The five-day Henley Royal Regatta is the most famous rowing regatta in the world. But this being England, it is not just a sporting event but also a highlight of the English summer social season alongside Ascot and Wimbledon, which together form a sort of trifecta of Olympic-quality pomp and circumstance. But of all these events, the Henley Royal Regatta is the easiest to participate in all the fun. Get dressed up and have a picnic by the river while you watch some of the best rowers in the world whoosh past.
A visitor from another planet dropping in on the Edwardian town of Henley-on-Thames in early July, could be forgiven for thinking that they had overshot prim and proper Britain and landed instead in the home of its flamboyant alter ego, the straw-boater, candy-striped-jacket wearing, fascinator-bedecked, Pimms drinking set who have elevated riverside picnicking to pure art.
“The very essence of the English is found each year at Henley with the soft breeze, youthful fitness and elegance of the boats cutting through the Thames. I loved it. The trick is to appreciate that spectators are dressed to the nines for it is pure fun to stand in the sun in boaters and blazers with Pimms in hand,” says visiting Australian barrister James Bell.
The old-school ties
You need connections to royalty, or at least one of the world-class competitors, to access the exclusive Stewards’ Enclosure near the finish line. Upper-echelon dress code is blazers and ties for men and knee-length dresses for women. Indeed, there are hemline checks at each entrance, just like the good old school days. Children, journalists and mobile phones are all banned from this Merchant-Ivory-like set with its pale green HRR deck chairs, hydrangea-rimmed garden restaurants, bandstands and grandstands.
Luckily there are plenty of other ways to enjoy the festivities if you are visiting as a mere mortal. In fact, apart from the Stewards’ Enclosure, Leander and Remenham Clubs, most of the towpath on the Berkshire, or Berks, side of the Thames, is open to the public and you can be sure that the public makes great use of it. From elaborate champagne, chicken and strawberry picnics on linen and crystal to antipasto platters and pitchers of Pimms…the quintessential English gin-based cocktail mixed with lemonade, ginger ale, cucumber, lemon slices and mint… the hoi polloi of Britain are laid out along the Thames all the way to the start of the course at the Temple, an Etruscan-style folly built as a fishing lodge for Fawley Court, the Christopher Wren-designed mansion nearby.
A real boater’s paradise
Not only that, it seems every boat afloat in England is puttering alongside the wooden booms that mark the narrow race course. There are paddleboats and steamboats, launches and gondolas, canal boats and rowboats, punts and speed boats, ferries and rubber dinghies and all are in party mode, with live bands, lots of champers and the ubiquitous Pimms, people either dressed to the nines or dressed in drag, from an entire boat of Elvis Impersonators to women who flash.
The colorful history
The first Henley Regatta was held in 1839 as a way to attract visitors and amuse the locals. It’s certainly done that and more, and since 1851 has been under the patronage of every reigning monarch, hence its name Henley Royal Regatta. Established before international and national rowing associations, the Royal Henley is managed by 55 stewards, many of whom are former rowers. It is said that Pierre de Courbetin modeled elements of the International Olympic Committee on the Henley Stewards system.
The rowing races
Today there are 19 hotly contested events for crews of eights, quads, fours, pairs, double and single sculls drawing competitors from all over Britain not to mention the far reaches of the rowing universe including Canada, the United States, Norway, Holland, France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Australia, New Zealand, and now China. Unlike multi-lane Olympics courses, only two boats race at a time in knockout heats over the 1 mile 550-yard distance, which is slightly longer than the 2000-meter international standard. These are purists’ races managed by those who live and breathe the sport.
Taylor Ritzel, stroke of the Yale Women’s Varsity VIII was mightily impressed. “Never before had I been at an event where travelers and locals alike gathered to honor the beauty and vigor inherent to the sport of rowing. For those few days it became a highly treasured spectator sport, something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
For those uninitiated into rowing culture, the competitors’ unisuits, which do a marvelous job of revealing perfect physique and rippling muscles, also evoke nostalgic neck-to-knee bathing suits, adding to the turn of some century or other atmosphere. Even more quaint, is the low-tech progress board in the middle of the Thames where white-coated officials move rectangular markers along a virtual course to let you know how the crews are doing upstream.
Indeed this straight stretch of the Thames, fringed by gingerbread houses and lush green fields, offers a bucolic setting for the thousands who come to cheer the grit and grace of this most grueling of sports. And while it seems that many are more focused on picnicking and partying, dig a little deeper and you’ll find lots of spectators used to row and come to support their club or old school. This makes the spectating as fascinating along the sidelines as on the river itself.
The regatta team blazers
Most intriguing is the normally reserved British male strutting his finery. Blazers are his peacock plumes and they range from mint green to bright pink, with every conceivable combination of stripes in between, including crimson and white; olive and maroon; aqua, navy and mustard; and the most extravagant of all, green pink black red and yellow.
“Blazers maketh the man,” says Reuters’ correspondent Harriet Morris, and tell the tale of his rowing prowess.
Each color and stripe has profound significance to the members of each tribe. Full blue blazers for Oxford and Cambridge sit comfortably at the top of the heap. To decode the rest, you’ll need the perseverance of an anthropologist studying warrior masks in the highlands of New Guinea. Alternatively, a couple more Pimms might help.
How to best enjoy the Henley experience
When: The Henley Royal Regatta takes place from Wednesday to Sunday over the first weekend in July.
How to enjoy: Buy a ticket to the Regatta Enclosure (no dress code) which will enable you to access the competitors’ boat tent. Or, take a steamer cruise, rent a launch or rowboat from Hobbs Boatyard, walk the towpath, or simply lay out your picnic and watch the world go by.
Pubs: The Angel Pub and the Little Angel on either side of the Henley Bridge are mobbed during the Regatta. Other pubs include The Little White Hart, the Bird in Hand, and not far from the Temple, The Flower Pot in Aston.
Where to stay: The Hotel du Vin, in the former Brakspear Brewery, offers the classiest accommodation.
The River and Rowing Museum offers fascinating exhibits on rowing, the town of Henley and the River Thames.
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