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Boating, Boarding School, and a Pig

Sep 18, 2023 | Road Trips, The Grand Adventure | 8 comments

You may have heard of Henley-on-Thames. It’s a 13th-century market town in Oxfordshire famous for its annual regatta. Henley Royal Regatta, founded in 1839, has only been interrupted by WWI, WWII, and COVID. Henley is also where I grew up and went to school until the age of 13.

Actually, I grew up in a village called Wargrave less than 3 miles from Henley, but I bet you’ve never heard of Wargrave. And, in case you’re wondering, the name is derived from the Anglo-Saxon for Weir Grove—a grove near the weir—which is a slightly more cheery origin than the alternative.

Wargrave was the backdrop to my happy childhood in a large, rambling family house with a huge garden. Or at least everything seemed large and huge back then. The house was a mid-Victorian Arts and Crafts design, but its architectural features were lost on us kids. To us, it was just ‘home’, where we watched an old black and white TV under a stained glass roof in the family room and slid across the oak-panelled floor in our socks. I have very distinct memories of sliding down the hand-crafted bannisters, hiding in the ‘secret’ passageway from the kitchen to the hall, and building forts from twigs and leaves in the woodland surrounding the garden. It was pretty idyllic.

Boating 

Being right on the River Thames, Wargrave—and Henley—are all about boats. Always have been, always will be. Here, you punt, you row, you dongle, you paddle or you motor. As long as you’re messing about on the water or watching other people messing about on the water, that’s how it’s done round these parts.

Not to be outshone by Henley, Wargrave has its own annual regatta—The Wargrave and Shiplake Regatta—shared with a village on the other side of the Thames. While it’s not as posh or internationally renowned as Henley Royal Regatta, it’s much more fun.

My lifelong friend, Victoria, has competed in the Wargrave and Shiplake Regatta since she could walk, as did her father and grandfather before her and her children after her. No doubt, her grandchildren will follow in their wake as soon as they can hold an oar.

Hang on. Victoria and I were at nursery school together, and now she has grandchildren. What exactly happened to the intervening years??

She once asked me to join her dongling team, but only out of desperation. She had three sisters and several neighbours who were far more competitive and adept on the water than me. I was a last resort—at best—and a handicap at worst.

This all came back to me when Russell and I stayed with her during the regatta in August 2022. We watched the action from the safety of the river bank on both sides of the course, one of which is her back garden, before enjoying the fireworks on the last night.

That’s Victoria, top left, with two of her strapping sons, and her again, top right, with her rowing partner and daughter as cox, heading out to the start of their race. They lost.

Her house is in the background. That could have been us sitting at the end of her lawn, except that I took the picture.

And if you’ve ever wondered what dongling is, that’s it bottom left. Wet, fiercely competitive and exhausting.

We found ourselves in Henley and Wargrave again in September 2023, the day after our whistle-stop tour of Wales. The two regattas had been and gone but, as ever when in Wargrave, we still managed to mess about on the water. 

First, we stopped in Henley for lunch at the famous Angel on the Bridge, not to be confused with the Little Angel down the road. There are lots of pubs in Henley.

Dad used to take us to the Little Angel every Saturday afternoon on our way home from the weekly supermarket shop back in the sixties. He’d have a pint at the bar and park my brother Magnus and me outside on a bench with a Coca-Cola and a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. I still love salt and vinegar crisps. But I digress.

On this particular afternoon in September 2023, we were enjoying a lovely Indian summer, so Victoria took us for a very gentle putter down the river in her 100-year-old punt with her dog and a bottle of wine. We glided past smart waterfront homes with matching boat sheds, angry swans, other boaters, and old bridges.

Like I said, it’s all about the water in Wargrave and Henley.

The next day we left Wargrave to drive down to Southampton to meet another boat. I’ll come to that in a minute.

Boarding School

On the way—because it was sort of on the way and it was unlikely we would ever be driving that route again—I decided on a whim to visit my old boarding school, Downe House, which is just outside Newbury. Newbury is another centuries-old market town also famous for racing—horses, not boats. 

I spent three years at Downe House from the age of 13. When I got to 15, it was suggested to my parents I would be happier elsewhere. I wasn’t officially expelled. It’s just that they wouldn’t let me back after I had been suspended for two weeks.

I won’t go into the details of why I and a few other classmates were suspended. Suffice to say it had something to do with a bottle of gin, a bottle of cider, several boys, and a spliff. We were also outside the school grounds without permission and not wearing school uniforms, which I think was our most heinous crime.

It will probably come as no surprise to hear that I wasn’t very happy at Downe House, but I have always appreciated the education I received. If nothing else, it taught me a love of English literature and several ‘Mean Girls’ survival skills.

So, with a slightly morbid curiosity, we pulled in through the gates and down the winding driveway almost 50 years after my previous inglorious departure.

It was a Saturday, and plenty of parents were milling about in the car park, waiting to take their daughters home for the weekend.

God, how I remember those precious weekends away from school—only two a term, from midday on Saturday (after our Saturday morning lessons) to 4 pm on Sunday.

But there was something wrong. I couldn’t recognise a thing. Not one of the buildings, not the netball courts, not even the car park. If it wasn’t for the school’s name emblazoned on the girls’ uniforms, I would have sworn we’d come to the wrong place.

