Tim Koch writes:
In Britain the traditional excuses given by schoolchildren who fail to hand in homework on time is ‘my dog ate it’ or ‘I left it on the bus’. These days I suppose a more believable plea is ‘my computer crashed’. I am not sure which one I should choose to explain the fact that my report on the Cambridge University May Bumps is three months late. In some ways this is not important as HTBS is not really a results service and anyone who was interested in who went ‘head’, who got ‘spoons’ and who did something in-between would have found plenty of places on the Internet that would have satisfied their curiosity. The main reason that I regret my tardiness is that it is discourteous to my charming guide for the day, Brielle (Brie) Stark.
Brie has steered on many of the world’s most famous rowing courses; for Bryn Mawr on the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, for St Anne’s on the Isis in Oxford and for Caius on the Cam in Cambridge. She has also competed at Henley, Dorney, on the Charles and on the Thames Tideway. In non-rowing hours she is working for a PhD in Clinical Neuroscience, ‘investigating the potential for computerised therapy in expressive, chronic aphasia after stroke’. Clearly, times have changed since rowers traditionally read ‘Land Economy’, something that was once a rather undemanding degree.
HTBS has written about Stephen Hawking’s rowing days before and has looked at the parts of his autobiography that talk about his time with the boat club. Hawking’s study is on the third floor but his staircase is one of the few in Cambridge with a lift (elevator) and I suspect that Caius is now the most wheelchair accessible of all the colleges. This is ironic as the man who refounded the college in the sixteenth century, John Caius, insisted that it should admit no disabled or Welsh students.
Before racing started, Brie took me on a quick ‘grand tour’ of Cambridge and this, the first part of my report, looks at some rowing and some non-rowing aspects of this ancient university town on the Cam. We started at Caius College (pronounced ‘keez’), strictly called ‘Gonville and Caius’. Originally founded in 1348, refounded in 1557, it is one of the oldest, richest and most academically prestigious of all Cambridge’s colleges.
Brie then took me to Trinity, one of the few colleges with more Nobel laureates (32 in total) and more money than Caius. Legend has it that you can walk from Cambridge to Oxford solely on land owned by what is officially called ‘The College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity within the Town and University of Cambridge of King Henry the Eighth’s foundation’.
Alumni who have passed through the Great Gate include Issac Newton, Lord Byron and Ludwig Wittgenstein. I once knew someone who had Wittgenstein’s old room – it was in a freezing cold tower and she was plagued at odd hours by fans of the philosophy of logic asking to see where the great man slept.
Famously the quad at Trinity is the site of the ‘Great Court Run’, an attempt to run its 401 yard / 367 metre perimeter in the 43 seconds of the college clock striking twelve. The event was depicted in a fictitious race in the film Chariots of Fire where Harold Abrahams beats a character based on Lord Burghley. In fact, in 1927 Burghley was the first man to successfully do the run. The next year he won the 400 metres at the Amsterdam Olympics and at the 1968 Olympics he presented the medals which culminated in the Black Power salute incident.
Allegedly, the Champion of the Thames pub was named after a sculler who had won the title and then moved to Cambridge. He lodged at a house in Kings Street and all his letters were addressed to ‘The Champion of the Thames, Kings Street, Cambridge’. When the house became a pub, the name stuck. If there is any truth in the story, it could refer to Robert Coombes, who held the title, ‘Champion of the Thames’ from 1846 until 1851 and who coached CUBC both in 1846 and 1849.
Moving down to the river, I had time to photograph a few of the more attractive boathouses and also to visit to one of rowing’s holy sites, the Goldie Boathouse. In my 2013 piece on the boathouses of Oxford, I noted that, as a generalisation, the Cambridge boathouses are more pleasing to the eye than those of ‘the other place’. The main reason for this is that for much of their history Oxford college boat clubs based themselves in moored barges, slowing moving to more suitable land based buildings between the 1930s and 1970s. With the Cam unsuitable for mooring barges, Cambridge clubs have always based themselves on terra firma. Thus, Cambridge had mostly built when money was easier to come by while Oxford looked for much of its building funds in cash-strapped times. Further, the Tabs have spread their ‘boathouse row’ along a much longer stretch than the Oxonians. While this gives many buildings along the Cam more space, I rather like the crowded intimacy of the Oxford set up, particularly when viewing their version of the Mays, ‘Eights Week’.
Finally, a visit to CUBC Central, the Goldie Boathouse.
Brie and I were kindly given permission to visit the Captain’s Room, a wonderful meeting room painted in Cambridge Blue, adorned with trophies and memorabilia and, most importantly, plaques recording every Light Blue oarsman and cox who has ever taken part in the Boat Race against Oxford.
The best description that I have found of what the Captain’s Room means comes from Will Greenwood, a Daily Telegraph reporter who, in 2008, wrote a piece on the day he spent training with CUBC:
The Goldie Boat House has history, of that there is no doubt…… Everyone who has taken part in the annual race against their great, dark blue rival Oxford is commemorated. But to be honest, I had expected this musty sense of the past. What drew me up short were the two words painted above each year’s Boat Race crew. They read only ‘won’ or ‘lost’. Stunning in their beauty, unsettling in their simplicity, and damning in their conclusion. No pictures of how close the race was, or of how much effort was put in. All that matters, all the crews will ever be judged on, was whether they were winners or losers. Welcome to the strange and supremely harsh world of the rower.
Part 2 will follow soon.