Henley the First

This ‘progress box’ is ingenious.
This ‘progress box’ is ingenious.

12 July 2016

Courtney Landers, of Pembroke College BC’s W1, famous on HTBS for her witty and beautifully written diary about how she and her team mates prepared for this year’s May Bumps on the River Cam, went to her first Henley Royal Regatta this summer. Here is her report:

I’m not normally one for big events, but ever since I found out about Henley I’ve wanted to go. This year, I finally got my act together, and procured enclosure passes for Thursday, Friday and Saturday thanks to a generous PCBC patron. Having watched via the regatta’s YouTube broadcasts last year, I was expecting something along the lines of a vastly magnified cross between May Bumps and Bedford regatta – incredible racing combined with a sense of camaraderie – with elements of the Melbourne Cup (us Australians closest equivalent to Ascot). What I encountered was so much better, but so overwhelming I forgot to take many photos, so you’ll have to excuse this article for being mostly text.

Thursday
Having carefully packed my passes and my lovely new blazer, and checked that all my skirts go below my knees, I leave Cambridge for Henley via train on Thursday morning.

My first hint that I’m heading into something big is the visible migration of rowing blazers at Paddington. When I arrive at Twyford, just before noon, the platform for Henley is astonishingly crowded. It’s, after all, only Thursday afternoon.

Following the steady stream from the station through town, I get my first glimpse of the river and realise I am completely unprepared for this spectacle. There are boats everywhere. Beautiful craft of polished wood and brass line the bank and cruise up and down. There is even a pair of paddle boats, and one raft of sorts that seems to have been converted into a floating garden. As I get close to the Henley Bridge the vista opens up before me; white tents as far as the eye can see. The identity of Henley as a place not just a regatta starts to register.

Having battled my way over the bridge, I experience the first of what I come to think of as ‘Henley phenomena’ – in the huge, dispersed and shifting crowd I run smack into someone I know. In this case it’s a patron of the boat club I had arranged to have lunch with, but who had no idea I was even off the train yet. On the Friday and Saturday, I will also run into almost every current PCBC member who has made it to Henley, several alumni and even one of our coaches, all completely by accident.

After a lovely lunch at the Red Lion and a visit to the coat room tent, I pull on my blazer and enter the Stewards Enclosure. Immediately I’m awash in a sea of people wearing colourful blazers and ties, fancy hats and dresses, and some fairly dubious footwear. The movement of people through the enclosures mirrors the circular pattern of the boats across the river – it feels like the whole place is doing laps.

I’m going to envy the ladies their hats later in the week when I get sunburnt
I’m going to envy the ladies their hats later in the week when I get sunburnt

After a few moments of gaping the river draws me over and the first thing I see, or rather hear, is the crew from Fujian Rowing Club China. Their cox has a very distinctive call, but unfortunately they still lose. Soon after, fellow Antipodean Mahe Drysdale proceeds past, lengths ahead of his competition. He’s accompanied by sedate clapping and the startlingly loud buzz of the camera drone. It’s all a bit surreal.

Eventually I find myself a deck chair and just observe, until the tide of people coming through the gates starts to ebb back towards the railway station and I gladly follow.

Friday
Today is the day I have been looking forward to most. In addition to a full day of watching the quarter finals and exploring the towpath I have been very kindly invited to my first Henley picnic by British Rowing umpire and HTBS contributor Daniel Walker, where I’ll also get to meet the website’s other contributors Tim Koch and Chris Dodd for the first time.

Passing the boat tent on the way in, I can hear the roar of ergs, but the enclosures are still fairly quiet at nine o’clock so I score a front row seat to watch the races. It’s now that I notice the umpire’s launches. I haven’t seen motorboats so long and narrow before, and I’m stunned by how smoothly they keep up with the competitors while still allowing the umpires to stand. I’m absolutely delighted when I notice one of the launches is named the Amaryllis (and I’ll be even more pleased later in the day when Tim and Chris inform me this is a Cambridge boat and the template for the other launches). Amaryllis is my (unusual) middle name! I form a new life goal; get a ride on that boat during a HRR race.

Sitting in the deck chairs, I can see why it’s a ‘thing’ to attempt to steal one – aside from the lovely colour, they’re very comfortable. However once a shower or two passes over I decide it’s as good a time as any to walk down to the start.

Consensus amongst PCBC members is that these skiffs would be the ideal method of acquiring a deckchair for personal use.
Consensus amongst PCBC members is that these skiffs would be the ideal method of acquiring a deckchair for personal use.

When I took possession of my PCBC blazer I was very pleased to discover how many pockets it had. At boat club dinner, it means I don’t have to carry a purse, and here at Henley it means I can leave my backpack in the coat tent and wander the towpath carrying only an umbrella. I become more grateful for this the further I walk – it’s a lot further than it looks.

Four seasons in a day seems to be the norm at Henley.
Four seasons in a day seems to be the norm at Henley.

