Where shall we go for a picnic? I asked Maddie and Felix, on one of the first free days of this balmy, unbelievable, pinch-yourself English Summer.
Henley, They said. Lets go to Henley.
This in itself was extraordinary: they usually have a lot of stringent debate, nay conflict, on issues like this; but today, apart from Maddie mooting Hampton Court wistfully at one point, the way was clear to speed across Berkshire to the very borders of Oxfordshire where Henley teeters on the River Thames.
It is ancient, but pampered, this place bought by King Henry II for the making of buildings. It has beautifully preserved wattle and daub, Jacobean, Georgian and Victorian masterpieces peppering its gorgeous little streets, and pubs in which one could while away many pints given the right circumstances. The Old Bell is said to date from 1325, being the oldest building in the town. The Leander Club – the world’s oldest rowing club- sits on the riverbanks in pride of place; St Mary’s Church perches next the five-arch bridge with its sixteenth century tower and ancient chantry.
The weather is positively mediterranean.One must wear a hat and sunscreen, and umbrellas seem like an unpleasant distant dream from a misty dull grey land far away. The light plays on the willows at Henley-On-Thames, on the great riverside mansions where the privileged live, and we parked by the River and Rowing Museum and walked the riverside parkland to the weir.
Dogs panted, and yearned for the water so near, yet so far away. People braved the Thames and swam, somewhere on an island in the middle of the waterway. We sweltered, but there was always a bench to sit on in the shade of the willows which are everywhere, just as they were for Toad and Ratty and Mole. The sunlight has brought us back to that elysium, and we are in Arcadia, a fleeting heaven where every day is dependably light and bright and warm and quite, quite glorious.
We sat and sipped ice-cold cokes and gazed at it all; the boathouses, the mansions, the riverboats and barges, the rowers.
All utterly, utterly English. And just -for this short, precious time – heavenly.