Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Dallying in Oxfordshire's villages on a Driving Trail of Midsomer Murders--and in Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

Monday, August 15, 2016

I had a Dream Day--you know, the perfect kind, on which every mental idyll you've ever conjured just happens to come to pass. I sometimes think that the longer you wait to make To-Do List items happen, the sweeter their success feels.

Off to Northolt:
     Too much writing in the morning and work on my computer on the various things I am juggling made me rush out the door at 9.00 am (although I awoke at 6. 30 am) to make my first appointment. I grabbed a cheese scone to eat on the Tube and without even a cup of coffee was gone for the day. I had plans to meet friends at 10.00 am so we could accomplish our day's goals. Our meeting spot was the Northolt Tube Station as my friends live in Harrow. It is always easiest for them to meet me there.

Meeting Bash and Vinita:
     Regular readers of this blog will know that Bash has been a friend for almost 10 years, that we met when I last lived in London, that he is the easygoing, amiable chauffeur in whose company, Llew and I had covered some of the more inaccessible parts of this country--for instance, Highclere Castle, setting for Downton Abbey was the place he drove us to last summer. In his company, I have been to the Cotswolds (Hidcote Gardens), the Royal Wisley Gardens, Leeds Castle and so many other places. I enjoy his company, his wacky sense of humor and his enjoyment of what we see.
     This time round, I was meeting his lady friend for the first time--Vinita.  They had both taken a day off from work to spend it with me and because they had never been to Henley (which Llew and I had also visited last summer), that was where we were headed.  Accordingly, we met at 10.15am  (because, from force of habit, I turned towards the Stepney Green Tube station instead of Bethnal Green and had no choice but to take a different line and make a convoluted change later!) and began our journey to Oxfordshire. From the get-go, I took to Vinita and realized in seconds that I liked her and would have a terrific day in their company.

Arrival in Henley:
     We arrived in Henley in less than 45 minutes in Bash's able hands, while Vinita and I used the time en route to get to know each other. Needless to say, the weather was simply superb (I am running out of words to describe the incredible summer we've been having). Because Llew and I had only been to Henley last year, the town's basic layout was fresh in my mind and I could guide my friends to the Town Hall where the Visitor Center is located. Our idea was to park the car somewhere (Bash has a spiffy new number now that eats up the miles with ease--so goodbye Susie --his name for his old jalopy!) and start our exploration of the town on foot. Accordingly, I nipped inside the Town Hall that dominates Market Square (where since Medieval times a market is actually held once a week), got the maps I desired and joined them again on foot. We needed the facilities and followed signs to the public toilets (a pretty interesting feature of British life that I am not sure prevails in the US is the presence of public toilets everywhere) which led us to Waitrose where we got our coffee lattes, found long-term parking for our car and began our walk.

Exploring Henley on Foot:
     The full name for this pretty town is Henley-on--Thames which is a most obvious nomenclature as it is perched on a bend in the Thames. Henley is best known for its annual Rowing Regatta which attracts world attention. It is a wealthy town that, over the years, has become the sought-after homestead of various celebrities. A walk in the town can be accomplished in an hour. Apart from taking in the Town Hall, the market Square, the Victorian brewery on the water, the old Church of St. Mary the Virgin and its graveyard whose most famous inmate is the 60's pop singer, Dusty Springfield (whose gravesite we paused at), its Bridge across the River that separates Oxfordshire (in which the town lies) from Berkshire on the other side, a walk along the Thames Tow Path, a drink or meal in one of its excellent pubs--all of which we did with the utmost joy and delight of discovery (for Bash and Vinita, at least), Henley is the headquarters for the filming of the long-running British detective TV series called Midsomer Murders.
Henley's Midsomer Murders Connection:
     As long-time fans of this successful and very popular TV show, Llew and I are familiar with a great deal of the episodes. Part of my great enjoyment of this show that we watch together on PBS in the States is the settings--the most exquisite Oxfordshire villages with their picturesque greens, their atmospheric pubs, thatched roof cottages with typically English Country décor inside, quaint village events such as bake sales, summer fairs, day trips to local sights, etc. In the midst of the murders and mayhem, the show presents to the viewer the idyllic side of English rural life with its daily minor dramas amidst the quiet flow of routine. I adore the show and am a faithful fan. Henley made the perfect base for the crew of the show whose Location Managers would scout the surrounding villages and towns to find perfect spots for the filming of the series that has gone on for over fifteen years. Consequently, the Henley Visitor Center has maps that offer driving trails of the towns and villages that feature in the series and that can be easily recognized by the show's fans. Llew and I would have dearly loved to have taken one such driving tour last year--but in the absence of  a car, we had to content ourselves with finding the show's locations in Henley alone--such as the Gilbert and Machlin Butcher and The Argyll Pub on Market Square where various episodes have been shot.
     So although I would have dearly loved to have explored many of the villages and towns surrounding Henley with Llew, I had to wait to rope Bash into the project. He and Vinita were eager and willing--and so off we set. But first, after our lovely walk along the Tow Path, we were ready for a drink and, for old times' sake and because it was where Llew and I had stopped for lunch last year--we settled down at a pub called The Angel on the Bridge where I had the UK's favorite summer drink, Pimm's, while Bash had a pint of Guiness and Vinita had a small shandy. With the crisps they had carried with them, we had ourselves a fine refreshing pause.
     Just before they nipped off into our car to begin our driving tour, I dragged them with me into the thrift stores to look for vintage jewelry. What we did end up finding were loads of hats and fascinators (it is customary to wear one at Henley as at Ascot) that were left over from this past season's rowing regatta--but the price was far from right. Being brand-new, they were pricey and not available at the throwaway prices I expect in such stores. I had to say that my friends suffered the shopping jaunt quite gamely--Vinita told me she had never in her life entered one of these shops despite having lived in the UK most of her life--and then arrived at our car park to pick up our car.   

