Henley Royal Regatta

Yesterday was the fourth day of the Henley Royal Regatta, which is another highlight in the British summer social calendar. If you’ve seen the movie The Social Network, the rowing race in which the Winklevoss twins take part in is at Henley. This race is one of the best known regattas in the world and is a feature in rowing world. This means I need to be there!

Being only about a 35 minute drive from where I live in London, Henley is a little town along the Thames river (pronounced tems, not tames) in the Oxfordshire countryside that is easy to visit and a stunning backdrop for this gorgeous English social event…and sporting event, if you’re interested in actually watching that kind of thing.

We arrived around 1 pm and parked at the cricket grounds, just around the corner from the entrance. This was by far the most convenient (but most expensive) option, especially ideal for ladies in heels, as in myself. Just go with it, it’s necessary.

We met our friends at the Phyllis Court Club, which is on the opposite side of the river from the rowing lane by the Stewards Enclosure. The Phyllis Court Club is a members-only club, but luckily one of our friends is a member, so we got some fancy passes that allowed us outsiders in for the day.

Dress code for the event was as the follows (taken from the Henley Royal Regatta website, http://www.hrr.co.uk/)

Those attending the Regatta in the Stewards’ Enclosure must dress in accordance with long-established tradition.

Gentlemen are required to wear lounge suits, or jackets or blazers with flannels, and a tie or cravat.

Ladies are required to wear dresses or skirts with a hemline below the knee and will not be admitted wearing divided skirts, culottes or trousers of any kind. Similarly, no one will be admitted to the Stewards’ Enclosure wearing shorts or jeans.

Whilst not a requirement, it is customary for ladies to wear hats.

Members are particularly asked to bring the dress code to the attention of their Guests, to ensure that the standards are maintained and to avoid the possibility of embarrassment of a Guest being refused admission.

As you can see, men go all out with pastels and whites and stripes and colors galore. The more outrageous yet traditional, the better. Women wear traditional and conservative dresses to the knee or below, in bold solid colors. Hats or fascinators were listed as optional as you can see above, but most women chose to wear one, as that’s is what makes a lady smart according to the very old and opinionated English grandma sitting next to me. I wore an orange print maxi skirt with a white shirt and nude heels. I would have worn a hat/fascinator, but couldn’t find one at the last moment. The geriatric grandma made her distaste of my lack of headgear extremely obvious by an audible arrangement of negative comments strewn over about 20 minutes.

Anyway minus the grandma, everything else about the Phyllis Court Club was beautiful. The grounds are perfectly manicured and there’s even a croquet lawn, the bars well stocked with Pimms (gross) and champagne (good), a live brass band playing in the garden (aka the backyard, not an actual garden), and plenty of front-row viewing of the rowing and boats on the river. Of course I didn’t watch the rowing, because I can’t be bothered. The people watching was absolutely amazing though, with everyone dressed to their best on slow moving party boats and at the clubs with drinks in hand. There was even a boat with ten Elvis’ on top. This made me pondered what the plural for Elvis is; I concluded it’s Elvi.

The weather was also shockingly good, with sun almost the entire day and temperatures around 20ºC, or 68°F, but quite breezy.  Of course that meant I was still cold a lot of the time, but that’s a typical American for you. Good thing I had three layers on at one point.

Next stop: Leander Club for tea.

Okay, I love afternoon tea at these social outings. I love sitting down and having at least five cups of it, because you usually get sat next to some of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet. For instance, yesterday we met a couple that spent two years living in Pakistan but now live in Chelsea and the husband rides his bike to work everyday and hasn’t been knocked off his bike by a car in 20 years. I was also asked by his wife where I get my teeth whitened. Haha.

The Leander Club had a very nice tent for afternoon tea, complete with a real tree inside. There was also strawberries and clotted cream, a very British summer tradition (think Wimbledon), as well as all the usual finger sandwiches, which are not sandwiches made with fingers but rather things like egg salad, cucumber, and smoked salmon.

After tea we had another drink overlooking the Stewards Enclosure and where they load and unload the boats into the water. There’s a lot of muscle going on.

And finally, right around 6:30 pm and just before the rowing ended, we headed to the less traditional, more party-type atmosphere that was past the Regatta Enclosure that was open to the general public. And thus we arrived at the pop-up club of Mahiki Henley.

Mahiki is a club in the central area of Mayfair in London. It is frequented by members of the royal family as Princes Harry and William are friends with one of the owners, as well as a smattering of celebrities. I have been to the club in London and it was full of the young and beautiful crowd including the cast of Glee the night we were there. It is definitely a place to see and be seen, so the pop-up at Henley was sure to be an experience. And yes it was…it was like being at a music festival, but full of England’s most gorgeous people all walking around in smooshy muddy grass in fancy outfits. And waiting for 20 minutes at the bar to get a drink while being pushed into and having your feet stepped on by very drunk people…needless to say, it was very different from the Phyllis Court and Leander clubs, in some ways good and some ways not. Oh and don’t even get me started about the bathroom situation, o.m.g. Port-a-potties sat in mud. Full to the top. Nowhere to wash your hands. One of the worst toilet experiences I’ve ever had. Ever.  Ughhhh, gives me the chills just remembering it.

The music was okay, not really my style. There was a lot of 80’s and 90’s typical tunes that have been way overdone in my opinion, mixed with a bit of top 40. I kept saying that I would have been a better DJ…the rest of the crowd seemed to eat up the music though. Probably because they were nearing alcohol oblivion. There was also a VIP section, which was £200 to get in and a minimum spend of £500. It was much nicer than the general admission section, aka wasn’t full of mushy grass, 3000 other people and the nastiest toilets ever known to man, but it definitely wasn’t worth the price. I would have much rather spent time at one of the clubs we attended earlier in the day for the night, even though they didn’t have any music. That’s one thing that was missing that I would like to recommend for the Phyllis Court Club; having some live music or DJ once the sun goes down and the races end. I know that would draw in a lot younger crowd, which tend to disperse from that club once the races are over and the over 80 year-old’s roll in. Or perhaps limit the amount of people they let into Mahiki, as that would have made it a lot more pleasant as well. It was just a little too squashy and mucky for me but with half the number of people, it would have been a great place to hang out with people my age, see some great outfits, and have some great drinks. I did have an amazing Mahiki Mule…I think if you get yourself in the mindset ahead of time that you are going to a music festival atmosphere and you wear the appropriate attire, it would have been a great time.

Around 10:30 pm Henley has a fireworks show over the river, which we didn’t end up staying for as we were exhausted from traipsing around all day, but we did see last year and it was definitely a very good show. On our walk back to the car we also saw the little local pub putting on an outdoor party, with a DJ and food and dancing and not overly crammed with people, and normal bathrooms.

Overall, this year was an absolute blast and I highly recommend attending. The culture it provides alone is worth every bit. Oh how I do love Henley 🙂

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