Today it was the Boat Race – not a boat race, but The Boat Race; the 4.2 mile race along the Thames between Cambridge University (hurrah!) and Oxford University (boo!) has been held every years since 1856 – except during the two world wars, but the first ever race was in 1829. You can probably guess that I support Cambridge – Cambridge born and bred, I have never seen the actual live race, although it’s a dream to do so, I’ve followed most of the races over the years, listening on the radio when I was young and we had no TV, then watching it live as it happens ‘on the box.’
I grew up in a rowing family – although my attempt to learn how to do it was disastrous (not knowing left from right, no sense of rhythm, wandering mind…) My dad had been an oarsman since he was a teenager, and no doubt followed it before then. Certainly he and the family would have gathered round the wireless to listen to it, and as Cambridge was only fifty odd miles from London he may very well have gone up to watch it then.
His friends were all oarsmen too, and their team took part in ‘the bumps’ each year. This was a series of races over successive nights; the boats would line up (in different divisions) at stations at the start and at the signal would race to try and catch and bump – literally, the boat in front. When bumped the two boats would pull over – it was possible for the boat behind to catch up with the boat which had been in front of the two who were now at the side. If they bumped this was called a row-over. The following night, the boats would line up again and the boat which had been bumped would be put back and the one who’d bumped would be in front; in case of a row-over, the successful team would move up three places! This took place over three or four nights, the winner was declared Head of the River.
After the war, when dad had been away for six years, he still rowed, and when it was time to give up he began to coach various teams. My childhood evenings were often spent cycling along the tow-path after dad, and when it was the bumps we would station ourselves in a prime position to watch the races. As the boats which had been bumped and bumped rowed back to the boathouses, the winners had a branch of willow tucked in the bow.
So the Boat Race was always a big event in our house, and I’ve always followed it ever since. Once on our family holiday we were in a shop and it was on TV and we stood watching – it was the year when some idiot decided to protest about something or another and swam into the paths of the boats. Luckily for him the crews stopped – he could have been killed!
Cambridge has won eighty-four races and their noble rivals 80. The first women’s race was in 1936 and it’s been an annual event since 1964; Cambridge has won forty-four and Oxford thirty. The reserve crews (men’s Goldie and Isis, and women’s Blondie and Osiris) also race.
So who won this year? Cambridge!!!