The Chelsea Fringe Henley got underway this weekend with its first events of the 2019 festival: the Fairmile Vineyard’s Grape To Glass tours, and the Peaceful Garden at the Quaker Meeting House. The alternative garden festival, celebrating both nature and community, began its fifth year with these two fantastic features. With both events immersing the visitors in their beautiful natural settings, it was a splendid start to the 9-day-long event.
The fizz was freely flowing at the Fairmile Vineyard this weekend as they opened their gates to the public. The Henley-based English Quality Sparkling Wine makers popped the bubbles for Saturday’s Grape To Glass event, kicking off the 2019 Chelsea Fringe Henley programme. The exclusive tours gave guests the chance to quench their curiosities about the wine-making process, all whilst indulging in generous samples and a stunning view across the vineyard.
The Fairmile Vineyard, a family enterprise run by Jan and Anthea Mirkowski, was founded in 2013 when the duo determined to turn Jan’s wine-making hobby into a business. After acquiring their property on the Fairmile, they embarked on the lengthy process of producing ‘English Quality Sparkling Wine’: planting 100 rows of grapes, which took three years to mature, and turning the harvested grapes into wine using the three-year-long traditional method. With their first bottles only becoming available last August, this was the business’ debut in the Chelsea Fringe Henley line-up. Jan explained, “I was invited last year but we had no wine last year; it wasn’t ready, and it only became available in August. So I thought, it’s a bit crazy inviting people to come and look round a vineyard and then you can’t even give them a sample of wine!”
Fortunately for visitors, there was wine in abundance for this weekend’s event. Three privileged groups, of no more than 20 people, were given a private tour of the vineyard by Jan as he shared insight into the growing and making process. The parties strolled up through the steep rows to the vineyard’s top corner, where there were bottles on ice waiting for their arrival. As they sipped on glasses of the company’s two creations – a soft, mellow Rosé and a flavourful Classic Cuvée – the guests could ask Jan all their burning questions about the wine business, all whilst enjoying a marvellous view across the valley.
Visitors came from near and far for the opportunity to taste the Fairmile Vineyard’s offerings. Local resident Jackie Fortey, who attended with her husband Richard, said, “We enjoyed the wine enormously, particularly the Rosé. We walked here from St Andrews Road, so it was a good way of having a walk and enjoying some good company and good wine.” Richard added, “I was very interested because we’ve often passed the vineyard and wondered what was going on, and now we now. The product is certainly very good.”
The wine continued to pour into Sunday, when the Fairmile Vineyard held an Open Day. With a more casual invitation than Saturday’s exclusive tours, visitors were encouraged to explore the vineyard independently. Reflecting on the weekend, Jan said, “We thoroughly enjoyed welcoming visitors to Fairmile Vineyard during the Chelsea Fringe Henley, many of them local, though with some having travelled from as far afield as London and Edinburgh. Our public open day on Sunday proved equally popular, with several families bringing young children. Open day visitors were free to explore the vineyard by themselves, and many exclaimed afterwards how badly they had underestimated the steepness of the climb, but that the breath-taking views from the top made it worthwhile! Wine sales went well, with some going to repeat visitors from previous open days. We were even pleasantly surprised to see one of our retailers make a lightning collection after his shop unexpectedly sold out the day before!”
Meanwhile, across the road, the Quaker Meeting House community welcomed visitors into their stunning secluded garden for Sunday’s ‘Peaceful Garden’ event. The Peaceful Garden has been a popular part of the Fringe calendar since 2016, allowing guests to take a moment of relaxation in the Friends’ beautiful green space. Gillian Wilson, a member of the Henley Quakers, said on Sunday, “It’s an opportunity for us to share our lovely garden with the public, and we’re very grateful that it’s dry which is always the worry. Last year it was a really hot day but I’m sure we’ll get a lot of people. People are always surprised by how far back it goes; it really goes back a long way and there are some old burials at the end because there’s been a Quaker Meeting House on this site since about 1650. So it’s very old.”
The garden was dressed with picnic blankets and benches for people to sit in stillness, to chat with others, or perhaps to read or paint. One table was laid out with insect-themed crafts for children, organised by Diana Barnett. She said, “We’ve got butterfly streamers from old books – I love recycling you see – and then I was going to see if some of the older children might want to make a psychedelic beetle. And then for really young children there’s paper snails.” Diana was looking forward to welcoming visitors of all ages to the hidden Henley treasure. “Because it’s such a private garden, people don’t know this exists, let alone Quakers,” she added. “The idea is that, actually, there’s quite a few what I would call secret gardens in Henley. They’re all behind these shops and things in the town, and people are curious.”
The Quakers were also serving free tea and homemade cakes, baked by a number of the Friends themselves. The delectable array of sweet treats were truly the icing on top of a glorious afternoon which offered festival-goers a little slice of serenity in their lush and tranquil garden.
If you feel that you have missed out on these two Fringe events, the festivities continue into the coming week, with a full schedule available here. Additionally, if you would like to take a peak behind the scenes of their delicious local wines, the Fairmile Vineyard are always happy to arrange private tours. Contact Jan & Anthea via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 01491 598588, to book. The Henley Quakers meet every Sunday at 10:45am, and welcome people of all ages and religious beliefs to come and sit in peace with them.