24 August 2021
By Chris Dodd
Chris Dodd reports a strange Henley experience.
The long-running mantra that Henley thrives by never changing was sorely tested this year. The real secret of the Royal Regatta is that the trophies on offer keep pace with domestic and international rowing. Entries would dwindle if events only reflected the scene when the Stewards Enclosure began a hundred years ago, let alone the regatta’s birth year in 1839. Hence the introduction of more events for women this year is at the core of the regatta’s rowing prosperity. The plan to accommodate this by spreading the action over six days had to be delayed because of the ever-shifting Government guidelines over COVID, so more races had to be jammed into an already crowded five-day event.
A very visible change was an end to the ban on trousers and culottes as suitable wear for women in the Enclosure. Apparently, this was brought about by the band of female Stewards who object to wearing skirts for official duties. My perambulation through the hallowed ground on Henley Friday was enhanced by some amazing haute trouser couture. The most noticeable change this year, however, was enforced by Henley Town Council’s COVID policy. There were no athletes to be seen except on the water. The boat tents were moved to an athlete zone hidden under trees on the Bucks bank downstream of Phyllis Court, while a rather tacky area of food and drink outlets replaced the Berks boat tent and café. Thus, the heart of the regatta was ripped from under it. Rowers became a sort of cabaret act like the Olympics, appearing on the course as if by magic and vanishing after doing their stuff.
Some past scenes showing the boat tents and the pontoons – the area at the heart of the regatta:
There are countless stories about the boat tents and its adjacent café, but among the best is the visit by the eminent historian, the late Professor Tom Mendenhall who studied the English medieval cloth trade while rowing at Balliol during the 1930s and returned to the regatta 50 years later. He stayed in a house on the Henley riverside and spent five days sitting in the café. When I drove him to the airport to return to his home in Martha’s Vineyard, he proclaimed that without entering the Stewards’ Enclosure he had met everyone he ever knew in England.
When researching my history of HRR (Henley Royal Regatta, Stanley Paul, 1981, 1983 and 1989), I spent hours around the boat tents in 1980. The first chapters of the book end with Trinity Cambridge winning the first Grand, recorded in the diary of the 2 man, Warrington Smyth. I discovered that the “2” man in the 1980 U.S. Grand eight, Dick Cashin, had been at Trinity, and I was desperate for a U.S. victory to round off the story. Fortunately, Cashin had back trouble and spent the week before the race talking to me in the café. Fortunately, too, he retained his seat in the boat and won the Grand. Trinity men in the No 2 seat to win in 1839 and 1980!
This is what the boat tent area is all about. If the press, the rowers, the boatmen, the coaches, the gossips, the parents, the officials can’t mingle, then Henley’s heart no longer beats.
Please Sir Steve, please follow the mantra!