The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is perhaps, at first glance, one of Britain’s strangest sporting highlights each year. Two elitist universities compete with eight man teams – many of whom are foreigners – over an often bumpy stretch of the River Thames in London. Often the race is uncompetitive, and very rarely is the ‘favourite’ defeated. And yet more than 250,000 people will crowd onto the banks of the river in order to catch glimpses of the two crews as they speed from Putney to Mortlake. Millions more will watch it on television. Indeed, the whole event is such an established occasion that it is usually just referred to as ‘The Boat Race’ – and everyone knows which one you mean.
Established as a result of a challenge between former schoolfriends who went to the ‘rival’ universities, the Boat Race has been taking place since 1829, 155 times in all. The score so far – including the 2009 event – stands at Cambridge 79 victories, Oxford 75 and just 1 memorable ‘dead heat’. Probably even more memorable, to many, was the sinking of the Cambridge boat in 1978.
There are, in fact, two Oxford and Cambridge Boat Races on the same day – as the reserve crews, in their boats named Isis and Goldie – precede the main event. The ladies’ race takes place at the annual Henley Regatta rather than on this section of the river.
The 2010 Boat Race will take place on 3rd April, starting at 4.30 pm – the start times vary annually because of the need to catch the tide right. And yet again there will be hordes of spectators lining the river banks. And not all of them will be university alumni, avid rowers or members of the crews’ extended families.
The reason for the popularity of the Boat Race as a live event is because the atmosphere along the banks and on the bridges is totally festival-like. Spring is arriving in London and the city is starting to come out of its grey winter and Londoners – and others – can relish the opportunity of getting into the air, down by the river and taking part in what turns out to be a street party – with the Thames being the street!
You can find good places to watch the race on both sides of the river along the total length of the course but many people congregate around Putney Embankment, Bishop’s Park, Hammersmith and Barnes Bridge, Duke’s Meadows and Chiswick Bridge. There are large screens set up in Bishop’s Park in Fulham and Furnival Gardens in Hammersmith. Fulham Football Club also offer what they call their Varsity Day Package to spectators. It’s even possible to cycle stretches of the embankment, keeping abreast of the crews.
Organisers of the Putney Music Festival have, during recent years, co-ordinated their activities with the Boat Race, enabling the festivities to extend past the closing ceremony and keeping people out until much later. Many of the pubs and clubs in the area have live music events that have become very popular.
And, of course, the riverside pubs themselves do a wonderful trade on Boat Race day. With beer gardens and terraces crammed with spectators, it is best to arrive early at the most popular places but there are many to choose from – all of them heaving with light and dark blue supporters. The Dove, in Hammersmith, is perhaps the oldest pub on the course but it offers views all the way from Hammersmith to Chiswick Eyot. The famous River Café is also along the route on the Thames Path and offers excellent viewing possibilities.
If you want to see the start of the race, with the crews vying for position as they enter the Surrey Bend, then Putney Railway Station is quite close and numbers 14 and 22 buses can take you. For the Mortlake finishing line, then the 209 and 190 buses from Hammersmith are the ones to look out for.
The Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race is a great day out. For many, the actual result of the race is almost immaterial – other than for spurious bragging rights amongst groups of friends. The whole atmosphere of the day, though, is of fun-filled activity – with good music, good pubs and happy people. the Boat Race Website is a good place for the latest information about the event.