There are some things that the Brits are just better at than anybody else. Off the top of my head there’s…
- queuing – the art of standing in an orderly line and wait amicable and patiently for your turn
- pomp and ceremony – think State occasions, weddings, funerals and military parades
- humour – the Monty Python crew or Basil Fawlty could not have come from anywhere other than Britain
- The Season – a British social curiosity comprising an annual period when it is customary for members of a social elite to hold debutante balls, as well as dinner parties, charity, cutural and sporting events on a grand scale.
Now I’ve never been in the right social set for debutante or charity balls, but I certainly have been to a few of the Season’s sporting and cultural events, most notably Ascot, the Chelsea Flower Show and the Henley Royal Regatta. The Henley Royal Regatta remains my favourite – and when the boats have been taken away on their trailers and the boys in lycra have all gone, the site transforms itself for a different but no less enjoyable event: the Henley Festival. Started in 1983, the festival runs the week after the regatta and uses the same facilities, with the addition of a floating stage. It runs over 5 nights and features art, music, dance, comedy, street theatre, sculpture and a lot of fireworks, all to be enjoyed in cocktail frocks and black tie attire while sipping Champagne on the banks of the Thames. Just my kind of event! For the past couple of years, the Festival has been sponsored by BMW, who kindly invited me to last year’s festival. Knowing how much fun I had last year, I had no hesitation in accepting when they invited me again this year.
After a chauffeur-driven trip (in a BMW, of course) from London, we made our way to the BMW floating bar for Champagne and canapés, meet our fellow-guests, and mingle with the elegant party goers.
But if you want to get a real feel for the festival, you can’t hang out in the bar all evening – you have to get out there on the river bank and mingle because that’s where all the action is! Of course there are numerous bars filled with smartly dressed folk drinking Pimms or Champagne, but there is also a whole market area filled with art and sculpture for sale; a number of smaller venues offering music and comedy acts; random curiosities like stilt walkers and the mirror man; and a small flotilla of pleasure boats covered in bunting cruising up and down the river in endless succession. It’s a feast for the eyes!
As we made our way along the river, we also came across the new vehicle that BMW has just launched – the BMW i8. The car is revolutionary because it is BMW’s first hybrid electric sports car that combines high performance with low fuel consumption. The car has both a conventional engine as well as massive rechargeable battery packs and can be driven in one of three modes: the default hybrid setting which calculates the most fuel-efficient balance between petrol and electric power; the sport mode which combines the two power sources to produce the best performance; and fully electric which should last for around 20 miles and is obviously very very quiet. Because of its low CO2 emissions of just 49g/km in EU tests, road tax for the i8 is free – which is good because you will probably need to save every penny you can to afford the price tag of around £100,000. There’s also a massive waiting list well into 2016. But you tend to forget all these little inconveniences when you get up close and personal with this attractive car. It’s low-slung an powerful-looking with some seriously funky dihedral gullwing doors (meaning they don’t just open outwards but rather outwards and upwards) and beautiful seats that enclose and support the driver as if he’s Lewis Hamilton on the grid of the next F1 race. There’s not much boot space, nor space for anything other then two small children in the tine back seats, but if you are a sports car fanatic who also treasures their green credentials, this is most certainly the car for you.
Our immediate destination lay not far beyond the car: Roux at the Riverside, a pop-up resturant from the venerable Michel Roux Jr. housed in a large marquee tent on the riverbank for the duration of the festival. If a restaurant in a marquee makes you think of rickety plastic tables and muddy floors, banish all those thoughts at once: this is marquee dining the Henley way, with proper solid floors, white starched tablecloths, champagne, and impeccable service.
The menu gastronomique was equally impressive and tempted us with four starters, mains and desserts. After much debate, I chose the smoked bone marrow and chicken liver crème brulée, rosemary jelly, apple chutney and a crudités garden. Definitely full marks for presentation on this one – it does look like an adorable little garden. The liver and bone marrow was incredibly righ and decadent – but I am not sure about the crème brulée decription – no crème and definitley not bruléed as far as I could tell. But terminology aside, an indulgent and delicious start to the meal. My neighbours had the English asparagus with aubergine purée, organic smoked salmon, marinated feta cheese, vincotto dressing and crispy beetroot; and the Pimms-marinated flamed mackerel, lemon purée, pickled cucumber granitée, ginger ale jelly and micro rocket salad.
