EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HENLEY ROYAL REGATTA
The Henley Royal Regatta is one of the most prestigious events in modern British history, attracting the most ‘well to do’ crowds every single year for over a century. Today, the tradition still stands and this fashionable affair marks the official start of summer for many people in Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.
For those looking to immerse themselves in British culture during their UK vacation, the Henley Regatta is a bucket list must. But don’t even consider turning up without your Sunday best – because this sporting event is about dressing to impress. Characterized by great weather, great outfits, and endless flow of champagne and Pimms, this is a day out for the most glamorous and sophisticated of spectators.
A LITTLE BIT OF BACKGROUND
The first event took place in July 1839, and has been running every year since (apart from during WW1 and WW2). It began as a day out staged by the Mayor of Henley, and featured a funfair and amusements for the local townsfolk. Amateur rowing races were later introduced and the competitive sport was soon the main attraction.
In 1851, Prince Albert became the Royal Patron of the Henley Regatta, and ever since the event has remained a royal affair with each reigning Monarch holding patronage. This is why it is now known as the Henley Royal Regatta.
Over the years, there has been attendance from various members of the Royal Family, making it the ideal place for spotting Royals or rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous.
The Regatta today is organized by a self-electing body of Stewards, many of whom are accomplished rowers themselves and strive to create fair and inclusive racing events that live up to high sporting standards.
WHAT HAPPENS ON THE DAY?
The event takes places across the course of five days, and each day is dedicated to a set of heats where teams get knocked out of the race. The winners will then go on to compete in the final. There are as many as 100 races taking place daily, with each one lasting around seven minutes. With a number of cup challenges designed for all abilities (including competing schools), there’s a fantastic array of races to watch and there’s always a superb sense of comradery.
Expect a lot of cheering and clapping, and just general high spirits from spectators. While many are here for the sport or to support loved ones, the main attraction is the atmosphere itself.
People attend the Regatta to socialize with friends, drink and be merry, and to indulge in the very British act of eating strawberries and creams outdoors. Many also come to showcase their best summer ensembles and to admire other peoples’ outfits too.
It doesn’t matter which day you decide to come. The crowds are lively throughout the week, but it could be particularly exciting to attend on the last day to experience the tense and exciting finals.
THE RULES OF THE REGATTA RACES
Unlike many other rowing events in the country, the Henley Royal Regatta has its own set of rules. This is due to the event having been established long before the UK Amateur Rowing Association or the International Rowing Federation (FISA) were even founded. Although not under their jurisdiction, the races are still recognized by these federations.
The rules stipulate that competitors are to row head-to-head, with only two boats racing in each knockout heat.
There are several competitions for rowers of differing abilities, including school teams, university teams, club rowing teams, men’s and women’s teams, as well as Olympic champions. There are also cups for eight-man or four-man teams, coxed and coxless, coxless pairs, doubles and quadruple sculls, and single sculls.
WHICH COUNTRIES COMPETE?
Every year, there are over 100 crews arriving from overseas. So whilst this is a quintessentially British affair, it’s actually a very international event too. In the most recent years, there have been competitors from Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Croatia, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Australia, Canada, and South Africa.
WHAT’S THE DRESS CODE?
The Henley Regatta attracts young and stylish crowds from all over Britain, as well as visitors from across the globe who are here on vacation (or here to support their national team). Many men and women attend with the goal of dressing to impress, and some can spend much time planning their outfits prior to the event.
Dress codes will apply at certain enclosures, such as the Stewards’ Enclosure or the Regatta Enclosure. The Stewards’ Enclosure is reserved for members and their guests only, and requires gentlemen to wear lounge suits or blazers with a tie or cravat, and women to wear dresses or skirts with a hemline below the knee.
The Regatta Enclosure is open to the public with ticket purchase, and is a slightly more relaxed than the Stewards’ Enclosure. There is no strict requirement for dress, but people still get into the spirit and turn up smartly attired, with women in dresses and skirts and men in club blazers or rowing apparel. It’s also not unusual to see women in hats and fascinators, styled in a similar manner to a wedding or horse-racing event.
For those without a ticket, you can also watch from the riverbank and anything goes in terms of outfits. But again, many of the locals and visitors do like to dress up as well, so feel free to showcase your finest suits and hats.
In terms of dressing for the weather, it’s important to bring an extra layer in case it rains (this is Britain after all). Wellies are permitted in all areas if the grounds are muddy, but the rest of the dress code rules will still apply.
FOOD AND DRINK
During the race days, there will be dedicated restaurants and bars available for ticket holders. In the Stewards’ Enclosure, you’ll find a number of places to grab a drink including real ale bars and champagne bars. At the Regatta Enclosure, there’s usually a restaurant serving three course lunches and delicious sharing platters for large parties. You can even enjoy the quintessentially British refreshment of Afternoon Tea (finger sandwiches, cakes and English tea). If you’re here to enjoy a few drinks, be sure to indulge in some Pimms or the famous Regatta cocktail known as ‘The Royale’.
