This year’s boat race was held not on the Thames but on a river I knew very well as a young person having canoed along it so many times, the Great Ouse. Before I mention this year’s boat race, let me share what I wrote a couple of years ago:
April 7th 2019: 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 year 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!!!
Some information from Wikipedia: The men’s race was first held in 1829 and has been held annually since 1856, except during the First and Second World Wars (although unofficial races were conducted) and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The first women’s event was in 1927 and the race has been held annually since 1964. Since 2015, the women’s race has taken place on the same day and course, and since 2018 the combined event of the two races has been referred to as “The Boat Race”.
The boat race was cancelled last year, and this year, instead of the traditional Thames course, it was relocated to Ely in Cambridgeshire, not only due to the present lockdown situation, but also because Hammersmith Bridge over the Thames is too dangerous to be rowed beneath. The race was on the Great Ouse, a magnificent river, and thanks again to Wikipedia: From Syresham in Northamptonshire, the Great Ouse flows through Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk to drain into the Wash and the North Sea near Kings Lynn. With a course of about 143 miles (230 km), mostly flowing north and east, it is the fifth longest river in the United Kingdom. The Great Ouse has been historically important for commercial navigation, and for draining the low-lying region through which it flows; its best-known tributary is the Cam, which runs through Cambridge.
As usual I watched, on the edge of my seat, shouting encouragement to the teams who were racing two hundred miles away. I had rung my sister’s care home to make sure her TV was on the right channel so she could watch too, and I knew she would be urging our women and men on, hoping for victory. I’ve watched teh race so many times on TV, I know the course well, but not as well as I knew the new course on the Great Ouse. It was wonderful seeing my homelands magnificently shown by the drone cameras, to see the shape of the landscape and the lie of the land and the course of the river, which at this point is very straight. At the start of the race were wonderful views of the surrounding countryside, with Ely Cathedral standing tall, truly called the ship of the Fens. The race finished at the small town of Littleport, where cousins live, and as I heard the shouts from the socially distanced spectators on the banks, I wondered if any of them were my family.
And who won? Cambridge of course!
I have no images of the Great Ouse, of rowing races, of anything mentioned above, but my featured image shows my dad in his rowing club blazer with his friends, maybe off to catch a coach to London, pre-war, to watch the boat race on the banks of the Thames. He is on the left of the photo.