Head Of The River: Oxford’s Toughest Test? (Part I)

In the foreground is the sign for the Head of the River pub, sited just upstream of Oxford’s college boathouses, and, in the background, Tom Tower, Christopher Wren’s bell tower of 1682 that strides the main entrance to Christ Church (College). The tower’s bell sounds ‘Oxford Time’ which is five minutes and two seconds behind standard British time.

12 June 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch watches otherwise intelligent people trying to hit each other.

In his biographical work, The Last Enemy (1942), Richard Hillary noted that ‘Oxford has been called many names, from “the city of beautiful nonsense” to “an organised waste of time.”’ I think that the phrases ‘beautiful nonsense’ and ‘an organised waste of time’ can also be applied to the sport of rowing in general and to the ancient university’s dominant boat racing events, ‘bumps’, in particular. After my 2014 visit to Oxford’s summertime bumps, ‘Eights Week’ or ‘Summer Eights’, I wrote that

it is a truth universally acknowledged that the British, if they possibly can, will take a perfectly sensible sport and devise a race:

1) With rules so complex that they are almost impenetrable to an outsider.
2) Which is so potentially dangerous that, had it been invented today, it would be banned.
3) Where there is a clear hierarchy that is very difficult to challenge.
) That has its own nomenclature and arcane rituals.
5) Where the spectators can drink copious amounts of alcohol in very pleasant surroundings and treat watching the racing as an option.

The form of boat racing known as ‘bumps’ at Oxford (and Cambridge) ticks all these boxes – but this is not a criticism. In fact, ‘bumps’ are a brilliant and fair way of allowing the maximum number of participants of extremely varying abilities to race on a most unsuitable stretch of river and, moreover, it results in a large portion of them becoming ‘winners’ in one way or another.

‘The cox who failed to notice the bump, by HM Bateman, “Punch” magazine, 1924. Bateman was famous for his ‘The Man Who…’ series of cartoons, featuring comically exaggerated reactions to minor (and usually upper-class) social gaffes, such as passing the port the wrong way.

Bump racing between crews from most of the 43 colleges and halls that make up the university originated because the Thames at Oxford (the Isis) is too narrow for side-by-side racing. In the four-day event, divisions of 14 crews of similar ability chase each other in single file, each trying to catch the boat in front without being caught by the boat behind. Once there is physical contact or overlap, both boats withdraw from the race and pull into the side. For the next day’s (or next year’s) race, they will then swap places in the starting order. For the best crews, the ultimate aim is to climb to the top of Division 1 and to be ‘Head of the River’. As a rise of four places in a year (i.e. making a bump every day) is rare, the journey is a long one and, frustratingly, can resemble a game of ‘Snakes and Ladders’ when some good years of bumping other crews and rising through the rankings is negated by being bumped and dropping back down the table.

A postcard sent in 1906. It was once common to follow a race running alongside a favoured crew. Nowadays, students listen for tannoy announcements or check Twitter.

On Saturday, 1 June, I visited the final day of the 2019 Summer Eights. In this, the first of my two-part report, I am posting pictures with two of my favourite themes: how things change but stay the same, and ‘people watching’. Part two will actually be about rowing.

Bumps: plus ça change

Looking north-west towards Folly Bridge from Boathouse Island, the site of most of the college boathouses. This picture was taken as the crowds increased in anticipation of the men’s and the women’s division one races.
A similar viewpoint to the one above, probably depicting and 1821 race between Brasenose College and Jesus College. It is one of the earliest known scenes of a race between two Oxford college eights. An 1815 race between these two colleges marked the beginnings of competitive rowing at Oxford.
A picture taken from Folly Bridge looking towards Boathouse Island. It shows the end of Women’s Division 3. The day coincided with Oxford’s Gay Pride Parade, hence the rainbow flags flying alongside those of the boat clubs.
The view from Folly Bridge in the 1920s. At that time, clubs based themselves on floating barges. Between 1936 and 1978, these were gradually replaced by today’s more practical land-based boathouses.
A wide shot taken from Folly Bridge. It shows Salter’s boatyard in the foreground, Boathouse Island in the background.
A late Victorian view of Salter’s and of the college barges.
Jesus passes the downstream end of Boathouse Island.
A pre-1914 view of boats alongside a few of the college barges that served in place of boathouses.
Brasenose, 2019.
Brasen Nose, 1824.
An immanent bump, Jesus on St John’s, Women’s Division 1.
An immanent bump, 1890.
Corpus Christi II, 2019: Girl Power.
University College I, 1862: Chaps Glower.
The ferry, 2019, operated by the City Barge Boat Club in aid of charity.
The ferry, 1919, operated by boatmen in aid of their beer money.

Eights Week provides a great opportunity for ‘people watching’. Reviewing my pictures, I am not sure they all truly reflect the ‘typical’ competitor or spectator but I hope that they still give an idea of the spirit of the occasion.

New College (actually founded in 1379).
Wadham – a good outfit for what was the hottest day of the year so far.
Magdalen (pronounced ‘Maudlen’).
Oriel in a reflective mood.
New College. A hatband without a hat?
A Pembroke cox of the old school.
St Edmund Hall aka Teddy Hall.
Green Templeton. The youngest of the college boat clubs, GTBC was created in 2008 after the merger of Green College and Templeton College.
Jesus College Boat Club claims that it has been ‘walking on water since 1815’.
Tim Foster, gold medalist in the four at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, a former postgraduate student and coach at Keble College.

Part II will be posted tomorrow.

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