For one week each summer, the quiet English hamlet of Henley-on-Thames is overtaken by thousands of oarsmen and their Pimms-quaffing supporters. Jonathan Reynolds dons a straw boater and joins the cheering crowd

Jonathan Reynolds
May 08, 2009

In his junior year of high school, my son Frank, then 17, was invited with his crew team to row in theannual regatta at Henley-on-Thames in England. The Henley Regatta is more or less the World Series ofrowing, and St. Andrew's, Frank's team, fresh from a season it dominated in the eastern United States,manned (or boyed) an extremely strong boat. On the very first day, the crew of eight powered its waythrough nearly 2,000 of the 2,112-meter course, well ahead of its competition, the English schoolCanford (all the races at Henley are two-boat races). But about 10 strokes short of the finish, one ofthe rowers made a mistake, crippling the boat and causing it to slide impotently onto the woodenbarriers bordering the race lane. Canford crept ahead and won.

The scene at the rowing sheds afterward, while perhaps lacking the dimension of full tragedy, wasamong the saddest I have ever seen: eight youths on the verge of adulthood suddenly returned to theircribs by the crushing disappointment. As a show of solidarity, each had shaved his head the nightbefore; and now here they were, childlike baldies wondering what had happened.

So when Frank phoned four years later and said he and Dartmouth, his college team, had been invited tothe regatta, I took the news with a sense of both hope and dread.

For 51 weeks a year, Henley is a most picturesque countryside town along the river Thames, lyingroughly equidistant between the glorious city of Oxford and the tawdry city of Reading. Of the riveritself, Sir Walter Scott wrote, "There are two things scarce matched in the Universe, the Sun inHeaven and the Thames on the Earth." A 170-year-old patriotic hyperbole aside, at Henley the river—thevista, the gingerbread houses with viewing balconies overlooking the pleasure boats and yachts—isindeed a jewel. The place has a natural quaintness, as opposed to a created one, that many Englishvillages can only envy and ape.

And for almost the whole year, nothing particularly newsworthy happens in this town of 11,000.Brakspears (rhymes with Shakespeares) brews its beers, Hobbs Boat Yard repairs and rents out boats,Bromlea & Jonkers sells rare books, and the Red Lion Hotel, a majestic castle with good rooms and badfood, manages decent business. Then, in early summer, Henley welcomes some 250,000 visitors over aperiod of five days—as if New York suddenly played host to 200 million. Like Brigadoon, the townsprings to life, transforming itself into an Edwardian sporting event-cum-costume party that rivalsthe World Cup as a tournament, and Ascot and Wimbledon as a social event.

For those with the gnawing suspicion that they were born in the wrong century, the HenleyRegatta—begun in 1839—is a paradise. It is not only the dress code that makes the scene look like anopen call for The Importance of Being Earnest—no trousers on ladies, dresses and skirts at least twoinches below the knee (and generally to the ankle); gents must be blazered and necktied or cravatted.It is also the choice of those who fill the posher section of the viewing areas. Frequently, the menoutdo the women: panamas and straw boaters festoon the pink-cheeked faces of present-day EvelynWaughs, often competing for color with their rowing club jackets piped in opposing hues. Although mostof the one-mile, 550-yard strip that parallels the course is open to the public, the regattaorganization owns and administers the last 500 yards or so, and it is here in the Stewards Enclosurethat the regatta looks put together by Merchant Ivory.

The picnicking in the grassy parking lots outside the regatta grounds might remind you of tailgatingat a football game—if the spread were catered by Tiffany. Brightly striped, four-cornered tents openat the sides protect the dapper dressers as well as their china, sterling, and crystal (for champagne,of course). Tiny glazed quail, crustless sandwiches—you get the picture. Various 25-piece brass bandstake turns playing loud and chauvinistic tunes all day. On Saturday, hoi polloi fill the towpath invarious stages of well-mannered raucousness and all forms of dress, dining at food stands with nameslike YOO WAN NOODLES?But in the Stewards Enclosure, most of the dandies are deceptively foppish: aseither former or present rowers or family of former or present rowers, they are very invested in thesport.

Dartmouth's rowing season had been a disappointment, and though its hopes for the regatta were high,no one expected the team to do particularly well, especially considering that they had finished eighthat the Eastern Sprints in the spring, far behind the two top contenders. I prayed only that Dartmouthwould win once and the St. Andrew's curse would not revisit the river. So touched with superstitionand foreboding was the event that Frank's younger brother, Eddie, still a rower at St. Andrew's,refused to videotape it, because that's what he'd been doing at the Great Humiliation four yearsearlier.

So I watched with unalloyed joy as the Dartmouth eight creamed its first competitor, the HollandiaRoeiclub from the Netherlands, by more than two lengths. I hurried back to the sheds to find the teamrelieved but hardly callithumping. The men (no longer boys) were already preparing for the match thefollowing day with the dreaded Yale, and the oarsmen looked even grimmer than they had before therace.

The next day, I rode out in the umpire's launch, which trails the racing boats, accompanied by theYale coach. His chatty confidence continued until halfway through the race—about three minutes—at which point his team had fallen behind by half a boat length. After seven minutes, he stepped out of the umpire's boat, a forced smile straining his face. Dartmouth had pulled off the unthinkable—beaten Yale by more than a length.

