A Little Taste of the London Season, Ascot, Wimbledon, Henley and Glyndebourne:
The London Season has evolved since the 17th Century when the British elite was dominated by landowning aristocracy. Although those aristocratic families generally owned large mansions in the country which they regarded as their main home, they also spent several months of the year in London. And, there are a whole series of cultural and sporting events which now form part of the London Season (although they are not generally in London!). Originally designed to keep people amused while Parliament was still sitting and before grouse shooting started on August 12th, the most popular events took place within easy reach of London. Many of the original events still form part of The Season, although some, like Glyndebourne are relatively recent additions to the social calendar. If you want to know more, the best place to check is on Debretts. Today most people are more likely to be at these events as part of some corporate hospitality – perhaps entertaining important clients, or perhaps on a team building activity. But, of course there ARE still people who take it all very seriously. Tickets can be expensive, especially if you want to eat and drink well. And, in some cases, it’s almost impossible to get access unless you know someone.
Me, I lurk on the outskirts and very occasionally get invited to something that might be part of the Season if I was a real lady who lunches. And sometimes I just manage to go along anyway. This year for example, I went to a preview of the food that would be enjoyed at Royal Ascot. And, I went to Wimbledon, booking my ticket online with Ticket Master and artfully avoiding any kind of queue.
I was lucky enough to be invited to Henley by Rhubarb, who ran one of the corporate hospitality tents. My first ever Henley I was pleasantly surprised. And I learnt a bit about rowing! Now, I did engage a little bit of strategy in choosing my guest for the event.
My friend Simon lives in Henley, but more significantly his girlfriend is a rower of no mean ability. That means she has honorary membership of the Stewards Enclosure, right by the finish line (that’s the bit where women are not admitted if their skirt is above knee length). What I HADN’T realised though was just how easy it is to have a great day out at Henley even if you are not enjoying fabulous free fizz and cakes. And you get to see Simon in the best blazer in the world!
Anyone can go to Henley. It’s probably most sensible to arrive by train and then walk from the station (a few minutes) to the river. And, if you bring your own food and drink, it can be a great day out. You can walk all the way along the banks of the Thames and, if you arrive early enough find a nice spot to pitch your rug. Then just enjoy a picnic. No entry fee, no car park fee and no marked up drinks prices. There’s a kind of half-measure approach too, where you can book a car park space and picnic there. Or, if you don’t want to bring a picnic, there are plenty of places to buy food and drink.
What did I learn about rowing? Well, the reason Henley holds the annual regatta is because of something called the one mile stretch. It’s the only place on the Thames where there’s a one mile stretch of straight water. Perfect for those sprint races!
And I loved the formality of the racing. The boats are lined up, with judges in a following boat. It’s up to the principle judge to start the racing and he waits until the boats are absolutely straight and the rowers are all in the right position! Sometimes it seems to take ages. The actually race takes just a few minutes, with supporters cheering on one or the other team.
So, Henley is highly recommended. You’ll see a lot of VERY fit rowers and if the weather is good have a great day out. My tip, pay the £6.00 or so for the river taxi to take you to the start line. It’s fun, you’ll see some of the big corporate entertaining boats along the way and you can walk back gently! The start line is a little quieter than the finish, but if, like me, it’s your first time at Henley it’s something you need to see.
My second ‘first’ this year was a visit to Glyndebourne. I have to admit to having yearned to go for years. And, my OTHER fellow reviewer has a house in Sussex a few miles away. This year for the first time ever he offered to take me along. As it is Benjamin Brittan’s Centenary anniversary this year, we went to Billy Budd.
There’s a lovely romantic story about Glyndebourne. The opera house is built in the grounds of one of the Stately Homes of England! John Christie, the owner of the Estate used to run small amateur productions in his music room. He met his wife, a professional singer, when she was brought in to reinforce a show…and together they established the first opera house at Glydebourne. It was a small but very professional house with just 300 seats. It quickly became part of the Season and attracted leading stars from around the World.
People still go, not just for the opera, but for the event. It’s an occasion to dress up, to enjoy something very British and very relaxing. Most people wear black tie and most bring a picnic to enjoy in the beautiful grounds. The operas start early so that you can get back to London after the show and are staged with a long interval so that you can sit and sip champagne as the sun goes down. But, despite that there is absolutely no compromise on the quality of productions. Billy Budd, which we saw, has an all male cast. The story is dark and foreboding. The music mesmerising. And, for this production, the set and costumes seemed perfect. Mark Padmore is a singer I’ve only seen performing Bach – but was a convincingly sensitive as Captain Vere, while Jacques Imbrailo’s performance as the adored, naïve Budd was totally credible. Such an impeccable production that I will be cautious about seeing the Opera again because I can’t imagine anything better.
Yes, we had our picnic. And yes, everything went perfectly smoothly. Even the champagne kept its fizz, despite the lack of stopper! I hope I’ll be able to go to Glyndebourne again because for me, this really does rank as a special occasion. Ticket prices are high, but pretty much on a par with those at the Royal Opera House and from my sample of one, the quality of the production is just as good while the event in its entirety takes everything to a new level. Especially if the weather is good!
For more about Glyndebourne and to see the productions on line.
For information about Corporate Hospitality at Henley and elsewhere, check the Rhubarb website