Back to the Thames

by frankbeswick

After two years absence the Oxford-Cambridge boat race returned to its traditional course.

England thrives on tradition. Of the many traditional features of life in England the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, traditionally held on the river Thames in London, has returned home. Yes, we had the pandemic, a time for crowd control, hospitalisations and secret lock down parties when the people who made the laws against parties met in government buildings to break them. But life in England has resumed its steady course. Traditions have been preserved!

Image courtesy of T34_boston, of Pixabay


The day, April 3 2022,  was typical of an English spring. White, fluffy clouds, cumulus to be precise, sailed across a sky that had the steely blue of a cold spring day, as opposed to the deep, comforting blue of summer. They reminded me of a fleet of yachts come to share in the occasion, joining in the celebration of  a great national event. But the wind had a chilly touch to it, not an icy one, but one that did not invite lingering outdoors without warm garments. But that did not deter the crowds, the many who thronged the key points on the route, come to rejoice in an elite sporting competition, and relishing the comforting return to traditional patterns of life. One team minibus had to struggle to reach the starting point as the crowds swamped the roads. It was good-hearted, no malice, no insults being traded, but it was the simple enjoyment of a one hundred and sixty six year tradition in which bright and athletic young people from Oxford and Cambridge, Britain's elite universities, meet for a race.

What created the atmosphere that day was in part a combination of joyous celebration of return to the normal niceties of life in a civilised country, combined with a contrast with  evils happening elsewhere. That day we had already had news of atrocities against civilians in the Ukraine. We had also heard of a Scottish football match where a broken bottle was thrown onto the pitch. Savagery is never far away, but the boat race was a joyous and peaceful cultural occasion undertaken in a friendly spirit. Surely an antidote to evil news.

The race was favoured by a visit from Gloriana, the Royal Rowbarge, a wonderful piece of craftsmanship. You can access the Gloriana website at It was a royal welcoming home for the race. It is worth an admiring look. 

The race had been two years  away from its home on the Thames. Twenty twenty saw the race cancelled, a massive disappointment to the young athletes who had given a year of intense physical training to the race. Twenty twenty one saw the race diverted to Cambridgeshire, with high handed authorities trying to minimise spectators, to no avail, as the spectators watched anyway. But twenty twenty two saw the race come home.

As usual, I took sides. I spent several years as an examiner for University of Cambridge Examinations Board, and have spent some of the limited free time I had in the city happily enjoying its architecture, particularly its churches, its market and its bookshops. My visits to Oxford have been limited to two day trips. So I always support the light blues of Cambridge over the dark blues of Oxford, and that is despite my having a nephew and niece who had  successful spells at Oxford.  So when early afternoon arrived I settled down to watch the race on television, hoping that Cambridge would continue with the run of success that it had been enjoying.

The Route

The traditional route is an east to west S shaped course running along the river Thames from Putney to Mortlake, passing the Harrod's Depository, where goods destined for the world-famous elite department store were stored in a grandiose late nineteenth century building deemed worthy of Harrod's rich clientele. It also passes Craven Cottage, the football stadium home of Fulham Soccer Club,  a pleasant club with a good name in British football. The northern bank of the course is known as the Middlesex bank, named after the tiny county and ancient Saxon kingdom of Middlesex; the southern bank of the course is known as the Surrey Bank, named after the county of Surrey, in whose territory much of southern Greater London is situated.

The direction of the race is against the current of the river, but to ameliorate the physical demand on the crews the race is timed to coincide with the tidal flow up the river, which neutralizes the weight of water passing downwards. The 4.2 mile course is carefully chosen to even out the advantages that the Surrey and Middlesex sides have at different stages of the race. The curve of the river gives early advantages to Surrey, but Middlesex gets an advantage in the middle  stages.

The starting point for the race is by an official marker on the riverbank near Putney Bridge, where the boats, with eight rowers, apiece each of whom pulls a single oar, and a lightweight cox, are held in place prior to the start by a marshal in a launch. The marshals are awaiting the time when each cox lowers their raised arm to signify readiness. Then the flotilla of boats, including press and rescue boats, begins to surge down the river Thames, always keeping behind the rowing boats.

