“Oooh, I bet you’ll see loads of Toffs at the Henley Royal Regatta,” breathed my co-worker. Noticing my befuddlement she quickly added, “You know – rea-llllllly rea-lllllly rich people in their litt-le boat shoes, boater hats and boating jackets with colours to support their club.” I translated this to mean that I would spot the British version of American yuppies aboard the Alaska steamer during the annual boat race on the Thames in Oxfordshire dating back to 1839. It sounded like a good time – viewing the races (and people watching), while sipping on Pimm’s in the sunshine, as promised on the invite.
The sunshine, however disappeared as soon as I arrived into the Reading train station, where I met the travel professionals with whom I would spend the day. Most were women in sundresses, who would later be shivering under their tiny shawls, and a few gents – only one donning a striped boating jacket. My new acquaintances and I hopped in a shuttle and made our way to schmooze over lunch at the Coppa Club.
Happily stuffed we crossed the lawn behind restaurant, where the captain helped us to board the ship, which carried Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 2009 and 2012. The burgundy Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant flag waved merrily at the fore of the boat, where the clear plastic siding had been lowered to keep out the wind and rain. The first to board scuttled into those lower seats, but I ended up snagging the best seat for chilly days. My back rested against the steam pipe and my bum was comfortably heated by the steam engine beneath the wooden bench, which now runs on carbon neutral wood briquettes.
We set off right after the captain gave his safety speech (seven or more short blasts of the horn followed by a long one means “Emergency”) and we all had a crystal goblet filled with fizz, we drifted down the river alongside bobbing families of ducks, geese and loons. British mansions perched atop slopes lined both riverbanks, with perfectly striped, fresh cut lawns. We admired them as we rose and san as the captain and crew raced on and off board with ropes and buoys to navigate through the narrow locks before we arrived at Henley-on-Thames. Here, canals sat in place of garages beneath tall houses that narrowed closer to the small downtown stretch.
We passed the finish line of the Henley Royal Regatta first, where most of the weekday spectators sat. The Stewards’ Enclosure, open only to Members and their guests, requires attendees to “dress in accordance with the long-established tradition.” It was fun to see all of the ladies with their colorful headbands and combination headband-caps that are so fanciful they seem only suitable only for children’s dress up games and the smartly dressed men by their sides. It was a funny experience, tentatively snapping photos of them, and then being photographed by them at the same time. I felt as if I were in a pageant, passing others on boats, constantly waving and smiling. It was delightful and reminded me of growing up in a small town, where it is normal to greet strangers. Watching the synchronized rowers almost become secondary. We noticed them and the umpires’ boats that trailed behind, but saw very few close races.
Most of our attention turned away from the actual Henley Royal Regatta to the socialite attendees and food once afternoon tea had been laid out in the galley below. Crisps (potato chips), an array of triangle sandwiches ad skewers of perfectly ripened strawberries occupied us as we enjoyed a day out of the office. My British comrades proudly discussed how “proper” and “quintessentially British” the event was – from the tea to the caps in white playing croquet on a tiny island. We contentedly sipped our way through 25 bottles of champagne – and elderflower cordial once the alcohol became too much – until our voyage came to an end.
So, if you happen to be in Oxfordshire in at the end of June or beginning of July (depending on the year) and are looking for a dose of old British culture, make your way to the Thames for the Henley Royal Regatta. The Regatta Enclosure is open to the general public, but I have heard that some just come down and plop themselves on the riverbank. However, I most recommend scoring a seat on a boat, where you will get to tour the whole course.