Henson’s Heroes keep father’s memory alive

ACCOUNTANT Neil Henson reckons he was never happier than when he was dressed as the Captain of the Titanic and set sail down the River Wye.

Although a close second was when he was Willy Wonka or maybe Admiral Nelson on HMS Victory and then there was Noah on his Ark and with the crew of a WWI tank

Oh and as a guardsman passenger on a London Bus and with Alice in Wonderland.

You see Neil and his team of Henson’s Heroes are arguably the most inventive and creative of entrants each year in the Monmouth Raft Race on the River Wye.

Henson’s Heroes are frequent winners of the award for the best themed raft and also, perhaps more importantly, for having raised the most in sponsorship.

The event, staged by Rotary Monmouth on the River Wye from Monmouth to Whitebrook, principally raises money for Newport-based St David’s Hospice Care and other charities share in the spoils.

Neil, from Woodcroft, near Chepstow, and his team haven’t decided on the theme for this year’s raft yet but their grey cells are active and the possibilities are flowing. Neil says: “It’s very much work in progress.”

“We’ve entered the Monmouth Raft Race ever since 2007. Twelve years in all as one year it was cancelled due to flooding when the river was too high and of course last year it was called off due to the pandemic.

“Over the years we’ve raised many thousands of pounds. Probably more than £15,000. We’re pleased  to have won the best themed raft award seven times and also perhaps more pleased to have won the award for the most sponsorship money raised on seven occasions. The most sponsorship is the important one!

“We first entered the Monmouth Raft Race in the year my father, Mervyn ‘Merv’ Henson, died. He was cared for so marvellously in the last months of his life both in the hospice and at home by St David’s Hospice Care. We just wanted to do our bit to repay the care he’d received from the hospice.

“The crew of the raft is made up of family and friends who knew my father.  Creating the raft and entering the event is a great way to keep his memory going.”

But how do you come up with the theme for the raft each year? “We have a “half raft party”, usually around Easter, although everything is a bit later this year. Everyone brings their ideas and we go with the best, democratically, unless there’s a tie in which case we keep discussing!

“It usually takes us a  couple of weekends to complete the raft once we’ve decided on a theme, with BBQ’s thrown in, and various friends and family making the costumes while others design and assemble and paint the raft. It’s all great fun.”

But what’s the secret of  building a successful Monmouth Raft Race raft and then getting from start to finish in one piece? “We’re probably unusual in that we sit in the barrels, rather than on top.  So making sure you plug  all the holes connecting the barrels is fairly fundamental.

“A couple of times we’ve missed a barrel and ended up with it full of water.  Also you need to have a great group of friends and family who are willing to muck in and get on with it.  We couldn’t do it without them, all of them.”

Neil says there have been many stand out moments over the years. “The amount of money raised, especially by my sister, Lisa Henson, who raises the vast bulk of it through her work, is one. She’s a self-employed mobile hairdresser.  Also the spectacle and banter at the start is great, it’s a real carnival atmosphere!

“It’s brilliant for team building. It also gives you a sense of achievement having built and crewed a homemade raft from start to finish. For me and the team it’s a sense of giving back to an organisation that means so much in keeping my Dad’s memory alive and all while having great fun.”

Which has been your favourite raft and have you had any disasters?  “A light bulb moment was realising that a roof was a good idea due to the amount of eggs and other missiles thrown at you from the bridges along the way. Getting stuck on the river bed, when the water level was low and having to get out of the raft, to abandon ship and push it off the rocks, was a challenge.  Best raft over the years?  Must be Titanic 2.”

St David’s Hospice Care Chief Executive, Emma Saysell, said: “Monmouth Raft Race and the finish festival with its stands and live music is one of the best events of the year. What makes it extra special is the inventiveness and enthusiasm of the rafters in particular raft makers such as  Neil Henson and his Henson’s Heroes who create such intricate and mind boggling rafts year after year and help raise so much money for the hospice.

“Monmouth Raft Race, staged so brilliantly by Monmouth Rotary, is a very well-loved and critical event in the St David’s Hospice Care fund raising event calendar, helping to fund the continued work of our nurses and the running of hospice services provided free to all patients and families.

“Monmouth Raft Race is such a huge social occasion for everyone involved,  not the least the raft makers, their teams and supporters. I’d urge anyone thinking of coming on board this year to take the plunge and sign up now-you won’t be disappointed and will be helping to support the hospice which cares, free of charge, to users throughout our community.”

“The entry fees and any donations made, help us to provide vital palliative care to people facing life limiting illnesses as well as providing support to their families at a very difficult time.”

Norman Williams, of Rotary Monmouth, said: “Neil Henson and Henson’s Heroes are wonderful supporters of the Monmouth Raft Race who delight supporters and fellow raft crews every year with their magnificent themed rafts and the fabulous costumes that they create. We are very grateful to them for their annual entry and of course the money they raise through sponsorship.”

This year’s Monmouth Raft Race, the 55th, is on Sunday, September 5. The 6.5mile paddle from Monmouth to Whitebrook on the River Wye is sponsored by Mandarin Stone. For more details and how to enter visit www.monmouthraftrace.com