Henley is a wonderful festival of Youth with Age joining in with appreciative understanding. If I have to memorize it, I shall murmur, as countless thousands have done before me . . . punts, strawberries and cream, a foam of lace and silk, pretty faces and blue eyes.
Henley regatta in 1897 -- Taking tea at the Henley Regatta, Oxfordshire. A group of men and women take tea on a college barge overlooking the Henley Royal Regatta. The Regatta was established in 1829 and became very popular as a socal occasion, particularly after being patronised by royalty in 1851. [Henry Taunt 1897]
Every year the miracle happens. The waters of the Thames are changed into a leisured river carnival against an olive-green setting and Henley is transformed into a Parisian mirage. I sat on a canvas chair by the verdant lawns of Phyllis Court and absorbed the scene. It is possible to know nothing about rowing and enjoy every minute of this regatta. I am no admirer of punts. They are singularly unattractive. Their wooden nakedness lacks comfort, yet Henley contrives to vest them with magical qualities. Men from the City become extrovert and blossom forth in a welter of stripes and colours, each representing something to its owner and adding to the general kaleidoscopic blaze of light. The women were like waves of fluttering silk. Behind me came the strains of a military band. The tea-tables by the marquee were crowded with what looked like animated tinsel. In the distance the poplars swayed gently in mild surprise. The Old Blues were the link with reality. Remarkably like Rip Van Winkle, they had the disconcerting habit of peering upstream as if expecting something to happen. Every so often their hopes were realized as the straight line ruling the centre of the river assumed its intended significance. In the distance two eights hissed through the water in split-second co-ordination of effort. Immediately the entire assemblage gave tongue. It was a unique moment... a feminine version of Boat Race day. Instead of bustling steamers and chugging launches, there were hundreds of punts locked in a watery embrace. The charm of Paris and the warmth of Nice became stirred by the excitement of oarsmanship. I thought how Henley came to acquire its specialized reputation, for during the Regency period it combined countrified dignity with regal levity. Frederick, Prince of Wales, had Park Place on the other side of the river, and entertained on a scale only equalled by the masques and balls at Phyllis Court, then jointly owned by Lord Villiers and Lord Grandison. I suppose geographical position added importance to the country town. Midway between Oxford and London, it was a natural half-way house whilst the horses were changed. Lawyer and cleric, scholar and squire met over a meal. The locals never thought of the stretch of river as having a social side. It was primarily a highway of commerce.
The Henley that I looked upon as the Thames Cup Final was being decided owes its existence to Oxford and Cambridge. I can give the exact time when the birth took place... 7:56 p.m. on 10th June, 1829; and the occasion... both Universities sending a crew to the river. Reports record that the June day lived up to its calendar reputation. The Master of Balliol tried to kill popular support by announcing a compulsory afternoon lecture on logic. The academic veto failed. By evening the roads were packed with dusty enthusiasts, contemporary chroniclers recording that more than 20,000 people framed the Henley reaches. The Oxford crew took their colours from Christ Church, then head of the river, and dressed in black straw hats, dark-blue striped jerseys, blue handkerchiefs, and canvas trousers. Cambridge had pink sashes over their shirts. Oxford won easily in 14 minutes 30 seconds. A London Society writer described the scene: "Never shall I forget the shout that rose among the hills... it has never fallen to my lot to hear such a shout since." I only wish he could have heard the cheers that greeted Leader as their crew beat the French Metropolitans des Transports to win the Grand Challenge Cup two years running.
When night fell the lawns of Phyllis Court were floodlit. Buildings and terraces gleamed white against the dark background. A girl, swaying her hips like a well-groomed odalisque, wandered into the gold pool with her partner. She looked Rue de la Paix against the High of her companion... no doubt he would eventually discover that every fellow in his year had proposed to her. From the far side of the river came sounds of raucous voices, the wheezy music of merry-go-rounds, and the shrill shrieks of girls on a contraption that almost defied the laws of gravity. The trees were spectral yet the night was warm. Suddenly the sky lit up. The fireworks had begun, and with every flash I saw the crowd standing among the trees or by the water-edge.
Henley is a wonderful festival of Youth with Age joining in with appreciative understanding. If I have to memorize it, I shall murmur, as countless thousands have done before me... punts, strawberries and cream, a foam of lace and silk, pretty faces and blue eyes.
Henley-on-Thames is world-famous for its annual Royal Regatta, which is now held over a 5-day period at the start of July.
The origins of the Regatta lie traditionally in the first Oxford-Cambridge university boat race, which was held on a course from Hambleden to Henley in 1829. Amateur rowing clubs and competitions were becoming increasingly fashionable, and the Thames was a popular venue, both at London and higher upstream.
This was a period when Henley was embarking on a difficult economic period, its coaching and river trades soon to be devastated by the new-fangled railway, which did not arrive in Henley itself until 1857. The boat race created 'an unusual bustle' in the town, and Henley's inhabitants were quick to spot the economic potential. Similar 1-day events (sometimes called 'regattas') followed sporadically at Henley throughout the 1830s, and from 1829 the Regatta became an annual feature of the social and sporting calendar, organized and promoted largely by local gentry and townspeople.
From the outset it attracted a fashionable clientele, and in 1851 Prince Albert was persuaded to become Patron, turning the event into a 'Royal Regatta'. With Henley's acquisition of a branch railway line in 1857 the town was able to take full advantage of the event, and in 1895 over 34,000 people were said to have visited over the 3 days. The town hosted Olympic Regattas in 1908 and 1948 - the first place in the world to host two such events - and the Regatta remains a major sporting and social event today.