Both Britain in general and Cambridge in particular are famous (or infamous) for their eccentricities. It’s one of the things that tourists love so very much, making both far more interesting and unique than they would otherwise be. This week, Cambridge will see one of those incredible eccentricities in full view – the May Bumps. And it will all happen on the river just a little downstream of the Varsity Hotel Cambridge.
Quaint Sporting Traditions
Cambridge University is so old that it’s hard to make generalisations about it. Some would rightly argue that the pursuit of sport (or at least physical exercise) is greatly promoted to balance the academic lifestyle. Yet many of todays modern sports were invented/codified in the Victorian Era – several centuries after the University’s founding.
Still, in the 19th century sport became a passion for the British and so sports came to be played at Cambridge. Naturally enough the most adopted sports were those invented by the British. But also those already being played in Britain’s public schools, from where a large portion of the University’s intake would arrive. The most popular being Rugby, Cricket and Rowing.
Rugby remains popular to this day, while Cricket is an awkward game in that it requires many hours of guaranteed good weather to play. Always pretty unlikely in England, and students are on holiday for most of the summer. Meanwhile, though highly popular, rowing presented a challenge.
The standard method of Rowing racing is a Regatta. Two or more boats line up next to each other and set off together. Whoever reaches the end first wins – just like for horse or foot racing. But what happens when you really want to race but the river near to you just isn’t wide enough for this kind of side-to-side racing? Timed courses is one option, of course. What became the Boat Race on the Thames is another. But this week we see the third option. The crazy one.
This week from Wednesday 14th June to Saturday 17th the River Cam will host the 2023 May Bumps. Bumps is a unique racing format. 17 boats per division are pushed out into the river, each starting 3 boat lengths away from each other. At the sound of a cannon all start racing immediately. The aim is to hit (bump) the boat in front before getting bumped by the boat behind. Then both boats are out for the day and switch places for the following day.
That’s right, young athletes put everything they have into smashing their expensive piece of hardware into someone else’s. Just for fun. And pride. And if this sounds like a mad idea that can potentially cause carnage you’re correct. Multi-boat pileups, boats mounting the bank and breaking off bows and general tomfoolery abound.
It’s also mad in the unconventional manner of racing. Typically all racing is one of two types – a sprint or a marathon. Short distance using primarily one type of muscle fibre, or a long distance endurance race using another. Bumps mixes both. You have to start at a sprint to try to catch the boat in front and evade the boat behind. But then you may be in a situation where there is soon nothing to catch in front yet you are still being pursued from behind. And you just have to keep going to complete the long course and successfully “row over”. Then better luck the following day.
Situated on the river a short walk from the Bumps’ course makes the Varsity Hotel an ideal base for taking in this festival of sporting madness. We hope to see you soon.