On the towpath, it’s even more obvious that Henley is basically a festival on a river, complete with mud, tents and picnics. One element I’m completely surprised by is the huge array of food tents and bars, including private enclosures for company parties. Dressed as I am in a long dress with flat but nonetheless ‘dressy’ shoes, I’m envious of everyone in casual clothes setting up camping chairs and picnic rugs – it would be great to spend a day here in sneakers and shorts. I can also see the appeal of the spectator boats.

These boys have the right idea.
These boys have the right idea.

The start has an entirely different atmosphere to the enclosures. By the time a race gets to the enclosures the rowing looks effortless – as though the boats are just gliding along to the finish. You feel rather detached from the excitement of it all. Down at the start however, it’s as though you can smell the tension. You’re just metres away from the rowers as they sit – calmly motionless or restlessly sliding up and down – waiting for the umpire to arrive. To my eyes the start itself seems a lot more frantic than at other regattas because of the necessity of steering so sharply away from the banks.

I watch a Leander quad make a magnificent start, and then trek back up the towpath before lunch, bumping into yet another PCBC rower on my way. Already today I’ve run into our women’s captain from my first year.

Leander looking unsurprisingly chilled.
Leander looking unsurprisingly chilled.

My first Henley picnic involves inhaling an enormous amount of food, meeting a lot of (really friendly) Auriol Kensington RC members and wishing my brain was a sponge. This year, I’ve begun to realise how much I don’t know about the wider world of rowing, and how badly I want to know all of it. So meeting and chatting with Daniel, Tim and Chris was a very welcome eye-opener. I’ve got a list of books to read as long as my arm, and a few ideas for new projects.

‘I feel very tall’. Photo ©: Tim Koch.
‘I feel very tall’. Photo ©: Tim Koch.

After receiving a pass for Leander from Chris, I’m lucky enough to be given a tour of the enclosures by Tim. This is the first time I’ve been into the boat tent and it’s fantastic to see some of the competitors and their shells close up. Despite the fact that I’m surrounded by elite sportspeople, the boat tent is very grounding – in all the overwhelming bustle of Henley it’s like a little oasis of actual rowing.

Funnily enough, Leander was the same, despite the huge silver trophies and the big board with all the names of Leander Olympians. The whole place is undeniably about rowing. On our way out I form another new life goal – own one of those plush pink hippos.

On a more serious note, the glimpse I get of the press tent is very enticing.

Obligatory Blazer+Badges picture. I’ve realised for next year that the done thing is to loop them through your buttonhole.
Obligatory Blazer+Badges picture. I’ve realised for next year that the done thing is to loop them through your buttonhole.

Saturday
Saturday morning the train from Twyford is delayed and I strike up a conversation with a fellow traveller in a blazer. As it happens, she’s also Australian (this kind of thing does nothing for the stereotype that we all know each other). We get chatting about what it’s like to see Henley through Australian eyes and slowly it dawns on me – her club in Australia, the plethora of badges on her blazer, and her distinctive accent. I’m talking to Sarah Cook, Olympian and World Rowing commentator, and she’s really nice. I try not to fangirl too much but I can’t help but ask a few questions about Poznan and what it’s like to commentate at Henley.

This is the second Henley phenomenon; casually encountering VBDs – Very Big Deals. On Friday, I’d passed ‘Girl on the River’ blogger Patricia Carswell as she hustled somewhere fast, a massive grin on her face. Later in the day, on Saturday, while hanging about in the boat enclosure waiting to spot Mahe Drysdale boating for his semi, I get chatting to an American gentleman there to support a friend in the New York Athletic Club boat. I’m on the hunt for particularly interesting blazers, and my new acquaintance mentions he knows the guy who wrote Rowing Blazers and he’s coxing the NYAC boat. Which is how I meet Jack Carlson.

Star-struck as I am, I fail to get pictures with any of the VBDs I meet aside from those associated with HTBS. Next year.

Obligatory slightly arty deckchair picture.
Obligatory slightly arty deckchair picture.

Of all the days I attend, Saturday is the most ‘posh’. It shouldn’t have surprised me that Henley is part of the ‘society calendar’, but it did. By Saturday, the number of people apparently there simply to drink and be merry was staggering. To be fair though Saturday also saw a lot of boatie socialising. Everywhere I turned there was someone I knew from Cambridge, or someone known to one of the succession of friends I roamed with during the day. This resulted in the third and final Henley phenomenon, which I’ll call ‘Hey let’s go watch the racing’. Utter that phrase and half an hour later you’re sure to find yourself in another bar area with a pint of Pimm’s having found yet another friend en route to the grandstands.

I did manage to steal away to watch most of the races I’d earmarked as potentially exciting, and Henley did not disappoint. The sedate clapping of Thursday had grown into a rousing cheer for passing boats, particularly those in very tight races or involving British crews. Or for Mahe Drysdale (I’m still gobsmacked he lost).

Although I departed on Saturday very weary and quite sunburnt, I had a fantastic first Henley. I’m already contemplating how I might manage to attend the full five days next year.

© Photography: Courtney Landers

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