ET special correspondent Greg Rohlfing visits a traditional English sporting event.
Looking south towards the finish line and the town, boats fill the course during qualifying races.
Tudor House Antiques, one of many historic buildings in Henley.
Volunteers are often decked out in colorful traditional rowing team attire.
The queen and Prince Phillip leave Windsor Castle.
Purdue Women’s Varsity Eight team photo. From left to right - back row: Molly Powers, Maggie
Busse, Emily Rhiver, and Amanda Elmore. Front row: Ellen Rohlfing, Samantha Warner, Kaitlyn Egan, Rachel Young, and Louisa Mattingly.
I have told only half of what I saw, because no one would have believed me. —
The Purdue University Women’s Varsity Eight pull towards a strong finish in the Henley Women’s Regatta in June 2011.
The Henley Women's Regatta
By Greg Rohlfing
Photos by the author
Every rower and rowing fan should make their way to Henley-on-Thames in England at least once to fully appreciate Great Britain’s deep but living traditions for the sport of rowing, fair play and good sportsmanship. Besides, it's a good destination if you're visiting England.
My first journey to Henley actually began in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta where my daughter, Ellen, competed with her team from Purdue University. "Purdue Crew" is a large club team with its own strong tradition (in existence since 1949) and wonderful esprit de corps. With success at the Aberdeen Dad Vail Regatta only weeks earlier, the women’s varsity eight was invited to compete in the Henley Women’s Regatta, and so my Henley adventure began.
Based upon my research prior to arriving in Henley, I was not sure what to expect and was a bit intimidated by the prospect of getting around without a car. After a day to get acclimated (with help from my daughter and her teammates) and to shed some jet lag, however, the trip unveiled a gem of a location.
View of Henley looking east towards the river and St. Mary the Virgin Church.
Henley is a beautiful traditional English town located 37 miles west of downtown London. In contrast to the large and roiling river that races through London, the Thames moves almost imperceptibly through Henley, narrow and inviting to the town’s leisurely boat traffic. The town sits just west of the river. The east bank, north of the Henley Bridge, is occupied by rowing clubs, including the home of British Rowing, the stately Leander Club, and is the main site for rowing events. About 3,300 yards further north is the start for the rowing events. This end of the river opens into a vast expanse of fields. Along the river in town are countless beautiful old boats and buildings on the west bank with boat enclosures and docks opening onto the river.
The town's centerpiece is the stately Henley Bridge, which allows easy transit by foot or by car between town and the rowing events. The west side of the bridge is dominated by St. Mary the Virgin Church and is also the picturesque location of a fine pub, Angel on the Bridge.
Continuing west from the bridge along Hart Street you will come to Bell Street. This is one of the main shopping streets and features several historic buildings, including the oldest in town, the Old Bell Public House, dating to 1325.
The town center is just a bit further west on Hart Street from Bell Street and features the historic town hall. This is also where you will find the visitor’s center. It is worth a brief stop here, not only to see the town hall building, but also to chat with the friendly tourist office folks.
Angel on the Bridge sits at the southwestern end of the Henley Bridge.
Eating and Drinking
There are many fine places in town to dine or share a drink. Spots that I tried included Angel on the Bridge, the Henley Tea Rooms (I enjoyed a hardy English breakfast there) and the Catherine Wheel pub (also a hotel). Friends tried The Little Angel, the Bistro at the Hotel du Vin and Loch Fyne. All were good. I favored Angel on the Bridge for lunchtime fair and a good pint while sitting outside at the bridge on the water. The Little Angel is about a block east of the bridge and offers a good burger. The Bistro at the Hotel du Vin is on the opposite end of the block from the Red Lion Hotel at New Street. It is more upscale and has a very nice al fresco area in the courtyard between the buildings. Food and service were terrific, and meals were reasonably priced (a different story for bottles of wine which were expensive). Loch Fyne is a seafood restaurant, about two blocks west of the bridge, where you can also sit outside and enjoy a delicious and reasonably priced meal.
Henley is also the site of an interesting museum focusing on river history and ecology, and also the sport of rowing. It has several informative and carefully planned exhibits and is worth a visit. There is a permanent Wind in the Willows exhibit that is delightful and would be of interest to children (although I enjoyed it). E.H. Shepard's famous illustrations are brought to life via three dimensional scenes that follow the original story of the adventures of Mr. Toad, Ratty and their friends. You can make it through the museum at a leisurely pace in a couple of hours.
Purdue and ASR Nereus after the finish. The empty stands further south toward the town are HRR facilities that are not used by the women in the HWR.
The Henley Women’s Regatta (HWR) takes place annually in June, and the 2012 competition is scheduled for June 15 - 17. The first HWR took place in 1989 (contrast this comparatively fledgling event with the better known Henley Royal Regatta [HRR] which first took place in 1839).
As a contest, the regatta is well planned and organized. In my discussions with individuals running the event, I learned that most have been rowers; some still compete and some coach. All of the volunteers share a deep love for the sport that is evident in their dedication to fair competition and good sportsmanship. In three days, even with intermittent rain (some quite heavy), these volunteers sent off almost 400 races, on time and with careful attention to fair competition. Aside from the early time trials that occupied the first morning of racing, each race involves only two boats, and the winner moves on.
