Monday, July 20, 2015

A Day Out at Heavenly Henley-on-Thames

Tuesday, July 14, 2015: London
A Day Out at Henley-on-Thames

            Awake again at daybreak (5.00am) sans alarm clock, I am fully convinced I run on adrenalin when I am in London. Otherwise how do you explain the fact that I get a mere 5 hours of sleep a night, take no afternoon nap and am still full of beans despite the awful cold that continues to plague me?

Brekkie was an all-time favorite: Sainsburys Fruit and Nut Muesli with yogurt and coffee. There is a quiet slow pace to our morning but we have decided to shower and get away from London for the day. The forecast is calling for a cloudy day—but what’s new? It is summer in London—on expects an overcast sky! As long as there is no rain, we are happy campers.

            It is about 9.30 am when we finally set out on our daytrip to Henley-on-Thames, the picturesque sailing village on the river that is associated with the annual Royal Regatta. After a lovely natter with Arben, the concierge at the building in which we are staying and who goes back a long time in his acquaintance with us to a time when I once lived in this building in High Holborn, we disappear down the Tube shaft. But the cold I am still carrying (also responsible for an awful night of sniffles and a mild headache) has made me wooly-minded and we head for Waterloo instead of Paddington. It is only at the ticket window that we discover our error. To rectify it, we race into a Tube going to Paddington and upon arrival there, make it into a super slow train that requires us to make a change at Twyford where we have a 15 minute connecting wait. It is almost noon by the time we reach Henley-on-Thames. I did not expect it to take this long but we are on holiday with no particular plans—so we take it in our stride.

 Heavenly Henley:

            It is love at first sight for Llew and  me as we get off the train, take directions from the ticket clerk at the window on the way to find the High Street and go out to meet the village of Henley. From the Get Go, we are charmed by the architecture and the quaintness of the buildings. The entire village is still in festive mood—still recovering from the post-Regatta high that hits it when it is inundated by thousands of visitors who arrive to watch the legendary sailing competition between Berkshire and Buckinghamshire once a year in the first week of July. This year it ran from July 1-5—so we missed it by a week. Red, white and blue buntings adorn the entire village, strung across streets from shop to shop. We find ourselves buoyed along by the energy.  

We are a couple without a plan. We have no map, no tourist literature, no signposts to guide us. Still, following instructions, we arrive on the High Street and I am immediately seduced by the quality of the merchandise in the charity shops. It is in one of them that I find something I have sought for ages: a pair of Jackie O sunglasses (I had lost the pair I possessed in a New York restaurant and never had them returned to me). I am thrilled. Each building is prettier than the next. We pass by a brick church with a Byzantine steeple. We finally arrive on what is called Market Place—an open-air market has been held at this site every Thursday since the 12th century. This is yet another astonishing aspect about English country life that never ceases to strike me—the fact that traditions such as these survive the test of time so effortlessly. In our age of refrigeration and supermarket chains there is still room for the organic farmer and the home baker.

            Market Street reminds me faintly of another nearby Oxfordshire town—Woodstock—by virtue of the fact that it’s Town Hall also sits in the midst of a small traffic island at the end of its main street. It is also similar in style and design with Woodstock’s Town Hall. We enter it to find a warm reception from the council workers who offer us maps, suggestions for things to do and places to visit and lots of leaflets associated with the international smash hit TV series, Midsomer Murders which has been on for over 15 years now. It uses scattered locations from all around the region for its exquisite settings and part of the great joy of watching the excellent plot lines of this series is feasting your eyes upon its locales. It is possible to do a Walking Tour to get to some of the series’ locations but if you want to truly explore the main villages that feature in the series, you need a set of wheels to take the Driving Tour—also available in a handy leaflet.

But, by this time, our tummies are rumbling and we inquire about the possibility of a good meal. Although The Argyll on Market Place, a very old pub in which several scenes in the series have been shot, is reputed to have “beautiful food”, according to the lady at the Information Center, we elect to find a waterside café—after all, we are at Henley-on-Thames!

