Henley Festival: black tie and bubbly!

Photo by Caitlin Mogridge/Henley Festival via Getty Images)

I think it’s my favourite festival, since you ask. 

I’ve been to Henley twice now and each time I’ve come away thinking ‘why aren’t all festivals like this?’

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy wandering through a post apocalyptic wasteland of discarded tents, beer cans and bodies – but I can’t help feeling that, being at the business end of middle age, I’m entitled to a more refined experience – I’ve done my time in the trenches.


And with lovely Henley this is what you get. 

First off, there’s a dress code – it’s strictly black tie.

I know what you’re thinking ‘No fascst is going to tell me what to wear, I like to dress how I like when I go to a festival, don’t box me in, I’m an individual…’  before putting on obligatory wellies and floaty yoga trousers like everyone else. 

Having an excuse to suit up is part of the fun, where else can a chap rock a cravat I ask you? And after a few failed attempts, there’s a manly satisfaction you can take in being able to tie a proper bow tie (avoid those pre-done ones – because you can’t untie them towards the end of the evening and look suitably louche).

And although the event takes place over five days, doors open at 6pm and there’s no camping over – which means that the festival organisers are able to ensure everything is gleaming with none of the accumulated tides of flotsam and jetsam that you get with other festivals.

There is plenty of amazing food on offer at Henley, including The Riverside Canteen and St James Restaurant as well as food stalls such as BBQ Club, Halloumi Guys, Snob Lobster and Hotel Chocolat. But many savvy festival goers like to pre-load with a picnic in the field outside.

And it’s become a bit of a thing, with visitors setting out their salmon sarnies on picnic tables with white tablecloths and candelabras. 


Wandering around with a bottle of Champagne swinging loosely by your side watching a myriad of boats meandering their way along the Thames felt a little like attending a really decent wedding – without all the hassle of having to endure the speeches.

And there’s plenty of oddness to enjoy – from a man selling cigars from a pram to a genuinely terrifying trio of pretend grannies riding on oversized tartan motorised shopping trolleys. 

The comedy tent featured top flight acts such as Richard Herring, Ed Byrne, Julian Clary and Andy Hamilton. 

And let’s not forget that Henley is a great place for rubbing shoulders with the stars. Last year I rubbed shoulders with Children’s TV legend Johnny Ball (Zoe Ball’s dad) until he asked me what I was doing and moved away. 

And this time around we were joined by troubled PM Theresa May (although by the time this comes out, she will no longer be PM… or troubled for that matter) who danced to Abba tribute act Bjorn Again, which was nice.

Apparently, magician’s sidekick Debbie McGee (and former Strictly contestant) was also there, as was former Dr Who actor Matt Smith, but I didn’t see them, so no shoulder contact there. 

The festival line up was an eclectic mixed bag of musical talent. The opening night of the event, on Wednesday, saw Boy George take to the floating stage, with Jessie J headlining the following evening.


I was there on Friday night to see Tom Odell throw himself into his set, channelling the spirit of Elton John and borrowing a few piano antics from Bill Haley. Not being an Odell officionardo, I wasn’t sure what to expect. He pulled off a particularly polished performance backed by his blistering band who were as tight as you like. And I do like.

The day was rounded off with an evening of retro 90s massive ‘chunes curated by Radio 1’s  Jo Whiley which went down a storm among the besuited masses.

Saturday evening’s Bjorn Again was a bit of a strange one, because I love Abba but this wasn’t Abba – but they were better than Abba would be now at playing Abba. 

What I’m trying to say is that it made for an intoxicatingly brilliant evening – I was surprised to find out that I know almost every word of almost every Abba song in their greatest hits catalogue. Which makes me worry what important information has had to be cleared from my brain to make room for this Swedish nonsense, I suppose we will never know. The last night of the festival saw the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra taking to the stage to play songs from the movies – It was obviously amazing (it’s the Royal Phil after all) but there’s only so much ET and Star Wars you can listen to, and it was getting chilly – so Mrs Fitzgerald and I dropped by the Jazz tent where we dug an Anglo/Itallian Jazz outfit, Hetty and the Jazzato Band, and drank whiskey spiked hot chocolate and danced the night away. 

For more information see: www.henley-festival.co.uk