For mains, I chose the supreme of guinea fowl, ragout of wild mushroom and potato gnocchi, semi dry tomato and tarragon jus. This was delightful – not too heavy but a deeply satisfying and rustic dish, ratherlike a lighter take on cassoulet. Nick could not resist the lure of beef, so he went for the fillet of Felbred Cumbrian beef, caramelized onion and rosemary polenta, bone marrow butter, French beans and sauce château. The beef was meltingly tender and the bone marrow butter was a little blob of heaven – I had to restrain myself!
For dessert, I had the chocolate terrine with caramel toffee cream, yoghurt gel and espresso mousse. Chocolate, caramel and espresso in one dish – can’t really go wrong, can you? This was wonderful – thick, dense and chocolatey, with the burnt sugar notes of the cream and the espresso mousse mamking sure it never got too clyingly sweet. Nick went for a more summery choice: the English strawberry and pistachio gratin with white chocolate ice cream. This was lovely in an entirely different way, with the textural contrast of the caramel providing a lovely crunch. And as we were finishing up, Michel Roux himself appeared, working the tables and stopping to chat to patrons as he went – such a humble and approachable guy!
Sadly there was no time to linger – as soon as we had finished dinner it was time to head to the outdoor grandstands to take our seats for the evening’s main entertainment: a concert on the floating stage performed by The Jacksons. Yes, those Jacksons: the four surviving members of the Jackson Five: Jackie, Tito, Jermaine and Marlon. They were put on a good show, running through some of the old Jackson Five material as well as some newer stuff while the crowd partied along, oblivious to the off passing rain shower. This is an English summer festival, after all – some rain is mandatory!
All to soon, the final encore had been sung and the concert was over – but the evening wasn’t over yet! After the concert, we all made our way back to the lawns along the river bank for a performance by the Lords Of Lightning. We had no idea what to expect as the crowd stood around waiting in the dark, listening to electronic dance music and looking at two empty plinths. What happened next was surprising and a really great spectacle. The Lords Of Lightning appeared as two chaps dressed in full-body chainmail suits and metal lances who climbed onto the plinths and proceeded to fight like two wizards: by hurling bolts of lighting at each other, to the throbbing dance beat. It’s pretty spectacular stuff! I learnt later that the secrt lies in the plinths: they are in fact giant Tesla Coils. These create massive electrical currents and because of the opposing charges of the two towers, the surrounding ionised air molecules allowing the electrical current to flow through the air between the two men standing on the towers. The reason they do not suffer injuries similar to lightning strike victims is their conductive metal suits which allows the current to flow around rather than through their bodies. And once their epic battle finished, there was a spectacular fireworks display to end the evening. While others slipped off to the late-night venues for a spot of clubbing, Nick and I made our way back to the BMW floating pavilion for a nightcap and to be entertained by three lovely ladies singing jazzy swing tunes before our BMW chariot arrived to whisk us back home.
VISITOR INFO: The Henley Festival takes place every year during the second week of July, immediately following the Henley Regatta. In 2015 the festival will take place from 8-12 July and the programme will be announced on the website when finalised.
The festival is actually a not-for-profit organisation that supports and promotes projects that inspire and transform the lives of young people, groups at risk and those with special needs. From 2014 the Hen;ley festival is working in partnership with the leading British charity, The Prince’s Foundation for Children and the Arts which reaches out to children from areas of social and economic disadvantage and introduces them to inspirational, life-changing arts experiences. The initiative also empowers teachers to bring the arts into classrooms with confidence, by creating high quality resource materials and offering intensive arts-based training and development.
DISCLOSURE: Huge thanks to BMW as whose guests Nick and I attended the 2014 festival. I received no remuneration to write this post and all opinions expressed are my own. I retained full editorial control.