The hard news from Henley, that small jewel of a Thames River town 35 miles west of London, is that 256 boats from 11 countries are entered in its Royal Regatta this week. The soft news, and vastly more important, is that the temple of rowing and its worshipers should look almost exactly as it and they did last year and the year before that and.... Which in turn means that in a world in which nearly everything is meant to be disposable, Henley isn't.
This is the 143rd anniversary of the regatta. And while it's true that a number of its traditions have ebbed away—for example, Oxford and Cambridge oarsmen no longer bring their university servants to Henley, and haven't for some time—picnicking at Thamesside, following the boats by bike on the towpath, languidly punting within view of the racing, breaking out blazer and boater; these endure. It is this Henley that is celebrated on these pages.
There is, in fact, a "Temple" at Henley. It's the fanciful structure pictured below; at the far end of this island the races start. They finish one mile and 550 yards upstream. A boom in the middle of the river marks one side of the racecourse, and beyond the boom a cheery armada of small spectator craft plies back and forth, floating downstream with the current and then working upstream again.
This year's onlookers will see women rowers, as last year's did for the first time at Henley. Their advent didn't cause much of a ripple—nothing at all compared with the first appearance, in 1954, of Soviet oarsmen, strangers so exotic they might have arrived from the moon, or the fuss over Jack Kelly Jr., Princess Grace's brother, and the Diamond Sculls he won in 1947 in revenge for his dad's having been snubbed in 1920.
July 4, 1982
But generally, Americans have been made to feel more than welcome at the regatta, and on this Independence Day weekend they could row up a storm. Of the four boats entered in the foremost race, the Grand Challenge Cup for heavyweight eights, two are from the United States, representing the University of California and Yale.
Doomsday will be at hand if ever Henley's faithful of a certain age discard the blazers and garden-party finery that are impervious to fashion's whims. The pearls are optional.
While the Charles River Rowing Association of Boston sprints, Private Spectators & Hound, Ltd. take their time. Overleaf, a Thamesside family packs it in after a day's regatta viewing.
Immemorial: Fine old punts, acres of white canvas sheathing and a lad and lass on the grass. New: women rowers competing on the Thames, among them the 1980 Rowing Club's coxed Four from Boston.
You wear proper clothes to patch up people or start a race, to be a smash in the Stewards' Enclosure or simply to be recognized, by your pink cap, as a member of the Leander Club. Which rowing uniforms prevailed? Those of the Oxford and Thames Tradesmen crew, foreground.
Merrymaking Trinity of Dublin, in full regalia, must have beaten Yale in the Ladies' Challenge Plate, right? Nope, but that's Henley.