A Midsomer Murders Driving Tour:
     For anyone who wishes to use this blog post as a guide to do a similar driving tour, I would say two things: Pick up a map at the Henley Visitor Center but use it only as a rough guide of where to go and how to map a route. The map is not to scale--it is only a pretty artist's rendition of the local landscape. What you really need is a good proper road map of the area or, preferably, what the British call a Satnav and what we, in the US, call a GPS. Bash had neither--his Satnav had gone AWOL and he doesn't have the Google Maps app in his phone. Since I do not have online roaming, Vinita's phone saved the day for us. If you have that, you need not worry at all.
     Our plan was to follow the Northern Driving Trail--there is a Southern one too which must be just as lovely--that began in the village of Dorchester-on-Thames. By following road signage, we arrived at our destination about 20 minutes later--after passing by fallow fields and tiny red brick villages.

Exploring Dorchester-on-Thames:
     Fans of the show will find much to love, to see and to spot in Dorchester. It was good to see that we were not the only ones in search of bucolic TV settings--at every point, we ran into other fans equally eager to walk in the footsteps of Chief Inspector Barnaby (played by John Nettles) and his team. After parking our car, we went straight into Lily's Tearoom, a lovely little spot that would have been perfect for a cuppa, where we picked up a walking trail of the town--a guide really to MM locations.
     First stop, The George Hotel on the High Street, with its exposed timbered gables, its old stables and its black and yellow carriage at the entrance. Next stop, the Abbey where we paid a reverential visit to see a church that dates from the 900s AD. Then, the Abbey Museum (an interesting place in its own right but also a location in one of the episodes) where there is a glass case devoted to an exhibit of the number of detective shows and films that have been shot here including an Agatha Christie one and Merchant-Ivory's Howard's End. A short detour down a narrow lane took us to the ancient Village Hall and later we passed by the White Hart Hotel and the Fleur de Lys--eateries and hostelries that pop in and out of the shows. The village is filled with thatched roof houses that made perfect chocolate box covers, stone war memorials, a tiny post office and co-op--there is everything as architect Nicholas Pevsner would say, to please the eye and nothing to hurt it.

Off to Warborough:
     The same Walking Trail map available at Lily's made mention of the tiny village of Warborough where we headed next. It was difficult to find without a proper map because you can only rely on road signs that much. After making local inquiries, we did find it tucked away in a fold of the landscape. This is the village that boasts The Six Bells Pub that has been used both inside and out for a number of the episodes. As soon as you turn a bend and arrive at the village green which borders vast cricket grounds, you recognize it--this despite the fact that an ugly white awning had been erected at the entrance that completely robbed the space of its charm. Our idea was to get a meal in there, but sadly, as we had arrived after 2.00 pm, it was closed. Feeling distinctly peckish by then, we asked where we could get a meal and were directed to a place that we never ended up finding.
Finding a Very Late Lunch in Ewelme:
     What we did do  instead (since they were so obvious) was follow signs to Ewelme (U-el-mee) which is described in the brochure as "a delightful and tiny village". Arriving there, after making a sharp right turn at the Shepherd's Hut pub, we found what the brochure refers to as a "Tearoom"--it turned out to be the village store that is simply called Ewelme Village Store! They were closing in 25 minutes but that left us enough time for a very late tuna and sweet corn sandwich, a slice of Almond Cake and a pot of tea. They hit the spot and half an hour later, we felt energized to continue our rambles to the old Village Church which adjoins an old school and Hall. We found there, to our utmost delight, that the church has ancient cloisters that have been converted into a pretty rock garden and tiny apartments for the retired and the elderly.
     Chatting with an inmate that we ran into was the bonus for it provided us with perspective on the area and its many attractions. For me, however, the abundant lavender borders thick with bees, the lush rose plants that curled and clung like vines to wooden eaves and the lynch gate-like embellishments of the space made the stop at Ewelme completely worth while.

Off to Conquer the Miltons--Great and Little:
     The little village of Great Milton (also on the MM Trail Map) would be familiar to any global foodies for it is the HQ and flagship restaurant of one of the world's best-known and most-beloved of chefs, the Frenchman Raymond Blanc who has made England his home. His restaurant, one of the finest in the world and consistently voted as the best in the UK is called Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons. Together with his ex-wife, the interior designer Jennie Blanc, he took an old church vicarage and priory, attached to the church, and converted it into a world-class hotel whose largest attraction is the famous restaurant. I had been aware of this place for a very long time and had always wanted to visit it at least for a cup of tea and a cake. Its location, in the midst of nowhere, always prevented me from getting there on my own--and not driving in the UK is a huge handicap in this regard.

