Romance in Henley on Thames

on Monday 14th February 2022 by Bobbie Latter Blue Badge Guide (

With the arrival of Saint Valentine’s Day, spring is coming, the sap is rising, birds are mating and we are concocting romantic activities – writing cards and poems, cooking (or in my case, burning), or booking romantic getaways – or alternatively, we’re in the garden centre buying seeds to plant in the propagator! 

But who was St Valentine?  It’s all a bit tenuous but seemingly he was a martyr who died in Rome in around 496AD.  During his spell in gaol, he fell in love with the daughter of his gaoler and wrote her a love letter (tactics or truth?  Hopefully truth!).  Although there must have been plenty of other people who wrote love letters, his must have been pretty spectacular for his memory to be perpetuated till today – and not just in Italy, but across the globe!

We know his fame had spread to the British Isles by 1477 because if you go to the British Library and look in the archives, there is a letter from a lady called Margery Brews to her fiancé, which is described as the oldest surviving Valentine’s letter in the English language.

Chaucer and Shakespeare also liked the idea, as did Marlowe and Byron.  Byron even went as far as swimming one hour and ten minutes across the Dardanelles, from Abydos to Sestos to act out an ancient love story!  The characters were Leander and Hero and if the name Leander rings any bells, it’s probably because it’s also the name of one of the most famous rowing clubs in the world, based in Henley-on-Thames, just an hour’s drive west of London and a great choice for a Valentine’s weekend break.

The name “Leander” comes from the Greek “Leandros” which means “Lion-man”.  In the love-story, he was a handsome young man who lived in the Asian town of Abydos, on the southern side of the Dardanelles Strait.  At a festival dedicated to the goddess Aphrodite he met and fell in love with Hero, a virgin priestess, who was based in Sestos, a European town on the other side of the Strait.  Being forbidden to see each other because of politics and social standing, they cast all cares to the wind and decided to meet in secret - but the only way they could was for Leander to swim across the Hellespont strait to Hero’s tower at night by the light of the moon and then return home at dawn.  Just under a mile each way!  What dedication!

In Henley, people can mimic Leander’s swim on the Sunday morning before Henley Regatta by signing up to the Henley Classic Swim, which follows the Regatta course from Temple Island to Phyllis Court upstream along the Thames.  The wonderful thing about it is that it takes place as the sun is rising - around 6:30am – a rather romantic experience, even if it is an endurance swim!  This year it will be on 26th June if you’re interested.

The last couple of years have felt a bit like being locked up in gaol like St Valentine, but the cell door is now open!  Let’s hope that this St. Valentine’s Day marks a new confidence for us all to open our thoughts to the joys of being tourists again!