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It might be 171 years old this year, but Henley Royal Regatta still knows how to have a good time. Anna Longmore explores the range of riverside hospitality
From the upright boater and blazer brigade to the
Pimm’s-fuddled picnickers, and strapping young rowers to old buffers clutching their programmes – the Henley Royal
Regatta really couldn’t be any more English.
Like all the highlights of the summer season, the regatta, which runs from the 30 June to the 4 July this year, appeals across the board. At the front of the queue are the rowers and rowing fans, nose deep in the programme and focused almost exclusively on the racing. After all, 250 world-class races in five days is plenty to get excited about. And then there’s everybody else, for whom the rowing is a minor distraction in the pursuit of a having a great time, with – let’s be honest – varying amounts of alcohol involved.
It’s hard to understand what the regatta is all about without actually going along. The preconception that it’s full of Hooray Henrys trying desperately to out-posh each other is not entirely unfounded, but this certainly isn’t the whole story. Whether you’re fully badged for the Stewards’ Enclosure, or kicking back on a picnic rug, Henley is all about dressing up, people watching, socialising, relaxing in the sunshine and enjoying the picture-postcard beauty of the setting. The mixture of ages and classes is what makes it so timeless.
This variety and festival atmosphere is also one of the reasons for the regatta’s success as a destination for corporate entertaining. Only cricket can rival it for uninterrupted face time. Wimbledon, for example, might have the pull factor, but it costs from £295 for around three hours of face time when you’re not watching the tennis, while Henley starts at £135 for an eight-hour day with no distractions at all.
Hosts can tailor a day at Henley to fit the guests too. Rowing buffs? Keith Prowse can include Stewards’ Enclosure tickets and a shuttle across the river. Younger guests can press on to the rowing after-parties later on, while the more sedate can head back after tea, or go on to a private room for dinner nearby. If you take American or Japanese clients, they’ll be so busy drinking in the Englishness of it all, they won’t care what you do.
‘Henley is one of my favourite events for entertaining,’ says Clive Dunster, MD of brand protection consultancy, Intellekt. ‘There is something about soaking up the sun and socialising on the riverbank, with the rowing taking place right in front of your eyes. It’s totally unique.’
The opposing banks of the Thames take on very different personalities during the regatta. The south side, or ‘Berks’, is the livelier of the two, lined with bars and stalls selling anything from hats to hot dogs, and carpeted with picnic rugs, while the north bank, or ‘Bucks’, is comparatively tranquil, occupied by the spacious Fawley Meadows hospitality, where guests can flick a pashmina without knocking someone into the water. The top-end option for entertaining is Keith Prowse’s Temple Island package, set in the middle of the river. Excellent hospitality can also be found at Ambro Events’ Temple Island enclosure on the Berks bank and Phyllis Court Club’s genteel facility opposite the Stewards’ Enclosure by the finish line.
Keith Prowse is still the only hospitality provider allowed on regatta land, so its packages are the real deal. The facility, Fawley Meadows, is a large, glass-fronted marquee on the more exclusive Bucks side, which suits for a number of reasons. Logistically, it’s easy to get to as it’s closer to the station than other options. If you’re coming by car, you won’t hit so much of the arrival traffic and there’s acres of space for parking. It’s also blissfully quiet compared to the Berkshire side, but has views of all the river and riverbank action (read: crowds) opposite.
The expansive restaurant set-up inside is complemented by a large lawn on the riverbank. Hosts can also book private areas for up to 30, which have their own sections of garden, but if you haven’t booked, get there early to bag tables for your guests.
Lunch, at around midday, is a relaxed affair. Last year, a summery line-up of Coln Valley smoked salmon and chilled pea and mint soup was followed by poached lobster with buttered Jersey Royals or a rack of new season lamb. The meat, cooked beautifully pink, came with a stack of dauphinoise potatoes and lively minted greens, before Belgian chocolate mousse brought the meal to an indulgent conclusion.
Linger too long at lunch though, and you’ll miss the river cruises. After pudding, your hostess will whistle up one of the launches, which takes guests up past the finish and down to the start line and lasts about an hour. Being in the thick of the excitement and colour on the river is a real highlight of the day.
Temple Island needs little introduction. It sits on the best spot on the whole course, in the middle of the river by the start line. A beautiful folly with a lawn in front, the 40-capacity facility has views a mile and a half upstream to Henley-on-Thames. Guests arrive at the Fawley Meadows facility, where they are swept across the river to the island for Champagne on the lawn.
As if the setting isn’t enough, a four-course lunch is prepared by star chef Albert Roux, who makes an appearance to present the meal. Expect seasonal French-leaning classics such as salad of young pigeon with summer veg, followed by salmon coulibiac (covered in a pastry lattice) with broccoli and new potatoes. After lunch, catch one of the shuttles heading down to the Stewards’ Enclosure, or relax on the lawns. Exclusive hire, with free run of the island, is by far the best way to enjoy the experience, though smaller groups can be accommodated on some dates – but that would mean sacrificing a personal visit from Roux.
Temple Island Enclosure
Not to be confused with the Keith Prowse facility on Temple Island itself, the Temple Island Enclosure occupies a pleasant spot on the Berks bank, level with Temple Island and just after the start. It’s at one end of the main drag, particularly well placed for the after-parties, yet removed from the crowded thoroughfare, making it buzzy but not too busy. The facility is worth the walk from the station, but is better placed for those arriving on wheels (the car park is only metres away).
There are two options at the Temple Island Enclosure. Private chalets hold up to 24 guests, while the Temple Island Restaurant is a more flexible (and sociable) option for parties of two upwards. If you book a number of tables, Ambro can section off part of the garden area so groups can have their own private lawn. Other pluses include generous catering, an afternoon river cruise and live jazz on the bandstand.
Phyllis Court Club
With a plum spot on the finish line, Phyllis Court members’ club is a great place to watch the climax of the rowing as well as all the comings and goings in the Stewards’ Enclosure opposite. It’s a genteel setting: white picket fences and croquet lawns, striped tents lining the riverbank and a dress code that matches the Stewards’ Enclosure. Many of the areas are reserved for members – generally a slightly older crowd – but corporate boxes have prime spaces in the Grandstand. Of the two storeys, the upper (and more expensive) boxes, for eight, 16 or 24, have the pick of the views down the course. It’s worth arriving early as the Bucks bank basks in the morning sunshine. You can also arrange an afternoon boat trip, with pick-up from various moorings.
Once the hospitality winds up at 7.30pm, your best option is to head to the legendary Barn Bar (tel: 01628 474678), about a mile up the river towards Temple Island on the Berks bank. It’s a fiver to get in, but there’s a live band, a relatively relaxed atmosphere and more green space than any of the other bars along the course.
The tiki-tastic Mahiki Bar (tel: 020 7493 9529), further down towards the bridge, is the place to be seen. You’ll always find a smattering of celebs lurking among the palm trees and bamboo huts and, though the crowd need little encouragement, the music and Champagne treasure chests keep everyone dancing. There is an entrance fee but cocktails, , at around £7.50 each, are fairly reasonably priced once you’re inside. This year, the organisers are planning big screens showing Wimbledon and the World Cup as well as a Tiki Mahiki barbecue.
There are more sedate options on offer too. Book early enough and you’ll secure a spot on the riverside at The Angel on the Bridge (tel: 01491 410678), the only pub on the river, which serves a special menu during the regatta. We also like the Hotel du Vin (tel: 01491 848400), 50 yards away from the river in the town itself. It has a lovely courtyard and a number of PDRs for up to 70.
This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, summer 2010