“Where in the world do you return to again and again, and why?”
This is my favourite question to ask guests on The First Mile (the travel podcast that I’m making with my friend, Pip). The podcast is a mix of dispatches from our adventures, and our interviews with great travellers, where this question always elicits a reflective response.
For some people, they return to a favourite resort in Spain, or the village in Cornwall that they used to visit with their parents. Others mention Canada or Kenya, for epic adventures and the grandeur of nature.
When Pip interviewed me, I fudged my response. Yes, I wanted to revisit New Zealand, for its forested valleys and glaciated ridge lines, but I also had a more mundane answer: home.
As well as being pretty, Windsor is where I fell in love with the outdoors. I grew up in social housing, but I could easily access the ancient forests and vast open spaces of the Queen’s Crown Estate. My comprehensive secondary school also had a rowing club, thanks to the proximity of the river Thames.
Every summer, I went to watch my friends race at Henley Royal Regatta. There, they would go oar-to-oar with the wealthiest schools in the country and, usually, beat them: of the 28 editions of the Fawley Challenge Cup, the Windsor Boys’ School has reached the final 11 times and won seven of those – the best record in the competition, by some margin.
For my athletic friends, Henley was a place of sporting victory. For me, it was a cultural experience, with one-and-a-half miles of riverside turned into a carnival of colour: the elegance of the Stewards’ Enclosure, with its horrendous stripy blazers; the hospitality tents of insurance brokers, quaffing pitchers of Pimm’s; and groups of picnicking friends, sitting on the bank with their feet in the water.
Henley marked the beginning of summer, and my friends and I have returned for the Regatta almost every year. The things that happen at Henley signpost the progression of our lives: there was the first time that I got served at a bar; the first time that a girl gave me her phone number; and the first time that we could afford to get taxis home, rather than being picked up by our mums.
Recent years have seen more staid advents, such as the first time that someone attended with a fiancée, or the first time that someone brought their kids with them. Covid-19 meant that this year’s Regatta was cancelled, so, in early August, my now-wife and I decided to escape London’s heat for our own Henley pilgrimage.
We took the train from London Paddington, picked up some bits at the supermarket and cycled along the towpath next to the riverbank. During the Regatta, this path gets so crowded that it can take more than an hour to walk the length of the course, but with no one around, it only took us 10 minutes to cycle it.
We stopped next to a mooring bay, got down to our swimming costumes, and jumped into the Thames. The water was warm, and with a few strokes of front crawl, I was in the middle of the river, as rowing boats and kayaks paddled past. I’ve swum at Henley during the Regatta (in the days before the police issued fines), and it was always a rather chaotic affair. This was more like a day at the beach, floating on my back and warming up in the sun between dips.
We returned to Henley for another dip at the end of September, during that last burst of warm weather. The water was chillier and some leaves had started to turn orange, and I realised, then, that I had only ever seen Henley in summer: the town has been a consistent presence in my life for more than 20 years, but I only knew one of its faces. Seeing those autumn leaves made me curious about the way the town and its environment would change over the year.
And so, I must change the answer to my podcast question.
The place that I will keep returning to is not Windsor, but a town a few miles upstream. We plan to visit Henley every couple of months, to see it change through the seasons, although I can’t guarantee that I’ll go swimming every time.
Hopefully, by next July, the Regatta will be back, and normal service will resume. But I might still return to Henley more than once every year.
Now, we want to hear from you. Where in the world do you return to again and again, and why?