For non-ticket holders, you won’t have any trouble finding somewhere to refuel nearby. Local cafés, pubs and restaurants will be serving a great selection of food and drink across the five day event, and bars and nightclubs even host big after parties at night.
LOCATION AND PLACES NEARBY
The town of Henley-on-Thames is located near the tripoint of Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. It’s considered to be one of the most beautiful market towns in England, with a quaint riverbank lined with boats, rows of boutiques and independent shops, cute cafes and traditional pubs, interesting historical buildings, and a well-maintained high street. Although it attracts tourists throughout the year, it certainly comes to life in the summer, and is brimming with festival atmosphere during the days of the Regatta. Surrounded by the stunning landscape and wooded hills, this is a great destination for hikers and fans of the outdoors.
There are many walking trails in the Chilterns Hills, an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), much like the nearby North Wessex Downs or the world-famous tourist destination known as The Cotswolds. These stunning green regions of the UK are all within easy travelling distance, and are known for their amazing scenic countryside as well as their chocolate box villages and peaceful market towns.
Henley-on-Thames is also close to cities such as Oxford, Windsor and London. So if you are planning a city daytrip, you will be ideally located.
HOW TO GET THERE (TRANSPORT)
Getting to the Henley Royal Regatta is easy using public transport. There are trains to and from Henley-on-Thames railway station throughout the five day period, including additional trains to serve visitors attending the Regatta. For those staying in the capital, trains from London to Henley take approximately one hour. Trains are considered to be the easiest way to get there as traffic can be bad on the roads, but do bear in mind that they can get very crowded during these days.
Buses are also available throughout the event, with routes from Reading to High Wycombe, passing through Henley. There’s also a bus service connecting Oxford, Wallingford, Henley-on-Thames, Caversham and Reading from Monday through to Saturday.
At weekends, a late night bus service is available for Reading, starting from 10:30pm to 2:30am for party goers. These late buses are regular, running every 20 minutes and cost £10 one way or at a discounted price of £15 for 2 people.
For those who are driving, there are a number of non-official Henley Regatta car parks dotted around the town within easy walking distance of the riverbank. These will usually include Henley Cricket Club (at the end of the A4130 from Maidenhead), Henley Rugby Club on Marlow Road, and fields along Wargrave Road. Some council-run carparks can also be found in the town center. However, these have a 3 hour maximum stay and 2 hours no return, so it wouldn’t be ideal for those wishing to stay for the entire day.
BOAT HIRE DURING THE REGATTA
One popular activity during the Regatta (and also throughout the summer in Henley) is hiring a boat to enjoy the views and to relax on the water with some food or drink. If you don’t have lunch plans arranged, this could be the perfect alternative during the festivities of the week.
Small groups can bring their own picnic and beverages, and enjoy a journey up and down the course of the River Thames, with easy pick up and drop off near the River & Rowing Museum.
There are also river cruises, which all offer a great atmosphere including entertainment and music at night. Whether you decide to get a private charter or join a cruise party, this can be a great way to get into the spirit.
PLANNING YOUR VISIT
If you want to attend this prestigious event, it’s important to start planning in advance. Tickets are not available for the Stewards’ Enclosure, but tickets for the Regatta Enclosure sell out quickly every year. This is one of the most popular summer sporting events in Britain, so buy your tickets and book accommodation well in advance.
It’s also important to check dress code stipulations before you attend to ensure that you are not turned away at the gate. The website clearly states that women wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers will be not be allowed into the Stewards’ Enclosure. Read all the rules of the event before arrival. The Stewards’ Enclosure also has enforces a cell phone ban. You will be able to take photos, but it is not permitted to make or receive phone calls within the enclosure. If you are caught talking on the phone, your badge number will be taken down by a security guard and you may be asked to leave if you’re caught doing it again.
Visitors should also be aware that there are strict security procedures. For your own personal safety, it’s important for all bags to be thoroughly examined before entry. This means that it could take longer to access the car parks and enclosures of the event, so everyone should allow extra time for that.
For the enclosures, there are also restrictions on large bags. Small handbags are permitted, but any large bags, cases or backpacks must be deposited at the luggage drop-off point to be claimed at the end of the day.
Anyone without a ticket hoping to get a nice spot along the riverbank is advised to arrive early. The nearby streets get busy, and many people line up to watch the races for hours on end.
While there are plenty of options of public transport, buses and trains can often be crowded. So it could be an idea to get a vacation house as close to the area as possible. It’s also important to note that carparks can often get fully very quickly on race days, and it can be tricky trying to find a parking space if you arrive late in the day.
Traffic can also be problematic, as the small town roads are not designed for such major events. Avoid driving long distances if possible, as a 1 hour journey from London can be as long as 4 hours when traffic is at its worst.