Charles Merivale: Looking Down On The 2021 Boat Race

Ely Cathedral, which overlooks the 2021 Boat Race course, is known as ‘the ship of the Fens’, because of its prominent position above the surrounding flat landscape. It contains a memorial to Charles Merivale (inset), one of the two founders of the Boat Race in 1829.

15 March 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch looks at a few positives of an Ely Boat Race.

Those members of the general public who have given the matter any thought may consider that the 2021 Boat Race, having been temporarily moved to Ely, will be some sort of ‘second best’ or ‘compromise’ event. However, I think that many of us with a little knowledge of Boat Races past and present are excited by what a new page in the race’s long history may bring, even if we hope to see a return to the Tideway next year.

The promised innovative television coverage of tight side-by-side racing along a narrow straight course may even see a demand from ‘casual’ viewers that Ely becomes the permanent home for the Battle of the Blues. The splendid race coverage at Henley Royal Regatta could be a template for this year’s Boat Race broadcast, but Henley has financial and technical limitations that the BBC will not suffer at Ely.

Merivale’s memorial in Ely Cathedral. Picture: GariochGraver.

There is another positive from the location of the 2021 Race, one that must particularly appeal to rowing historians; the race will be held under the gaze of one of the men who founded the Boat Race tradition in 1829, Charles Merivale. Merivale was Dean of Ely between 1869 until his death in 1893. His likeness is displayed on his memorial housed in the exuberant Decorated Gothic cathedral that overlooks the 2021 Boat Race course.

Merivale (left) and Wordsworth (right).

Famously, the Race started when Charles Merivale, a student at St John’s College, Cambridge, and his Old Harrovian school friend, Charles Wordsworth, who was studying at Christ Church, Oxford, agreed that the two universities should ‘row a match at or near London, each in an eight-oared boat during the ensuing Easter vacation.’ The first Boat Race thus took place on 10 June 1829 at Henley on Thames. It is ironic that Harrow, a distinctly non-rowing school, should play such an important part in rowing history.

Prior to that first Boat Race, Wordsworth and Merivale wrote to each other about the upcoming match in Henley. An amusing letter of 2 June 1829 to Merivale from Wordsworth (a reply to a letter that unfortunately is now lost) was purchased by Henley’s River and Rowing Museum in 2019. Göran R Buckhorn thinks that it may be ‘One of the most important letters in the history of rowing’. Next to the museum display case containing the precious piece of correspondence is a booklet with a facsimile of each page of the letter with a printed explanation opposite.

The result of Wordsworth’s and Merivale’s correspondence as imagined in 1929, the centenary of that first Boat Race.

Returning to the present century, the latest news via a Boat Race Company Limited (BRCL) press release is that only the men’s and the women’s Blue Boats will race at Ely on Sunday, 4 April, there will be no reserve crew races.

Athletes have been training for the event since September 2020, within government guidelines at all times.

The 2021 race, between Ely and Littleport on the River Great Ouse, will be contested over a 4.89km non-tidal course [which] will present its own unique challenges, and be a very tactical race. The extreme distance that the crews are racing next to each other will make this an exceptional test of mental toughness. No bend means no inside advantage, which will make a game-changing push significantly harder.

Trials at Ely in December. Picture: BRCL via Facebook.

The BRCL emphasises that spectators and media will not be able to access the event, and that there will be ‘a heightened stewarding and police presence on the ground’.

Within the event perimeter, staff will be working to COVID guidelines, wearing PPE and following strict distancing. Crews and contractors will be in bubbles, and protocols will be in place to aid COVID-safe movement around the site.

The race will be broadcast live on BBC One from 15:00-17:30. The 75th Women’s Race is scheduled to take place at 15:50 and the 166th Men’s Race will follow at 16:50.

Less than three weeks to go….

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