Picnic at Henley Royal Regatta - the ultimate guide
Established in 1839, Henley Royal Regatta is the quintessential British summer social event, up there with horse racing at Royal Ascot and the Opera at Glyndebourne or Holland Park. Classic cars, bold striped blazers, straw boater hats and white flannel trousers abound.
White marquees and beautiful traditional wooden slipper boats line the sides of the Thames on both the Berkshire and Buckinghamshire sides; knowing which is which becomes important if you're trying to follow the progress of the crews during the race. The Berkshire side is where the majority of spectators watch from and is where the Leander boat club and Stewards' enclosure are.
One of the best ways to experience the regatta is by throwing together a picnic, getting dressed up and heading to the nearest train station, thus avoiding the busy country roads and river crossings that make driving to the event a nightmare, especially at the weekends.
Like many traditional British summer events, Henley Royal Regatta has developed its own unique set of rules and etiquette, some widely known about while others are more subtle.
For example, many women have fallen foul of the wily stewards who stand outside the Stewards' Enclosure, fastidiously denying entry to any ladies who's skirt hem strays above the knee. Despite this being one of the most widely known about rules, you nearly always see a few ladies tucked out of sight of the Stewards as they attempt to stretch a couple of extra inches out of thier hem lines.
Henley Royal Regatta is of course a rowing competition, which attracts competitors from around the globe, including most of the very best in the sport. As a young competitor, I remember standing on the bank of the Thames watching the likes of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent race past, comprehensively beating whomever they were up against.
In fact, for many of the people who row there, Henley marks the culmination of a year's training and qualifying just to get to the start line. For some rowers, me included, winning a place in a boat that has qualified to race at the event is the high point of their rowing career.
If you're thinking about experiencing the Regatta for the first time, it is worth being prepared to ensure you get the most from your experience. Contrary to popular opinion, you don't need to be invited by a member or have to buy a ticket to one of the in-closures. Sure, if you are lucky enough to be on the receiving end of either of these, then you'll definitely have an amazing time and whomever has invited you will be able to fill you in on the details.
However, you can travel under your own steam to Henley, watch the rowing and experience the same amazing atmosphere as everyone else without having membership or being part of any corporate hospitality. To be fair, this is how most people who aren't connected to the rowing do it.
The Regatta normally runs between Wednesday and Sunday during the first week of July. This year it is scheduled to take place between the 3rd and the 7th of July 2019.
By far the busiest day is Saturday, followed by Friday. Sunday is reserved for the finals of the races and prize-giving, but for whatever reason, has never been particularly busy for members of the public. In recent years, the organisers have tried to attract more people by developing Sunday into a family day.
Organising your picnic
There are several options available to visitors. If you drive to the Regatta and book a place in one of the car parks close to the river on the Berkshire side, you can always throw your picnic blanket down on the grass and picnic out of the boot of your car or underneath a Gazebo. If this sounds a little basic, don't be deceived. You will soon see some five star gourmet picnics emerge from the back of some extremely smart classic sports cars, Champagne and Pimms to hand.
If you travel by public transport, you can either prepare your picnic at home and bring it with you or buy the bare essentials in the town's Waitrose. Be warned though, this gets extremely busy on Regatta days and is a bit of a walk from the Regatta course.
By far and away the best picnic spots at the Regatta are along the towpath beyond the Stewards and the Regatta enclosures towards the start of the course on the Berkshire side of the river. Impossible to book or reserve, it is very much first come, first served. The tow path is jammed with people, many sitting on their picnic blankets with their legs dangling over the river bank and toes dipped in the water, so best to arrive in plenty of time to ensure you reserve a decent spot.
If you have a bit more of a budget you can order your picnic from one of the companies like Goose & Berry, who will create the most wonderful picnics for you to collect on the day, providing you have a reserved parking space.
Click here to download the Goose & Berry Reserved Parking Menu 2019
If you're looking for a hamper to take along as a gift to a picnic you've been invited to, then we recommend you take a look at the Little Yorkshire Hamper company. They've got some really nice selections of predominantly locally sourced produce (obviously the Prosecco comes from Italy) that can be bought online.
For more tips to help you put together the perfect picnic, check out our 10 hacks to planning a picnic article.
Most people attending Henley Royal Regatta dress up. In general, men wear a variation of clothing that includes a blazer, shirt and some kind of trousers, normally not jeans. The majority of ladies put on their finest summer wear, some risking ridiculously high heals, although they normally come a cropper on the tow path, especially if it rains or the ground is damp. This is England after all!
One thing's for sure, if you're planning to sit down to eat your picnic and tuck in to the Pimms and Champagne, you're going to want a traditional wool picnic blanket that fits in with the surroundings. With the British weather top of mind, it would be wise to have a picnic blanket with a waterproof backing too. There's nothing worse than sitting down in your white chinos and then getting up to find large damp green or brown stain on your backside!
If you plan to stay for a few days, there are options to camp at the Regatta. There is a campsite at Temple Island Meadows on the Berkshire side of the river called the Glebe campsite. Only a couple of minutes walk from the course and some of the major attractions, the Glebe campsite is suitable for campervans and tents, catering for families and groups. If you haven't got one already, you should consider bringing a good quality wool blanket.
There is also an option to Glamp, not far away from the Glebe campsite.
Getting there by train
The closest train station is Henley, which is approximately one hour from London and 20 minutes from Reading. The Regatta course is approximately one mile from the town centre.
Walk from the station to the Regatta
On busy regatta days, leave plenty of time to walk from the train station to the Regatta course, if only to ensure you have time to see some of the picturesque town and suck up the atmosphere. Allow at least 45 minutes to walk from the station to the Regatta on weekends.
If you don't fancy walking Hobbs of Henley provides water taxis from a pier just outside the train station, which leave at regular intervals.
Getting there by road
Driving to Henley Royal Regatta is possible, but make sure you leave plenty of time to get there otherwise you're going to find yourself stuck in a lengthy traffic jam when you're meant to be tucking into your picnic and watching the rowing. The problem is the bridge across the Thames, which serves as a major bottle neck to traffic on race days.
Use the following address to address to access the closest parking. Parking is available on the outskirts to Henley, so don't fret if you haven't pre-booked. It is quite pricey though.
Temple Island Meadows, Remenham Church Lane, Remenham, Henley on Thames, Oxon, RG9 3DB.
Please note this postcode will take you beyond the main entrance into the village so do not follow a Sat Nav once you can see signs to the Gates.
Reserved – Reserved Parking page (click here).
Standard – Standard Parking page (click here).
If you enjoyed reading our guide to picnicking at Henley, you may also like to browse our extensive range in wool picnic blankets.