Isn’t England amazing?, I pondered, unfolding an old-fashioned map on the breakfast table. Only 30 minutes drive between Reading and Goring, but oh, the things we had seen in just a day: the glorious remains of a royal abbey, Basildon Park’s sumptuous interiors, peaceful meadows along the Thames that inspired writers along the years… Sipping my morning cappuccino, I studied the route ahead, looking forward to new adventures. Shall we?
10 am: a walk through history at Stonor House
History lessons, at school, would put me to sleep. Lists of dates, names and events to be learnt by heart sounded more like a fiction than reality. Country mansions, on the other hand, bring past characters back to life for me: I can picture them discussing military strategy in a specific room, dancing in another, preparing dishes for their masters’ dinner in another. Objects, furniture come with anecdotes about their owners, happy memories, dramatic events. The timeline is not a political but a human one.
You would expect most buildings to be part of the National Trust or English Heritage these days but some still are independent. Quite a task to manage this with a small team when you think about it! This one has been the home of the Stonor family for over 850 years…
The house itself has origins in the 13th century, as still witness the chapel and the Century Hall (now a picturesque café). In time, additions were made to the medieval buildings, then given a more formal E-shape and harmonised with the Georgian façade you can see today.
Stepping inside, wandering from one room to another, brings from a wonder to another. Among some of my favourite is the Gothic Revival hall, meant to entertain travelling judges: a grand affair, decorated in the Strawberry Hill style and featuring shields of arms recording 34 Stonor marriages. The Blue Dining Room, with its French wallpaper, proved equally fascinating – you can admire it in one of the pictures below: the iconic monuments of the city of light were arranged as if it built along each other along the Seine. In the Francis Stonor bedroom, you will discover a flamboyant a shell bed, its origin still intriguing experts to this day. Then there’s the library, which runs from the first floor at the front to ground level at the back of the house, the latter being built into the hillside. On its shelves is an impressive – let alone rare – collection of Recusant books.
The Stonor family, you see, are and always were Roman Catholics. The Reformation to the early 1800s proved a challenging time for those wishing to keep their faith: persecution, political pressure, heavy fines (meaning losing most of the lands around the property) for not attending the Church of England. Yet they resisted, even helping Edmund Campion into hiding. The Jesuit priest stayed out of sight in their attic chambers (which can be visited) printing pamphlets promoting Catholicism over Protestantism. Sadly these led the authorities straight to the mansion, causing his arrest, torture and execution… He was canonized in 1970. The chapel, which dates from the 13th century, is still used for mass and weddings.
Fun fact: the latter was built on a circle of prehistoric stones, which gave the family their name De Stonor and even appear on their crest… The remaining ones can be seen at the South East corner of the house.
11 am: dreaming in Stonor’s gardens
Stonor’s beautiful Italianate gardens make you feel like a walk in the Garden of Eden: here the soul finally finds peace… Inspired by a 17th painting of the property, they have bee restored to their former glory: Pleasure Garden with Renaissance ponds and pretty Japanese hideaway on one side, Kitchen Garden with colourful flower beds, rose and honeysuckle arches, apple, quince, pear and plum trees on the other.
It’s beautifully designed, the blooms open like little fireworks here and there, as if painted by an artist. And yet, there is a comforting feeling of being in the countryside, with the view on the parkland stretching around the house. If you’re lucky, you might even glimpse some of the 150 deer living there…
You just want to spend all day there, preferably sitting on one of the romantic benches with your favourite book and a cup of Earl Grey. I tip my hat to the gardener, who single-handedly manages to keep this little haven magical.
Noon: learning about Henley-on-Thames at the River and rowing museum
Time to go back to our beloved river. Our next stop is the most iconic city along the Thames after London: Henley, of course! Its world-famous regatta, established on 26 March 1839, owned its royal title in 1851, when Prince Albert became its patron. No wonder, then, that it is regarded as important an event in the English social season as Wimbledon or Ascott… No jeans nor shorts here: it has its own dress code with sporting boaters, panamas and hats highly encouraged.
While this renowned competition (200 races along 5 days, no less) attracts thousands of visitors every July, the city hosts other rowing highlights throughout the summer: the Henley Women’s Regatta, Boat Races for women’s and lightweight teams between Oxford and Cambridge University, Henley Veteran Regatta, Upper Thames Small Boats Head… to name only a few.
