Henley Royal Regatta has been held for 174 years and is one of the few places where an English gent can really let rip with his clothing. In these sartorially cautious isles wearing a particularly fruity shade of navy can often be seen as a step too far, but at Henley the conservative colours are left in the wardrobe and the peacock returns to the river banks with aplomb.
There are blazers of all colours that can be imagined, and some that can’t – or at least shouldn’t be. Occasionally the designer appears to have deliberately chosen seven colours that do not go together, but most of the time they are aesthetic delights. Hats also make a welcome return to the male ensemble, whilst women – if they wish to gain access to the Stewards’ Enclosure – must wear a dress that covers the knees. ‘I first came here forty years ago,’ I overheard someone say, ‘And it was exactly the same. So presumably it is was exactly the same forty years before that. What has changed?’
Henley isn’t just about blazers and boaters though. It is part of the English summer season and attracts a crowd who like a bit of al fresco dining. Serious picnicing takes place almost all the way along the 2.1km length of the course. People start as soon as they arrive. They can’t long have had breakfast but wicker basket after wicker basket appears from the cars, as do tables and chairs. In one case I even saw a cooker. Gazebos are at the ready in case the British weather lives up to its reputation. The amount of picnicing kit some people bring is incredible. Thankfully others do prefer the simplicity of the rug on the grass and the view of the river.
I don’t want to give the impression that Henley is just about eating. Plenty of champagne flows. Approximately 4,500 bottles are purchased in the Stewards’ Enclosure bars alone over the duration of the regatta. And Pimms is a popular tipple. Taken by the pint it seems to bring very good cheer to all recipients.
Although the Champagne and picnics are important, they don’t quite overshadow the rowing, although most people manage to combine pleasures and sip a Pimms whilst watching the athletes. Rather than multi-lane regattas Henley operates a knock-out system with only two boats racing at a time. This means there are lots of races to watch and cheer. On Wednesday, when I visited there were races starting at five minute intervals throughout most of the the day. All crews race over the same course which is clearly marked out with wooden booms.
In the early days of the regatta the umpire rode a horse alongside the boats. I imagine that caused havoc with 19th century picnics, so now he follows behind in a motor-launch. Standing at the front of the boat he explains the starting procedure to the crews. ‘When I see that you are both straight and ready I’ll start you like this. Attention…Go.’ Unless something has been spotted floating on the course he follows up almost immediately with, ‘Get ready please. Attention…Go!’ There are events for Eights, Coxless and Coxed Fours, Quadruple Sculls, Coxless pairs and Double Sculls. Amateurism is still the name of the game with each crew carrying their boat to and from the water and rowing it down to the start line.
Much of the length of the Henley Regatta course is open to the public, who do not even need a ticket to watch from most areas. The route down to the river and the car-parking was easy thanks to a police-organised one-way system that changed direction around 4pm. Gloriana, the Queen’s barge was present and gleaming having just brought an Olympic Cauldron to the local River and Rowing museum.
Henley Royal regatta is on until Sunday and a visit is recommended. All sorts of food is sold on the riverbank, from noodles to oysters, but why not make a day of it and take a picnic lunch, tea and supper?!