Sport

The Boat Race is the best London festival you didn’t know about

The annual Boat Race is the season's first excuse for drinks along the river - you needn't be bothered by the actual races

I have no desire to take away from the achievements of brilliant sportsmen and women when I say this, but the honest truth about Boat Race day is that – rather than it being for diehard sports fans – it provides summer’s first opportunity to enjoy live music and a thrilling party atmosphere outdoors. 

That’s not to say you can’t get into the sport on offer. There’s certainly a race, and those racing are certainly in boats, but, for me, the Boat Race represents something far more promising than just whether Oxford or Cambridge cross the finish line first: it represents the first blissful opportunity to exist outdoors in London each year. It kicks off a season of sporting events that give you the excuse to drink Aperol Spritzes in the sun (see also: Henley Royal Regatta in June and, of course, Wimbledon in July).

The Boat Race is, in effect, not a sporting event but summer’s first festival – without the sound stages. However, music is certainly in abundance. Pub landlords the entire length of the race (especially at the beginning at Putney and the end point in Mortlake) not only lubricate the crowds with all manner of mixed beverages, but they throw open their doors and hire ludicrously-sized speaker systems to get the dancing started. If you’re looking for something more traditional, there are brass bands serenading the crowds on some pub rooftops.

If that all sounds too much like Glasto and not enough like Glyndebourne, there’s the option to sidle up to the calmer crowds, who swerve the pubs and arrive a few hours early (say, midday) to line the riverbanks with pre-bought craft beers and novel cans of rose wine. Within these more dedicated circles, summer suits and breezy dresses are premiered especially for the occasion.

The dedicated crowds will notice the boat (there’s actually two actually boats, the women’s and the men’s race) go past, although when I attended last year I was so deep in conversation, I missed all the action. All fifteen seconds of passing boat. I remember some cheering happened: a cacophony of ‘wooos’ from surrounding trophy fans who just like me couldn’t, to be honest, pinpoint which team where in which boat.

Sure, Oxford and Cambridge alumni were heard the loudest cheering on their peers, recalling the extravagances of their university days and glugging fiercely from their G&Ts, but any thoughts that the event is exclusive and appealing only to Oxbridge alums are unfair and untrue.

Sure, the Boat Race provides an optimal occasion for old Oxbridge chums to reunite. But more than that, it presents itself to Londoners as a free-to-attend opportunity to seize the atmosphere of the festival summer, a month or so ahead of the season.

Here are all of the ideal places to watch the Boat Race this weekend.