England in the summer can be a charming experience. The days are long, the sun is warm and the rain clouds are busy deluging the Spanish plains. Students rush about, making the most of their school holidays, grandmas sit on park benches warming their bones in the golden sunshine and even the rushing urban dwellers slow their steps to enjoy the warmth of the afternoon.
Summer is the season when There are free outdoor concerts in the parks, – but one of the surest signs that summer is here is when the boats begin floating down the rivers, carrying lovers and summer-mad tourists along some of the most idyllic English scenes. After all, there’s nothing that says summer quite like a lazy afternoon spent relaxing in a punt on the green waters of the Thames, drifting slowly past the wide meadows and the willow trees. And if you’re there in the first week of July, on the Berkshire-side bank of the Thames near the town of Henley-On-Thames, you can even enjoy the background excitement of the Henley Royal Regatta, the first big social event of the summer and one of the most popular of England’s quirkier events.
The regatta began in 1839, long before any national or international rowing organisation was established, and in true English fashion, has been preserved as a unique and highly colourful event. Founded in the days when boating was the preserve of the upper class, the regatta today still retains a strong air of history and slightly haughty ritual, recalling its roots in the elegance and leisured wealth of the Victorian age. This is the easiest place for a visitor to see all the elite of English society, in all their
For the wealthy and the privileged, this is the first major social event of the season. Much of England’s high society turns out every year, not to watch the sweating rowers on the Thames, but to see and be seen. Most of the socialites hob-nob happily amongst themselves, busily sipping champagne with their backs to the river; the true sports enthusiasts, lined along the banks in canvas chairs and sunshades, content themselves with cheering on their favourites. Most of these luminaries watch the races from special viewing areas known as Enclosures, where you have to be a member or a member’s guest, and can be unceremoniously kicked out if you don’t obey a strict dress code. To this day, people still turn up at Henley dressed in striped blazers, straw hats, pink socks, bright-blue ties and schoolboy caps.
For the less exalted, there is the Berkshire-side bank of the Thames, where there’s always plenty of room on the grassy lawns for a picnic and a snooze. For non-members, there is the slightly more casual Regatta Enclosure, adjacent to the Steward’s Enclosure. This occupies the area from the start at Temple island down to the Remenham Club. It is owned by The Copas Partnership and open to the public free of charge. There are a number of bars there, including the famous Barn Bar and Redgrave Bar, where the traditional Henley Regatta drink of Pimm’s can be purchased.
If you’re interested in rowing, then this regatta is the most unusual and entertaining rowing event you’ll find in England, short of the Cambridge University bobbing meet. The course is a puzzling 1 mile, 550 yards long. Unlike other regattas, only two boats compete in each race, with up to 100 races run over the course of five days. To make things even more interesting, the teams have to row upstream, against the current. The most prestigious event at the regatta is the Grand Challenge Cup for Men’s Eights, which has been awarded since the regatta was first staged.