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Cygnet Rowing Club
on the Tideway since 1890
CSSC Sports and Leisure


Henley Royal Regatta (HRR) is probably the focus of most rowing clubs' season. Representing their club at this prestigious event is often the pinnacle of most club rowers' career. It is also a chance to socialise and swank around in pink trousers, lairy blazers, posh frocks and big hats. See "A Day at Henley Royal Regatta" below

Cygnet is in the very fortunate position of having very good friends who, not only own a house halfway down the course but are also very generous in inviting club members and friends to join them at this most exclusive of enclosures for the Friday of Regatta - as long as we remain on our best behaviour of course. The invitation is open from about midday to after racing at about 6.00pm, where guests should tidy-up and repair to the towpath with any leftover booze and snacks.

Attendees are expected to bring their own drinks but a large communal picnic is usually co-ordinated but the secretary. It is a very relaxed afternoon chatting, eating, drinking, people watching and for the truly dedicated, even watching some rowing! If you're lucky The Chairman won't make a speech.

Cygnet Thames Cup VIII in 2008
Man Chat
Girly Gossip
Lovely Ladies
Lovely Boys
Picnic on the Lawn
Old Blades

A Day At Henley Royal Regatta

Words and pictures by Paul Rawkins

Henley Royal Regatta is an established part of the English social season. Coming hot on the tails of Royal Ascot and overlapping Wimbledon, Henley Royal Regatta spans six days (Tuesday to Sunday) from the end of June into early July. Nestling in the picturesque Thames valley, ‘twixt Reading and Marlow,
Henley boasts the longest straight stretch of water – 1 mile 550 yards (2112 metres) – on the non-tidal Thames.

Back in 1829, this made it the obvious choice for the first Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. By 1839, with the coming of the railway, the good burghers of Henley concluded that there was a sound business case for establishing an annual regatta that would tap into the popular mood of the times. The first Regatta reportedly attracted 10,000 visitors, amply rewarding their foresight. This year, some 300,000 spectators are expected to flock to the event to watch more than 2,000 competitors battle it out on the toughest side-by-side rowing course in the world.

Broadly speaking, Henley attracts two sorts of race goers: the genuine aficionados, who are there to watch the racing, and the ‘chattering classes’ for whom the rowing forms a gentle, largely unobtrusive backdrop as they soak up the atmosphere in the ‘Pink Palace’ (Leander Club), one of the dedicated enclosures or the many corporate hospitality tents dotted along the course. Conspicuous consumption rules: in 2017 they devoured 4,500 bottles of champagne, 20,000 pints of Pimms and a tonne of strawberries between them.

Over time the Regatta has become more of a showcase for competitive rowing and less the public spectacle it was originally intended to be. Nonetheless, for many visitors, the high spot of their day will be an invitation to the Stewards’ Enclosure, the highly manicured expanse adjacent to the Finish with its grandstands, bars and restaurants.

However, beware the dress police, should you be fortunate enough to obtain tickets to this hallowed ground. The Stewards are sticklers for proper attire: for men, lounge suits, jackets or blazers, flannels and tie are indispensable; for women, dresses or skirts with hemlines ‘below the knee’ are de rigueur; alternatively, jackets or blazers with trousers or a trouser suit. No other garments will pass muster.
Mobile phones are tolerated, but openly conversing on them is not.

By now, you may have concluded that rowing remains the sport of ‘toffs’ and public-school boys that it always was. However, lest you think Henley is only for ‘posh’ people, rest assured that when all is said and done, the Regatta remains ‘free to view’ along most if its length. If you’re minded to take a stroll to the Start, over one mile distant from the Stewards’ Enclosure, comfortable shoes are to be recommended. Alternatively, if you’re feeling less energetic, you may choose to simply plonk yourself down on the towpath with your picnic and follow the races on YouTube, courtesy of a drone that follows each and every race in real time.