The Reading Spring Gardens Brass Band provides entertainment at the Barn Bar.
The river bank provides a good vantage point to watch the races. The water is only a couple of feet lower than the bank and the rowers are only feet away in places, making it a great venue to not only see but also to hear the teams as they pull through the course. About midway down the course, there is a restaurant and bar called The Barn. This gathering place featured some local brews, an open dining area and a traditional British brass band for entertainment.
There are boat launches that follow each race, and you can purchase a ticket to ride a launch. Each launch carries a race judge who stands motionless at the front of the boat with bull horn and flags in hand in the event competitors need any corrections along the way.
In true British fashion, loud partisan cheering from the bank is not particularly welcome, although proper encouragement for a race well rowed is. Cheering of any sort from the launches, however, is not allowed.
One thing in particular that the Purdue women noticed was the good sportsmanship from the competitors. Purdue won their first three races to make it to the finals, where they lost to a Dutch team, ASR Nereus. After each of Purdue’s victories, the losing team rowed over to offer congratulations for Purdue’s success. One of the teams even gave them a traditional "three cheers!" This good sportsmanship continued off the river as well, with friendly gatherings between competitors over a pint or two in the pubs.
There are a limited number of places to stay in Henley. Some of these accommodations appear to be quite nice, but they book up fast in advance of the regattas. Given my late start in planning my trip, I was not able to find space at any of the Henley hotels or bed and breakfast offerings. I was able to find several suitable options in nearby towns, however. I chose the Mercure George Hotel in nearby Reading, which claims honors as the oldest building in Reading. I found my recently renovated room spacious, clean and comfortable, and enjoyed the nightly gathering of hotel guests, including several visitors to the HWR, in the lower level pub. The hotel is only a few blocks from the main train terminal in Reading. Friends stayed at the Wee Waif Inn, about 10-15 minutes south of Henley by car in Charvil. They found the hotel clean, comfortable and spacious but noted that, being situated on a busy road, traffic noise was noticeable.
Why drive when you can cover the UK by train? The UK has a national rail system that is convenient and simple to use. Henley is easily reached via the First Great Western line originating in London at Paddington Station. From Paddington you can also easily travel to and from Heathrow Airport via the Heathrow Express.
Another First Great Western line trains pulls into the station on time.
Once you're at Paddington, all of London becomes accessible via the tube. If you plan to make regular use of the national rail system consider purchasing a BritRail pass. Passes can be used to cover a few days up to a month of consecutive travel. Passes must be purchased before arriving in the UK, however, so make sure you leave enough time for delivery before commencing your travel.
Many other places of interest are easily accessed by train. Between London and Henley, for example, are the towns of Windsor and Eton. Windsor is the site of Windsor Castle, which is open for tours. Eton is the home of the prestigious Eton College. Both towns are delightful and worth a day’s visit. Eton Dorney will serve as the Summer Olympics Rowing venue in July 2012.
Of course, you can also get around by car. In Henley, parking is available near the regattas and is shown in the spectator information on the HWR and HRR websites. Traffic moves slowly through town, however, so you should plan accordingly.
Be prepared for rain. We experienced intermittent rain during the first two days of the regatta, which soaked the event site. Much of the site is paved or grassy, but portions became muddy with some standing puddles. The judges and event staff were all well prepared for rain with boots and colorful marine foul weather gear, which added to the overall appeal of the event. The last day of the regatta, in contrast, was sunny and temperatures were comfortable.
Rowing is a sport that I have always loved. While I had a sense of what these athletes put into each event, I also know that I will never fully appreciate their efforts. I have a better understanding having had an opportunity to hear from my daughter and her teammates of the many hours of pulling ergs, running to the boat house, and honing technique on the water. College students like to sleep in, but not the rowers. Others go to the beach on spring break, but not the rowers. Most people quit working when muscles start to burn, but not the rowers. In a race, when the muscles start to burn and every ounce of your body is telling you that it’s time to take it easy, the rower knows there is still half the race to go.
There is more to see and do in Henley than what is addressed in this article. A website with links to helpful information about Henley can be found at www.henley-on-thames.org.
Information about the regatta can be found on the HWR website: www.hwr.org.uk/.
More information regarding the exhibits and other activities at the River and Rowing Museum can be found here: www.rrm.co.uk .
You can obtain essential information regarding train lines, system maps, schedules and fares by visiting the National Rail Inquiries website: at www.nationalrail.co.uk/. Rail maps can be found at www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/maps.
For helpful information regarding London’s subway system, including maintenance, outages and system maps, go to: www.tfl.gov.uk/modalpages/2625.aspx.
The standard Tube map is found at www.tfl.gov.uk/assets/downloads/standard-tube-map.pdf).
You will find complete train information on the BritRail website at www.britrail.net/.
The national tourism web site is www.visitbritain.com.