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The Henley-on-Thames Traditional Boat Festival

This is a photo of some of the boats at the Henley-on-Thames Traditional Boat Festival. The boat in the background took part in the rescue of soldiers stranded in Dunkirk during WWII. Today, 30th August is the last day of the annual event.

The Royal Regatta

Henley-on-Thames is a lovely town with many C18th buildings. It is in south Oxfordshire where it borders with Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. Henley has several rowing clubs and is the home of the River & Rowing Museum designed in 1989 by David Chipperfield. The museum shape was inspired by traditional boat shed buildings.

The great annual event there are the rowing races of the Henley Royal Regatta. It is a very exclusive affair so when I received what I thought was an invitation to it, I was thrilled.

The regatta lasts for 5 days and has been going since 1839 and is one of the events of the London Season. Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert attended in 1851 and ever since it has been called the Royal Regatta. Members of the royal family occasionally attend.

The start of the course is Temple Island. An island in the middle of the river with an C18th folly somewhat reminiscent of a Greek temple. The temple was designed by James Wyatt for the owners of Fawley Court nearby.  Their red brick house was designed in 1684 by Christopher Wren and remodelled by Wyatt.

The Traditional Boat Festival

This brings me to the event I was actually invited to. Not the ultra-posh Henley Royal Regatta but the delightfully quirky Traditional Boat Festival.

It takes place on Fawley Meadow and was started in 1970 by owners of traditionally built boats who wanted to share their love of these magnificent craft. There are prizes to be won but all entrants must have boats made with canvas, iron or wood. No plastic or fibre-glass thank you very much.

It is held on a weekend soon after the Henley Royal Regatta so that the boat owners can make use of the boons that were put up for the regatta for their mooring. There is also a vintage/classic car show with cars produced before 1969, horse-drawn vehicles and early bicycles.

It was a wonderful day. There were all kinds of boat from punts to 40 and 50 ft river cruisers. Many have been rescued from junk yards where they were slowly rotting. They are lovingly cared for and the various woods used to build them gleams.

Different classes of boat flowed past onlookers picnicking on the banks. The parades included some of the river boats that were requisitioned for the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. These lovely “Little Ships” are still sailing.

The wood gives the boats an air of glamour, I especially liked the elegant slipper launches. Some of the boat owners wore period costume. The clothes of participants and visitors were often outlandish.

Dog Show

The whole event quintessentially English, by which I mean good humoured and a little eccentric. For example, a very informal dog show. No entry forms just take your dog and have a go. Happy dogs are awarded prizes of dog treats for doing things like wagging their tails enthusiastically or looking like their owners.

Probably the nicest thing about the festival was the friendliness of everybody and the relaxed atmosphere.

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About the author: Gail Jones

Tourist Guide

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