Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, England: I know, I know, it smacks of upper class, the Regatta and so forth, but let’s scratch the surface a bit. It is a story of people, the type of story that makes the travel worthwhile. So here it is: bums, a brewery and a Beatle.
I lived there, where my father was a minister, in a manse once occupied by the Rev. Humphrey Gainsborough (brother of the more famous painter) who had reputedly invented a steam engine with a separate condenser. His model was stolen from the Manse shortly before James Watt patented the idea. But let’s start with the bums.
“Chalky” White was his name. Well known, and begrudgingly loved by the local magistrates, he lived off his wits, knocking on people’s doors declaring himself a “tree surgeon”, offering advice on “trees in need of urgent attention” and may be responsible for some trees you see there today. He’d break a shop window every autumn, or commit some such crime in order to spend a six month sentence inside in the warm, which the magistrates kindly granted every time. Look out for his work next time you’re there.
Now to Colin, employed by Brakspear’s brewery out of kindness. Colin was, in today’s terminology, a Special Needs case. He was not one of those regulars in the pubs who were given special badges to be charged regular prices during the Regatta when beer went up in price and Pimms was served. He was just good old foul-mouthed Colin with his obsession for dog racing, who once greeted an important visitor to Brakspear’s with the words “Warm, innit?” After the guest answered in the affirmative, Colin’s knowing response, accompanied by a nudge and a wink, was “Dogs don’t like it when it’s warm”. I don’t know how the important visitor reacted. Brakspear’s was sold to a large national brewery after over two hundred and fifty years as a family run business and has now been converted to a Hotel du Vin, where I once stayed for one (very expensive) night. The ghosts of the envied draymen, given tips, meals or beer at the pubs they delivered to, Colin himself, or the many brewery workers who were free to help themselves to the barrel kept in the yard (but sacked if they got drunk) may still be around. It was fun to work down in the cellar, which is now the carpark for the boutique hotel. You get valet parking, partly, I think, to help avoid the ancient metal pillars down there. There were rails, like miniature train tracks with no sleepers embedded into the floor which fitted the rims around the middle of the barrels perfectly so controlled the direction of rolling. Barrels and kegs were too big and heavy to kick around, but firkins and pins were perfect. You could play barrel-ball kicking/rolling them around the cellar. Colin used to call himself “Banger” and you could often hear him shouting out encouragement to himself as he worked: “Go on Banger. Need yer leggins. Warm innit?” Brakspear’s were a family firm and looked after their employees well. When their general manager was busted for possession of cannabis and served a six month stretch they promoted him when he came out. And kept Colin on come what may. Colin was famous for his exploits when “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” was being filmed off in the beautiful nearby Hambledon valley and the director had hired local people to hold down the hot air balloon. The wind got up and he decided enough was enough. “Just let it go!” he proclaimed. Off went the balloon… with Colin, who had tied the rope around his ankle…
Brakspear’s may have been taken over, but the name still lives on and one of their pubs in town, the Three Tuns, was where George Harrison used to drink with his brother. It is a tiny place and up until John Lennon was shot you may still have run into him there of an evening.
I was living at the Manse but when my father undertook an exchange to America was when the Beatle experience happened. The church tower was crumbling and there was an effort to raise restoration funds. As the exchange clergyman told it, a scruffy man knocked on the door one day. “How much do you need for the tower?” he asked. He was sent to the church treasurer’s house where he was told by the irate Christian to remove his Rolls Royce from in front of the driveway because he was off to work. So George spoke to his wife, after moving his car, and wrote out a cheque on the spot for the entire sum, on the condition that no-one should know about it. When you see the spire on the URC church in Henley, thank George for that. I somehow inherited the scruffy old chair he sat in when at my house (which was known as George Harrison’s chair) and carted this heirloom round with me for years afterwards, until it got lost somewhere along the way.
So look out for ungainly trees, drink at the Three Tuns, admire the church spire and stay in the former brewery. But if you do, think of the stories behind them.