My wife and I celebrate our birthdays within two days of each other, the 7th and 9th of July respectively. What with my dad’s on the 12th and Georgia’s on the 30th, it can be an expensive month.
Still, start as you mean to go on and all that. So as Covid-19 restrictions gradually ease up and pub and restaurant doors open up, we head to the Ivy Cafe in Wimbledon Village to celebrate the first of these special occasions. The 50% occupancy rule is tough on the hospitality industry but it’s brilliant for us. We receive excellent service throughout and aren’t troubled by people bellowing at each other at the bar. And the food is brilliant, as you’d expect from The Ivy.
On the following day, Sarah (our other daughter) takes us kayaking up and down a small stretch of the Thames near Hampton Court. The weather is overcast and a tad chilly, the benefit of which being we have the river pretty much to ourselves.
I know you’re bursting to find out: What’s the difference between a kayak and a canoe? In a canoe, you kneel uncomfortably and use a single-bladed paddle, while in a kayak the paddle is double-bladed and you sit down like a proper person. Kayak is also worth a lot more in Scrabble.
My post-lockdown birthday treat is a night at the Compleat Angler Hotel in Marlow, Buckinghamshire, with a long-ish walk in the Chilterns either side of it. We’d heard the area was good for spotting red kites, and blow me if that isn’t the first thing we see when we drive into the car park. It’s huge, more brown than red to my eyes, very graceful in flight and with a distinctive forked tail.
Earlier, we’d taken the first of our National Trust circular walks. It starts off with a fantastic view overlooking Aylesbury Vale before descending (oh dear – that means a steep climb at the end of the walk) to a variety of woods and chalk grasslands, and a brief encounter with the PM’s country home.
The hotel has function rooms with names like Windsor, Sandringham and Balmoral, which tells you a lot about the kind of visitors the place likes to attract. This part of the Chilterns is a very wealthy area – perhaps all parts are – with almost every other car bearing an I’m-rich-but-still-need-to-self-validate personalised number plate.
A lovely nineteenth-century bridge connects the hotel to the rest of Marlow. It seems as if there are two separate bodies responsible for its upkeep.
Our evening got off to a glacially slow start, with the barman not only keeping to a rigid physical distancing policy of at least six metres, but also ensuring the timespan between us ordering drinks and him delivering them would be enough for any lingering bacteria adhering to the glasses to perish through sheer boredom. Still, the time allowed me to open my birthday cards. This one from Georgia had at least 16 Beatles song titles hiding in the congratulatory message within.
But things quickly improved once we moved to the restaurant. Courses arrived after suitable intervals and just when I thought it was all over, it was my turn to be surprised by an unexpected bonus.
Our room had a brilliant view of the Thames but neither of us slept well. Maybe we’d had too much food and drink, and I couldn’t seem to get the heating down low enough. It was baking. Then at about 4am the TV suddenly burst into life. It briefly displayed its brand name – PHILIPS – then the screen filled with white noise. Yes, just like in that Poltergeist movie. I found the remote control and turned it off. About half an hour later there was a loud crack emanating from the bedside table, and I found myself wondering about the history of this 400-year-old building. I’m normally a total sceptic about hauntings and ghosts and whatever, but it would only have needed once more incident for me to rethink my position on that.
We’re in no rush to get home so have plenty of time for the second of our National Trust-recommended walks. It’s a five-mile, 16,000-step circular ramble through absolutely stunning Chilterns countryside. We pass through pretty meadows, woods of towering beech trees, fields of corn and wheat, and chalk grasslands teeming with wildflowers. Isolated buildings include Grand-Designs style converted barns and thankfully-unconverted actual barns. The walk starts and ends in Hambleden Village, a picture-postcard village that’s well-known to TV and movie location scouts. Above, red kites are so abundant that eventually we don’t even bother getting the binoculars out. How long before they’re reclassified as vermin?
Well, that was it for our two birthdays. Next up, my Dad’s. He’s reached an age for which the card manufacturers don’t make age-specific birthday cards, so I’ve had to improvise.