Riverside Nostalgia in Henley-on-Thames

by Annie Biziou van Pol  |  Published July 18, 2014

Henley-on-Thames, famous for its annual regatta, has more to offer than the rowing spectacle that pulls in droves of summertime revellers each year. Here at the merging point of Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire, you’ll find countryside living at its finest, just under an hour’s drive from the heart of London.

The Henley Royal Regatta. (Photo: Oli Anderson)

Over the Bridge

We wander across the town’s staple, an historic bridge with stone arches reaching over a navy stretch of river that glimmers in the sunlight. At the end of the bridge, a crossroad cuts into the streets, with the faded brick Red Lion hotel strung with purple wisteria to the right, and a pub, the Angel-on-the-Bridge, edging the water to the left. It’s a marriage of two quintessential British things; the architecture reminiscent of the Chilterns with, naturally, a cosy drinking den. Straight ahead is Hart Street, bordered with tidy Tudor buildings. We pass a couple of art galleries on the way up to Market Place, the town square, where local producers sell nibbles and knick-knacks outside the Town Hall. Locals and visitors mill about, tasting home-baked powdery patisseries and rich lamb sausage sourced from a farm down the road. The shadow of the clock tower falls across the stalls and the bell rings out. In some ways, a visit here feels like stepping back in time.

Henley town centre is ideal for weekend strolls with its variety of high street and start-up boutiques. A plethora of cafes vie for business, but we choose Hot Gossip, a tiny independent bolthole eternally busy for crunchy lunchtime baguettes and bagels (not to mention a killer hot chocolate for chilly mornings). Loathe to miss out on the sunshine, we pick up creamy banana milkshakes and head back towards the river. At the water’s edge, lines of coloured wooden row-boats float gently on the surf. We seek out river cruise specialists, Hobbs of Henley, where we opt for a flashy blue power launch that rocks slightly in the wake of a sleek motor yacht. Leaving crowds of picnickers behind us, we settle into a steady rhythm, crossing beneath the bridge and past the rowing school, where a crew of beginners pile haphazardly into a skull. Up ahead, it’s all lilting green pastures and a few wispy clouds clinging to forget-me-not skies. This is a destination for all seasons – equally breathtaking in pastel spring as it is in russet Autumn. Even in winter it is desolately beautiful here, with the faint sunlight peeking through veils of mist and bathing the bare trees in the palest silver.

We reach Temple Island Meadows, home to a number of events that take place throughout the year. To the left, the island lingers quietly amidst the river as the water splits its course. An elegant peach-hued 18th century folly sits serenely at its centre with an ancient weeping willow standing tall beside it, trailing leafy branches onto the cropped lawn. Originally designed as a fishing lodge for the historic Fawley Court, the folly now belongs to the Stewards of Regatta, who restored the building and designated the island a nature reserve. Within the temple, the restored Principal room is thought to be the oldest surviving example of Etruscan style interiors in Great Britain. Atop the temple, a bronze nymph languishes within her pillared cupola cage.

Temple Island in the Winter. (Photo: Oli Anderson)

Temple Island in the Winter. (Photo: Oli Anderson)

It’s almost impossible to imagine that this spot ever entertains anything other than golden buttercups, the silence broken only by the white noise of the river and the occasional piercing call of a rare red kite. But these meadows play host to some of Henley’s most significant summertime draws. The biggest of the many rowing events that take place here of course is the Henley Royal Regatta, which marks this spot as its starting point in July. The Island is leased for private events, while a multitude of food & drink brands open outlets under white marquees out on the fields. Established in 1839, the internationally renowned event is the largest race in the world and attracts rowing elite and socialites from across the country and beyond. But it isn’t just rowing that takes place here, there’s the Henley Swim in June and the Thames Path challenge in September to name a few. For those more partial to culture than sport, the Henley Festival combines art, music and dining, while the 80’s focused Rewind Festival attracts all manner of garish costumes, frizzy wigs and star-shaped sunglasses.

