Today, for the first time since 1975, I watched the Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race from the bandstands by Dukes Meadows. I have seen the boats pass by from many different vantage points over the last 43 years, always on the north side of the river, but never from here. Back in 1975 Cambridge (the light blues) won, and I was cheering for them, for no obvious reason. Nobody in my family had any connection with either university, or indeed any university, but I had picked Cambridge. Seven years later I was fortunate enough to be a first-year student there.
During the Easter Vacation in that first year at college I watched the boats go past from a balcony on The Mall in Hammersmith. It was at the place described in this earlier piece as follows: “At the back of our school, overlooking the river, there was a house shared by many of the unmarried teachers. As I recall, the house was owned by the school…” My old Maths teacher (an Oxford man) lived there, and hosted a Boat Race party most years. My mum was invited too. She had a lengthy conversation with an English teacher who had left the school the previous year, much of it about the ITV comedy series “Shelley”. They were both big fans of the show. I had never seen it, and still haven’t. We watched the start of the race on TV, stood on the balcony to cheer the boats as they rowed past, and then moved back inside to watch the rest of the race. Oxford won, comfortably, as they did for ten straight years after Cambridge’s 1975 victory.
In my final year at university the race was held during term-time. A friend who had family in West Kensington drove a car-load of us down for the day, heading for my family’s place further west, a 20-minute walk away from the river. We took the M25 for part of the journey, the first time I had ever travelled on it. We got stuck in traffic on the North Circular Road. It looked like we would miss the start, and maybe the whole race. One member of our travelling party was very impatient to see it and got out at traffic lights somewhere along the way. By the time my mum had opened the door to the rest of us we knew that the event had been postponed till the next day. The Cambridge boat had hit a barge and the race took place on a Sunday for the first time. Oxford won, as part of that ten-year winning streak.
The next time that Cambridge won, in 1986, I missed the whole thing. I was at White Hart Lane instead (Spurs beat Arsenal 1-0). My enthusiasm for the Boat Race had been rather dented by those ten consecutive defeats. After that solitary victory Cambridge would go on to lose the next six, meaning that Oxford won 15 years out of 16. Cambridge still held the lead in overall victories (69-68) but another Oxford victory would draw them level.
From 1993 the light blues reversed the trend, winning seven in a row. I saw many of these races from The Mall in Chiswick. 1997 was different. My mother was in Charing Cross Hospital, a building visible from much of the Boat Race route. She had been admitted 12 days earlier, walking, talking, eating and drinking, but feeling weak. She deteriorated rapidly. An old school-friend, a public health doctor, visited her on the way to watch the race and was shocked at the change. That was the day we learnt that she was unlikely to recover. She could still talk and could still eat and drink a little, but she would not walk again. We started planning to bring her home to die in peace. The Cambridge victory wasn’t much of a consolation.
In the years since then I have seen around half of the races on TV at home, and the rest from somewhere along the river, either that stretch of Chiswick Mall by the Fuller’s Brewery, or in Hammersmith, near the Black Lion pub. It can get very busy there, as we learnt when one or both of the children still travelled by pushchair. Those days are far behind us, but my 14-year-old son and I decided to avoid the crowds and watch from the bandstands this afternoon. We visited my mother’s grave on the way, a five-minute walk from the river. Those bunches of daffodils from last weekend looked far better than I was expecting.
Back in 1975 there might have been an ice cream van by the bandstands, but no other form of refreshment. Today there were around a dozen different food and drink stalls, as well as an ice cream van. One of the drinks concessions was serving Prosecco on tap, another was offering rum punch. I resisted both. In 1975 we didn’t know how the race was going until the boats rowed past us. Today there was a large screen broadcasting the BBC’s coverage, so we knew that Cambridge were ahead before they arrived. The gap between the two boats was the smallest I have ever seen live and direct, but Cambridge (aided by the 46-year-old James Cracknell) held on to win. Overall Cambridge now lead 84-80. I do not plan to wait another 44 years before watching the Boat Race from Dukes Meadows again. All being well I’ll be there this time next year.