THOUSANDS of people lined the streets of Henley to celebrate the return of our Olympic rowers.
Watch our video of the day.
Britain’s most successful oarsmen and women soaked up the adulation of the crowds and the occasional shower as they went on an open-top bus parade through the town centre on Saturday.
This was followed by a civic reception at the town hall, hosted by the Mayor Elizabeth Hodgkin.
Leander crews won two golds, two silvers and two bronzes at the London Olympics, a total of 12 individual medals. The club has now won a total of 111 Olympic medals.
The rowers’ triumphant homecoming was as much a special day for them as it was for the thousands of well-wishers, especially the children who had photographs taken with their heroes and captured their autographs.
The celebrations began at Leander Club where the athletes and their coaches mingled with invited guests, including Home Secretary Theresa May.
Then the rowers took to the water in two mixed eight boats, which included gold medallists Anna Watkins and Alex Gregory as well as many of the Olympic finalists. Retiring rower Debbie Flood took on an unfamiliar role as a cox. As the boats were lowered into the water, the sun emerged from behind dark clouds to signal the start of a row-past to the River and Rowing Museum, around the island and then back downstream.
The athletes rowed to the sound of applause and cheers from both sides of the river and Henley Bridge. The spectators, who were three deep in places, waved Union flags as the boats passed and the rowers waved back.
Sir Matthew Pinsent, who won four Olympic rowing golds himself, was with his family on one of a number of boats on the water.
Members of the Henley Whalers on board Molly gave three cheers as the rowers went past.
For the final stretch of the row-past, from Upper Thames Rowing Club to Leander Club, the crews tried to race each other for fun.
Gregory, who triumphed in the men’s coxless four, had barely set foot back on land when he was handed nine-week-old Xander Murray and asked to pose for a picture. Father William said: “I just wanted a picture of Xander and the medal. Hopefully, he will get his own one day. His mother is tall so he could be a rower.”
After changing into their Leander uniforms at the club, the rowers boarded the double-decker for the parade.
The bus was led by the Shires Royal British Legion Youth Band, accompanied by Trisha Rae dressed in a nurse’s uniform. The Henley Town Council worker performed in the National Health Service routine at the Olympic opening ceremony.
The bus, which travelled at walking pace, went over Henley Bridge and into Hart Street followed by crowds of people anxious to catch a glimpse of the rowers on the top deck.
The cavalcade went past the post box that was painted gold by Royal Mail to mark the rowers’ achievements before turning right into Bell Street and then into New Street.
The bus then went along Riverside and back into Hart Street before being parked in Market Place.
People packed the route wanting to show their appreciation and one man shouted, “Well done all of you.” Children stood on their fathers’ shoulders and residents leaned out of their windows to see the parade go by.
The procession lasted 45 minutes, during which there were two short showers before the sun restored the carnival atmosphere.
The Olympians clearly loved every moment as they used their own eras and mobile phones to capture the scenes. Leander’s Mark Hunter, who won bronze in the lightweight double scull, used Twitter to upload a video of himself in the eight boat before the row-past.
Tom James, who is a member of Moseley Boat Club in Surrey but lives in Henley, posted pictures of the crowds tkaen from the bus on the website.
James, who won gold in the men’s four, tweeted: “Open-top bus ride around Henley today. Got our own marching band — how good’s that?”
Bronze medallist Will Satch, originally from Hurley, described the atmosphere as “crazy”.
The former Shiplake College pupil said: “It was pretty exciting and it was not just the people who support rowing, it was the whole town. It was surreal to see that many people.
“We have had all the stuff around London but it was nice to be in Henley to see your family and friends and where everyone is there for you. I was born and brought up here and have lived here all my life.”
Satch, who was an oar-bearer at the heroes’ parade after Beijing four years ago, added: “Now it was me on the other side. It was really nice doing all the signatures and pictures. There were three Shiplake College boys and I had a quick chat with them and there were a few kids there I used to coach.” Gregory, who lives in Greys Road and had his two-year-old son Jasper with him for the bus parade, said: “We’re paying back Henley and Leander Club for all the support they’ve given us and it’s a special day for us.”
Debbie Flood, who is retiring from rowing, said: “I was overwhelmed by how many people came out to watch and cheer.
“It was a very special day for me, marking the end of my rowing career. Henley is my home now and I know that people were proud of us representing Leander, Henley and our country however we did.
“I hope that we can continue to inspire many youngsters to follow their dreams as we have done.”
The spectators were similarly enthused. David Winter, of Belle Vue Road, called the occasion “brilliant”.