The Start is often likened to the Thames of Ratty and Mole of Wind in the Willows fame, quietly folded between Temple Island and the tow path. But don’t be fooled, this is where much of the action takes place. Races are frequent at the beginning of the week, less so at the weekend. There is little to match the spectacle of the umpire and his timekeeping team sweeping up to the Start in one of the Regatta’s much loved slipper launches – Amaryllis, Enchantress and Nautilus to name but a few – to officiate each of some 300 races over six days. Such finely tuned officialdom ensures that the Regatta always runs to time, while spectators enjoy a ring side seat just a matter of yards away from the competing crews.

Once the crews are straight and ready, the umpire will raise his flag and say “Attention, Go”. Most races are won or lost within the first few minutes, so getting a good start is crucial. Ratings will be high, muscles taut and coxswains vociferous as the crews surge away from the stake boats, followed by the gentle swoosh of the umpire’s launch.

For the dedicated spectator, It helps to get to grips with ‘course speak’ early in the day: ‘Bucks’ and ‘Berks’ refers to the respective sides of the river (few can remember which); ‘the end of the (Temple) Island’ marks the first milestone, followed by ‘the Barrier’, ‘Fawley’, ‘Remenham’ and so on. Commentators always maintain a very measured tone of voice and pride themselves in pronouncing the most challenging of competitors’ names correctly.

As the crews battle their way down the course, closely pursued by the umpire’s launch, a cacophony of sounds will greet them from the river banks and leisure craft moored alongside the boomed course. While the scene today no longer rivals the serried ranks of houseboats and pleasure craft a century ago, it nevertheless remains as eclectic as ever embracing punts and skiffs, slipper launches and paddle steamers and even the occasional paddle boarder.

Meanwhile, the towpath will be a mass of humanity attired in their stripy blazers, elegant gowns and expensive hats, some more inebriated than others after a ‘good lunch’. In the enclosures, the bars and lunch and tea tents will be well-patronised, while the band in the Stewards’ Enclosure always draws a crowd, as does the art gallery.

As with any sport, ‘taking part’ is important, but ‘winning is all’, especially if you have spent several days fighting your way through the heats to the finals on the Sunday. Henley Royal Regatta is the lay oarspersons’ Olympics; it is a unique event where enthusiastic club oarsmen and women rub shoulders with the cream of international rowing, yet all competitors must row under a club name rather than a national banner and sponsorship is outlawed. Like Wimbledon, there are ‘seeded’ entries and it is not unknown for reputable names to be pipped to the post on finals day.

Foreign crews are much in evidence, particularly from the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and winning at Henley is still much coveted by North American university crews. The Regatta trophies are legendary, many of them dating back to the 19thC. Prize giving commences at around 4.30pm on Sunday afternoon, graced by an appropriate dignitary, and winning crews may then have photographs taken with the Regatta silverware, but the Stewards never let such coveted objects out of their sight. Victorious competitors must content themselves with individual medals.

And so, as another Henley draws to a close, some choose to loiter at the bars or nearby hostelries, while others head for their cars and the long queues towards London on the M4, leaving the early evening shadows to lengthen on the vacant deck chairs in the Stewards’ Enclosure.

Christopher Dodd, a rowing historian, once said of the Henley course ‘It was the perfect place in God’s eyes’1 and as peace and tranquility returns to this unique stretch of the Thames, it is not hard to see his point. And if as a spectator you manage to endure the full six days of racing – far more demanding than the actual rowing – you almost certainly deserve a medal.

1The Season, A Summer Whirl Through The English Social Season, Sophie Campbell

Other Sources: Henley Royal Regatta, 1839–1989 (150th Anniversary Souvenir Magazine), Victorians on the Thames, R.R.Bolland

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The bare necessities for the Racing aficionado
The chattering classes (in the Stewards’ Enclosure)
The chattering classes (in the Stewards’ Enclosure)
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“I shall start you like this... Attention, Go!”
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Keeping a low profile
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Rowing’s fine, but punting has it’s attractions
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Eton boating song anybody?
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Incomparable silverware but Everybody does Henley in their own way...
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‘The perfect place’