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
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 1915 GMT (0315 HKT)
Wide shot of a sailboat from a drone
"Sometimes, I fly the drone with my head in a trash bag so I don't get salt spray from the sea on my equipment," says drone operator Justice L Bentz.
November 11, 2014 -- Updated 1401 GMT (2201 HKT)
If some naval architects get their way, superyachts of the future will look more like floating pieces of art than bog standard boats.
November 4, 2014 -- Updated 1224 GMT (2024 HKT)
This is no treasure hunt for a casket of gold at the bottom of the ocean.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1529 GMT (2329 HKT)
Navigate the world's most treacherous seas, crossing 73,000 nautical kilometers in a confined space with stressed-out, sleep-deprived crewmates. 
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1005 GMT (1805 HKT)
Personal submarines, jetpacks, even 'walking boats.'
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1136 GMT (1936 HKT)
Over 300 miles from the nearest ocean, competitors in one of the world's fastest sailing races prepare for battle.
August 11, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
London's new superyacht hotel is so enormous, authorities had to lower the water level by five meters just to fit it under a bridge.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1155 GMT (1955 HKT)
His mast-walking stunts have attracted over 3.5 million hits on YouTube, but Alex Thomson just wants to get back to doing what he does best.
July 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Elizabeth Meyer talks to CNN's Mainsail about the "Armageddon battle" to restore the pioneering J-class boat Endeavour.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1150 GMT (1950 HKT)
Ship captains of the future won't be salty sea dogs with their hand at the helm, and the ocean at their feet.
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?
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1156 GMT (1956 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.
ADVERTISEMENT