Revellers in ball gowns and dinner jackets, turning up on board £200,000 boats to dance and party while knocking back magnums of vintage champagne? It can only be the extraordinary Henley Festival, the high-end musical extravaganza that's a sort of Glastonbury-on-Thames for the (very) well heeled. We sent Emma Earnshaw along to see what it was like.
Guys and girls in glad rags
Yes, there really is a Black Tie dress code at the Henley Festival, making it feel like a giant throwback to the leaver’s ball from your time at university. Except everyone is almost certainly a lot richer than when they were 21.
This enormous inflatable duck
She’s here every year, a perennial, familiar presence. There’s no need to ask why — or from where, or by whom she is brought. Just enjoy.
A floating stage
Forget Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage: Henley has The Floating Stage which hosts the main headliners (this year; Rag n’bone Man, Westlife, Nile Rogers and Chic and Ministry of Sound), constructed on the Thames. It’s a huge piece of engineering and wonderment.
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Millionaires turning up on their £200,000 motor launches…
…and gatecrashers arriving by water
Paddle up stream and enjoy the sights and sounds of the festival. Many locals come via the Thames by private boats or the brave by paddleboard, often in fleets and merriment to soak up the atmosphere and Rose. Limited moorings are available for (pre purchase) per night.
A giant slinky and an Easter Island head
The grounds are full of sculptures, the largest sculpture being ‘Toroid’, gigantic colour loops guests can interact with, alongside other sculptures dotted along the riverside giving a three-dimensional sensory overload.
Whether it’s mirror ball men strutting around, two nutty Neanderthals or a terrifying 8ft tea lady, these lawn performers pop up to entertain the crowds this year and certainly take you by surprise.
An entire tented village
The main grandstand and majority of tents are rehomed after the Royal Regatta that is held the week before. This stage joins the Big Top, Garden stage, Bedouin tent, The Spiegel and Rise stage.
No, not HM The King — although it’s not far from Windsor, so maybe he will turn up one year? — but Elvis Presley, reincarnated by Ben Portsmouth who delivered a show-stopping performance of Elvis’s greatest hits. Thank you very much.
People laughing out loud
The festival always brings in the big names in UK comedy with Jo Brand, Chris McCausland, Jack Dee and Adam Kaye. The latter not only performs his front line NHS accounts, has a witty play-on classic hits at the piano.
The Henley Feast-ival
The cuisine is as classy as the rest of the event, with white table cloth sit-down dining — honestly, we’re not making this up — on offer at three separate formal dining restaurants, while for posh picnicking you can also order a bespoke hamper. For those that wish to slum it — while sipping on a glass of Moët — you can graze your way through the pop ups, with every style and flavour of foods on offer from fresh sushi and paella, to Mexican, Indian and Italian. And all washed down with everything from bubbly and locally-brewed real ales to Pimms, vodka cocktails, boozy cointreau hot chocolate when it gets chilly, and a deeply unwise ‘Snickers shot’.
The festival showcases a vast range of modern art, installations and sculpture. Wander through the airy galleries and meet some of the artists working on site. A great way to see and purchase new talent — and the Festival’s RISE charity promotes young artists — although we’re not quite sure where you’d keep your newly-acquired sculpture while you’re letting your hair down in the small hours.
DJs and DJs
Disc Jockeys meet Dinner Jackets at Henley: it’s the world’s largest black tie festival, with world-renowned DJ artists playing sets deep into the night to get the dance floors filled. Danny Rampling headlined for the weekend in 2023 while Ministry of Sound played the main Floating Stage.
The next big thing, catch new acts arriving onto the festival scene, music for all tastes from emerging artists such Charlotte Campbell (above), Jamie Cooke and Louis Cardozo.
Fire on the water
The firework displays are artfully directed by Titanium Fireworks and sent out over the river, delivering impressive colour bursts reflecting on the water to give it all an extra wow factor. What a way to finish a wonderful day.
Photo credits: Emma Earnshaw / Country Life and Harvey Williams Fairley / Henley Festival