If, like me, you’re curious to learn more, visiting the River and Rowing museum there will prove quite a treat. Not only do the galleries celebrate the river as a natural habitat for wildlife, they also offer an incredible insight on how it is managed and protected. A whole window is dedicated to swan upping, for example, the task of marking and taking care of the royal swans – glorious uniforms, archive pictures and documents included. You will also learn about rowing through time, from its beginnings in ancient Greece to the modern Olympics. The innovation in the shape, weight of the boats in the last 200 years is, you will see, mind-wowing.
There is more to this museum than rowing, though. Art enthusiasts will delight in the John Piper permanent display, featuring work ranging from stained glass and ceramics to paintings, drawings and textile. This part alone is worth a detour for. His choice of colours, his way of bringing architecture to life means you will totally lose track of time.
Coming with children? Worry not. There is a Wind in the Willows adventure to be enjoyed, with 3-D models retracing the adventures of Mr Toad, Ratty and their friends. Some scenes are life-size, some on a more miniature level, each is exquisitely detailed. It feels like having jumped right into the books…
Noon: lunch at the museum’s Café
You get it – the River and Rowing museum really ticks all the boxes… It’s also an independent museum operating as an independent charity, which means they receive no core funding and have to raise their own revenue through admissions, grants and donations. Talking to the staff, you can feel the passion for sharing knowledge, their delight in seeing visitors come back or in seeing a child’s face light up. That, my friend, is worth every penny you will spend there.
So go on, indulge. Find a little souvenir or a book in the gift shop. Have lunch in the café, which serves healthy, comforting dishes, delectable cakes and even has wine on the menu. What a lovely way to relax AND give something back!
More information: River and Rowing Museum
2 pm: cruising the river
Tempted? The museum is ideally located along the Thames, just a couple minutes walk from Hobbs of Henley and guess what: they have the largest fleet of boats around. Choose from rowing boats (the closest you will get to experiencing the regatta!), self drive ones (small or big), cruises (normal or gin/afternoon tea/jazz/wildlife themed) or ask for a chauffeured service… then prepare to fall in love with the dream houses along the banks, on the little islands… I do envy the people glimpsed commuting back and forth on paddle boards!).
Passing the city’s bridge, you will find yourself along the regatta’s course. Depending on when you visit, you might even see the signs and markers all set up for the race: 1 mile 550 yards exactly from its starting point at Temple Island to the bridge marking the finish line… There always are crews practising gracefully back and forth too. It’s amazing how quickly you find yourself in the countryside, how green, vibrant, poetic the scenes are. In no time, you will want to trade your home for a little boat and anchor it there.
More information: Hobbs of Henley
4 pm: a stroll in Henley
The Thames side is so relaxing you might just want to spend the rest of the afternoon on a lawn, 99 flake in hand, watching the world (well, the boats) go by. The historical centre is well worth a wander though, with its festive rows of bunting, flowers everywhere (the city’s a regular winner of Britain in Bloom, after all) and picturesque Victorian houses.
I got fully distracted, I will admit, by the fantastic antique shops there >> my favourite is Way’s bookshops, which has everything from vintage maps, pamphlets to Penguin books. Some of you might prefer the Midsomer Murders Location Tours or, on a thirsty day, the the Ale trail, stopping in 10 different pubs. Cheers!
More information: Visit Henley
7 pm: Dinner at Shaun Dickens
A career working along Raymond Blanc, Thomas Keller and Alan Murchison. A restaurant proud of an AA 3 Rosette award. A stylish mid-week menu at £35 for 3 courses and a glass of wine. Fresh, local British produce cooked in the most elegant way and a ravishing riverside location. I’m a firm believer that any trip should finish on a high note, preferably a gourmet one and Shaun Dickens’ solo venture, as you can guess, was top of my list.
The homemade bread served with smoked paprika butter was the first clue of the chef’s creativity. Take the starter: tender butternut squash balls, entwined with swede spaghetti… That fragrant emulsion, almost frothy, was heightened by a touch of tarragon mayonnaise. The main was a masterpiece, both visually and culinary: Asian salad with pickled mushrooms, carrots and onions, pressed chicken with a super crispy skin, grilled cornish octopus, almost theatrical. On this, a clear broth is elegantly poured, its lemongrass sharpening your senses at once. Dessert was a wonderful reinvention of strawberry cheesecake. Dollops of elderflower jelly, candied sunflower seeds, tiny blooms made it extra special: the kind of delight you want the smallest spoon with, just to make it last longer…
Shaun Dickens’ creative vision reminds you that every day, every moment is worth celebrating…
More information: Shaun Dickens
Enchanted by this 2 day trip?
The map belows shows every location mentioned along this journey.
For more information about the region, do visit the River Thames website.