diamond geezer

 Tuesday, August 17, 2010

You may never have been to Bray, but you've probably wanted to go. That's Bray, the riverside village to the south of Maidenhead, the place where lots of famous rich people live. It has a lovely old church, but that's not the big draw. It has quaint narrow lanes bedecked with hanging baskets, but that's not the reason either. And it has more than its fair share of excellent restaurants. Ah yes, that would be it.

Bray High StreetThere's something very exclusive about Bray. It's not immediately obvious what, because the village hides its wealth well. But look around carefully and the penny should eventually drop. You can't buy a newspaper or a Mars Bar in the village, but you can buy a box of champagne truffles. That young woman in full black evening dress wandering across the High Street on a Sunday lunchtime, where is she going? And why, precisely, is the Thames nowhere to be seen? Let's start with the last of those.

The parish of Bray stretches for almost three miles along the river, which is the key to its success. A lengthy string of riverfront estate, divided up into generously-sized portions, with a desirable detached residence erected upon each. Conifered lawns rolling down to the water, plenty of space for a pier to moor your motor-cruiser, and a huge fence up front to keep prying eyes out. Only one public thoroughfare makes it as far as the river's edge, that's Ferry Lane, and even here the quayside provides a limited view in one direction only. Rolf Harris lives along the banks somewhere, apparently, along with Michaels Winner and Parkinson. It's proper aspirational is Bray.

They've won the Britain in Bloom awards several years in a row, at national or regional level, and it shows. Not just in the beautiful tubs and hanging baskets scattered liberally along the High Street [photo], but also inscribed on the back-slapping boards propped up by the war memorial proclaiming every annual success. They have a splendid Grade 1 listed Jacobean 'hospital', still in use as almshouses, with an ancient sign above the front door warning that "Vagrants Hawkers & Dogs are not admitted".

They have a thriving cricket club, whose well-tended ground nestles chocolate-boxly alongside the churchyard. And the church is obliquely famous too, as home to the 'Vicar of Bray', immortalised in popular song for his shameless religion-switching during the reigns of Charles II, George I and all monarchs inbetween. Nowadays St Michael's is more resolutely C of E, and opens up its church hall on summer Sundays to serve cream teas to any visitor who's not already stuffed themselves elsewhere.

The Fat Duck, BrayAh yes, food is what really brings folk to Bray. Heston Blumenthal in particular, whose experimental eaterie The Fat Duck is located in the High Street. I walked past it twice without noticing because it's camouflaged as a very ordinary shuttered cottage [photo]. The dangling sign consisting of three feathery utensils should have been the giveaway [photo], but it was only the smallprint etched under the menu which eventually gave the restaurant's name away. Yes, snail porridge was on there, and Mock Turtle soup, and powdered Anjou pigeon, plus several more weird yet technically excellent courses. That'll be Heston's legendary tasting menu, served up for the wallet-emptying price of £150 per head (plus wine, plus service), and all booked up umpteen months in advance. You might have better luck getting into The Hind's Head across the square, which is another Heston bolthole with a more traditional feel, although don't bother turning up on spec on a Sunday because they'll turn you away too. Don't worry, Bray does have one 'ordinary' half-timbered pub - The Crown. Heston may have snapped that up too, but at least beer and pie and chips is always an option.

The Waterside Inn, Bray

And there's one more Michelin 3-star restaurant in the village, which is damned impressive given that there are currently only four in the UK. Down at the end of quaint Ferry Lane, in that sole prime Thamesside location, is the Roux Brothers' Waterside Inn. Although the building looks sort-of Tudor, something about it (and the flat-roofed 1970s annexe in the garden) gives the place the ambience of a seaside guesthouse serving prawn cocktail and chicken chasseur. Quite the opposite. Le Menu Gastronomique will set you back £72 for three courses, each lovingly listed in French (filet de truite de mer poêle sur un lit de girolles, méli-mélo de figues et fenouils, sauce relevée au vinaigre de xérès), then translated underneath for cultural philistines. When the pommes de terre du jour cost £11, you know you're somewhere special. That's Bray. You know you'll never live here, but save up and you might one day spend three hours in culinary heaven.

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