When I came up in 1948, I’d intended to play rugger, but my kit was delayed. The Boat Club pounced and I let myself be led to the Isis where an oar was put in my hands and for the next three years I was rarely far from the river. It started in the tank, a mock-up of seats in a boat by the bank at Timm’s boathouse. You sat in it and were told what a stretcher, slide and swivel were for before flailing the water with an oar twelve feet and half an inch long. Then tubbing – two of us in a stubby, heavy little boat with a senior lounging in the stern, steering and exhorting as we found out how to dip, pull and feather without crab-catching or missing the water altogether (oh yes, it can be done). Then to a clinker-built eight – heavy going – and occasionally we were allowed into the shells, which by comparison skimmed through the water. Hard work, time-consuming, often cold and miserable; but splendid stuff. We still had the college barge moored with others along the towpath by Christ Church meadows. In the roomy space below decks, half was changing room and half clubhouse, hung with photos back to the 19th century and with an embarrassingly short Roll of Honour of former Blues. Lincoln was not one of the great rowing colleges; but in my three years as oarsman and coach, our First VIIIs climbed steadily up the First Division in both Torpids and Eights. There were benches round the sides below the windows, a couple of battered armchairs by a fireplace, a table in the middle and an urn. We took turns on tea duty. The flat roof was railed in and served as a grandstand for races; on these occasions we flew a big college flag from the tall flagpole. A floating wooden platform lay along the river side of the barge, slippery in the rain and heaving disconcertingly in the wake of passing motorcraft; always good for getting squeaks out of girls in Eights Week. (Well, I would squeak if I were wearing high heels and a new summer dress and looked like sliding into mucky water.) From the platform we piled into the big, broad punt that took us across the river to get to the boathouse well down on the far side of the Isis. Wilf Bosson, our paragon of a boatman, usually did the punting, but we all had to handle it; which could be interesting, as a fast stream could spin it catastrophically out of control in a split second. But there was great smugness in bringing a full load of elegant people immaculately alongside. A little downstream from the barge and on the other side of the river, there was an inlet called Parsons Pleasure with not-too-effective screens beside it. This was for naked bathing, male only of course, and in summer there was usually a knot of pallid figures splashing in and out. Not for me. I think it must be a relic from Victorian days when men bathing were not expected to wear anything and women were expected to keep out of the way.
Training started on the stretch between Folly Bridge and the downstream weir – the stretch on which the bumping races, Torpids and Eights, were rowed. In spate you needed a cox who knew his job when turning above the weir. There were heart-stopping moments when you lost way broadside on to the current and were swept sickeningly towards the dark-edged roar. When heading back upstream, the first stroke was like digging into cold treacle and there was a desperate haste to free the blade and take the next stroke. The year before I came up, a crew did go over and some drowned. We moved to Radley for further training, rowing the boats through the locks. A dismal business in winter. Some of the locks took twenty minutes and we sat at the bottom of this dank pit, rising slowly beside the slimily dripping walls, icy water spurting through cracks in the lock gates and , if we were really unlucky, sleet funnelling down on top of us. On a few really cold days, rings of ice formed round the oars, just above the blades. It was more or less all right for the cox – he was fully dressed and had a cap. We had sweaters and scarves, but that was it; we were bareheaded and bare legged, wearing those weird shorts that were designed solely for sitting at an oar and with no regard for decency. They were wide-legged, so that you could move unhampered as you flexed and straightened your knees; when you stood, the fronts stuck out from your legs. Anyway, they were not protective clothing, they were barely clothing at all. The boats were left at Radley till the end of term and we went to and fro by bus to row on the long, lockless stretch that aollowed for the long, uninterrupted haul that was the only way to bring a crew together and to coach each oarsman properly. You have to watch a man for minutes at a time to see what he’s doing and you can’t watch all eight at once.
There’s no exercise like it (and who said “Thank God!”?). There’s not a muscle in the body that isn’t used, from toes pressing on the stretcher to wrists and fingertips flicking the oar to the feather. And there’s the power – coming forward on the slide, knees bent, body to thighs, arms at not quite full stretch so that there’s no stiffness: a coiled spring. And the surge as it’s released, a smooth explosion flowing to the blade. Often a shambles: ragged timing and shocking blade work checking the momentum; making the bows dig into the water and having to start all over again with every stroke. We ached and the palms of our hands rubbed raw. Stinging meths helped us to grow callouses along the bases of our fingers and we stayed horny-handed for a year or more after we last laid hand to oar. But when it went well, it was superb. The blades striking absolutely together and making the bell notes that are every coach’s dream – when the blade goes in with no splash and absolute precision, it creates a brief dark cavity and a ringing resonance. Nothing so lovely as reaching that rhythm, swinging and stretching in perfect unison, hearing the deep liquid notes and watching the puddles swirl cleanly away. The bows lifted and planed over the water and we cleared our puddles – the eight puddles left at each stroke were past the stern before the next was taken. And reaching that exquisite balance when we could easy oars with the blades in the air and glide, gull-winged, to shore. In races, everything was blanked out except the cox’s voice, the utter concentration on springing the last ounce of energy into each stroke and, sometimes, the blurred babel of shouting from the bank. But of summer outings, when we were on sunlit water between green meadows, clocking up distance (mileage makes oarsmen), there was time to enjoy it. The effortless swing, clunk and recover; the drops sparkling off the blades; the hiss of the shell slipping through the river. A self-absorbed swan glancing sideways at us at eye-level just beyond the oars; moorhens among the reeds and often not a person in sight. That was up and beyond Oxford. On the home stretch there was thick traffic; not only other eights, with fours and sculls weaving amongst them, but working craft – barges. Coxes had to look lively, near misses were a matter of course and language was colourful. All coxes were necessarily small and made up for it with extreme cockiness and a lurid vocabulary, (Nowadays they have girls and I bet they’re even tougher and more lurid). We had a run-in with a barge which swung across our course. We had to brake sharply, blades scraping along the barge’s side. Our cox was incandescent: “Who flaming well you on the river?! Are you flaming well blind?! Couldn’t you see the flaming oars?! Look at the blanking state of the oars?! D’ye know what the blanking oars cost?!”. The bargee (then slowly answered Arthur from the barge) paused reflectively when the cox at last ran down. He took his pipe from his mouth; spat accurately onto our canvas and said “Speaking of oars – ‘ow’s yer sister?” We threw our coxes into the river at the end of Torpids and Eights. They had been warm and dry all season and had abused us foully. They were aggressive little things and got into trouble from which we occasionally had to rescue them. One of ours at Henley thought it amusing to be offensive to roustabouts on the fairground. They took it unkindly from someone who barely came above their waists and the cox shrieked for help. Just as well for him that the four of us in the boat’s engine-room – Seven, Six, Five and Four – were at hand. We rolled up in menacing line abreast with our shoulders slightly hunched, all over six foot and heavy to match. The roustabouts retired.
