Celebrating its 175th anniversary this year, Henley Royal Regatta is undoubtedly the best known regatta in the world and is both one of the highlights of the summer sporting calendar and the social season. Attracting thousands of visitors over a five day period, spectators watch over two hundred races of an international standard, including Olympians and crews new to the event.
The Luxury Channel was invited by Sodexo Prestige to experience both the Regatta and the finest gourmet first-hand, at Fawley Meadows. Welcomed to a Champagne & Pimms reception, we took our places to watch the races. According to the Regatta’s chairman, Mike Sweeney, “the profile of rowing is very high, although it’s still a minor sport compared to many others. But the rowers themselves are great ambassadors.” He went on to tell us that, “winning and indeed competing at Henley Regatta is the peak of the rowers’ international ambitions. Having been Chairman for 23 years, it’s been a privilege to be part of one of the best traditional events we have in Britain, and seeing it all come together so well.”
Part of that “coming together” is the social spectacle of it all, whether it be under cover in the luxury hospitality tents or on the picnic rugs braving the weather. At Fawley Meadows, you can entertain a big party of friends, clients or just have an intimate day for two. Sodexo Prestige has taken over the catering hospitality this year and they certainly know how to do this in style. The champagne flows and the traditional British summer lunch of oak-smoked Severn & Wye salmon, seared corn-fed chicken or wild mushroom ravioli was delicious. Sodexo is a company that knows how to do these events, which are as diverse as Royal Ascot, and the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show. Employing over 7000 people, this is a slick operation. Every year, Sodexo staff pour more than 375,000 glasses of champagne in more than 690 function rooms – impressive stuff!
Equally impressive was the view we had across the river. As Mike Sweeney pointed out, “What makes Henley Regatta so unique is that it’s the nearest you get to being at a sporting stadium, with the noise and the colour. It’s electric. You can almost touch the course as you are right on the banks of the river close to the races.”
For this reason, Henley has always attracted “high profile” figures. Grace Kelly used to come and support her Olympic grandfather rower John B. Kelly, as well as giving out the cups on the final day. Today’s celebrities are generally those connected to the sport – Olympian Sir Steve Redgrave, who will be taking over as Vice President of the Regatta, who we spied watching the races at Fawley Meadows, and Sir Ben Ainslie, who was on hand on the Sunday to hand out the winners’ cups. “I recently met a crew who rowed here 50 years ago,” Mike Sweeney reminisced. “They said the Regatta had not changed. It has, in fact, but at least people don’t think it has. There is no major event like it.”
We asked Mr. Sweeney if he could pick five postcard snapshots of the Regatta, what would they be? “Firstly, the view of the course towards Henley town – the bridge and the church and the finishing line,” he said. “Then secondly, the view of the course towards the start and Temple Island. Third would be the boat tent, and fourth, the view of the races on the river. Fifth is an umpire’s launch – it’s iconic. Oh, and one last one – the colour and flavour of those attending….and the hats!”