We alight at Hambleden lock, where smart Georgian houses line the banks. A mile or so into the hills we reach Hambleden, a tiny hamlet untouched by time that has seen more than its fair share of filmings, from Sleepy Hollow to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. A collection of chocolate box brick and flint houses clad in pink and yellow climbing roses sit about a post office, village shop and pub, with a 12th century cruciform church as the centrepiece. Blink once and you feel you might wake up in the city again, so surreal it is to find yourself in this epitome of old world Britishness. The church even invites tired ramblers into the garden for tea and victoria sponge cake on Sundays. Moments away, the Chiltern Valley Winery & Brewery produces award-winning English wines from sloping vineyards.

Into the Meadows

We walk upwards through the beech woodland, which shelters thick carpets of blubells in springtime. On the hilltop, sheep graze beside sundrenched fields of barley, blackbirds sing to the sky and the far-reaching views suck away any semblance of a worry. Back down in the valley, a gin-clear stream runs past herds of dozing patchwork cows. A little further away, the even tinier village of Skirmett embraces hungry wanderers with the Frog at Skirmett pub, situated in a pretty 18th century coaching inn.

Bluebell woods in the Chilterns. (Photo: Oli Anderson)

Bluebell woods in the Chilterns. (Photo: Oli Anderson)

We veto a sit down lunch in favour of a visit to Stonor, where the Quince Tree deli and cafe sells an abundance of locally sourced organic veg, English meats and home-baked pastries. It’s just a year old but draws in a slew of business from the surrounding towns with its tasty, homegrown goods. The shop in itself is an inspiration for Mary Berry wannabes, with shelves upon shelves of pantry delicacies and pretty kitchen utensils. I try a sticky lemon drizzle cake and a crumbly scotch egg from the morsels dotting the room on wooden boards. Leaving with a basketful of picnic perfection, we settle down in the next door Stonor Park, watched over by a herd of skittish deer protected by three statuesque stags, who flutter soft grey eyelashes and flick their striped tails. This magnificent estate was built upon the site of a prehistoric stone henge, the remains of which are still visible – odd shaped tablets like a row of tumbling dominoes, clad with mildew and moss. The country house itself is intimidating and beautiful, with its own 12th century chapel. The sprawling estate remains the home of the Stonor family descendants and captured its five minutes of fame in James Bond film The Living Daylights. There’s not much to do but lounge on velvet grass and sip the remains of our jug of home-made Pimms, warmed by the heat of the day. The sun sinks behind the hill and the shadows of trees stretch tall in the afternoon light, so we begin to contemplate dinner.

A number of new eateries have sprung up around town over the past year. One of the oldest buildings in town, the Bull on Bell St, dates back 700 years and was subjected to a dramatic revamp in 2013. With it’s very own microbrewery, the pub is cosy with a modern twist and subtle hints of old school charm – stone slab floors, bookcases and worn leather armchairs interspersed with striped textiles and tall glass candle cases. With a bright conservatory and a wicker-chaired courtyard, the Bull on Bell St comfortably combines indoors and outdoors with a good dose of country style. Just off Market Place, the Henley Brew House is all painted wood and potted plants, with a neutral palette and cream furnishings. Stars twinkle through the skylight overhead and a polished brass brewery takes pride of place.

We skip the town centre and head out to the Crooked Billet on Stoke Row, which serves up gastropub dishes in a rickety old house with a blazing fire and framed photographs all over the walls. The pub was opened back in 1989 by self taught chef Paul Clerehugh, the second pub chef ever to have won the coveted Craft Guild Chefs award (past winners include Raymond Blanc). His extensive menu leaves nothing to be desired, from roast pheasant and pink-carved venison to traditional sticky toffee pudding, washed down with every cider under the sun.

We depart Henley-on-Thames nostalgically, with the flavour of strawberries and cream still flooding our tongues, skin sprinkled with freckles from the welcome appearance of the English sun and one very empty picnic basket. Spend a day, a weekend or a week here, and you might just find yourself staying for good.