Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Henley Royal Regatta: 'Downton Abbey' on water

By Tom Sweetman, for CNN
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1348 GMT (2148 HKT)
The Henley Royal Regatta is one of the English social calendar's key events. As so often on these occasions, hats are de rigueur. The Henley Royal Regatta is one of the English social calendar's key events. As so often on these occasions, hats are de rigueur.
HIDE CAPTION
The 'English Season'
Long history
'Downtown Abbey' on water
Dress code
Boaters for men
Old school
New school
Ticket to ride
Summer cruising
Riverside charm
Action packed
Be prepared
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Henley Royal Regatta has been going since 1839
  • Thousands flock to Henley-on-Thames each year to watch
  • Spectators go for the sporting and social aspect

Follow us at @WorldSportCNN and like us on Facebook

(CNN) -- It's nearly 200 years old, and people still come back for more.

Ever since June 14, 1839, the quaint English town of Henley-on-Thames has been attracting spectators in their droves to its Royal Regatta.

What started off as a small collection of boat races -- held over just a single afternoon on the River Thames near London -- has morphed into a five-day sporting and social extravaganza, where anyone who wants to be seen, attends.

"British people like the old charm of it -- its continuity, the idea, the past, comfort in a changing world," leading social commentator Peter York told CNN.

"All those thing that I call the 'Downton' things," added York, referring to the hit television show "Downton Abbey," which has won a legion of devoted fans around the globe thanks to its depiction of Edwardian England.

Like "Downton Abbey," Henley lures visitors from both at home and abroad, reminding them all of an England of old -- the maiden regatta occurred two years into Queen Victoria's near 64-year reign over the country.

Originally offering up just one trophy to rowers -- the Grand Challenge Cup, still today's biggest prize -- this month's 2014 edition boasted 20 different events on its 175th anniversary.

The sporting aspect of the regatta, however, remains just one side of a rather lopsided coin.

Along with the likes of Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and Wimbledon, Henley has a strict dress code if you want to gain entry.

Dongfeng Race Team select their crew
Chinese sailors face Ocean Race test
Training sailors for the world's toughest race

Lounge suits for the gentlemen and dresses -- "with a hemline below the knee" -- for the ladies is the order of the day.

Should the rowing not suffice, a "Champagne & Oyster Bar" and "Afternoon Tea" are some of the other delights on offer to visitors searching for other distractions.

"The dress code is quirky and a bit quaint, but I think it adds to the atmosphere, and I love the flamboyance of the men's colorful blazers," says CNN's Milena Veselinovic, who attended Henley this year.

"When I first went it was like a window to another culture.

"It may not be representative of modern Britain, but it's a throwback to a different era and a chance to spend the day in the sun with your friends," added the Serbian, who provides an outsider's view of Henley.

"If you find that charming then you probably would go again," remarks York of Henley's ability to repeatedly draw crowds of thousands year after year.

Henley's ability to retain that charm arguably separates it from Britain's illustrious horse racing and tennis showpieces.

The English identity that lies at its very core has been kept intact, yet to be eroded away by multimillion sponsorship deals, around-the-clock television coverage and an A-list celebrity guest lists that its bigger, more glamorous rivals wear as a badge of honor.

"Henley is still relatively better preserved than the other events," York observes.

"The moment these things go on to full-on corporate, to full-on new-rich money, then they are spoiled and changed, and can never quite go back to how they were.

"That Henley is set on the river and hasn't got a horrible building adds to the charm," adds York, who is no fan of the Ascot Grandstand -- "ugly and vulgar" -- that was built in 2006.

Henley's picturesque setting on the Thames, with an idyllic town as its backdrop, provides the event with its unique feel.

Crowds line sections of the course, which at one mile and 550 yards (2,112 meters) is longer than the standard international distance of 2 km.

They often witness two races simultaneously, while up to 90 can take place on certain days.

Sailing champ sets his eyes on Rio
Chasing world sport's oldest trophy
Cammas takes on tough challenges

To complete the program by a reasonable hour on such occasions, races are started at five-minute intervals, meaning action aplenty for spectators.

"It's clearly on the social calendar, but if you're actively involved in the sport it's the pinnacle of rowing, and a chance to see a world-class competition," says Alex Wood, a former junior Great Britain rower who has competed at Henley.

"It's something quintessentially British, and it has the feel of days gone past."

But while Henley's dream of "Olde England" is still alive and kicking, York suggests it's only a matter of time until the event follows in the footsteps taken by some of its rivals.

In February, Ascot signed a five-year sponsorship deal with Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company -- a company controlled by the Qatari royal family -- while the influence of foreign investment on British sport has been clear for all to see since Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea Football Club in 2003.

"They are being cherry-picked by rich foreigners," York says of traditional "English Season" events.

"It is an indication of what we are about. As Napoleon said, we are a 'nation of shopkeepers,' we'll sell anything to anybody. And don't forget, the Toffs (a slang term used to describe Britain's aristocracy) aren't in charge anymore.

"It's not new, but it's the scale of it. It's been happening since the very rich Americans came over in the 1890s, but they tried to fit in.

"These new people, though, are so rich and not bothered about trying to fit in."

York says the authentic "Englishness" of such social occasions has "considerably diminished."

"The people now look at things and say 'I want that one,' without thinking why. They are going to want it to work their way rather than the other way around."

Read: Ainslie's crusade gets government backing

Read: Explorer recalls epic raft journey

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
MainSail
July 10, 2014 -- Updated 1348 GMT (2148 HKT)
Like "Downton Abbey," Henley's Royal Regatta reminds its visitors of an England of old. But for how much longer?
June 17, 2014 -- Updated 2339 GMT (0739 HKT)
VO65 'Dongfeng' Training in Hong Kong
Nine months at sea, one change of clothes, freeze-dried food and a strange language. Could you cope?
June 11, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Can a $134 million budget and the royal seal of approval bring the coveted America's Cup back to British shores for the first time in sailing history?
June 3, 2014 -- Updated 1554 GMT (2354 HKT)
Bored of lounging on your superyacht in the Mediterranean? An increasing number of millionaires are now sailing their luxury vessels to the ends of the Earth, to get their kicks.
May 22, 2014 -- Updated 1613 GMT (0013 HKT)
He's one of the great landscape artists, but JMW Turner also had a watery passion -- and his maritime travels are being retraced.
May 20, 2014 -- Updated 1022 GMT (1822 HKT)
How do you get a foot on the property ladder, when you live in one of the most expensive cities in the world? The answer may lie in the water...
May 6, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Quadriplegic yachtswoman Hilary Lister was saved from suicide through the sport of sailing. Now she is plotting a voyage across the Atlantic.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1058 GMT (1858 HKT)
The financial titans of the world don't just require service par excellence -- they demand superheroes at their beck and call.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 0921 GMT (1721 HKT)
The Maltese Falcon makes a swift turn while at sea.
How do you design a superyacht fit for the billionaire who has everything money can buy?
April 8, 2014 -- Updated 0959 GMT (1759 HKT)
Meet the Lamborghini supercar yacht. To her owner, she's a $1 million dream machine. To others, she's a monstrosity. You decide.
March 25, 2014 -- Updated 1238 GMT (2038 HKT)
Love the movie? Now you can charter the superyacht -- if you can stump up $125,000 a week.
March 18, 2014 -- Updated 1138 GMT (1938 HKT)
It's like a stunt from the latest James Bond movie, only this isn't a movie and there is no safety harness.
ADVERTISEMENT