Black tie, Bimmers and Paloma Faith at the Henley Festival
If you're used to festivals being all about warm beer, muddy ground, Hunter wellies, cut-off denims and flower headbands, then the Henley Festival will be as much of a surprise to you as it was to me. The riverside extravaganza puts a formal spin on the classic festival set-up, with a black tie dress code, glamorous entertainment and champagne instead of Carling.
It's a festival, but not as we know it. The strict dress code means perfect people-watching opportunities (the closest comparison is probably Glyndebourne's open-air opera) and an array of art installations, exhibitions and street artists (more on that in a minute) make it a must if you love all things creative. Oh, and did I mention the champagne?
My trip to the festival kicked off in style with a chauffeur-driven ride in the new BMW 3 Series Gran Turismo from London to Henley-on-Thames. As sponsors of the event, BMW definitely pulled out all the stops as hosts; as well as providing the cars (which I could have driven myself if I was feeling a bit braver - I preferred taking advantage of the ample legroom in the back seat!) they put on drinks in an exclusive two-floor pavillion on the river, and dinner at one of the on-site restaurants. The festival ground runs along the banks of the Thames, with incredible views across to the rowing club and the various million-pound properties dotted along the banks. It was the perfect place to watch the world go by - and at Henley, 'the world' includes these guys, what the festival calls its 'roving eccentrica'...
There are also lots of bars and plenty of places to quaff champers and schmooze with other attendees, but the main event of the night is the headline act, performing on a 'floating stage' right on the river. This year's festival included a James Bond themed night, plus headline performances from The Beach Boys, Madness and Jamie Cullum. For the final night when I attended, the big-ticket act was Paloma Faith.
Dressed in a white lace pencil dress with a huge spiky hat perched on her trademark victory rolled hair, the singer charmed the audience with her banter (no doubt perfected during those years of burlesque, cabaret and posing with epilators) and belted out her biggest hits, plus an amazing Etta James cover. Unsurprisingly, Paloma really got into the spirit of the evening - her set was an Art Deco masterpiece, her roadies were dressed like butlers, and she made plenty of jokes about falling in love with rich men.
Watching the show with the river in the background was a unique experience - boats sail past in a procession throughout the event, so if you cast your eyes either side of the stage, you get a pretty impressive view. My picture doesn't give you the full panorama, but you'll get an idea!
Oh, and don't think because of the dress code and posh postcode that these people don't know how to have fun. By the end of the night, there were some serious sights to behold...
Thanks so much for BMW for hosting me at the festival - and for the super-stylish ride home!