In my first year, I rowed at Five in the Second Torpid and Second Eight in the February and May bumping races. These happened, I think only at Oxford and Cambridge. They have been sadly changed at Oxford and at Cambridge too, I believe; but in my time and for some years after, the old ways held. The river is narrow, so the boats did not race abreast, but in procession in divisions of twelve boats each, starting with the bottom division. The top boat in each division had to row as the thirteenth boat of the division above – the sandwich boat – in the hope of making a bump and moving up a division. We took the boat out before the race for a brief paddle to loosen up and to practice racing starts – short sharp rapid strokes to get the boat moving before we settled into the full rowing rhythm. Back to the barge for a final peptalk and nervous pees. Ten minutes before the start, we paddled downstream, concentrating on our bladework, turned above the weir and took up position. The boats lined up a length and a half along the bank below the concrete bridge, held with a boathook at the stern by the boatman and angled out into the stream. The umpire addressed us through a megaphone: “Are you ready? Come forward!…” An agonising pause crouched over the oar handle; BANG from the starting pistol; we sprang off the stretchers and Wilf thrust us forward with his boathook. We reckoned that Wilf’s push was worth a quarter of a length. The object was to catch the boat in front and to stay away from the boat behind; but, as we said, Lincoln never looks behind and in my time we didn’t have to – we could see the thing, but we paid it no attention. The bump was made by getting an overlap on the boat ahead, then swinging in and hitting it. A runner on the bank had a starting pistol; When we neared the stern of the boat ahead there was one BANG; when our bow came level with their stern there were two and when we had a good overlap it was BANG BANG BANG and a satisfying thump. The cox in the bumped boat was duty bound to raise his arm at the first touch and both boats pulled into the bank to clear the stream.
Still at Five, I was moved into the First Torpid and Eight in 1950. We were a cheerful bunch and we sang unmelodiously “Is it true what they say about Dixie” as we walked down to collect the boat. In Torpids that year both First and Second Eights made the maximum six bumps. I was LCBC Secretary at the time and fought hard to get the Second Eight their oars; unprecedented, I think, for a Second boat. We were not the tidiest of crews and one of our victims said that it was like being pursued by a jet-propelled combine harvester. He exaggerate, but David Craig (subsequently Marshall of the RAF, Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Craig of Radley), our Captain and rightly a perfectionist, was not too happy. After our third bump he said earnestly: “ We must do better”. I wouldn’t say that we were over-confident but on the sixth day our cox carried the invitation to our Bump Supper to hand to our last victim.
With Schools looming in 1951 I moved to dry land, coaching with only an occasional outing. As coach I cycled on the towpath with a megaphone in one hand and steering with the other. I once found the crew staring at me while rowing and even the cox had twisted round to have a look. I was about to address them unkindly when I looked down: I had managed to lift the handlebars clear out of the bike frame and I was still peddling. I didn’t go into the river but it was a near thing. The swans were notoriously bad tempered, especially in the breeding season, and during one Torpids I was sprinting along the Green Bank yelling encouragement. What the crew had seen, but I hadn’t was that there was a nesting swan directly in my path. I saw it at the last moment and an ugly confrontation was imminent. I never thought that I could combine a long jump with a high jump, but I did. There was a glimpse of the swan rearing like a striking cobra and then I was clear. To their credit, the crew kept their eyes in the boat after the first quick glance and their rhythm never faltered. I umpired the finish during Eights, working the semaphore to the fascination of numerous grubby small boys. One Corpus crew easied too soon and scrambled frantically for safety as I reminded them of another boat chugging valiantly up behind. A Balliol crew caught two crabs and their cox all but had apoplexy as Stroke and Seven scratched it past with three feet to spare. Keble sailed by with seven men while a dripping Stroke ran along the bank shouting “Hey, I should be in that boat.” Our 2nd and 3rd VIII’s bumped and our 1st had the measure of Teddy Hall.
I rashly accepted the offer of going to Henley as a spare man. At the last minute one of the crew dropped out and, like it or not, I was rowing. I had perhaps half a dozen outings before the race, which was against Sidney Sussex. We more than held them for more than half the distance with nearly a length’s advantage. They began to creep up and our effort became desperate. I realised only too painfully what a year out of training can do. They beat us by a bare length. I had literally to be lifted out of the boat, muttering “Never again! Never again!”