In his junior year of high school, my son Frank, then 17, was invited with his crew team to row in the annual regatta at Henley-on-Thames in England. The Henley Regatta is more or less the World Series of rowing, 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 way through nearly 2,000 of the 2,112-meter course, well ahead of its competition, the English school Canford (all the races at Henley are two-boat races). But about 10 strokes short of the finish, one of the rowers made a mistake, crippling the boat and causing it to slide impotently onto the wooden barriers bordering the race lane. Canford crept ahead and won.
The scene at the rowing sheds afterward, while perhaps lacking the dimension of full tragedy, was among the saddest I have ever seen: eight youths on the verge of adulthood suddenly returned to their cribs by the crushing disappointment. As a show of solidarity, each had shaved his head the night before; 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 to the 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, lying roughly equidistant between the glorious city of Oxford and the tawdry city of Reading. Of the river itself, Sir Walter Scott wrote, "There are two things scarce matched in the Universe, the Sun in Heaven and the Thames on the Earth." A 170-year-old patriotic hyperbole aside, at Henley the river—the vista, the gingerbread houses with viewing balconies overlooking the pleasure boats and yachts—is indeed a jewel. The place has a natural quaintness, as opposed to a created one, that many English villages 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 bad food, manages decent business. Then, in early summer, Henley welcomes some 250,000 visitors over a period of five days—as if New York suddenly played host to 200 million. Like Brigadoon, the town springs to life, transforming itself into an Edwardian sporting event-cum-costume party that rivals the 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 Henley Regatta—begun in 1839—is a paradise. It is not only the dress code that makes the scene look like an open call for The Importance of Being Earnest—no trousers on ladies, dresses and skirts at least two inches 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 men outdo the women: panamas and straw boaters festoon the pink-cheeked faces of present-day Evelyn Waughs, often competing for color with their rowing club jackets piped in opposing hues. Although most of the one-mile, 550-yard strip that parallels the course is open to the public, the regatta organization owns and administers the last 500 yards or so, and it is here in the Stewards Enclosure that the regatta looks put together by Merchant Ivory.
The picnicking in the grassy parking lots outside the regatta grounds might remind you of tailgating at a football game—if the spread were catered by Tiffany. Brightly striped, four-cornered tents open at 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 bands take turns playing loud and chauvinistic tunes all day. On Saturday, hoi polloi fill the towpath in various stages of well-mannered raucousness and all forms of dress, dining at food stands with names like YOO WAN NOODLES?But in the Stewards Enclosure, most of the dandies are deceptively foppish: as either former or present rowers or family of former or present rowers, they are very invested in the sport.
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 eighth at the Eastern Sprints in the spring, far behind the two top contenders. I prayed only that Dartmouth would win once and the St. Andrew's curse would not revisit the river. So touched with superstition and 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 years earlier.
So I watched with unalloyed joy as the Dartmouth eight creamed its first competitor, the Hollandia Roeiclub from the Netherlands, by more than two lengths. I hurried back to the sheds to find the team relieved but hardly callithumping. The men (no longer boys) were already preparing for the match the following day with the dreaded Yale, and the oarsmen looked even grimmer than they had before the race.
The next day, I rode out in the umpire's launch, which trails the racing boats, accompanied by the Yale 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 later called "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 a hundred yards from the end. But at the last moment, the upstarts from Hanover somehow pulled across the finish line first, winning by what is called a canvas (about two feet) and defeating the best team on 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—one rower with a bad back had to be lifted from the shell, another rolled onto the dock in agony, a third leaned over to throw up into the river. What appears to the casual spectator an elegant and graceful activity—boats gliding silently by under Constable skies—belies the effort and strain the sport requires. But most were simply exultant: they embraced, cheered, threw themselves and one another (and even their coach) into the Thames. Frank cried in his mother's arms, Eddie in mine—they are emotional boys, 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, "Three cheers for Dartmouth!" The Princeton team came next, and everyone lined up and shook hands. I am told—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.
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.
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.
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.