When I was a little girl my father had the habit of acquiring exotic cars with alarming frequency. I was the only girl at my school who, at age 7, got fetched by my father after school in a 1920 Phantom II Rolls Royce. In fact, for a period during the early 1980s, I never knew what car to look for when my dad fetched me from school on his afternoon off – it might be a Jaguar; or maybe an Aston Martin; or maybe a Cadillac. And I fear that he was laying the foundations for a lifelong addiction to classic cars – not buying them so much, but a deep appreciation for that feeling when you sink into butter-soft leather seats, run your fingers over the wood paneling on the dashboard, and hear the sexy purr of a Very Impressive Engine under the dashboard. This meant that when my 18th birthday appeared on the horizon, I started expressing an opinion on what sort of car I wanted. The list was short but very precise: A Fiat X-19 in silver, or a BMW 3-series in a metallic aquamarine colour the name of which I can on longer recall (was it petrel/petrol blue??). As it turned out, my dad rolled his eyes at my suggestions and bought me a sensible Ford Escort instead. But despite that, I never did outgrown the taste for a beautiful car pulling up outside my front door to whisk me away. And astonishingly, this is pretty much what happened last month when on one of the hottest Sundays of the year, I got frocked up, slipped on my heels and trotted out to my waiting chariot as it pulled up outside my front door. The chariot in question was a sleek and shiny black BMW 318d Gran Turismo saloon and the invitation was to drive this lovely vehicle from my home clear across London to the Henley Festival, sponsored this year by BMW.
The new BMW 318 GT is the latest addition to the 3-series, following on the sporty coupé and the family orientated touring models. It combines the best of both worlds in that it has a spacious interior as well as the sporty good looks and long curvy bonnet of its sportier cousin. While I was completing the paperwork to be allowed behind the wheel, Nick also inspected the boot (all-important for die-hard IKEA fans like us…) – and I am pleased to report that it’s reassuringly large at 520 litres. This can also be increased to a massive 1600 litres by folding down the rear seats. The wide boot aperture and high-opening electric tailgate also make loading large items (hello, Billy bookcases) easier. My lovely, amusing, patient driver had asked whether I wanted to drive and I leapt at the chance, provided I did not have to navigate central London weekend traffic in a car I did not own! So we stepped into the sleek black leather interior, selected a route that followed the M25 and set off. The driver’s seat can be adjusted in dozens of ways to ensure a super-comfortable driving position, and once you are on the road, you find that the car purrs through its 6 manual gears like a contented tiger kitten. I had worried that the car would feel big and bulky but it was surprisingly easy to handle. I am not much of a speed freak, but I often found myself having to consciously slow down to stay within the speed limit – it’s really easy to want to give the car free reign and cruise down the highway! I left home loyal to my Volvo but I arrived in Henley feeling a little bit like a cheating girlfriend with the hots for the BMW. I loved the shape, I loved the comfortable interior and I really enjoyed the drive – definitely a car I would consider buying.
Photo courtesy and © of Chris Cummins for Don’t Panic
Upon arrival at Henley, by car joined its stablemates in the parking area and I joined a number of other bloggers at the BMW floating bar. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the Henley Festival runs back to back with the famous Henley Royal Regatta and uses the same area and slightly adapted hospitality facilities aong the banks of the River Thames at Henley-on-Thames in Berkshire. Whereas the regatta is a celebration of all things rowing, the festival is centred around music and entertainment. The main stage is set on a floating barge in front of the grandstands set up for the regatta and the tents set up during the regatta do double duty as venues for other entertainment events as well as restaurants and corporate hospitality venues. Our first stop, however, was the BMW floating Water Pavilion for a spot of champagne, canapés and people watching.
Much like the rowing regatta, the festival provides people watching opportunities par excellence. The dress code is formal so the place is heaving with sharp suits, sparkly cocktail frocks and fascinators. If you have a gorgeous car, bring the Bentley and the butler and park up in the field behind the tents where everybody is having the smartest car boot picnics you have ever seen, complete with gazebos, tables, cloths, crystal and chilled Champagne in ice buckets. Everybody who can lay their hands on a boat apparently does so, covers the boat in bunting, and then cruises up and down the river in an endless loop, sipping Pimms and waving beatifically at passers-by. For the landlubbers, there is a wealth of entertainment – and I don’t just mean watching fellow-attendees. The little market that sells rowing gear and hats during the Regatta converts to a small art market where you can pick up something special (Union Jack blazers optional!) – including miniature BMW toys for the kids, painted in the style of well-known artists (I particularly liked the Roy Lichtenstein one!). Alternatively, you could have your photo taken in the funky black cab photo booth; listen to the cycling piano man; watch the stilt walkers; pose with a giant red glitter wellie; or (my personal favourite) catch a ride on the miniest minibus you ever did see which spent the evening wildly careering along the riverbank full of squealing, happy passengers.
Photo courtesy and © Chris Cummins for Don’t Panic
Soon it was time to leave our perch at the Water Pavilion to stroll down to dinner along the riverbank. Sadly, dinner was scheduled for precisely the time when Africa Entsha, a fantastic South African acapella group, were playing their set, but at least we were serenaded by the sounds of Africa as we walked to dinner. Dinner was in Café du Soir, located in a marquee a stone’s throw from the river, at at a table with Helen, Pippa, Luschka, Chris and a couple of fashion bloggers whose blog names I unfortunately did not catch. We started with an assiette de poissons consisting of cold smoked salmon, dill prawns and kiln roasted salmon served with lemon, cracked black pepper and sweet mustard sauce. This was by far my favourite dish, particularly the kiln roasted salmon! This was followed by perfectly pink sirloin of British Beef served with a spring vegetables, Bearnaise sauce, baby summer vegetables and Jenga-style thick cut chips. And for dessert there was Tarte au citron – a classic lemon tart with fresh strawberries.
After coffee and some rather moreish chocolates, we set off for the grandstands for the evening’s main performance on the floating stage: Paloma Faith. I have to confess – other than knowing what Paloma looks like from numerous newspaper photographs, I had no idea at all what she sings or what her voice sounds like – and I was about to be very pleasantly surprised. Her musical style is best described as a kind of neo-soul jazz fusion; her stage presence a coquettishly knowing cross between Marilyn Monroe and Lily Allen; but her voice is the kicker – powerful in a way that belies her slightly breathy speaking voice, and seriously pleasing to listen to. Sitting in the grandstand watching the boats glide by on the river lit by the last rays of the sun, sipping wine and listening to Ms Faith, I could think of few places I’d rather be.
And after the show, we were free to wander around taking in some of the other entertainment which included stand up comics and a finale called Pandemonium by the volunteer drummers of the London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony. But seeing as I had a long way to go to get home, I settled for a quick nightcap back at the BMW Floating Pavilion while taking in the glorious twinkly night time river views. Soon I was safely ensconced in the back seat of my BMW chariot as my driver ferried me home across London. I could get used to this.
A huge thank you to BMW for arranging a truly special outing and for allowing me to drive one of your beautiful cars. And after all the fun of this year, next year I am definitely planning to visit the Henley Festival again – I’ll be the one waving beatifically to you from a boat, Pimms in hand.
DISCLOSURE: I attended the Henley Festival as a guest of BMW and was given access to a BMW vehicle for my journey to the festival and back home. No other remuneration was received for this post and all opinions are my own.