Ages ago, in the depths of winter, I went to the launch of Visit Southeast England's 2011 programme. At the launch, I won a raffle prize of a trip to the Mill at Sonning. Sonning is a pretty village on the banks of the Thames in Berkshire, and its big watermill, dating from the late 18th century, was rescued from dereliction in the 1970s and turned into a dinner theatre.
Although I'd heard a lot about nearby Newbury's Watermill Theatre, I'd never visited Sonning, so I found out a bit more about both mills. As I expected, they cater for different audiences. Newbury's mill is an acclaimed regional arts and production centre, and it offers everything from new writing to Shakespeare, caters for kids and teens, does many touring productions and has a theatrical outreach programme.
Our (very pleasant) experience at Sonning, by contrast, reminded me of going to an old fashioned pub for a Sunday lunch, with entertainment afterwards. It was packed, so the locals must find it to their taste.
I think you're supposed to start off having drinks in the bar which has a glass panel set into the wall to show the waterwheel going round. The mill no longer grinds flour, otherwise there'd be no room for the theatre, but it does generate its own electricity with the wheel.
We didn't have drinks, so left the bar and wandered out of the mill onto the nearby Thames towpath instead - it's bright and Springlike and flowery at this time of year, and has a "messing about on the river" and "Wind in the Willows" feel.
We also took a turn around Sonning village which is what people used to call "chocolate boxy" in the days when chocolate boxes often sported photos of pretty English villages. There's some significant money around. I wondered what the poverty-stricken peasants who once inhabited its cottages might think of it now. Would they perhaps be rather sad that their ancient church is locked for "security reasons"?
At about half past twelve, it's lunchtime at the Mill. You queue up school dinner style, but the food is very good, and the restaurant area is well furnished in an oak beamed style, with exceptionally friendly and willing young staff. I had sausages from Jenner's, sourced locally (Chesterton Farm, Cirencester) but there were three other main course choices and some top puddings.
The theatre is a nice small space, and comfortable. From its programme, it seems that it stages good and reliable rep plays with a bias towards comedies - nothing cutting edge. We saw Ayckbourn's "Joking Apart" first performed in the 1970s.
Although it's not my usual sort of thing, and not the kind of thing that the other 3 members of our party would choose, either, we all really enjoyed our outing here. There can be no doubt that the owners of Sonning Mill have mastered the art of pleasing their visitors. And I've mentally bookmarked it as a great place to take foreign friends for a slice of traditional England within easy reach of London.