This year’s fiercely contested Varsity boat race – perhaps the most famous of its kind in the world – will return to the River Thames on Saturday March 24, with around 250,000 expected to watch bankside and millions more following on TV.
The crews of the Oxford and Cambridge boat clubs, both men’s and women’s teams, will be cheered on by proud alumni from across the world, as keen rowing enthusiasts keep a close eye to see some of the very best talent in the world row for all they’re worth.
With a history stretching back to 1829, the boat race became an annual men’s event in 1856, with Cambridge having notched up 82 wins to Oxford’s 80 – though there was one dead heat recorded in 1877. The background to that decision and its judge (who was blind in one eye) has fuelled a combination of conjecture and story-telling ever since, and from boat sinkings to unwelcome swimming participants, the race itself is not always the only drama to behold.
The 4 mile-course, from Putney to Mortlake in southeast London, presents a number of good vantage points to watch the action, including Putney and Hammersmith Bridges, the school boathouses at St. Paul’s and The Emanuel, as well as Chiswick Pier and Dukes Meadow for the final stages of the race.
As anyone who has made the journey to watch in person will agree, the most popular place to get involved is often in a traditional riverside pub. There are some lovely centuries’ old examples along the course, though with hundreds of thousands expected to flock, getting to whichever you choose early is vital, and things can get a little territorial. In Hammersmith, popular choices include The Crabtree for its country pub vibe, The Blue Anchor for 18th century interiors and pretty wood panelling, or The Dove where Charles II is said to have once dined with Nell Gwynn.
If jostling with crowds does not appeal reserve a space instead at Fulham Football Club’s Craven Cottage, where from its riverside terrace the first mile of the race can be watched from an excellent viewpoint, and where there will be a sports bar, live DJ, pop-up cocktail bar and food stalls alongside the river. Craven Cottage is also offering hospitality packages that will surely tempt, with a meal served ahead of the race and exclusive access to the terrace. A good choice for a base to stay is Anouska Hempel’s Blakes Hotel in Kensington, where transportation from the luxe and theatrical setting of the hotel to Craven Cottage can take just 15 minutes by car.
This year both the men’s and women’s boats from Cambridge weighed in heavier than their dark blue counterparts, with some suggesting that might give the light blues an edge on sheer strength. Cambridge’s number 4, American James Letten, also claimed the title of the tallest member to compete this year, measuring in at a whopping 6ft 10in. Given that Oxford has won 4 out of the last 5 men’s races, Cambridge might well be hoping that size and pure muscle will swing it for them. As for the women’s race, which will be held on the same day at The Championship Course for its fourth year now, Cambridge remain clearly ahead with 42 wins to Oxford’s 30, as they hope to improve on the course record they set last year.
With the chance to get involved in the atmosphere of one Britain’s most celebrated inter-University competitions, and with spring finally around the corner to reveal the city’s majestic Thames to all who come, this year pick a choice spot to watch the blues do battle on the water, being sure to join in with a late afternoon riverside tipple as you do.
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