Don’t worry, all these striped blazers do not mean you have wandered inadvertently into the world’s largest barber shop quartet convention … this is the Henley Royal Regatta! It is a veritable feast for your eyes, where an elite group of extremely well-honed young men clad in lycra, compete in frighteningly slim boats to see who can row the fastest down a set course of the Thames. The races are held over 1 mile 550 yards (2,112 metres), taking approximately only 7 minutes to complete. Only 2 boats race in each heat – this is a knock-out event. You lose, you’re out.
Rowing in Henley is a serious business, with up to 90 heats a day, with races started at 5-minute intervals. Crews consist of Eights, Fours or Pairs with Sculls, Coxed and Coxless events (essentially, and very generally: 8, 4 or 2 in a boat, with either 1 or 2 oars, with or without someone to steer the boat). Many of the Royal Regatta visitors do indeed take the rowing very, very seriously – this is the utmost pinnacle for many a rowing club, with over 200 races held over 5 days.
Henley Royal Regatta is an indubitable part of the English social calendar, alongside tennis at Wimbledon, and horse racing at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood. The crowd themselves show every bit of determination and dedication to enjoy the day whatever the weather. Of course the Henley Royal Regatta is about watching world-class sport at its very best, where die-hard rowing aficionados and Olympic champions share their sport in an atmosphere of flamboyance, but it is also about schmoozing and socialising with plentiful Pimms and Champagne and top-class food.
Of course, no other sporting event in Britain can boast the quirky dress code that can be found at the Henley Royal Regatta – where for once the men’s colourful clothing undoubtedly upstages the women’s. The dress and feel of the event is of a glorified yet quintessentially British garden party: yet it is much more than that for its heart is firmly in top-class racing of the highest quality, with the best in the world competing at this one event.
To the detail then:
In a nutshell, the best enclosures are the Steward’s, Leander, Phyllis Court or Remenham Club. However, unless you are a member you have no chance of entry. The Steward’s Enclosure is the golden ticket event, accessible only to members and their guests, with a 10-year waiting list for membership and a rigid list of rules to boot. You might be able to get in as a guest if you have the right connections. Leander – forget it unless you are a member of the club itself. You might have better luck however, getting in as a guest of a member of either Phyllis Court or Remenham Club.
The good news is that further downstream, the rest of us can more easily purchase tickets for the Regatta Enclosure, a much more relaxed affair and just as convivial.
Some points to remember:
Do remember that dress code is strictly enforced in the elite enclosures and much more relaxed in the Regatta Enclosure. Blazers or jackets are required with a tie or cravat. Boaters are allowed providing they are the genuine article.
DO wear your Blazer with pride but remember that there is a clear jacket hierarchy and your plain navy blue blazer is close to the bottom. It is however, still higher up in the rankings than a garish shop-bought blazer or a suit jacket. Your tie matters: if it is not a rowing tie, keep it bland.
DO wear dresses that fall below the knee – no flashes of thigh are allowed. You don’t have to wear a hat but it is customary to do so, but DON’T wear a large Ascot type.
DON’T forget that while most do dress up, unless you are in the enclosures mentioned above, the clothing etiquette is much more relaxed.
DO consider wearing smart, sensible shoes – boring yes, but heels are no good in mud or on soft grass and the terrain is at best slightly uneven.
DO consider bringing binoculars if you want to see the rowing.
DO remember that the crews are assigned to row on either the ‘Bucks’ (Buckinghamshire) or ‘Berks’ (Berkshire) side, and that Bucks is the Henley side – don’t worry at all that Henley-on-Thames is actually in Oxfordshire ….
DO listen to the Regatta Radio – it is invaluable in following the races and keeping abreast of the rowing news.
DO know that the ultimate prize is the Grand Challenge Cup for Eights, dating from 1839.
DON’T miss the opportunity to walk down to Temple Island to see the start of some of the races (wear comfy shoes as it is over a mile to get there).
DO go on any of the days, but Saturday is the semi-finals day with more entertainment as well as the rowing on offer – it’s more of a family day with fireworks in the evening.
Finally, remember that you don’t have to get all dressed up and pay a lot of money for the experience of enjoying the regatta, there are plenty of places to head to in Henley and along the river where you can relax and watch for free.