After starting at Putney the eight-crewed boats race towards Hammersmith Bridge, vying to pass under its arches first. The next bridge is Barnes Bridge, before they pass the points where the river is narrowed by Chiswick Pier and for a brief stretch by Chiswick Eyot [pronounced Chiswick eight, an ancient dialect word meaning Chiswick Island.] The race finishes just before Chiswick Bridge, but the crews row under the bridge to a  boat house, from whose landing stage the victorious cox is thrown into the river by their crew. 


The Race

There are four races on race day, two male, two female. Reserve crews race before the senior eights. They have odd names. The Cambridge female reserve boat is always called Blondie, while the Oxford women's boat is Isis, an Egyptian goddess, but also the local Oxfordshire name for the Thames. The  Cambridge male reserve boat is always Goldie, whereas the Oxford males call their boat Osiris, also an Egyptian deity. The women's  reserve race was won by Blondie, but the Oxford team rowed Osiris to victory. One race  apiece at the halfway stage.

Next came the women's race. Cambridge women are an impressive crew, containing several Olympic oarswomen. They set off well and soon it was clear that they were nosing ahead of their Oxford rivals. Soon the Cambridge women's boat exercised its right to cut  directly ahead  of the Oxford boat, thus gaining the advantage of the faster current in the middle of the river. They never lost the advantage and despite a final effort by Oxford, eventually  swept past the finishing post and claimed victory. There followed a few tense moments when the Oxford cox raised  his arm to appeal the result [coxes  do not have to be the same sex as their crews.] The grounds for the appeal were that Cambridge had cut in front of the Oxford boat, but the appeal was dismissed, as boat race rules do not ban cutting in, although Olympic rules do.

But the Oxford men had the advantage of weight, on average eight kilos heavier than their Cambridge rivals, and it was to be significant. The Cambridge cox won the toss and opted to row on the northern, Middlesex, side, hoping to concede the initial advantage of beginning on the Surrey side in favour of later advantage, when he probably hoped that Oxford's greater weight would count for less than Cambridge's stamina. His hopes were dashed. Oxford took an early lead and kept it, surging comfortably past the finishing post to make the day's results a drawer. A good day, tradition is restored. 


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Updated: 04/07/2022, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 02/13/2024

Postpone the race.

DerdriuMarriner on 02/12/2024

Unitedstatesian tennis champion Arthur Ashe considered in his two autobiographies how the English people display such an infectious enthusiasm for flowers, manners, rituals, teas and traditions.

What might the Oxford-Cambridge boat-race organizers do in the event of really, very inclement weather?

Would the race be held because of the English dedication to ritual and tradition or would it be rescheduled or would it not be held that year?

frankbeswick on 05/03/2022

Only recent generations of royals have been to university, and only one, Prince Charles, went to Cambridge. None attended Oxford. Prince Charles did not get A level [matriculation] grades high enough for Oxford or Cambridge, but I recall that the left were planning to make his life at university hard, so he was sent to a college which could provide the most secure studying and living conditions. The left then started complaining about privilege.

DerdriuMarriner on 05/02/2022

Am I correctly or erroneously tending to associate Cambridge more than Oxford with royals who get university degrees?

If so, it's unexpected to me that the latter would be listed before the former. But then perhaps it's respect to elders because Oxford is a bit longer-existing than Cambridge.

frankbeswick on 04/27/2022

It has always been Oxford-Cambridge and never vice versa.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/27/2022

Has and is the race always, always called the Oxford-Cambridge race? Is there such a thing as the Cambridge-Oxford race?

frankbeswick on 04/26/2022

All rules may be altered, but I do not know of any boat race rules that have been. England likes to do things its own way.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/26/2022

Are boat race rules amenable to alteration or removal or are they in essence carved in stone? I wonder if it is possible that the Olympic take against cutting in someday will spread to affect the Oxford-Cambridge race.

frankbeswick on 04/23/2022

The race was held in Cambridgeshire to prevent large urban crowds in London spreading covid. I cannot see why authorities tried to impede spectators. I think that they were nervous of crowds spreading disease and therefore exerted more power than they were entitled to do.

DerdriuMarriner on 04/22/2022

Where and why was the race held in Cambridgeshire?

And why were spectators not welcome to what can be considered a popular, spirit-lifting spectator sport in 2021, after 2020 when so many things ceased entirely or shut down temporarily?

It would have been so reassuring that a tradition was coming back.

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