I remembered a cold, stucco-covered set of white buildings encircling a tiered lawn that tumbled down to a chapel and a U-shaped corridor of cell-like rooms—The Cloisters. It was like a fortress.

This is a sort of mash-up photo of the main school buildings, looking back at them from The Cloisters. This is more what I remembered (*involuntary shudder*). But I couldn’t see anything like it from the car park.

Turns out—in the last 50 years—they’ve built half a dozen new school facilities where the original car park used to be, like a performing arts centre, indoor swimming pool, a science block, a modern languages hub and even a coffee shop.

The old bit (you can just see it, with the fountain in the lawn, at the top of the aerial shot) has been engulfed by swank new buildings, tennis courts, and happy smiley school girls.  Where was all this when I was 13?

It didn’t take us long to work our way through the flash facade and find the old ‘fortress’.

That’s when my heart started racing, my hands went clammy and I was hurtled back in time to 1970-something.  This is where my brain actually took me that day, and I swear it’s not so far from the truth:

I could hear the sounds of my unhappy school days as I stood in that tiered garden, rooted to the spot. And I didn’t like it.

We left. Quite fast.

It was my second—and last—inglorious departure from Downe House.

And a Pig (and More Boats)

After a medicinal beer in a local pub, we continued on our journey to Southampton.

Southampton has been a major English seaport since the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Mayflower and the Titanic both left Southampton for America, and many of the D-Day vessels departed there for Normandy.

Today, it’s home to far larger, modern ocean cruise liners. And that was the reason for our vist. Not to go on a cruise, but to meet one. 

Our friends Peter and Janet from Melbourne were on a cruise to various European destinations, and they had a 10-hour stopover in Southampton. It was too good an opportunity to miss as we hadn’t seen them since before COVID.

We booked into the White Star Tavern because it was close to the port and central to everything Southampton had to offer. This would have been fine if it hadn’t been bucketing down with near-torrential rain. We hunkered down for the night and never really got to explore Southampton, but I don’t think we missed much. As it turned out, The White Star Tavern was rather good, so we didn’t mind.

The next morning, we set off to pick up Peter and Janet, which turned into something of a military exercise. I won’t bore you with the details, but these huge cruise liner terminals are a one-way maze, a security nightmare and not designed for simpletons like us.

That’s a picture of their boat, the MSC Poesia, being brought into the Port in the pouring rain. Luckily, by the time they were ready to disembark, the weather had cheered up a little.

Turns out, we weren’t picking up Peter and Janet. It was just Peter who finally appeared on the dock.

Janet travels on her Chinese passport and, despite asking all the right questions before they left Australia, they only found out the night before arriving in Southampton that she required a visitor visa to enter British waters. She was told she would have to disembark in Amsterdam, their last port of call, and could only rejoin the ship when it docked again in Portugal.

What a kerfuffle! 

So, we scooped up the Janet-less Peter and headed for the New Forest, about a 30-minute drive from Southampton.

That’s where The Pig comes in.

The Pig is a very upmarket boutique hotel and restaurant. It’s delightful, very English and the perfect antidote to the glittering brashness of a luxury cruise liner.

The founder of JC Penney stores in the States once said, “Courteous treatment will make a customer a walking advertisement.” 

Here’s what he means:

We had a very civilised pre-lunch drink in the bar at The Pig, followed by a delicious meal in the restaurant. It would have been perfect—even the sun made a welcome appearance—except for Peter’s Plaice, which was slightly dry. He ate it without complaining, but mentioned it to the maître d’ as we were leaving, because he was asked if he had enjoyed his food. 

The maître d’ thanked him for his feedback and apologised. We left, thinking nothing more of it.

Within 10 minutes, I received a phone call from the manager, apologising profusely for the parched Plaice and insisting on refunding Peter’s meal. At £30 a pop, this was not to be sniffed at.

Another 10 minutes later, the cost of Peter’s Plaice was back on his credit card, and I received a follow-up email, apologising again for the Plaice “not being up to The Pig’s standards”.

Now, that’s what I call courteous treatment. So, here I am, a walking advertisement for The Pig in the New Forest.

Meanwhile, a day later, Peter and Janet were reunited in Portugal, where they enjoyed lots of oily sardines and no refunds.

As for us, we returned home to Suffolk from our latest road trip, weary but happy after our trains, boats, and boarding school adventure.

8 Comments

  1. You’re right. The summers were magnificent, Magnus

  2. Great memories Mel. As you say, we had a very happy childhood in Wargrave. I remember being in boats, in the swimming pool, out in the garden. Unlike now, in those far off days the sun shone all summer long. Didn’t it?

  3. We left Wargrave in 1976, Sue!

  4. I remember your wonderful home in Wargrave – was it that long ago? I also hated boarding school and was so relieved when I left at 14.

  5. Thanks, Leslie. You’re too nice!

  6. Enjoyed so much, as always a real treat for the reader.

  7. What a coincidence. Thanks for reading, Shelagh

  8. As always, a fascinating journey. Boating looks fun.. I always wanted to go to boarding school (must have read too many books of that ilk extolling the virtues) glad I didn’t. A little snipoetvre,NSC Poesia.. I was guiding a group in Cairns from same ship last year… had a large German an and smaller shouter Spaniard male have a shoving match at the entrance to my coach. I know my tours are good but I have never ever had such “enthusiastic angry” clients before!

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