On the 27th Sunday of the year (the day the finals are always held), what the New York Times latercalled "the most exciting race of the day" broke into action at a cloudy, cool 2:40 p.m. One-third of the way, Princeton led by a half-length, then by three-quarters, and seemed to be breaking away.Gradually Dartmouth gained, but never drew even, not at the halfway mark, the mile-and-an-eighth, or ahundred yards from the end. But at the last moment, the upstarts from Hanover somehow pulled acrossthe finish line first, winning by what is called a canvas (about two feet) and defeating the best teamon the East Coast.

The normally restrained onlookers burst into catcalls and applause—the race had been so brilliant.Back at the sheds, havoc erupted. We cheered the boat as it docked, and the victors peeled out—onerower with a bad back had to be lifted from the shell, another rolled onto the dock in agony, a thirdleaned over to throw up into the river. What appears to the casual spectator an elegant and gracefulactivity—boats gliding silently by under Constable skies—belies the effort and strain the sportrequires. But most were simply exultant: they embraced, cheered, threw themselves and one another (andeven their coach) into the Thames. Frank cried in his mother's arms, Eddie in mine—they are emotionalboys, thank God—and even the customarily reserved Coach Armstrong struggled to fight back tears.The hoopla on the dock lasted nearly an hour. A dinghy motored by, and several Brits hollered, "Threecheers for Dartmouth!" The Princeton team came next, and everyone lined up and shook hands. I amtold—and the size of Frank's headache the next day substantiates it—that the neighboring pubs were visited well past their normal closing hours that night.

Jonathan Reynolds is a playwright and screenwriter, and a columnist for the New York Times.

THE FACTS

Henley is a one-hour train ride from Paddington Station. The drive from London takes 45 minutes, but it's best to avoid Regatta Week traffic.

WHERE TO STAY

The Red Lion Hotel (Hart St.; 44-1491/572-161; doubles from $230) is the most popular place in town but is booked years in advance. Danesfield House Hotel & Spa (Henley Rd., Marlow-on-Thames; 44-1628/891-010; doubles from $360), a terrific alternative, sits on 65 acres three miles away.

WHERE TO EAT

The bold cooking of London has not arrived at Henley, but Loch Fyne (Market Place; 44-1491/845-780; dinner for two $80) offers smoked wild salmon and good fish. Zizzi (Hart St.; 44-1491/410-070; dinner for two $80) is more Italian than British. The busy Angel on the Bridge (Thameside; 44-1491/410-678; dinner for two $65), just inches from the river, won't have any seats available. The pub food at the far less crowded Bull Inn (Bell St.; 44-1491/574-821; dinner for two $65) is quite excellent.

Loch Fyne

Overlooking Henley’s market square, this seafood restaurant is part of an ever-growing chain, with more than 40 locations throughout the United Kingdom. Owned by former oyster farmers Johnny Noble and Andy Lane, Loch Fyne is named after the Scottish sea loch from which most of the restaurant’s seafood is sourced. At this location, housed in a red-brick building beneath the Milsoms Hotel, the dining room is simply designed with white brick walls, blond-wood furniture, and large windows. In addition to oysters, signature dishes include sashimi-style smoked salmon, and moules marinières (mariner's mussels, cooked with white wine, cream, shallots, and parsley).

Bull Bar and Brasserie

Zizzi, Henley-on-Thames

Housed in a 17th-century coach house, this Italian restaurant is part of a large chain with more than 100 locations throughout the United Kingdom. This branch is divided into three parts: a first-floor bar, an upstairs dining room, and an outdoor terrace open during warmer months. Designed in a minimalist style, the interior has red-brick walls, exposed ceiling beams, and polished-wood tables illuminated by simple white globe lights. The classic Italian menu includes pastas and pizzas, as well as sharable cichetti (Venetian small plates), such as the zucca al forno (oven-baked butternut squash with goat cheese, roasted garlic, and mint).

Angel on the Bridge

Situated directly on the river Thames, this traditional pub is housed in a historic building, parts of which date back to the 14th century. A small dock sits out front, along with a seasonal outdoor terrace that provides glimpses of the river between wooden floorboards. Embracing its age, the dining room has uneven hardwood floors, sections of exposed brick, a log fireplace, and a variety of mismatched light fixtures. The bar serves pints of local Brakspear beer, which pairs well with pub classics like fish-and-chips with mushy peas, and Cumberland sausages and mash with onion gravy.

Danesfield House Hotel & Spa

This palatial house has served many purposes, from private estate and RAF officer housing to corporate office; it became today’s hotel in July 1991. The “Danesfield” moniker derives from the Danish wanderers that once camped on the grounds, which now has 65 acres of garden space. The white exterior casts an imposing profile near the Thames (think Downton Abbey). From the basic Traditional Room to the three-level Tower Suite (with four-poster bed), quintessential “Britishness” abounds, with ornately patterned bedding and abundant garden views. Chef Adam Simmonds serves up seven courses in his restaurant’s tasting menu, and afternoon tea is served in the Great Hall. 

The Red Lion Hotel

There’s no shortage of history at the Red Lion; thought to have been built around 1531, it’s reported to have hosted King Charles I, Queen Wilhemina, and King George III. The 39 guestrooms (from twin bedded to the four-poster) are British country-style at its most quintessential, with linens adorned with prints, antique furniture, and vistas of the Thames. Guests often gather at the restaurant and bar after a day of exploring the surrounding village, which dates to before the Normans arrived in the 11th century.

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