I have been thinking about the Henley Royal Regatta and trying to analyze its particular British magic. This process has made me think about contributing factors, and how climate, heritage, and national psychology work together to create a particularly British ‘sporting’ experience.
Climate, for starters. That is a big subject.
The Brits talk about the weather all the time, and that makes sense because the weather in the United Kingdom changes all the time. Yes, it rains on a majority of days in the UK, but ‘just’ for part of the day. Unlike in the US, a period of rain doesn’t necessarily mean a day will be considered a rainy day. And rain certainly doesn’t mean the Brits will act any differently – as though it actually is a rainy day. There will usually be patches of sun and cloud in addition to rain, and they will use the best of what they have. Often on this seaward island the day will dawn a cloudless blue, but will be interrupted – as at Henley on this particular Saturday – by what the weatherman would describe as “short, sharp showers.”
Yes, a cloudburst. A drenching rain. But the short, sharp showers might end within twenty minutes, as they did at Henley, and the day will go on as though there had been no rain at all.
In a nod to practicality, you may see long skirts with ‘Wellies‘ at the tailgates in the ‘carpark’ at Henley. The Brits love their country pursuits, so they are well prepared with outdoor wardrobes. This is also the home of the Barbour afterall, the perfect jacket for the odd spot of rain…
Another example of British weather and sporting events: one April I attended an Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race Party in the ‘backgarden’ (said as all one word) of an historic brick townhouse (mid 1700’s) built overlooking the Thames along Chiswick Mall in West London.
While April can be “the cruellest month,” London often experiences a prolonged period of summer-like weather over a week or two in mid-April. It is not unusual to see office workers stripped down almost to their unmentionables, picnicking in London’s parks during a ‘fair spell’ in this early spring weather.
This particular April did bring summer-like conditions, so the attendees of this early season garden party were decked out as if for a June wedding: the ladies in floating skirts with candy-colored kitten heels, the gentlemen in blue blazers with bright ties, pale flannels and the odd Panama seeing early service in advance of the summer cricket season. The British do not miss a chance to enjoy fair weather because they do not get enough of it. So if it is warm and ‘summerlike’, and if it is afterall a garden party or a summer wedding, the ladies will wear chiffon or blossom-printed “frocks”, and go sleeveless, with just a bright pashmina to ward off gooseflesh, and be damned to chilly, damp or freezing conditions. This April morning started out bright and blue; the guests took to the damp lawn for a better view of the river, with Pimm’s Cup or a flute of champagne in hand. There is nothing like a summer ‘tipple’ in the British sunshine.
Dark clouds appeared over the south bank of the Thames, and rolled through the West London suburbs, bringing a drenching downpour and stinging hail. The guests quickly sought the safety of the house, laughing as they pushed through the open French doors into the living room. They stayed indoors just until the rain and hail had stopped. As soon as the sun reappeared, the guests headed back onto the back lawn along the river, heedless alike of damp and cold and the looming threat of another shower. The ladies adjusted bright pashminas around their bare shoulders, and managed the wet grass in their stilettos expertly without sinking into the turf too deeply.
Black clouds weighted with showers -and the occasional band of hail- came and went several times over the course of the afternoon, and the guests fled to the safety of the house and then poured back out onto the lawn repeatedly. No one considered it a challenge to the enjoyment of the day. In fact, it may have added to the sense of fun.
That day, amid much yelling along the banks of the Thames (they can and do cheer), Oxford triumphed over Cambridge.
Yes, there is quite a lot of cheering from the Enclosures at Henley Royal Regatta too.