Anniversary of only Oxford-Cambridge boat race not rowed on River Thames to be commemorated

The Oxford University Boat Club prepare to launch on the River Great Ouse.

The Oxford University Boat Club prepare to launch on the River Great Ouse. - Credit: Archant

On April 6, for the 160th time, teams from Oxford and Cambridge universities will line up on the Thames for a great British institution – The Boat Race.

The crew members last got together for the diamond anniversary in 2004.

The crew members last got together for the diamond anniversary in 2004. - Credit: Archant

But 70 years ago, the dark and light blue teams were waiting at the start line at an altogether less familiar location: the river Great Ouse, near Ely.

The 1944 race approaches the finish line.

The 1944 race approaches the finish line. - Credit: Archant

It was the only time that the race was contested away from London, forced to seek refuge from the 'doodlebug' V1 bombs that were raining down on the capital.

And next week, a veteran from each of those history-making Varsity crews will attend a reunion to mark the 70th anniversary.

Martin Whitworth, who was number four in the Cambridge boat, and Michael Brooks, number three in the Oxford boat, will attend the reunion in Buckinghamshire next Wednesday.

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Mr Whitworth, now living in Woodbridge, Suffolk, is president of the Isle of Ely Rowing Club and will travel to Chalfont St Peter to meet his former opponent to celebrate the occasion.

Jack Waterfall, vice-president of the Ely club, is also among those at the lunch where a framed photograph of the club's new quad (for four oarsmen with two oars each) named after Mr Brooks will be handed over.

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The 1944 Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race switched to a stretch of the Great Ouse at Queen Adelaide, on the outskirts of Ely, because of the V1 flying bombs.

The doodlebugs had been brought into the Second World War one week after D-Day. Between June 13, 1944 and the end of the war in 1945 more than 2,200 fell on London.

Mr Waterfall said that when this year's event was arranged the 'frightening thing' was how many of those who had taken part in the diamond anniversary celebrations 10 years ago were no longer alive.

The two veterans of the Ely race are now both in their late 80s, and Mr Waterfall said he hoped the lunch would be a special occasion.

Mr Waterfall said: 'Michael, who lives in Amersham, and his crew won the 1944 race by three quarters of a length. Cambridge levelled the wartime series the following year at Henley-on-Thames with Martin at stroke. By then, also, Michael had begun his military service.'

As well as the framed photo, Mr Waterfall will present Mr Brooks with a naming ceremony DVD at the lunch.

Among those who will attend are Derek Pickersgill, chairman of Isle of Ely Rowing Club, and Terry Overall, who organised the diamond celebrations in 2004.

Mr Pickersgill said: 'Extraordinary consequences often follow from seemingly insignificant events. Although legacy would have been the last thing on Michael's and his contemporaries' minds, it is no exaggeration to say that the race in 1944 was the source of inspiration for the birth and subsequent blossoming of the Isle of Ely Rowing Club.'

Mr Waterfall is hoping events surrounding the anniversary will create additional interest for the Ely club, which has grown to a membership of 120 – the oldest rower being in his 70s.

He said there was much to look forward to, with the Ely club including a forthcoming film documentary about the anniversary of the Boat Race.

He said the film, being made by The Diamond44 Community Film Project, based in Ely, will also focus on the 2004 revival of amateur rowing in East Cambridgeshire. The film is due for release in the autumn.

Mr Waterfall said: 'The film reveals the influence of Dean Charles Merivale, co-founder of the University Boat Race and patron of Ely's 1872 regatta.

'Dean opened up to the local community to what was then, and sometimes still is, considered to be an elite sport. The Isle of Ely Rowing Club strives to continue this mission.'

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