Lunch at The Angel (Of the Bridge):

            The man at the Information Center suggested The Bridge, a landmark pub on the river—but he was not able to comment on the quality of the food or the prices. “We call it The Angel On The Bridge”, he said, as he directed us down Hart Street towards it. When we arrive there, past the beautiful church of St. Mary The Virgin, we find it is simply The Angel. It could not have a more scenic location: right at the foot of an old Portland stone bridge that dates from the later 1700s. A pontoon has been pushed out into the water with picnic style benches and tables to enable dining by the riverside. We glance at the menu and I opt for Bangers and Mash with Onion Gravy—standard pub grub that I adore. Plus my mouth has been watering since I passed by Gabriel Machin Butchers on Market Place whose wares were mouthwateringly arrayed for the viewing pleasure of every carnivore in creation. Llew decides to get the Cajun Chicken Breast with fries and salsa.

            We eat well as we watch rowers on the lake and cruise vessels that follow the Regatta course to show visitors pretty villages along the Thames. The region is rich in literary allusions—Kenneth Graeme wrote The Wind In The Willows in nearby Pangbourne and there is a small museum to this immortal classic close by. The Thames was responsible for his phrase that pertained to “Messin’ About on Boats” as Ratty, Mole, Badger and Toad shoot the breeze. Flocks of mallard life visit us as we munch and we see a spectacular swan hover over the water, its giant wings batting almost mechanically as it gets to the other bank. There are families of terns and some aquatic birds we cannot even recognize. It is an idyllic scene on a day that has cleared up well. There is no sun but brave glimmers of its rays make an occasional courageous appearance between clouds. We down our ale, we sip our wine, we feel buoyant. A group of noisy French rowers occupies a neighboring table—no doubt, they too are psyched about being in Henley.

A Walk Along the Thames Path:

            It is time for us to walk off the big meal we have just consumed and we decide to amble along the Thames Path to Hambledon Locks. Locks are one of the frequent features in the UK that require sailors to stop while cruising to open and close mechanical devices that regulate the flow of water in rivers and canals. To get down to the Thames Tow Path, we cross over the famed bridge and realize that the side we lunched on was in the county of Oxfordshire. On crossing, we have arrived in Berkshire. This area, known as the Thames Valley, is scenic beyond belief and driving or cycling tours are very popular here. It is while passing my camera, in my enthusiasm to Llew, with the request that he take my picture near the Henley-On-Thames sign, that it falls from our hands and literally bounces on the hard asphalt road. That’s it. It puts paid to our camera that no longer opens or shuts. The lens has been damaged and we no longer have a camera for the rest of our tip. Oh well, I have learned to take such travel casualties in my stride and to shrug philosophically about them. It can always be replaced and I shall buy one as soon as I return home.

            Meanwhile, we are walking on a glorious day along the Thames passing by some of the world’s most famous rowing clubs. Bleachers are in the process of being dismantled and removed as the end of the annual Royal Regatta brings the town back to normal and back to anonymity again. There is abundant bird life along the river and we enjoy the antics of swans, ducks and a variety of other feathered friends—not to mention scores of dogs as the Tow Path is popular with dog-lovers who emerge with balls and plastic ball-picks for an afternoon of exercise with their best four-legged friends. Gardens swoop down to the river in neat country homes that are well-maintained and very cozy. Some are palatial and constructed like Swiss chalets, others are tiny—typical English cottages with ramshackle front gardens. We troop on for about 45 minutes and when we see Hambledon Lock ahead of us, we decide to turn back. We have not yet finished exploring the town of Henley and we also wish to make a certain evening train. It has been a grand walk and I have realized yet another long-standing wish: to walk along the Thames Path from Henley onwards in the direction of Oxford. Because it is true: you can walk all the way to Oxford by following this Tow Path—and perhaps someday I shall do it!

