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Henley regatta

‘There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ Thus spoke Ratty in The Wind in the Willows, on the pleasures of rowing. Wise words (for a talking vole) but Ratty fell short. Why mess about in boats when you can concentrate instead on quaffing Pimms, dressed to the nines, in a pop-up village of luxury marquees and pavilions on the dreamy banks of the Thames? Bluff up for your first time at Henley Royal Regatta, summer’s most genteel sporting affair held in the equally genteel Buckinghamshire riverside town of Henley…

The top 5 bluffs for Henley

  1. Carry several coloured ties in your jacket. Swap between each depending on the colours of the rowing clubs you encounter and presto, free drinks all day.
  2. Don’t confuse the Henley Royal Regatta with the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta in St. Catharines, Ontario. Similar name, much longer train journey from Paddington.
  3. JD Bishop, of the Leander Rowing Club, umpired Henley’s first Regatta – on horseback. If you think you see similar this year, it’s time to go home.
  4. Beware Pimms’ devilish cousin, the Royale. At one part Pimms, 10 parts champagne, remember: Royale equals ruin.
  5. Crews are assigned to row on either the ‘Bucks’ (Buckinghamshire) or ‘Berks’ (Berkshire) side of the course. Avoid looking like the latter by remembering Bucks is the same side as Henley town itself…


For five days of every year, the lycra-clad elite of international rowing take to Henley’s shores with the aim of propelling their slender vessels down its 2,310-yard Thames course the fastest. That’s more than 1.3 miles. It takes these Herculean power-paddlers an average of just 7 minutes to cover the distance – pretty fast for a river craft with no engine.

Two boats compete in each knock-out heat, cheered on by blazer-clad crowds enjoying mortgage-priced picnics and the chance to drink like the aristocracy of yore (i.e., from breakfast). Don’t be fooled by the jovial atmosphere on the riverbank, though – Henley takes it’s rowing very, very seriously. Racing runs from 8.30am to 7.30pm, with up to 90 heats per day. Toasting every winner is therefore ill-advised, lest you end up doing a ‘Trenton’. (Australian Trenton Oldfield took an ill-advised dip to disrupt the 2012 University Boat Race and received a six-month jail sentence for his pains.)

Crews row in Eights, Fours or Pairs, with categories for Sculls (where rowers use pairs of oars instead of one), Coxed and Coxless events. There is no category for Kayaking, Canoeing or, sadly, Pedalling. 


Calm down – a ‘cox’ or ‘coxswain’ is a non-rowing crew member responsible for steering, coordinating strokes and calling out commands during races. They are the Kim Jung Uns of rowing: short, shouty and endowed with absolute power.


Rowing may be its raison d’être, but make no mistake: Henley’s all about high society shin digging. A stalwart of the ‘season’ since 1839, Henley feels like stepping back in time, but with Range Rovers and Thomas Pink. It’s posh, and proud of it; atmosphere-wise, think Edwardian garden party by day, Bullingdon Club ball aftermath by night. Bluff your way through with the following basics:

The crowd A veritable human safari of die-hard rowing aficionados (and the odd Olympian); gin-preserved aristocrats in sensible dress shoes; corporate entertainers stress-glugging Bolly; reunited ex-rugger buggers; underage drinkers wildly snogging and throwing up, and the actual residents of Henley raging about full car parks.

The Enclosures Two main areas for race-(and people-)watching sit side by side on Henley’s towpath. The Stewards’ Enclosure is the Regatta’s first-class cabin, only accessible for 6,500 current members and their guests.  There’s a 10-year waiting list for membership – good luck – and a stringent dress code applies (see below).

Just downstream is the less formal Regatta Enclosure, which is open to the hoi polloi. You’ll need to buy tickets in advance, though, or risk queuing on the day amidst the swaying masses.

The dress code Puzzled by the sheer number of striped jackets on display? No, you’re not at a barbershop quartet convention – these are rowing club blazers, the ideal apparel for Henley. Otherwise, its suits or blazers with flannels and ties (and maybe a straw boater) for men; demure dresses for ladies. For those attending Stewards, hemlines must be below the knee. Be warned, gals: a steward will ask you to kneel down to prove your outfit’s long enough if they suspect you’re a possible knee-flasher…


Impress your (probably intoxicated) friends by revealing one WB Woodgate, a member of the Brasenose four in 1868, as the culprit behind separate races for coxed and coxless crews. Wily Woodhouse realised his team would go faster without the additional weight of a cox, so ordered his to leap overboard on the word ‘Go’. Suddenly-lean Brasenose stormed to victory, only to be promptly disqualified.

DO SAY  ‘I fancy Harrow’s chances in the Princess Elizabeth Challenge Cup.’

DON’T SAY  ‘I hear the Putney crew are famed for their diminutive cox.’

 Happy Bluffing!

Cara Cummings