Henley Royal Regatta: An insider’s guide

Received an invitation to Henley? Charlotte Peters tells you everything you need to know, from dress code to star-spotting.

What is the Henley Royal Regatta?

No need for that ‘the’ – it’s simply known as Henley Royal Regatta, and is to rowing what Wimbledon is to tennis.

Founded in 1839, the regatta is world famous for its rowing races. Crews from as far afield as Japan and New Zealand come to race on the Thames. The 2019 Henley Royal Regatta  begins on Wednesday 3 July and runs until Sunday 7 July.

Don’t call it ‘The Henley Regatta’ or ‘Henley Regatta’

Always refer to it either as ‘Henley’ or ‘Henley Royal Regatta’ – not the ‘Henley Regatta’. The Regatta has been Royal since HRH Prince Albert became its first royal patron in 1851, with every reigning monarch since consenting to become a patron.

Where to watch

The best place to watch from is the Stewards’ Enclosure which is on the finish line, but you need to be either a member or a guest of a member to get in.

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The next best option for those keen on following the racing is the Regatta Enclosure, just along from Stewards’. It’s a good spot, and children of all ages are welcome there – the dress code is more relaxed, too.

Alternatively get there early, take your picnic and a rug then bag a spot on the riverbank. You could also charter a rowing boat and moor on the booms.

What to wear

Henley is smart and there is a dress code, but it’s not as Draconian as Royal Ascot.

Ladies should forget wedding-style frocks, separates and fussy hats. Instead think along the lines of tea dresses and simpler straw headgear. It can get chilly by the river, so take a wrap or jacket for later.

Trying to get into the Stewards’ Enclosure in a dress or skirt above the knee is a major faux pas. Every year sees incredulous, leg-baring women being turned away at the entrance – embarrassing and a real nuisance for your host.

Don’t think you’ll slip past the eagle eyes of the officials either – you won’t.

Play it safe, follow the dress code and wear a frock that definitely covers the knee. Don’t even think about wearing trousers, a jumpsuit or culottes. Every morning at Henley sees girls being turned away from Stewards’ and then racing off into the town centre in search of a remedying knee-length number.

Another tip: forget stilettos as they will sink into the grass. In addition, your host may suggest that you walk to the start, which is well over a mile along the riverbank from the Leander Club and Stewards’ Enclosure. So make sure your footwear is up to it – wedges work best.

For gentlemen, crew, club and team blazers are fine if they have been earned. (Like club ties.)  Otherwise men should play it safe and wear a plain blazer or linen suit. A Panama goes down well though, and can be a pate-saver on a scorching day.  

Gentlemen are requested to wear a jacket and tie (or cravat) at all times, unless permission is granted by the Stewards for gentlemen to go shirt-sleeved (usually only in the hottest of temperatures).

And if it rains? Old Henley hands will always have wellies at the ready. And umbrellas and raincoats.

Mobile phone etiquette

You are forbidden to be seen to make or receive calls on your mobile in the Stewards’ Enclosure but it is acceptable to use your phone as a camera. The Stewards employ bowler-hatted Regatta officials to politely request you to cease and desist.  

Repeat offenders are expelled from the Stewards’ Enclosure and their badge numbers recorded. Excruciating.

What – and who – to watch out for

Henley Royal Regatta is seen as the pinnacle of a rower’s career, starting at schoolboy and girl level, with strong competition in the junior men’s Fawley Cup and Princess Elizabeth Cup (known as the “PE”), and for junior women, the Diamond Jubilee Challenge Cup.

Prize giving on Sunday afternoon is always made by an esteemed sportsman or sportswoman – in recent years that has included Sir Ben Ainslee, Victoria Pendleton CBE, Sir Chris Hoy, and Dame Kelly Holmes.

You’re also highly likely to see Britain’s rowing royalty: Sir Steve Redgrave, Sir Matthew Pinsent, Dame Katherine Grainger and James Cracknell are all regular attendees.