Thousands flock to Henley on Thames for Thames Traditional Boat Festival

Thousands flock to Henley on Thames for Thames Traditional Boat Festival

Thousands flocked to Henley on Thames to see the largest collection of classic river craft in Europe at the ruby anniversary Thames Traditional Boat Festival at the weekend.

It is 40 years since the first festival at Fawley Meadows and it has grown into one of the biggest river and riverside events in the world.

This year’s special occasion just built on its popular reputation with scores of boats with their gleaming brass and polished mahogany.

Festival chairman Lady Judy McAlpine said:

“It really is Henley’s finest event in the summer Calendar. (also: while it follows the regatta and music festival they are not actually in Henley!) It is simply the most popular family show on the Thames. The Traditional Boat Festival a truly unique experience. Next year’s dates: 19th – 21st July 2019”

The wonderful heat wave weather set the scene for three days of packed activities and the river craft ranged from little canoes to the big ‘Little Ships’ used during the evacuation of Dunkirk in the war who now treat this event as their annual gathering.

But they don’t just turn up for a gentle summer gathering – there are 15 serious awards to be won and the owners are extremely competitive, the judges fierce in their adjudication.

On each day of the festival the different classes paraded past the admiring crowds on the Thames’ banks. And it is just possible that some of the most popular entries were the preposterous amphibious vehicles – a floating Triumph Herald, a bread-van and a motorised basket chair were just a few seen sailing by.


But the real star this year was without doubt the late Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird K3 world water-speed record breaker. The thousands lining the Thames banks waited in silent anticipation on Saturday afternoon for Bluebird to run the Henley Regatta Course – not, of course, at record-breaking speed but a more leisurely 12 knots to comply with EA regulations.

But first Bluebird was preceded by Berylla, a much smaller but similar craft. Having languished for years without an engine she was back on the water for the first time for decades. A roar of applause went up as Berylla raced by, then the silence until the gurgling roar of Bluebird’s engines was heard seconds before she flew past, up on her plane, no wash, gone in a flash.

The noise from the banks was phenomenal – and there were tears, too – it was an emotional moment in the festival’s 40 year history, being her first public run in this country since restoration.

Sadly, the following day, due to Environment Agency restrictions, she was kept idling too long and as she began her run her engine died. She was towed past as ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ was sung – somewhat ironically – over the PA system.

Fortunately, her sponsors Bremont Watches had been able to see her spectacular run on Saturday. The 40th Thames Traditional Boat Festival took place at Fawley Meadows in Henley on Thames last weekend.

With Acres of gleaming brass and polished mahogany craft from tiny canoes to the big Dunkirk “Little Ships” who treat this event as their annual gathering.  This is not just a gentle summer gathering; there are 15 serious awards to be won.  The owners are fiercely competitive, the judges simply fierce.   Each day the different classes parade past the admiring crowds on the bank.  Despite the lack of polish, brass, etc.. it is just possible that the most popular entries are the amphibious vehicles which look so preposterous.  A floating Triumph Herald? A bread-van? A motorized basket chair?  However the real star of this year’s TRAD was without doubt Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird K3 World water-speed record breaker.   An anticipatory crowd of thousands lined the bank on Saturday afternoon in total silence as they waited for her to run up the Regatta Course: not, of course at record-breaking speed  but a more leisurely 12 knots to comply with EA regulations.  She was proceeded by Berylla, a much smaller but similar craft built in …. Having languished for years without an engine she was back on the water for the first time for decades at the Trad.  A roar of applause went up as Berylla flew by, then more silence until the burbling roar of Bluebird’s engines was heard seconds before she flew past, up on the plane, no wash, gone in a flash and the noise from the bank was phenomenal.  There were tears too.. it WAS emotional.  The first public run she has made in this country since restoration.

There were plenty of other attractions over the weekend.

On entering the festival fields, the first sight to greet the visitor was Gloriana, the Queen’s Rowbarge; her gilded carvings glistening beneath fluttering flags. This year Macmillan Cancer Care were given the opportunity to raffle the 20 places available on each of her twice-daily Thames’ cruises and Sir Jeffrey Stirling, who built the craft for the Queen, greeted early cruisers.  Gloriana is sponsored by The Rug Company, so the Queen’s ‘personal rug’ was on display.

Near the entrance this year was a huge 1930’s boat, Magyar, having just been rebuilt from a bare hull, displayed on a trailer for the public to visit and admire the craftsmanship that modern boat-builders can still offer.

“That is, of course, what the show is all about,” said Lady McAlpine, “preserving the skills needed to conserve these rare beauties and to create new versions for those not fortunate enough to be able to buy an old one. That said, it is also a great family weekend with something for everyone to enjoy.”

The long thin site alongside the Thames had a military re-enactment encampment at one end, complete with field kitchen and Gurkha curries.  Throughout the site there were boats and all things boating for sale, including clothes, accessories, paintings, jewellery, a whole row of antique dealers, children’s fairground rides and entertainment, even a Flea Circus. There were also vintage and classic cars filling in the spaces between the ‘shops’.

At the centre of the site, the Crooked Billet pub staff fought hard to keep abreast of orders, so good was their food, so great the ambience. A vintage tea room and locally made ice creams added to this quintessentially English Summer celebration.

At the other end of the site, where the Hobbs’ ferry berths, was an al fresco dining area with a couple of Airstreams shining in the sun, one a bar offering local Mr Hobbs’ gin and Fawley Wines, the other selling organic burgers.  These were  accompanied by a local pizza van, a French coffee van and Soul Food’s Confit Duck and more locally made ice cream.  Here, on Saturday and Sunday was the dog show: a riotously funny event giving all the visiting dogs a chance to shine and win prizes.  The best in show each day will have their portrait painted by Clive Hemsley, Henley’s most famous portrait painter.

At lunchtime each day a Hurricane and several WW1 aircraft had the crowds staring skywards and at the end of each day the Pub turned into a party venue with different local bands on stage and hundreds dancing the night away.  This year John Read’s ‘The Covered’ played on Friday and the Desmond brothers’ ‘Highly Strung’ on Saturday  (Ian Desmond coaches Leander’s top crews).  On Sunday Lawlors the Bakers’ jazz group played brilliantly, as they have for the past five years, despite the 30 degree heat.

On Saturday at 10pm everything stopped for the illuminated parades and more quirky British tradition including a parade of a few dozen old cycles, from penny-farthings to tricycles, bikes and riders decked in lights, with patriotic music blaring; then again came the boats lit up like Christmas trees with people dancing on the bigger boats to great applause. Awards were handed out at Sunday evening’s awards ceremony.

For the sharp eyed celebrity spotter actor Jeremy Irons and his dog were seen standing proudly like a figurehead on the rigid inflatable boat being used by ERT Search & Rescue charity of which he is Patron; and Ed China stood out with his with his road-taxed sofa. But sadly Olympic hero and show patron Sir Steve Redgrave was unable to attend this year but plenty of other famous rowers were seen admiring the boats and picking over the boat-jumble.

Images: Amersham Photographic Society

The 2019 Thames Tradition Boat Festival will be held from 19th – 21st July 2019.