 A Midsomer Murders Walking Tour in Henley:

We make an about-turn and retrace our steps back to Henley over the Bridge. Using the Midsomer Murders Walking Trail leaflet, we go out in search of places associated with the series: from the Town Hall and The Argyll Pub to Gabriel Machin Butcher. We stop at the Church of St. Mary The Virgin in whose church yard the famed pop singer Dusty Springfield lies buried. I have still to research her association with this town but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that she lived in it for a large period of her life and died there. Beatle George Harrison owned and lived in a home near the Town Hall. Several well-known British media and entertainment personalities have homes here and we could see why. It is a truly darling town and it did not have one ugly sight. The residents are used to its celebrity as various TV series have been shot here from Poirot to Inspector Morse to the Miss Marple Murders. The town provides the sort of idyllic facades that contrast with the grisly murders that affect small country estates and villages. In fact, I leave Llew behind on a bench in the Market Square and go out in search of the entrance to Henley Brewery that we had spied from the river on our walk—its tall chimneys and walls had sported its name rather proudly. I recalled vaguely that it was the setting of one of the Inspector Morse Murder mysteries in which a group of tourists take a guided tour of a brewery. And after walking down two narrow streets that form the maze of routes that make up the little town, I find it. It is no longer a brewery and has been converted into a boutique hotel—but the wrought-iron archway that joins two walls at the entrance to the brewery has been retained and I am fully certain that this was the façade that was used in the episode. I take pictures and resolve to go home to confirm this.

            Then, it is time for us to find our way back to the railway station for the 5. 10 pm train to Paddington, London. We make a change at Twyford once again and by 6. 30 pm, we are in the city ready for our next appointment. Our excursion to Henley (that had cost us 15. 70 pounds each round trip in train fare) had been extraordinarily successful and I am thrilled as I have wanted to visited this town for ages but somehow never got down to it. I am so glad I had Llew to share it with and that he responded so warmly to it as well.

Dinner at Polpo in Covent Garden with a Friend:

            We had 7.00 pm plans for dinner with our friend Murali Menon at Polpo in Covent Garden—so we hopped onto the Tube at Paddington and got there at about 7. 10pm We found Polpo, but Murali was nowhere to be found. Meanwhile, as the restaurant does not take reservations, it is a free for all at the door and the post-work crowd was insane. We put our names on the waiting list and are told it would be a wait of at least 40 minutes to get a table. This place had better be good, I thought, as the area was crawling with eateries and I saw no reason to torture ourselves to find a table. As it turns out, we were waiting at the wrong Polpo—there is another in Soho and Murali was waiting for us there! A couple of phone calls ended the misunderstanding and he offered to make his way to where we were. Llew ordered a glass of Cabernet while we waited and before long, Murali turned up, looking dapper after a long work day as a financial analyst.

            A few minutes later, we were seated. Murali and I made contact when I had lived in London and he became a follower of my blog. He responded to something I had written, I wrote back—and that was it. An instant cyber friendship was struck that has become cemented over the years. I thoroughly enjoy his company as he is one of the few true Renaissance Men I know whose professional interests are completely different from the activities they pursue for pleasure. For example, having been raised in varied parts of the world through his father who was an Indian diplomat, Murali speaks fluent Russian and French in addition to English and a few Indian languages. He is devoted to art, music, theater, walking holidays, exploration and discovery plus he has an exquisite sense of humor as is evident in his own blog, “Just a Mon”. You can see why he and I hit it off and continue to take pleasure from each others’ company. His wife Nina was supposed to join us for dinner but they could not find a babysitter for their 10-year old son, Aangad. And so Nina was a no-show leaving us to enjoy Murali’s company for the rest of the evening.

            The concept of Polpo is that of small Venetian plates: tapas-like items that allow the diner to sample the chef’s  talents. Most servings were for two people but we cut up and shared the many offerings we chose: Aranchini (cheesey deep-fried, crispy balls that were delicious), serrano ham and artichoke crostini, pork and fennel meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce, crab, prawn and chilli linguine (absolutely yummy),”escaped bird” skewers—tidbits of chicken and pork belly on a skewer. I had a draft beer, Llew and Murali sipped wine. The ambience was very cozy and we were able to catch up on all sorts of aspects of our lives. About two hours later, we were ready to call it a night and walk to The Strand from where we caught buses that took us home to Holborn.

            It had been another memorable day—a day spent in the  country—that had allowed us to get away from London and explore beyond its confines to enable us to take in the pleasures of summer country life in this beautiful land plus re-connect with an old friend whose company is always stimulating and enjoyable to me.

            Until tomorrow, cheerio!    

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