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Your Complete Guide To Attending The Henley Royal Regatta

Matt Crisp May 20, 2024

The Henley Royal Regatta takes place from July 2 to 7 this year, and thousands of visitors are expected to attend this favourite event of the British sporting and social calendar. There’s almost 300 events of international and even Olympic standard to provide a spectacle for the crowds, plus fine quality food and drink choices.

The base for the event is the River Thames at the attractive town of Henley-on-Thames in Oxfordshire, which is an easy journey from London or any other major town or city in the UK, particularly if you take the stress out of getting there with a coach hire. Here’s a look at the history of the regatta, and what to expect from your first visit.

The origins of the regatta

The first Henley Royal Regatta took place in 1839, and has been held annually ever since, apart from during the World Wars and the Covid pandemic. It was originally conceived by the Mayor as part of a fair and more general public entertainments, but over the years the rowing events took over. 

As the event grew in popularity, its length expanded from a single afternoon to two days, and eventually to the six-day extravaganza that attracts a loyal audience and international competitors today. The royal patronage first began in 1851 with HRH Prince Albert, passing onto the Monarch upon his death. 

The most recent royal attendance to the regatta was by The Princess Royal in 2010. Due to the huge popularity of the event, since 1986 Qualifying Races have been held in the week prior to the Regatta to ensure that the number of entrants does not exceed the maximum limit. 

Over the years, various challenge cups have been introduced to add to the formality and competitiveness of the events. These include the Grand Challenge Cup in 1839, the Stewards’ Challenge Cup in 1841, and the Ladies’ Challenge Plate in 1845. However, women were not allowed to compete in exhibition races until 1964.

The dress code and social scene

In 1993 the Women’s Henley Regatta was established, and now female competitors are an integral part of the event.  Despite a willingness to move with the times, the event remains deeply rooted in tradition. For example, it wasn’t until 2021 that women entering the members-only area were permitted to wear trousers. 

The exclusive Steward’s Enclosure still has a formal dress code, stipulating that women must wear skirts or dresses below knee length. Men are expected to wear lounge suits or blazers and ties. 

The dress code for women guests of the enclosure now reads: “Ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts, with a hemline below the knee, or jackets or blazers with trousers, or trouser suits. Whilst not a requirement, it is customary for ladies to wear hats. No one will be admitted wearing shorts, leggings, tracksuits or jeans.”

However, visitors to other areas are not bound by any dress codes, although many people enjoy the opportunity to showcase their sartorial elegance. The social scene is an important element of the event, and it is a place to see and be seen even if you are not an avid follower of competitive rowing. 

Temple Island

Temple Island is the famous landmark that marks the start of the Regatta Course. It was acquired by the event organisers in 1987, and is a small riverine island situated about a mile and a half downstream from the town of Henley-on-Thames. It is in an idyllic spot, surrounded by water meadows and rolling wooded hills. 

In 1771, the architect James Wyatt constructed an elegant folly on the island, which was designed to act as a fishing lodge for the nearby Fawley Court. The Stewards of the Regatta bought the island from the owners of Fawley House, and undertook a programme of restoration work to the island and the temple.

The beautifully restored feature is now available to hire from April until the end of October as a wedding and corporate function venue, and is also a popular setting for private parties. The main function room of the temple can accommodate up to 40 guests, whilst there is room on the lawn for a marquee hosting 120 guests.