Henley Pre-gatta

Aston Ferry – Hambleden Lock – Remenham – Henley-on-Thames (where?)

25th June 2012 (the Regatta took place between 27th June and 1st July)

Aston Ferry is ferry-less. There is a puddle through the whole middle of the wishing gate. A heron lifts off from the near bank of the Thames. Greylag geese have two goslings, grey and lagging behind. Canada geese, four: strangely green-looking things like they’ve been rolled in lichen. Ducks are free-riding the fast flowing stream, or paddling sideways to the quieter eddies at the sides. Something garden bird-shaped makes a straight flight across from the water meadow to the tree-line on my left. Unremarkable in size and flight I catch a glimpse of its blue and orange. I haven’t seen a kingfisher for years.

Here the river is wide. Boats are forced to navigate through Hambleden Lock, which controls the flow through the gap between the west bank and one of three small islands in the curve of the river. Reaching out from the other side of this island and stretching diagonally downstream and across the river to Hambleden Mill on the opposing bank is the weir. The metal access bridge feels fragile and temporary – though I know it is both strong and relatively permanent – a utilitarian scaffold frame with narrow walkway, steel railings and gaps underfoot between the metal treads through which the river can be seen. It is a strange feeling to stand over the middle of the river, watching it, hearing it, smelling it, feeling it, all round you: through those railings and below that framework. I feel slightly detached, standing still above the full force of one of the wettest June’s on record gushing through beneath. Someone is trying to take a small dog across on a lead. It baulks and whines, feet splayed and legs rigid as he looks down in terror through the footway to the torrent beneath. I sympathise with it: though this water fascinates me, it’s that sort of fascination that led to the eighteenth century obsession with the sublime: an attraction mixed with fear at the ferocity of this element so utterly uncontrollable, even here at the weir, where it is, as much as it ever can be, controlled. Most of the sluice gates have been opened to allow the increased surge, the cumulative flood from days – weeks – of heavy rainfall, to pass through in a safe and controlled manner rather than spill out over the banks upstream, downstream, wherever the water wants it goes, regardless of fields or houses or Regattas…

There’s so much water moving so quickly it’s hard to focus on it. It’s green. Too green: gosling green, pollen green, near yellow; the white of the turmoil where the outflow hits the stream on the lower side is a sickly cream, elderflower blossoms that have turned past their best. The speed of it clears the corners of the sluice, moving in a rounded band that looks so thick and dense it could be glass or rubber, something solid enough to step onto. Having this thought I am struck by the immensity of its flow and for a moment imagine being caught by its force and dragged under the weir, the way your foot would catch and shuttle backwards throwing you to the floor if you were to step unawares onto a fast-moving treadmill, but faster, stronger, wetter, deadlier. Then just feet away there are ducks standing in the shallow and soft-flowing sheet that overruns the narrow plateau of the weir’s retainer, looking nonchalant and oblivious to the neck-breaking force through the sluice.

Upstream the water is quieter, though still fast flowing, and the activity is building on the riverbanks for one of the most highly-anticipated events in the rowing calendar which will take place here at the end of the week. Temporary wooden moorings jut out at strategic intervals for spectators afloat, who have their own lane marked out at the bankside to avoid entanglement with the coxless fours and all that. On the Buckinghamshire bankside glints the gilded prow of the barge Gloriana, moored for the week and awaiting the start of Henley Royal Regatta when a team of previous Olympic medallists (this year’s hopeful’s notably absent and in training for the big event) will take her down the course on a lap of honour. She’s much shinier than she looked on television, and is still sporting most of the flags, though I noted the absence of St Piran’s flag in favour of a sponsor’s colours.

Temple Island marks the start of the one mile 550 yard course upstream, that finishes in sight of Henley Bridge. Henley on Thames is a quintessentially English Home Counties town filled with mixed-period building fronts with well-kept gardens brimming with honeysuckle and lightly scented roses, a picturesque multi-arched bridge, stately church tower, and above all that indefinable quality that speaks of the kind of place-personality that only comes with age and money: Character. This is the England of strawberries and champagne, straw boaters and blazers, impractically white flannels (front crease applied with a hot iron and spirit level), rounded vowels, and messing about in boats. Except the kind of messing about you get up to round here comes with some serious credentials. This kind of messing about requires dedication, sporting prowess, a punishing fitness regime, calloused palms, toned shoulders, matching vests (house colours), and absurdly well-groomed hair. Men are riding past me up and down the tow path on bicycles shouting Spoons! Spoons! Spoons!  whilst a rowing eight in training glide over the water to my right. A chap in decorator’s whites is painting the picket fences of the Enclosure, whilst a team of events co-ordinators roll out some fake grass in front of tent. (Sorry, marquee.)

