G & Tea: Lisa Richards heads to the Hotel du Vin in Henley-on-Thames to mess about on the river. But as rain stops play, she heads indoors to the comfort of the hotel’s bistro for an indulgent afternoon of tea drinking, Champagne tasting and gin cocktail shaking.
Ah, what better than a boat trip on the river on a warm summer’s day in England, followed by an afternoon tea, a spot of Champagne and a gin masterclass from the lovely gents at Miller’s Gin in the company of travel and food enthusiasts? Sounds like the perfect day out. A quick look at the BBC weather forecast foretold five days of blue skies stretching before us, with just the odd cloud to blight the warm rays. The Henley-on-Thames outpost of Hotel du Vin was to be our luxurious base, and while we supped Earl Grey and Champagne aboard the river boat, the Miller gin boys were to set up a cocktail shaking masterclass on the terrace of a river-view suite, which would promote the hotel’s rather clever ‘G & Tea’ offering: a traditional tea with a twist, that twist being an expertly poured gin and tonic served in a china cup.
As we boarded the First Great Western first-class carriage from Paddington, the clouds thickened and a call came through from one of du Vin’s staff, stricken as their cellar had flooded. Another call, this time from the boat’s captain, meant that before we’d even arrived, our floating afternoon tea had been abandoned. Taxis whisked us through the pretty town of Henley, its streets looking like fast-flowing rivers, and were taken straight to the du Vin, where we were rushed inside and immediately offered Champagne. Our hair and make-up may have taken a battering, but despite the torrential downpour, the welcome warmed us and we forgot very quickly about our cancelled trip.
After the bubbles, and a quick masterclass in Champagne from the hotel’s friendly sommelier (du Vin prides itself on an excellent wine offering, without pretension or snobbery) we were taken through to the lovely bistro – another trademark of the du Vin hotels. The large table was adorned with the perfect English afternoon tea set-up: cake stands laden with dainty finger sandwiches, homemade slabs of banana bread, fluffy scones, generous dollops of clotted cream, chocolate eclairs popping with cream and fruit-topped tarts. Once one stand had been ravaged, another arrived, along with pots of beautifully-blended teas. However, despite our lovely waiter discussing the tea’s origins, our eyes were guiltily on the gin being prepared to one side.
The gents from Martin Miller’s gin had driven through the driving rain from London, expecting to showcase this intriguing drinks brand on the roof terrace of one of the hotel’s beautiful river-view suites. These duplex apartments boast a large, light-drenched bedroom (even on a grey, miserable day) and a seating area downstairs with funky new Nespresso coffee machine. Upstairs is an enormous bathroom, complete with a shower big enough for four (six at a push), roll-top bath, sofa, TV and a bathtub with heater out on the terrace, with views of the town’s red rooftops. It was from this beautiful vantage point that we were meant to be shaking our cocktail makers, but with the rain still falling, we were staying firmly rooted in the bistro.
History lessons about alcohol seem to capture the attention somehow, especially when told by handsome, charming experts: Mike gave us the preamble and Alex was the shaker-maker. We even thrust our arms into the air when we knew the answer to a question, such was our enthusiasm in our class. The first taster to arrive was a beautifully mixed G&T, with a squeeze of grapefruit zest. Just to get us started. Then came the cocktails. Blurry eyed, we were pretty sure the sun – had it been out – wasn’t past the yard arm as the classic gin martini arrived for our tasting. More sandwiches arrived, to help us soak up the delicious, almost-sweet, delicately flavoured gin infused with botanicals.
By the time we were running through the torrent to get our five o’clock train home, we were all decidedly wobbly on our feet. One taxi had arrived before the other, so we had to hold the train doors open as the rest of our party ran through the puddles towards the train that was meant to have departed two minutes before. With the door’s alarms sounding, we dashed into first-class with our bounty: a generously donated bottle of Miller’s Gin and some Fever Tree tonic. Paper cups were extracted from someone’s bag – lord knows where they’d come from – and we bounced, ever so slightly, through the grey back into London. One of the best summer day’s out I’ve had in a very long time.
Afternoon tea is served at all of the Hotel du Vin hotels, from 2pm until 5pm. Check with each individual hotel for the days on which it is served. Prices start from £11 per person for a Traditional Afternoon Tea, £18 with a glass of Champagne, or £16 for the “G & Tea.”
Lisa travelled courtesy of First Great Western: www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk