Tuesday, 27 July 2021

Amusing tales and traditions at Temple Island

THE lifesize marble figurine that sits under the cupola at the top of Fawley Temple isn’t the original

THE lifesize marble figurine that sits under the cupola at the top of Fawley Temple isn’t the original from 1771, although it is slightly older.

The previous statue went missing during the 1954 regatta thanks to an Irish crew which had been knocked out of the racing.

The late John Garton, a one-time chairman and president of the regatta, recorded that structural repairs were being made to the roof of the cupola so the statue was placed temporarily on the lawn by the building on Temple Island, which marks the start of the course.

During the night the disgruntled Irishmen decided to go to the island in punts with the intention of bringing the figurine to the other end of course and placing it in the judges’ box in order to surprise the stewards the next morning.

However, the statue was much heavier than they thought and fell into the water while being loaded into one of the punts.

It was only discovered some years later by workmen dredging the bank of the island but was minus an arm.

The current statue of a bacchante was installed in 1989 and was donated by Mr Garton, who was then president of the regatta, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the event.

The 5ft 2in French figurine was the perfect gift as she dates back to 1770, just a year before Fawley Temple was built. She is leaning on a tree trunk, her hair decorated with vines, and holding grapes in one hand and a flute glass in the other.

Katrina Robinson, retail manager at Henley Royal Regatta, explains: “A bacchante is a priestess to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and frivolity, which is very appropriate for a party atmosphere.”

She is referring to not just the regatta but the fact the Temple Island is available for hire for weddings, dinners, lunches and other events.

“It is predominantly used for weddings because it’s such a stunning location,” says Miss Robinson.

“You can have 40 people within the temple, which is a lovely place to have a lunch or dinner. Or you can hire a marquee for the lawn for up to 120 people and have alfresco dining.

“It’s an amazing location. Whenever I take brides and grooms out to see the island I never have to do much of a sales pitch because once you get on it they see how pretty amazing it is.”

The temple was commissioned in 1769 by Sambrooke Freeman who lived at Fawley Court on the Buckinghamshire bank.

Miss Robinson says: “He wanted somewhere lavish for when it was raining and he was out fishing so he asked the architect James Wyatt to build this in 1771.”

By 1884 major alterations had been made to the temple under Edward Mackenzie, a Scottish banker, who had bought Fawley Court more than 30 years before.

He changed the windows and added a balcony and staircase.

After the Second World War it was the Mackenzie family that replaced the original statue with one of a nymph — and it was this one that was dropped into the Thames a decade later. In 1987 ownership of the island was transferred from the Mackenzie family to Henley Royal Regatta on a 999-year lease. This led to the creation of the trustees of Temple Island.

Edward Warner, assistant secretary at the regatta, says: “We work very closely with the trustees, who are responsible for ensuring the island is kept in a satisfactory condition and that we uphold the terms of the lease.

“They come and inspect the island twice a year, including on the Saturday of the regatta. There is a variety of people among them with different expertise. One is an architect and another is a solicitor.

“One of the rules is that they have to make sure people are adhering to the dress code for the stewards’ enclosure on the island, such as the length of the dresses.”

The regatta pays a rent of two decorated eggs — an alternative take on “peppercorn” — each year, which are presented to the trustees on that same Saturday.

This tradition is said to have been started in 1987 by Peter Coni when he was chairman. All the eggs are kept at regatta headquarters. It was after the regatta took over the ownership of the island that restoration of the interior of the temple began.

The work was carried out from 1988 to 1990 by Fiona Allardyce. She reconstructed parts of the paintings on the walls that had been lost over the years to restore the original colour scheme.

Mr Warner says: “This room was decorated in the Etruscan style when it was built. This style was just being uncovered at Pompeii so they decided to use it.” The maintenance of the building is non-stop. Mr Warner says: “Because it’s out in the river it’s an exposed spot that bears the brunt of the wind so it needs a lot of work. The building is also Grade II listed so we work within certain constraints.

“Each year we do an inspection of the building and compile a list of jobs to be done. That might be internal redecoration, revarnishing the floor or work to the roof. There’s a lot of work on the temple itself but also to the grounds.”

Outside, the work includes thinning the trees to allow more light through.

The island is also a haven for wildife, especially birds, and each spring there is a number of nests present on part of the island that is kept as a nature reserve.

Mr Warner says:“We keep that out of bounds so nature can flourish there. We actively manage the trees and things to try to create some biodiversity.

“We also have the trees inspected twice a year by an arborculturist to make sure nothing is going to fall over and hit the building.”

To rent the island for a day costs at least £1,200 plus the cost of food and boat hire, and even more if you want a marquee as well.

Miss Robinson says: “During the regatta it’s very busy on the island — it’s a pretty spectacular place from which to watch the racing.”

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