When I had arrived in Henley-on-Thames during my long walk along the River Thames, it was late and I was starving so I was not able to do much exploring that evening. Last Sunday I decided to return to Henley (via rail) for a relaxing afternoon of discovery.1
As I made my way around the little city centre, I happened upon a most unusual site: situated in a fifteenth century building—one of the oldest buildings in Henley2 —was a teddy bear shop. A real teddy bear shop, complete with elaborate window displays of antique, brand name, and handmade teddy bears.
When I wonder, “what would be an ideal shop to place in an old medieval building?” ‘Teddy Bear Shop’ is certainly not on the list. Not even close. And yet this shop, called Asquiths, is not only the first shop of its kind (opening in 1984), but also world famous for its bears. As I peered through the window, I was not sure what to make of the site. I did not play with teddy bears or stuffed animals much as a child (like most dolls people gave me, I put them on a shelf and left them there, preferring to devour books instead).
The shop itself feels like walking back in time to an 1880s toyshop. Bears, dogs, ducks, llamas, and more occupy every imaginable surface. Expensive bears appear locked safely behind antique cupboards, and the low-hanging ceiling and exposed medieval wooden beams add to the shop’s antiquarian ambiance. Investigating its various nooks left me with feelings of awe and wonder. The wall-to-wall teddy bears were marvelously uncanny and intriguing, perched as they were atop chests and shelves eyeing the passersby below.
I had asked the woman at the counter how this shop began, thinking it may have been someone’s collection or passion made manifest in the form of a shop (which often seems to be the case). She replied, “actually, there is a real demand for genuine imported and handmade teddy bears. Back in the 1980s, most bears on the market were cheaply made knockoffs from Japan, which were primarily pink and blue. No one sold old-style bears.” A demand for teddy bears. Who knew?3
The shop includes teddy bears imported from Germany (and other places around the world) and famous brand names such as Gund, Hermann, Isabelle, and Steiff. They also support local bearmakers and designers and carry their very own brand of bears, titled ‘Asquith Bears.’ Teddy bear styles include traditional, antique, soft, and character (which have a unique trait such as Mohair). Other shop items include clothing for bears, collectibles stationary, and gift cards, and prices range from inexpensive teddy bears to costly antiques. ‘Henley-on-Thames’ souvenir bears appear in baskets around the shop and sell for £4.99. Asquiths had such a wide selection that I did end up purchasing a few teddy bears as gifts—and I felt like a peddler with a sackful of toys as I left the shop!
The building also has a bit of a history, with multiple different owners and tenants over the centuries. In the 1930s, for instance, a marmoset named Jimmy lived in the house and was quite a rambunctious character.
Henley-on-Thames and Asquiths are definitely off the beaten path, but still fairly easy to get to from Reading, Oxford, and surrounding areas. Stop in here for a quick look around if you are in Henley-on-Thames for a truly unique experience.4
2-4 New Street Henley, Henley-on-Thames RG9 2BT
- For anyone thinking of going to Henley-on-Thames on Sundays, be aware that the trains do not run as often, so it can take upwards of one hour to reach Henley from Reading. [↩]
- The oldest bulding in town is The Old Bell is a traditional pub situated right in the centre of Henley. The building has been dated by experts at 1325. [↩]
- The original owner began their career as a make-up artist with the BBC and later worked for ABC TV Australia and in TV in the Caribbean. [↩]
- Asquiths also ships teddy bears. Check their website for a small selection of bears available. [↩]