By mid-morning Tuesday, the residents of Henley-On-Thames were fully engaged in the annual practice of finding a way to either embrace the festival of sport that has placed their little village in the center of the rowing world since 1859, or they were preparing to get out of town.
"It's manic," said one women who was just in the process of finishing up her job as a house maid in what is normally a small, tidy home on St. Marks Road, not far from the River Thames, but beginning Tuesday has been turned into a guest house for visitors.
"It's this way every year," she said. "Most of the locals get out of town. Or they are renting out rooms in their homes."
Both choices are understandable. The Henley Royal Regatta completely engulfs Henley-On-Thames for one full week every year, and after months of preparation the 2018 edition will begin in full Wednesday morning. And the town is crowded.
Normally a drive out from London Heathrow to Henley-On-Thames takes about 45 minutes from terminal to Henley Bridge, but by midday Tuesday, traffic took that long to move the last mile and a half into the town.
Built in 1786 to span the River Thames between Oxfordshire and Berkshire, the Henley Bridge this week is being used as a backdrop for selfies and views of the vast and colorful finish line and enclosures areas of the regatta. Getting across was tedious.
On the streets at the town square, rowers, most of them from out of town, and some from out of the country, wandered around in race gear, while spectators, friends and family, arrived pulling travel luggage, checking maps against street names and house numbers.
Shop keepers were also outside in the town center, scrawling lunch and dinner deals on sandwich boards set out by front doors. A good amount of the advertised deals involved drinking Pimms, a lemonade and fruit beverage that is a favorite at Henley. It's sort of like what the Mint Julip is to the Kentucky Derby.
It's always Pimms Time at Henley
The pace of the event never slows, at least that is what the locals were saying Tuesday, and will only build from when racing starts Wednesday morning until Saturday evening, the night before finals when a good number of the athletes who came to race will be done and will also be drinking Pimms (and beer, champagne, whisky, etc., etc.) with the friends and spectators who came to watch them.
There will be hundreds of thousands of them over the five regatta days, according to the press accounts of years past - reports that also sometimes mentioned swelled temporary jails.
This is all part of what makes Henley, well, Henley.
The Henley Royal Regatta is more than just a five-day rowing event, it is a thing, an event recognized even by sports fans who are not part of or familiar with the traditional rowing community .
Henley is as recognizable a name on its own to many casual sports observers in much the same way that events like the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, or March Madness are. You don’t really don't need an intimate knowledge of horse racing, tennis or college basketball to know what those names are associated with.
Henley rises to that kind of name recognition because of the level of competition, the totality of the tradition it is wrapped around, and the color of the regatta - the summer greens and blues, the men's club blazers, the elaborate hats and dresses women spectators wear all five days, the majestic (and large) hawks gliding the warm terminals air currents like casual observers over the crowds and the river, and the crews coming past the crowds lining the length of the race course.
How you dress is part of the tradition
Henley is a place where strict, unbendable rules of where you can stand, walk, take cell phone pictures, or how you must dress in certain regatta areas are fully accepted - embraced even. Sports reporters and photographers, a group not normally prone to wearing blazers and ties to work, are even "encouraged" to get into the mood and dress up. And most do!
For the athletes, it's an event to train hard for and boast of participating in, and just about everyone who has raced here has a Henley story.
Because Henley is a place of stories, it's part of what makes it special.
My first introduction to the lore of Henley came when I was covering news and sports in Philadelphia and leaning to row at the Fairmount Rowing Association, and it came in the form of stories told by a gentleman named Coleman Boylan, who looked like he was born to tell Henley stories. He wore a blazer and tie of some sort most days, and he lived as a keeper in the iconic boathouse on Kelly Drive.
Boylan's best go-to Henley stories involved the guy whose family name is on the street outside and his son - John B. Kelly and John B. Kelly, Jr. Kelly Drive is Boathouse Row.
The Kellys are among the most famous Philadelphia sports and city legends that have ever lived there. And both were rowing champions. Kelly the elder was denied an entry in the Diamond Sculls men's single event for the 1920 Henley Royal Regatta, despite being a six-time American national champion. He was a brick layer, too blue collar and not blue blood enough for the folks who ran the HRR then.
The rejection, the story goes, fueled Kelly's passion to win two Olympic gold medals that summer, one in the single and the second in the double. Kelly told the press at the time, “I had made all the arrangements to sail for England... I'll go to the Olympics now for sure. I want to get a crack at the man who wins the Diamond Sculls.”
That man was British sculler Jack Beresford, and Kelly got his crack, beat him, and then mailed his racing cap to King George V with a short note: “Greetings from a bricklayer.” That same 1920 rejection is said to have fueled Kelly Jr.'s drive to not just to be allowed to race Diamond Sculls but to win it, which he later was, and did.
The stories also included some about another Henley legend, the Irish rower Sean Drea, who rowed at Fairmount for a time and had won Henley's Diamond Sculls three years consecutively, from 1973 to 1975. Drea was a huge man and a fluid, powerful sculler who on some Sunday mornings would go out on the Schuylkill River and torture the Fairmount Masters eight.
Boylan could tell those stories over and over, and did. So could many of the other Fairmount members who had been to Henley, and almost all accounts included detailed descriptions of the Henley scenes, and colors, the blazers, all the details that sets Henley apart.
Those are the kind of stories that make the Henley Royal Regatta what it is. That and the Pimms.
And it all kicks in again today at Henley-On-Thames.
Wednesday morning racing
Heats racing begins Wednesday morning at 9 with heats and will continue until 7:40 (it breaks for lunch and afternoon tea). row2k.com will be here all week and will post daily race and event reports and reams of race and scene photos.
And, it's easy to follow the racing and the event at home on live streaming on the regatta's YouTube Channel.
All of that can be found on the row2k regatta coverage page.