Post Modern

The Thames Championship Course in 1875. Gone is old Putney Bridge, the Putney Aqueduct, Leander’s Putney Boathouse, old Hammersmith Bridge and a functioning Mortlake Brewery. Industrial buildings such as the soap works and the distillery are now luxury apartments. Chiswick Bridge would not be built for another 55 years. However, whatever changes there have been, the course remains at 4 miles, 374 yards.

18 March 2023

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch writes post haste.

I do not know if the doyen of blue-collar arena-rock, Jon Bon Jovi, has ever rowed the Thames Championship Course between Mortlake and Putney (or vice versa) but stranger things have happened. For example, Kris Kristofferson is one of the few inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame who was also an Oxford Rhodes Scholar and a Boxing Blue. 

Whatever Mr Jovi’s sporting achievements, there are few who have not raced the gruelling 6,779 metre course that would not relate to his lyrics, Woah, we’re half way there, Woah, livin’ on a prayer. Knowing that you are past half-way is always a great incentive to draw on physical and psychological reserves in the battle to stay strong to the finish. The problem has always been, where is the half-way point between P and M (or M and P)?

Pictured at the start of a piece between the University of London and Cambridge University women’s crews during one of the 2023 Boat Race Fixtures are the traditional markers of the Championship Course half-way point, the “blue windows”.

Until recently, the conventional wisdom has always been that you were about “half way there” when you were at the blue windows (sometimes inexplicably called “the blue doors”) on the gable end of the Durham Wharf studio just downstream of Chiswick Eyot that once belonged to the artist, Julian Trevelyan. In 2014, I wrote about the famous parties that Trevelyan once held for the arty set at his studio every Boat Race Day. One guest in the 1950s was fellow artist Feliks Topolski who brought along his young son, Daniel, giving the boy his first view of the event that would later play a very large part in his life.

However, on 13 March, a more precise marker came into being when St Paul’s School unveiled “The St Paul’s Post”, a half-ton, 4.25-metre tall post made of green English oak painted in the black and white livery of the school, standing in St Paul’s grounds on a 3,389.5-metre point between start and finish.

The post was unveiled by Alan Campbell (left), Olympic bronze medalist and triple Diamonds winner, and a man who has won most things over the Putney – Mortlake Course, including the Wingfield Sculls five times and the Scullers Head twice. With Alan are Sally-Anne Huang, High Master of St Paul’s, and Dr Matt Smith, President of the school boat club.

A press release from the school says:

The marker’s location was determined by taking a normal to the tangent of the racing line (assumed to be the centre of the Fairway…) at the halfway point and extending it to the Surrey bank and then into the St Paul’s site.

The new St Paul’s Post (far right and in its unveiled state) seems to be opposite the Old Ship pub (far left) if viewed directly across the river and ignoring the racing line.

Unlike most of his contemporaries in top-level sculling, in his racing days Alan Campbell was not just obsessed with the 2,000-metre, multi lane, still water course. Like the scullers of old, he was also passionate about watermanship on a living river. He told me:

The Tideway is a unique place and the Championship Course requires Champions in order to win it. Champions go beyond just having the physiological, the psychological and the technical attributes needed… they also need to have Character. This is a course that not only requires (character) it also demands it… My predecessors who had been single scullers at the Olympics before me had all been Champions on the Tideway… which was very inspiring. 

Matt Smith (not the Oxford one or the World Rowing one), St Paul’s Boat Club President and Head of Chemistry, one of the instigator of the post project pictured in front of a temporary display from the SPSBC archives in the school’s “Montgomery Room.”
Old Pauline Chris Harris, proposer of the Post Project, is appropriately wearing his Army RC blazer standing in front of a map that another Old Pauline, Field Marshal Montgomery, used in 1944 in planning the D-Day invasion of occupied Europe when 21st Army Group occupied the St Paul’s School buildings then sited in central Hammersmith. St Paul’s moved to Barnes in 1968 and the fine terracotta fronted buildings in Hammersmith were demolished in 1970.

With Boat Race Day, 26 March, fast approaching, this is an appropriate time to look more closely at the real star of the show, the Championship Course. The 2019 Boat Race Programme gave a nice summary of the intricacies of the 4 1/4 miles and I reproduce it here in bold illustrated with pictures from my archive.

A view of The Course from 1926. Picture: London Transport.

The course for the Boat Race comprises four bends; two at the start and finish in favour of the Middlesex or north bank station, and two in the middle favouring the Surrey or south bank station. The start of the race is marked by the University Stone, set in the pavement a few hundred yards upstream from Putney Bridge. 

Not everyone is a fan of the Boat Race. This dog has just expressed an opinion on the University Stone at Putney.
Most people racing over the Championship Course do it in one of the major Head Races, all of which run from Mortlake to Putney for logistical reasons. This picture shows Oxford Brookes winning the 2016 Head of the River Race.

For the first quarter of a mile, the course is quite straight. Then begins the first Middlesex bend, said to be worth a third of a length advantage to the crew drawn on that station. The bend is almost three-quarters of a mile long and takes the crews up towards the Mile Post, the first of the classic race timing points.

The Mile Post, a memorial to the great interwar coach, Steve Fairbairn.
Auriol Kensington passes the Mile Post at the 2023 Women’s Head of the River Race.

For the next two miles, the bend in the river favours the crew drawn on Surrey and is said to be worth about one length to the inside crew. Near the apex of the Surrey Bend is Hammersmith Bridge. Shortly after the two-mile point, the Race arrives at Chiswick Reach, heralded by the narrow island, Chiswick Eyot, near the Middlesex bank.

The 2016 Women’s Boat Race reaches Hammersmith Bridge.

At the end of Chiswick Reach is the third timing station, Chiswick Steps. The second Surrey bend then begins to even out as the crews approach the three-mile mark. Here is the point known as the Crossing where the best rowing line runs directly across the middle of the river, and this is where the boats lose the shelter of the shore and become vulnerable to any prevailing south-westerly wind. 

Chiswick Steps opposite Chiswick Church.

Now begins the final bend in favour of the crew on Middlesex, and when the Race passes under Barnes Railway Bridge there is barely three-quarters of a mile to go. 

The 2020 Women’s Wingfields at Barnes Bridge.

The finish line at Mortlake is just a few yards downstream from Chiswick Bridge, marked by a second University Stone.

A pre-1909 postcard showing the Mortlake University Stone (arrowed) before the building of Chiswick Bridge and the demolition of the nearby houses.
The same spot as above viewed today.
The Finish Post opposite the Mortlake University Stone pictured during the 2019 Cambridge Women’s Trial Race.

Like rowing itself, properly steering the Championship Course is “simple but not easy.”

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