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Oxford. Going backwards. 
Since 1838.

Messing about on the river.

There are many reasons to stroll along the River Thames in Oxford. Romantic ruins. Ancient water meadows. Medieval mills. And a state-of-the-art mini hydro-electric power plant in a glass building. These are just some of the sights that await you. But, at the start of the year, there is another striking spectacle for you to enjoy.

In late February and early March, head down to the stretch of river that flows elegantly past Christ Church, from Folly Bridge towards Iffley lock. There, on the water, you can't fail to notice a commotion. The usually serene river churns with sleek racing rowing boats, powered by more (or less) skillful crews of Oxford students. No, this isn't the famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race. You are witnessing the annual inter-college rowing competition known as Torpids.

Torpids? What's that?

Torpids is an old word, barely used now. It means slow. Very slow. And that gives you an insight into Oxford's Torpids. They were launched in 1838 to give less able crews an opportunity to race each other. To this day, the standard of rowing is variable, to put it politely. Collisions and catasrophes on the water are a regular sight. Many crews make up with enthusiasm what they lack in skill. Yet all of this adds to the enjoyment of the spectator who is willing to stand on the chilly banks and watch.

Bumps! Welcome to Eights week.

By the time we reach Eights Week (23-26 May), the weather is usually more welcoming. Eights week is the second of the annual inter-college races. But why 'eights'? And what are 'bumps'? 

Eights week is named after the type of rowing boat being raced. An 'eight' is the largest racing boat, powered by eight rowers and steered by a non-rower called the cox. In the hands of a skillful crew, an eight can pick up an impressive speed, which is where the cox comes in. Because the rowers, pulling with all their might, are travelling backwards along a busy river! 

This leaves the cox as the only one who can see where they are going. Fortunately, the eight has a small rudder that the cox controls with strings inside the boat. But steering is vague and takes time. A skilled crew can steer the boat better by adjusting the power of the oars to the left or right (bow or stroke in the lingo). But these are not always skilled crews. Mayhem is possible.

And what is Bumps?

If you choose to join the crowd to watch the racing, you won't see boats from all 38 Oxford colleges at the starting line. The river is far too narrow for that. Instead, the boats line up one behind the other, with 1 1/2 boat lengths between them. A cannon fires, and the race is on.

The aim is to catch the boat in front and bump into them - hence the name. The boat doing the bumping moves to the side of river and stops rowing. They will join the next race one position up the line. The bumped boat must try to bump the crew in front if it is to stay in the race. Boats gradually move up the line or are knocked out until there is one victorious boat left at the front - known as The Head of the River.

The 'other' race - the world famous Oxford-Cambridge boat race

The contrast between Bumps and the Boat Race could not be more stark. Crews representing each university are made up of some of the world's best rowers. It is not unusual to find Olympic gold medalists and world champions in both boats. These are serious athletes. This year, 2018, the tallest rower is 6 foot 10 inches (206cm) tall and weighs 106kg. Unfortunately for Oxford, perhaps, he is in the Cambridge men's boat. The boats race side-by-side, and competition is fierce.

An old and intense rivalry

The Oxford-Cambridge boat race began in 1829. It all started as a challenge between Charles Merivale, a student at Cambridge, and his old school friend from Harrow, Charles Wordsworth at Oxford. Little did they know that some 189 years later, it would still be going strong, more popular than ever. 

Over the years, there have been a few annual boat races missed due to Wars, one dead heat (in 1877), and then 82 wins by Cambridge and 80 wins by Oxford. If you think you might like to go and cheer along Oxford to close the gap, don't be fooled. Unlike Eights Week and Torpids, this race takes place on the River Thames in London. Luckily it is an easy coach or train journey from Oxford, and well worth trip. The river bank at Hammersmith is a good place to watch. It is half way along the 4 mile course. And there is a busy pub for refreshments. 

The writing is on the wall

Back in Oxford, you can catch up on the college rowing results in a most unusual way. Over the years, a tradition has grown for winning crews to mark their victory with elaborate chalk graffiti on their college walls. Ask us to show you some fine examples when you join us for a Sights & Delights Oxford tour. 

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