Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Rowing at Cambridge - the bumps and the stunts.

Rowing at Cambridge
The college and its activities formed the focus of my life. Because of my school interest in rowing I made a bee-line for the Boat Club at Emmanuel which was to be the centre of my interests for the next three years. Rowing, although demanding in time, was the perfect antidote for the architecture course which required many hours of studio work. Of all the sports in Cambridge, rowing attracted a wide variety of people: it was the focus of college pride and the social calendar of the university.

Each term produced events on the river which attracted the crowds. The first term, known as Michaelmas, produced the Fairbairn's Cup, named after Nicholas Fairbairn, a legendary oarsman who pioneered a style of rowing which challenged the established technique and influenced all later styles. It was a timed race involving a procession of boats starting from the college boathouses and finishing over 2 miles downstream from Cambridge.

The river is not wide enough to row side by side, so a form of race was devised many years ago known as the 'Bumps'. These are held in the second and third terms (Lent Races and May Races) and each college enters a number of crews competing in a number of divisions. The Bumps are rowed in the opposite direction to the Fairbairn's - boats have to paddle down from their boathouses to be positioned along the river bank, a few yards apart. On a given signal each boat is pushed out into the centre of the river and at the starting pistol as many as 15 crews set off in pursuit of the boat in front (although it's technically behind, as you row backwards!) The object of the exercise is to literally bump the next boat. When that happens the two boats involved stop rowing. There are four days of racing so the following day the two boats involved in the 'bump' swap places in the division.

rowing shield, 1957, Cambridge

Any crew which records four consecutive bumps is said to have 'gained their oars'. The prize for each rower is a full-size oar which he can keep: the blade would be decorated with the names of the full crew in gold lettering on the college colours. The cox of the winning crew is given a decorated rudder and the coach receives a wooden shield with a mock-up of the bow end of the boat. In my final year at university I coached a crew which gained its oars and the shield is one of my prized possessions.

During the summer term the Boat Club attracted many other people who wanted to row in the May Races for fun. The rugby and soccer clubs had a boat, also the medics. There was also a 'Gentleman's' boat which consisted of boat club members who couldn't afford the time to train regularly, particularly in their final year.

At the end of each term there was a special Boat Club dinner called a Bump Supper. These were always well attended and rather rowdy. We always drank far too much and often people would nip out of college into town later in the evening to perform some kind of prank. I was once bold enough to join such a group and was nearly caught by the Proctor and the police trying to push a large cable roller through the town back to college. Other stunts involved capturing one of the swans from the pond and depositing it in someone's room, changing the position of furniture in a room before filling it full of scrunched-up newspaper and a university golf player chipping golf balls from the rear garden over the Sir Christopher Wren designed chapel roof.

On another occasion a friend of mine, who is now a famous QC, somehow climbed up the front of the cinema which was across the road from Emmanuel and removed a huge cardboard cut-out of Elizabeth Taylor. He took this back to his room. The film, rather appropriately, was called 'Giant'.


  1. Loved hearing all this, especially about the "bump supper" which I must reproduce at home. "Any crew which records four consecutive bumps is said to have 'gained their oars'. " As I've had four bumps, (pregnancies) I think that means I've gained my oars - fabulous.

    1. I remember my first Bump Supper at Emmanuel in the 1980s. we were served whole trout and I had no idea what to do with it.

      I do think you've gained your oars. You should write your children's names on a blade and pop it up above the mantelpiece!