There are some events so quintessentially British that if you’ve heard of them, you might think they are fictional, from a movie you saw once, or a book you read.  The Henley Royal Regatta is just that.  Billed as ‘undoubtedly the best know regatta in the world,’ the HRR has been around since 1839, with two short breaks during those pesky wars.   For all intents and purposes, the HRR is exactly the same as it was then, though the breadth of the competition has increased over the years.  Seriously.

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Yeah.  Crazy.  The hats are the same, the canes and blazers are the same.  It’s like the past 100 years just haven’t even happened and that’s precisely the point.

As part of a work-sponsored event, we had tickets to the ‘Stewards’ Enclosure‘ an area of the grounds that is only open to HRR members and their guests.  Practically speaking, being granted access to the area means there is a very strict and enforced dress code: skirts and dresses for women with hems BELOW the knee, and suits for men, blazers must remain on at all times.  Hats are recommended but not required.

The Stewards’ Enclosure is also home to a huge hospitality tent, which serves multiple meals throughout the day and all-you-can-drink Pimm’s Cup cocktails, the classic British summer drink.  In between glasses of Pimm’s, and plates of strawberries and scones, you mosey on over to the water’s edge to watch the rowing.

The competition, though technically why we’re all there, feels very much like an afterthought.  Two, four and eight man (all men on the day I went) teams row down the Thames at frequent intervals, and the heats of competition go on for five days.   If I knew more about rowing, or could hear a loudspeaker (which of course is not available in the Stewards’ Enclosure) to know who was who, I probably would have paid more attention.

It is possible to venture outside of the Stewards’ Enclosure to I place I have lovingly nicknamed ‘Short Skirt Area.’  Short Skirt Area has no dress code that I could tell, allows people to use their cell phones openly, is full of rowdy people drunk off Pimm’s and has a loudspeaker blaring with the times of the actual races.  Short Skirt Area is also the location of the nearest bathroom.

However, if I left the enclosure for a break, or to check my email, I had to get back in past security, which required proving yet again that my barely long enough skirt did in fact fall just below my knees.  This was a risk I was just unwilling to take.  So in the enclosure I stayed, and did my best to avoid the eyes of security guards and look proper and British and like my skirt’s length was of course long enough thankyouverymuch.

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The Henley Regatta is surely a spectacle that people adore for its tradition and its adorable British rigidity.  Watching the old men in their barbershop quartet-like striped blazers and flat top hats made me nostalgic for a time and place I’ve never even been before.  The properness of the whole escapade is quirky and funny and I can see the appeal.

At the same time, the skirt thing really bugged me.  I talked about it for days.It’s almost as if, if you’re in on the joke (oh, look at us in our cute hats and Pimm’s!) it’s totally fine and fun.  But if you’re totally serious about the capital-T Tradition of the whole thing, and maybe even wish life was more like the regatta and less like, well, 2014, I’m clearly the wrong audience.  My barely rule-breaking skirt and my clearly misplaced accent just won’t cut it.  For now, I’m happily in on the fun.

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