daily 10-5.

How well do you know The Wind in the Willows?

1. What has Mole never seen before that fascinates him?

2. Who invites Mole out for a boat ride and a picnic?

3. When Rat takes Mole to meet Toad, what does Toad show them?

4. What does Rat say is the finest house on the river?

5. Who lived in the Wild Woods?

6. Why is Toad sentenced to 20 years in jail?

7. How does Toad escape?

8. What does Toad discover when he returns home?

9.What did Toad do to repay the kindness of the jailer's daughter?

10. Grahame went on to write many children's books. True or false?


1. The river

2. Ratty

3. His new gypsy caravan

4. Toad Hall

5. Mr Badger

6. The seafaring rat

7. Stealing a car and driving badly

8 He dresses as a washerwoman

9.Sent her a gold necklace


Search for a'Wind in the Willows' for our times

Writing a story that has the mass appeal and longevity of The Wind in the Willows...that's the challenge of the River & Rowing Museum's ( short story competition. It's being launched on Saturday 20 September at a 'Writing for Children' event hosted by author Paul Bryers.

The competition is part of the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of The Wind in the Willows. The winning story will need to be as captivating and enchanting as Kenneth Grahame's tale, and should be based on a river-related theme with a contemporary feel. It needs to be a maximum of 4,000 words long.

The judging panel will be made up of award winning writers for children and young adults - Beverley Birch ('Rift'), S.I. Martin ('Jupiter Williams'), Paul Bryers ('Kobal' from 'The Mysteries of the Septogram'), and Sarah Mussi ('The Door of No Return').

Ist Prize: £500 + Real Writers (fiction consultancy) assessment for winning story. Two other cash prizes for 2nd and third selections.

River & Rowing Museum tutor Jane Draycott said "'The Wind in the Willows' is one of the great treasures of children's fiction - Kenneth Grahame knew all about the power of the river on the imagination, and on our real lives, and the River & Rowing Museum is looking for an exciting short story to re-animate that power for today's young readers. Entries don't have to be about the Thames, they can be about world rivers, mythical rivers, fictional rivers. The field is wide open!"

All three winning stories will be published on the Museum's website and will be available to readers online for 12 months. Entrants must be over 16 years old. Competition closes on 15 March 2009. See full terms and conditions at

Further information:

* Amanda Dellor, Marketing Manager: 01491 415642,

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