Saturday, 12 July 2014

Henley Royal Regatta - Henley

'The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky--seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness'

Once a year, wardrobes across the South East of England begin to rattle. Inside, trousers of every colour of the spectrum and every blend in-between begin to twitch, itch, uncoil themselves from hangers, kick in their cell door, kidnap their owners, and drag them screaming to the Henley Royal Regatta. Here, on the banks of the Thames, birds of a feather flock together around jugs of Pimm's, bottles of bubbly, z-list celebrities of the finest vintage, and pram loads of cigars. Meanwhile, the river is full of boys and men furiously dragging oars through the water in the hope of attracting some attention from the gathered throng. They fail almost every time; their endeavours rewarded only by the occasional glint of school colours in a bleary eye, a head raised upon heavy jowls, and a thundering rutting call of acknowledgement from an Old Wet towards the water.

We were attending Henley under false names as part of an anthropological study into the world of upper-class creatures. A study to be published later in the year in an academic journal of the highest standing. Actually, we were there as guests at the Chinawhites' tent, courtesy of those good folks at Krušovice - the beer of Czechoslovakian Kings - but entering this weird and wonderful world of a different kind to ours meant we had to build an alternative pretence for attending in our own minds.

If Henley is the distillation of upper-class England, Chinawhites is a further distillation of this group - almost triple filtered. A mating ground for the rich and buck-toothed, looking to reinforce their age-old genetic in-diversity by finding someone so suited to them it could almost be their own reflection. Drinks that can be found in Tesco for less than a twenty pound note, plus change, were bought for ten times their value in a conspicuous flaunting of male plumage; while ladies lathered in expensive chemicals and powders, skimped and tittered around the tent, fleeing the daylight should their faces turn to dust in it's rays. 

Pith helmets, notebooks, binoculars, rifles, and our Addison Lee sherpa at the ready, we dived into the centre of this inferno, snacking on some delicious lamb kebabs and attempting to look less like the utter middle-class thumbs that we are. The girls on the desk doubted our credentials and were more than reluctant to hand over the wrist-bands that gave us unfettered access to this white picket-lined zoo cage.

After an hour or two of sipping free beer, chewing the fried cud, and attempting to take a few candid shots of the local wildlife, we headed further along the Thames to see more of the kaleidoscope of colours. While the clientele further upstream didn't vary in any way from their downstream cousins, the festivities were slightly more relaxed, with a couple of decent ales from Rebellion Brewery and Meantime on sale for yet more extortionate prices, and plenty of food to sink our teeth into. On every inch of the bank, row-after-row of spectators sat perched like swallows waiting to migrate. Straw boaters, ball gowns, brogues, and the ubiquitous chino lined the route. The calls to the river grew in volume as the sun passed through the sky - the cause alcohol, rather than a love for their fifteen thousand a term institutions - two Spitfires flew overhead, and as the sun began to set we retreated to the tent in a futile attempt to relive our Ibiza days (of a fortnight ago). 

Just as that party was really entering it's swing - the boats long since packed away - our research complete, and Krušovice deprived of a case or two of their finest, we called our sherpa and headed home. Tired and slightly drunk, we were most definitely overdressed for buying two pieces of chicken, chips, and a chocolate milkshake from a kebab shop in SW4, yet equally felt happier this close to the gutter than we had in the enclosure of another class.

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