If I said Henley Royal Regatta, what would come to mind? Pimms? Boaters? Salmon Sandwiches? Champagne? Pompous Old Gits? Hooray Henries? Polite Applause? Calm, serene atmosphere? Rip-off prices?
Yes, me too.
We have just had our first ever Henley and the reality is very different from what I expected. Indeed, what we experienced was vary far from these stereotypes. OK, there was Pimms; there was champagne. But a calm, serene atmosphere? No way. Rip-off prices? Yes, plenty of that, though.
Why we were going purely by chance. Some friends knew someone who lives on a houseboat on the Thames at Henley. Each year he gives up his berth during the regatta and moors a couple of miles further downstream so that a bit of income can be earned from those who are prepared to pay a LOT of money for a mooring for their boats close to the action.
We were offered the opportunity to enjoy a supper on the boat as it cruised back up the river, through Henley and back, a round trip of a couple of hours. A great chance to mingle with the rich and to be mistaken for one of them, if only for a short time.
The Henley Royal Regatta is one of Englands oldest sporting events, having originally started in 1823. Over the years the rowing course has changed location but its current location is a dead straight course starting from Temple Island, just above Hambleden Lock and running for 1mile 550yards towards the town of Henley. There are various races for Eights, Fours and Pairs, coxed and uncoxed and rowing and sculls. Teams come from all over the World to compete, from some of the most famous rowing clubs in the World.
Historically the regatta has been an opportunity for those who are very much involved in the rowing world to meet, socialise and enjoy the racing. In more recent years the regatta has become a marketing event where companies can entertain their customers. The racing has become largely incidental. There are people who come to the regatta who never watch a single race.
Because, they are here to party!
But that doesnt mean that you cant have fun too. This is because the Thames is the Peoples River. The Thames Towpath is a public right of way and may not be closed from public use. The towpath is on the South bank of the river, the Berkshire bank. The North bank of the river, the Buckingham bank is entirely occupied by private properties, the sort that you would need a mortgage the size of a normal house in order just to pay the deposit. So, you can walk along the towpath and wave to the rich people across the river!
Of course, at regatta time that means that the rich people have their barbies in their back garden and you have your on the towpath. Yes, thats right, you can sit on the grass verge between the towpath and the river and watch the races and picnic. For free! OK, there isnt actually a lot of room. The towpath itself is quite narrow. You notice this when you try to walk up and down the path. The hospitality marquees extend right to the edge of the towpath. They are fenced in so no chance of nipping through their front yard.
Now, this isnt the case the entire length of the course. Around the area of the Start Line, there is a lot more space for the public who havent had the benefit of the patronage of Big Business, who hope that their generosity will encourage you to buy their wares. There are also little enclaves like this around about the middle of the course. In each of these locations there are the usual fast food outlets and bars. With astronomical prices. Doesnt seem to matter what you buy, be it a sandwich or a drink, its £3.
And, of course, theres entertainment. String quartet? Wind Ensemble? No, its Rock and Roll. Whether it be live bands or, as it tends to be later in the evening, Discos, its all Party Music. And you can enjoy it too. Maybe you cant get on their dance floor and boogie but the music can be heard just about anywhere.
If you are lucky to have floating accommodation like us then you can join the promenade up and down the river alongside the races. Half of the river is cordoned off with booms along the river but the other half is a highway for boats of all sizes. There is a continual flow for boats throughout the event and everyone seems to be thoroughly enjoying themselves.
So, what are the people like? Well, I encountered not one person who was anything but friendly. Clearly there was everyone from the very rich to the comfortably off! Actually, it was difficult to tell anything about anyones status. Maybe they were all just having too good a time. Maybe they had had a lot to drink? Anyway, no one would have any reason to feel uncomfortable or under-privileged. Surprisingly, it really does seem to be a relatively classless event.
We did watch some of the races but, of course, with a course well over a mile long, you see a bit but not all. I preferred the start because here you can see the boats preparing for their race and the initial surge as they race away from the two start stations.
But mostly we enjoyed the experience. We had arrived originally around lunchtime but had not bargained for the prices, having expected to buy ourselves some lunch along the bank. In future I would do what most seemed to be doing, come prepared with your insulated hamper and an instant barbeque, filled with wine, beer and food.
Getting there does really require a car but be careful. It would be wise to pair up and fill a car and get a driver who is teatotal or at least prepared to go very easy on the booze. The Police are red-hot around the regatta and are just itching for an excuse to use their breathalysers. Best is probably to hire a mini-coach.
On the final day of the regatta is the firework display. This is really spectacular and takes place right at the heart of the town. Beware though, the bridge over the Thames in Henley, is closed for an hour and a half at this time so you will have to go back to Marlow or go further up river if you need to cross.
Did we enjoy it? Yes, very much. Indeed, so much so that we will probably go again next year. Hopefully the houseboat will be available again but, if not, we will go early and stake our claim to a yard or so of the towpath.
Hope it doesnt rain!