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Sunday, 10 March 2013

Rowing at Cambridge - Thames Head of the River Race


1956 Emmanuel Boat Crew (second eight?).
John is front row, far left.

It was in the lower reaches of the river where I spent most of my time when I wasn't studying. Training usually involved long distance outings covering the length of the river from the boathouses down to the first lock before the river Cam joined the Great Ouse.  On one occasion the first two 'eights' even rowed beyond the lock and carried on down to Ely. The fields adjoining the river were partly flooded and we found ourselves rowing completely off course. We had to row all the way back the following day.

I was a regular member of the second college 'eight' in my first year and took part in national rowing events such as the Thames Head of the River race, which was traditionally rowed the week before the University Boat Race from Mortlake to Putney, and in a coxless four at Henley Royal Regatta. These are experiences I would never forget, not just for the physical exertion involved in both training and taking part, but for the comradeship and sheer fun of the events.

Before the Head of the River race in London we took part in a similar race in Reading the previous week. In the intervening days the two eights rowed downstream through Maidenhead, Henley, Slough and Windsor to Putney, going through several locks and enjoying the beautiful riverbanks of the upper Thames such as Cookham Reach and Teddington. We stayed overnight in Maidenhead and I recall arriving in the pouring rain at about 5 o'clock. The boathouse was adjacent to the main street and we were ordered to run straight to the hotel as soon as we had stored the boat. The sight of sixteen oarsmen and two coxes running down the busy street must have surprised the locals but was nothing compared to the shock of the guests in the hotel when we burst in, bedraggled and soaked-through in our rowing kit. One of our crew, a huge man of 6'6" and 16 stone, loudly requested a hot bath. His name was Bill Hunt, a law student, and I often think of him now as a successful lawyer, frightening the living daylights out of witnesses in court. 

We stayed a couple of nights in a London University hostel before the race on the Saturday. No fewer than 250 crews took part from all over the country so you can imagine the thrill of being involved. Each boat would have to paddle upstream to the starting point, turn round and at 30 second intervals start off back down to Putney, rowing for about 20 minutes to be timed at the finishing post. The fastest crew, usually the Leander Club in those days, would be declared Head of the River. 


1955 Thames Head of the River Race: Emmanuel coming into
the boathouses at Putney.