Things to do in England
Watching the Boat Race

In England winter is officially over when crews from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge take to the River Thames for the annual Boat Race.

Watching the boat race is one of those typical 'things to do in England' that sometimes make no sense to visitors. It's one of the first big events of the year that attracts huge crowds and it has a true carnival atmosphere.

Thousands of spectators line the 4.5 mile course along the river bank - and watch from the strategically sited pubs.

And millions more follow the race on TV, radio and online. It's estimated that 100 million people worldwide watch the race each year.

Not bad for a challenge race that was born in 1829 and run on the Thames at Henley!

In this first race Cambridge, the challengers, lost to Oxford. But somebody must have had fun, because a second boat race was run in 1836 over five and three-quarter miles between Westminster and Putney.

Both teams wore blue jerseys. Oxford's were dark blue and Cambridge's crew was in light blue colours. And if you've ever seen the race, you'll know that these are the colours the teams (and supporters) wear to this day.

The race was run again ... and again ... and somewhere over the years it grew beyond a simple friendly rivalry between two university teams. It grew into a must-see contest for thousands. It became one of those things to do in England.

The course from Putney to Mortlake was first used in 1845. And - barring sinkings, collisions and adverse weather - the crews take about 20 minutes to complete the 4.5 miles.

As with any long-running sporting event, commentators will quote barrels of statistics going back right to the beginning. Winning and losing strategies. Fastest, slowest. Heaviest, lightest. Tallest, shortest. Disasters, marriages, family feuds.

If you love this sort of thing - or simply like to know what you're watching - check out the Boat Race Website.

Most people come out to have fun and cheer the crews. Just because it's a nice day and because it's one of those things to do in England. Few know the series score - at time of writing 84 wins for Cambridge, to 80 for Oxford - or even which boat won the previous year. And regardless of who is declared race favourite by commentators and boat race experts, most people support "their" team year after year after year.

You tend not to remember the score, but you do remember the shock of watching your boat sink - as happened to Cambridge in 1859 and 1978, and to Oxford in 1925 and 1951. You remember the agony and despair on the faces of the losing crew and the ecstasy in the winning boat. Most of all, you remember the effort and determination these guys put into the race.

And it's that which makes you come back the next year to see it all again. Never mind if you're thousands of miles away.

If you're in London and want to watch it right from the riverside, make sure you arrive early. This is a popular event, remember? Here's a link to the course map so that you can plan your visit.

And for those of us who can't make it to the river, this can still be a fun day out. Most pubs will show the race. Or you can watch from the comfort of your home over a late lunch or afternoon tea, with a drink or two.

Come on, celebrate the arrival of spring and experience one of the truly traditional things to do in England.

And tell me: Which boat do YOU support?

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