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Thursday 27th December 2012

It seems like a lifetime ago that I last visited the Oxfordshire town of Henley-on-Thames. On one level its the quintessential English market town, complete with town hall, square, and bridge over the River Thames into Berkshire. Its the river that makes Henley what it is, or rather a mile-long stretch of it. For that dead straight mile gives the town its regatta each July, and puts the town in the centre of the social calendar.

Having once lived there I managed to get a ticket one year for the oh-so-desirable Stewards’ enclosure, and found there was so much more to it than just watching a steady succession of boats racing from Temple Island to the Leander Club. There was also the sport of dress buying. The enclosure has a very strict dress code, jacket and tie for the men, and for the women, skirts must be below knee height, and arms must be covered up to an including the elbow. I watched a steady succession of wives hitch their skirts UP so they would get refused entry and so their husbands would take them to a local boutique to buy something “More suitable!”

I got used to the fact that living in the town featuring some of the most expensive houses in the UK, that whilst I could only dream of owning a property the town punches way above its population weight in terms of its facilties. There are no end of patisseries and coffee shops to break up the monotony of shopping at a boutique or the local Waitrose. I see Raymond Blanc has opened an outlet since I was here last.

The reason I have mixed feelings about the place is because my ex-wife and her family are from here, and we rented our first flat in Henley around 15 years ago. Its fair to say in the 2 years we lived here I got to to know the place well. There’s the obvious delights, of which the Thames is one, I remember going to an early morning jog along the towpath and seeing Pinsent and Redgrave returning from a training session at the Leander, and seeing St Mary’s church again reminded me of when Dusty Springfield’s funeral was held there, and because security saw I was wearing a (Bank) suit and dark tie I was shepherded in as a guest.

I remember also nights out with friends at pubs such as the Three Tuns, Row Barge, and my old local The Bell, complete with pictures of topless models on the gents loo ceiling! There’s the Nepalese Tandoori, run by Soraya who never could pronounce Laurence, so called me Mister- (insert my ex-wife’s name). I wonder what he’d call me if I called in now?

The reason I was back was for my family’s annual Christmas meal, and Henley is convenient for all of us. With Mum unable to walk more than a few yards I dropped her off at the restaurant entrance in Hart Street, and parked the car in Greys Road car park. I walked across Falaise Square and stopped at the bank to pay in a cheque. It was only when I looked up at the calendar to check the date, I realised that it was my former father-in-law’s birthday. He’s a decent man, and what happened is no reflection on him. I pondered popping in to say hello, but quickly decided against it, what is done after all, is done.

I walked towards the Thames, swollen to the point of bursting, and remembered the brass plate on a whitewashed town house. It’s the Blandy house, and it was there in 1751 that Mary Blandy poisoned her father Francis with arsenic, on the behest of her beau William Cranstoun who’d convinced her that the arsenic was, in fact a love potion. Given the well-to-do circumstances of the Blandys, Francis was the town solicitor, the case was something of a cause celebre, with feverish press attention. Cranstoun slipped away to France, eventually dying penniless, but poor Mary was not so fortunate. She was arrested, taken to Oxford Castle tried, convicted, and on Easter Monday 1752, publically hanged. Mary’s final request was not to be hanged too high, “For decency’s sake.”  Her leg shackles are on display in the museum at the castle.

All of the above thoughts of course disappeared the second I met my family for our meal. We talked, ate, and I showed my cousin’s son how to fill the water pistol he’d won from his cracker. A lesson I’m not convinced made me universally popular! And that is where I came to a conclusion. Every location has its attractions and detractions, and Henley is no different. Perhaps next time I’ll explore more of my old haunts.