My main concern, two days prior to the start of it all, is for a coot family whose nest is pitched precariously near the towpath at the Henley end of the course, mother sitting patiently with on three eggs with three chicks already hatched. If they’re not terrified to death by the noise and bustle, what are the chances of them being left in peace by the hoards of spectators who’ve had one too many glasses of Bolly and think they’re doing the parents a favour by throwing chips and cucumber sandwiches at the nest for the chicks to feed on? Then a lady in a sailor striped top with a folding stool stops to admire the hatchlings and voices her concerns for their safety given the forecast of further torrential rain for the following few days.

The pageantry of the Regatta is as much a part of the identity of Henley as the Thames itself is. Yes, the town would still be here, and the river would still run through it if the regatta didn’t come and pitch its tents, marquees, whatever on its banks, and the sweat of quadruple scullers get dripped into its waters as they skim the surface in hope of sporting glory; but sometimes it is as much what happens in a place, and what is associated in people’s minds with a place, that make it what it is as what is physically there in or on location. Traditions are part of the cultural identity of a place. The exact confluence of river, town, three counties’ boundaries, and so on may be unique to this locality, but isn’t the atmosphere of a place, and the activities that create and live within that, almost more important in defining the place itself?

The whole Henley thing is very English, and that in itself is right on theme this year, Englishness and Britishness having seen a recent upsurge in popularity. In a way Henley embodies a sort of Ideal Image of England. This is picture postcards stuff, the sort of thing tourists from abroad want to experience to get the real sense they’ve been to England, even though the whole process is so far from what most English people could consider to be typical of the experience of being English, or living in England. I’ve often heard it generalised that Britian, or England, is losing its cultural identity because traditions are less frequently celebrated than in the Good Old Days, and up until recently it’s not been the done thing to be too patriotic. Now we’ve had the Jubilee and the forthcoming Olympics following hot on the heels of a Royal Wedding and I feel I’m getting a bit Union Jack blind with the amount of patriotism that appears to have sprung out of nowhere. Is this a reaction to the said loss of British cultural identity, it is now appearing stronger than ever, less a revival than a reinvention in some cases, Britishness being celebrated almost in defiance of itself.

Not that the Regatta’s seeing any sort of revival, having grown year on year since its inception in 1839, when it started out as a single day of races, never wavering in its popularity and success. I’m not sure how I feel about it. Part of me thinks how ridiculous and farcical, how boring, to sit all day at the riverside picnicking on overpriced victuals surrounded by people – spectators/participators – who make me feel dowdy, provincial, inactive, and generally inferior. On the other hand there is something quite appealing about the thought of whiling away some time on the river – preferably in one of those nice green riverboats with the varnished wood and shiny-shiny brass – with a nice cool glass of Pimms and some cucumber sandwiches and smoked salmon, wearing a hat with a ridiculously large brim and a tea dress (hemline below the knee – there’s a dress code here, darling) I know it seems absurd to get dressed up just to watch some sporty toffs whizz past using only the power of their arms, but there’s something fun about getting into costume for a social event, just for the sake of it, soaking up the atmosphere and getting carried along in the vibe of excitement and energy seeping from the crowd, reaching a pitch and rushing upriver along the banksides, crowds on both sides, past the grandstand, past the poor old coots on the nest by the bridge, an aural Mexican wave of enthusiasm and adrenaline.

Although perhaps part of the reason why I sort of fancy it right now is that I’m wearing half-length sleeves and jeans and the temperature’s racked right up with the sun making a sporadic but blazing appearance from behind the clouds, so a lightweight dress and sunhat with an ice cool drink would go down a treat, regatta or not.

More on this?

For a quick summary on the background of Henley Royal Regatta, plus lots more information on rowing, racing and boats click here


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