A Visit (Finally!) to Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons:
      So, where we arrived at Great Milton and found signs for the hotel, my joy knew no bounds. It was not long before we were pulling up in the parking lot and making our nonchalant way into the hotel. As soon as you arrive at the space, you are enchanted for the gardens are glorious and the landscaping is simply awesome. Giant verdigris artichokes dominate the entrance, surrounded (quite appropriately) by real purple- headed thistle flowers. You then walk up a path leading to a stone mansion (the former vicarage) where the Reception is to be found. Beautifully manicured lawns surround the property bordered by perennial flower beds that are truly enchanting.
     We discovered that although it is possible to walk in and partake of a cup of tea and a cake without reservations on days when they are not too busy, they happened to be full and were unable to seat us. We could have ordered a pot of tea on the lawns but if the idea is to enter the hotel and survey it, it made little sense to have tea outside. Instead, we were kindly and very graciously invited to walk through the gardens and enjoy the surroundings.
     And the gardens are astounding. Everywhere, uniformity of design, has led to the addition of verdigris sculpture that is soft and appealing and far from gaudy. There are birds, for examples, mainly swans and cranes that are presented in various sculptural poses that are truly enchanting. Water feature fountains, ponds, cascading and softly lifting waterfalls punctuated by flowers and bowers and more sculpture had us enthralled. And, the icing on the cake, were the expansive vegetable gardens from where fresh produce daily finds its way to the restaurant's tables. Wonderfully labeled, beautifully protected from birds, this is organic farming at its most satisfying and we loved every second of our rambles through the vegetable beds.
     By the end of our stroll in the garden, we were all motivated enough to try and find reservations for lunch at some future date. We paused for a long while in a gazebo and finally made up our minds to try and make a reservation. The lovely girl was replaced by a somewhat snooty receptionist who told me offhand that there was a three-month reservation list. My American pushiness came to the rescue for I insisted on his taking a look at his book and voila! We found a spot available for lunch in mid-September (when I shall be in Oxford)--the perfect venue from which to make the short drive to Great Milton. Bash and Vinita were my willing partners in crime and when we received a firm spot, we almost did a little dance. It would be simply glorious and we felt very successful when we left the place, after using the facilities one floor up, to have snagged a lunch reservation despite not doing so three months in advance. We look forward now to a thoroughly wonderful day out in the country again when we shall have the pleasure of partaking of some of the world's finest food as conceived by some of the world's finest chefs. I have long waited for this treat and the waiting has only whetted my appetite.

Off to Thame:
     By the time we left Le Manoir, it was 7.30 pm and I was beginning to be worried about getting back home at a decent time as I am still a tad afraid of my neighborhood at night. Little did I ever think we would spend so much time in this amazing place. I had thought we'd take a quick turn on foot and leave. Still, I was far from unhappy. The day had been gratifying in every possible way and I was a happy camper.
     Ten minutes later, we arrived at Thame which, we decided would be the last stop on our driving tour of Oxfordshire. As soon as you drive into it, you are greeted by a Town Hall and a Clock that is reminiscent of Henley and Woodstock, the Oxfordshire town. On the High Street is The Spreadeagle Hotel that has appeared in some episodes as well as Rumsey's Chocolaterie which was a photography shop in the series. While losing light in the falling dusk, we swung around the town and then, because the guide informed us about it, we sought out the 13th century church. Inside, bell-ringing rehearsal was probably on for the sounds emanating from the bell tower were wonderfully uplifting. Had time permitted, we'd have gone inside this lovely church too--but I was keen to get a move-on.
    Ten minutes later, we were on the highway headed towards London having experienced a truly memorable day. I was very thrilled that my companions enjoyed the day as much as I did and derived an enormous amount of pleasure from leaving the city environs behind and venturing out into the rural countryside. We hope that we will be able to have many more such adventures in the near future.

Journey Back Home:
     I requested my friends to drop me off at Harrow and Wealdstone station with the idea of taking the London Overground train to Euston which usually covers the journey in under 18 minutes. Sadly, the late hour seemed to have scrapped the express train for it stopped at several stations. I hopped off at Euston about a half hour later and then jumped into a Northern Line train going to Tottenham Court Raod with the idea of taking the Central Red Line train back to Bethnal Green. Right outside the station, I get a bus that brings me right opposite my doorstep--it made me feel safer to arrive home this way than walking the five minutes from Stepney Green Station. All went well until I arrived at Bethnal Green and found that the 309 bus was 24 minutes away. I was not going to wait that long as it was already 10.15 pm. When I stopped a passing cab, I hailed it and in five minutes and for a cost of 5 pounds, I was home safely and in my bed by 10. 30 pm.
    It had been an incredible day and I am sorry if I keep repeating myself. But it was also tiring and for the first time since my arrival in England, I turned the light off without blogging and went straight to sleep.
     Until tomorrow, cheerio...            

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