Starting in 2009 it has become a family tradition for Terri & Kay, my UK-resident sisters, and I to take our mother out for a birthday meal together. Over the years we've started meeting for all our birthdays and have tried various formats - lunch, early dinner, supper - but usually we go for afternoon tea at an 'interesting' venue.
This year's birthday celebrations followed the pattern set up last year - my sister Terri arranged an 'event' close to Vi's birthday and I organised a more low-key meal date a week or so later. I'd tormented myself trying to work out which type of celebration was best but had come to the conclusion that we'd each chosen the format that we preferred and so long as Vi was happy with the outcome then all was well. With Vi's neighbour taking her out for a birthday dinner as well it felt good to have an extended series of Special Days to make the most of the celebrations.
My event planning had gone through the usual upsets & enforced rearrangements. Getting in to (& back from) a central London venue in mid-November was turning into more of a logistical challenge than an adventure so I decided to look for a more local setting, somewhere we could easily get to by taxi. This drastically reduced the number of options but in amongst them was Down Hall, a 'country house hotel' that was marketed as a posh wedding venue & spa and which offered a very nice looking Afternoon Tea package. It was about twenty minutes away from Vi's by road so an easy cab ride. After confirming with my sister Kay that she could make it I booked a slot for 2pm and began to make my own travel arrangements.
Settling in to the giant chairs
As the pandemic eased my sisters & I had begun to coordinate our visits to Vi and as the year turned to autumn & winter I'd switched from sporadic & essentially random overnight stays to monthly visits of four or five days at a time. Luckily this was very easy to set up with my work - I'd been working from home since starting there and there was no real restrictions on where 'home' was. After our regular morning meeting I could set off for the 3+ hour trip to Harlow, still connected through laptop & wi-fi, and continue working from Vi's when I arrived. This caused great amusement during one online meeting when Vi appeared with a cup of tea for me and I proudly introduced her to the team, but for most of the time it was just work as usual with the bonus that I could split my hours around walks & chat (& more tea, of course).
The first hiccough came when a rail strike was announced for the day of the meal. This wasn't a problem for me - I'd be arriving days before and not departing until the day after - but it would make it difficult for Kay & Roger (her partner, and a regular at our birthday get-togethers) to get there. A quick call with Vi revealed that she would be quite happy with a week's postponement so I pushed the date back to the next Saturday. Unfortunately the only available time slot was 4pm but as there's always an abundance of food at these meals we decided to just view it as an early dinner rather than a late lunch. All was well with Kay so the booking was confirmed.
All went well in the lead up to the day. My journey over went well and we had a nice couple of days catching up with news & family gossip. Down Hall rang me to confirm the booking (and my request for a little extra something for a 90th birthday do) and I pre-ordered a taxi that would pick up Kay & Roger from the station on the way. As the day dawned everything was prepared.
With the cab due at twenty to four Vi & I were sitting pretty, ready to go, at half past.The clock ticked on but no taxi arrived. At quarter to four I tried calling the company but after a recorded message of "Your car is booked" the call degenerated into a series of bleeps & buzzes before hanging up. While trying again my phone rang - this was the driver, assuring me that he'd just received the details and would be there "In two minutes". Five minutes later he arrived and after picking up Kay & Roger we were on our way.
Down Hall is an impressive country house and the route there from Harlow runs through some sweet little country lanes. Sadly our late afternoon booking meant we travelled there in darkness and arrived with barely a glimpse of the grand exterior or the extensive grounds surrounding it. But the staff were cheery & welcoming and we were guided through to a very grand room and led to four oddly large & colourful chairs grouped around two small tables set up for dining.
After the tribulations of getting there it was great to relax in what was a very impressive but at the same time pleasantly quirky setting. The large room was tall & elegant with pendulous glittering chandeliers and classical columns, finished off in shades of cream & yellow. Our chairs were almost comically large (we were immediately offered lots of cushions) but comfortable (once the cushions were in place) and the tables were very widely spaced, giving us our own private corner. We settled in and perused the menus.
Luckily there's not much decision making required with an afternoon tea menu. After declining the optional champagne and choosing our respective teas (from a refreshingly short list) we just sat back and enjoyed the time together, sipping tea and working our way through the towers of sandwiches, scones, & cakes. And a splendid time was had by all.
As we came towards the last of the cakes (we rarely finish them all nowadays) it felt like time to book our taxi back home. Despite our mishaps with the outward journey I gave the same company a call but although they answered straight away this time the news was not good - no cars were available for another hour. I was about to start googling for other cabs when I realised that we were at a posh hotel and they were likely to be well set up for this sort of thing, sure enough the (very helpful) man at reception had a list of local companies on speed dial and started working through them on my behalf. Turns out that Saturday night in Essex is not a good time to find a taxi (who would have guessed?) but eventually a booking was made, although the wait would still be forty five minutes. We decamped from our ludicrous chairs to a pair of sofas and chatted while we waited for our homeward ride.
But there was a floorshow while we waited. A very fancy dinner was being held somewhere else in the house and we were treated to a parade of partygoers coming in to the 'mingling' area before heading off to the dining room(s?). We amused ourselves commenting on the floor-length gowns and the (sadly few) variations on formal menswear.
Eventually it struck me that we'd been waiting beyond the promised three quarters of an hour so I went back to reception to see what was going on. Once again it seemed that our original booking had evaporated into oblivion but this time the company promised a replacement within fifteen minutes (perhaps being called from a fancy hotel helped) and this one turned up on time. We dropped Kay & Roger off at the station and by the time we were opening the front door they'd texted to say they were on a train. And so we all got home safely.
Despite my (overwrought?) concerns our Birthday Bash meal had been a great success, a memorable meal in a stylish (but slightly offbeat) setting with time to take it easy and enjoy the company (although maybe not the taxi company). Finding somewhere local to Vi's made the travelling much simpler and it looks like there are a fair number of 'fancy wedding' venues to choose between for future dates. Which I look forward to.
(Click on pictures for larger versions)