“I was proud and delighted to be there and it was one of the best things the town has done for a long time,” he said. “The oarsmen and women were just phenomenal — they showed such patience and were always smiling and giving time to all the kids.”
Town councillor Martin Akehurst, of Two Tree Hill, said: “What a lovely turnout. It is great to see so many good role models for the children.”
Town centre manager and veteran rower Peter McConnell said: “What a fantastic occasion for Henley and what a way to celebrate all the Olympic athletes who have trained so hard at Leander Club and Caversham Lake. It is great to see everyone celebrating on the streets.”
Penny Edwards, from Caversham, said: “It was great fun and the atmosphere was tremendous. As we were waiting for the rowers on the river, all the cyclists coming past were waving as if they were Bradley Wiggins and we were waving back. It was really nice.”
Among the crowd were the daughters of Miriam Luke (née Batten), who won silver in the quadruple scull at the 2000 Olympics.
Rhiannon Luke, seven, said: “I wanted to see the athletes because I have been watching the Olympics a lot and because my mum used to row in the Olympics.”
Sister Della, nine, added: “Mum said that the medals are really big, much bigger than hers.”
The Mayor boarded the bus to address the crowds and pay tribute to the returning athletes.
She said: “We welcome all our Olympic athletes and their coaches to the town. We are all very proud of your achievements.
“You have worked and trained hard and you are an inspiration to us all.”
She led three cheers from the crowd before handing the microphone to Leander Club captain Rick Egington, who won a bronze medal in the men’s eight.
He said: “On behalf of everyone on the bus and all the athletes, thank you for supporting us on our journey.
“The enthusiasm in the town is brilliant and it just keeps getting better and better. Thank you to everyone in Henley and the Mayor. It is really brilliant and appreciated.”
The athletes hurled pink toy hippos, the symbol of Leander Club, into the crowd before getting off the bus to sign autographs and pose for pictures with children.
They then went inside the town hall for the reception, passing though an arch of oars held by members of Phyllis Court and youth members of Leander Club, Henley Rowing Club and Shiplake College.
Young members of Upper Thames Rowing Club helped at the civic reception.
The invited guests at the reception included Mike Sweeney, chairman of Henley Royal Regatta, and the leaders of South Oxfordshire district and Oxfordshire county councils.
The rowers were introduced by master of ceremonies Martin Unsworth, who is Satch’s stepfather and described the rower as “gorgeous”.
The athletes were given a guard of honour by 10 pupils representing Henley’s schools who were given chocolate gold medals by the athletes in return.
The children were also given the chance to wear the real medals around their necks and to have their photographs taken with the Olympians.
The Mayor gave a speech of thanks and said: “Honoured guests, we are here to congratulate our Olympians and their coaches. The hard work and commitment you have given over the years has been an inspiration to us all.
“Thank you for coming today when so many people want to meet you and say, ‘well done’. You are going to be taking part, I am sure, in many events such as this but this is the home of rowing and we wanted to show our appreciation for your achievements.
“The Games have been an emotional rollercoaster for the country and united us in cheering Team GB and there are children here who will be the Olympians of tomorrow.”
Sacred Heart Primary School pupil Amy Metcalfe, 10, of Adam Court, Henley, said she was very excited by the day, adding: “My favourite part was when the Olympians all came into the hall.”
Badgemore Primary School pupil Ben Few, nine, said he enjoyed meeting the Olympians, particularly Flood.
Piers de Jode, six, who attends Valley Road Primary School, said: “I liked getting the autographs and it was really good to see the bus. As it came round I waved to them and they waved back.”
Gillotts School pupil Lois Meredith, 14, said: “It was inspiring to see so many Olympians from our town do well. It was really good to meet all the rowers and I am going to try rowing now.”
Tim Coulson, headteacher at Valley Road school, said: “Nowhere else in Britain could you have this — it is just phenomenal for the children.”
After the reception, the rowers reboarded the bus and returned to Leander Club, where there was a reception with members and guests.
Satch decided to walk back and en route was handed six-week-old Annabelle Tiwari by her mother Jasmine, who grew up in Watlington but now lives in London.
Mrs Tiwari (née Read), a former Henley College student, said: “I wanted to get a picture with a rower because I am from the area and Annabelle was born in an Olympic year. I really wanted her to have the chance to see the Olympic rowers even though she is only six weeks old.”
Ivor Lloyd, chairman of Leander Club, said: “This is our fourth time doing this since 2000 and it has been gradually building and building. It’s a way for local people to really get in touch with rowing and an opportunity for them to get up close and personal with the Olympians.”
He said Leander’s collection of Olympic medals was a world record, adding: “We are terribly proud of it and to go through the 100 barrier at this Olympics was pretty exciting.