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an ale of two cities - the oxford cambridge boat race pub crawl weekend

by Techno

the boat race is steeped in tradition. first run at henley-on-thames in 1829, subsequently at westminster and as of 1845 from putney to mortlake the race has become annual event attracting big crowds. on sunday two crews at the peak of physical and mental fitness climbed into their boats and prepared to do battle.

i've lived in london for a number of years but most boat race weekends i seem to be away. i did go once and watched from the banks of the thames. it was cold, it rained, we had to climb over a wall, saw the boats for about two minutes and the radio reception was took crackly to hear who won. if anyone asks i can nod sagely and say "yes, i have seen the boat race" but to be honest the best seats in the house and right there in front of your very own telly.

you know what else is steeped in tradition?


modern day examples such as kronenbourg 1664 given an indication of the historical significant of beer, but the fermentation process is as old as civilisation itself. the ancient egyptians were brewing as far back as 2200 bc using a process very similar to the one employed today. and where there is beer, there must be a place to drink it. with enough demand, several places. and before long it must have been de rigueur after a hard day's pyramid building to knock back a few in the Tut and Shive, pop next door to the Elusive Camel and carry on down the road to the Star & Gater, Pharoah and Firkin and finish in the Ra and Parrot (chain pubs are also older than you think).

BITE has done many things in the name of bevertological field research. to the casual observer drawing the numbers "2001" on a tube map by visiting the appropriate stations, spelling out "beerintheevening" backwards and putting the fear of God into people by shouting "goose!" then piling off a bus might seem eccentric and unfathomable, but they're all just part and parcel of the pub crawl experience. however, sacrificing two lie ins and mobilising the inner circle for a two day 240 mile drinking weekend? well, sometimes even BITErs get excited...

first leg - oxford, saturday

morning has broken
like the first morning
BITE inner circle
get out of bed!
weekends for lie ins
weekends for shopping
not for the BITErs
drinking instead...

having a punt: darren and anne, phil, graham, mike techno and sarah, jay, edi and monica.

ideal preparation for a race is very much like ideal preparation for a crawl. eat a good meal, have an early night. the trouble with ideals of course...well you get the picture. darren and anne had a few jars and phil went on a bender with ex-work colleagues culminating in just one hour's sleep before heading to the 8:30 rendezvous at victoria station. ironically they were the first ones there. newly indoctrinated BITE inner circle member graham "flat eric" arrived next and finally mike, sarah and mike's sister jay at 08:52.

oxford links to the capital by various methods of transport. BITE made use of the oxford tube - running every 12 minutes from just outside victoria station and just a tenner for a day return. with very few people about we were able to grab the back seats on the top deck which phil commandeered for sleeping on (an idea he abandoned after nearly being thrown onto the floor before we'd even reached marble arch). the journey took us past the hustle and bustle of the capital gearing up for saturday shoppers, through west london and gradually out to the rolling fields of the green belt (and a rubbish tip). arrival was comfortably under the 100 minute journey estimate and at 10:30 some thirsty pub crawlers piled off the bus ready for action.

"What kind of time do you call this?"

Sleepy beauty

"Look where you're going!"

The Crown Inn

with half an hour before opening time there was time for a walk around town, find potential pubs, acquire supplies and even fail to give directions to someone.

"do you know oxford?"
"never been here before, sorry!"

one trip to sainsbury's later sarnies had been bought and many boozers sighted - even phil was feeling more human after his extra large coffee. a short distance away was The Blenheim (originally called "The Royal Blenheim" according to the sign, perhaps the royal was dropped in a failed attempt to make it seem less connected to the monarchy). with no signs of life at 10:57 an executive decision was made to find another pub, and a little off cornmarket street was the handily sign posted Crown. 11:03 and not even the first ones there, we took up position in the court yard with the trenches and distance bell tower growing more annoying with every quarter of an hour.

saturday was also grand national day and there was some money in the kitty for betting, all profits going back in the kitty for drinking of course. actually placing the bets was proving problematic as the pre-pub wander had not turned up a decent bookies and online searches courtesy of phil's ipaq came up empty. it would have to be the tote, so darren went to place six each ways on six nags. a quick mobile call to change phil's horse because it wasn't running (a let off there - phil's choice has been shot the last two years) and everything was sorted.

To crown it all

"No toys at the table Phil"

Bar Oz

further along the cornmarket street is market street and the site of Bar Oz. and very un aussie theme pub it was too, aside from the "sheilas" sign on the ladies loo. pints bought and BITE settled into the corner where phil added the pub to the site while we were in it and mike studiously avoided jinxing the man united -vs- liverpool match by watching it.
A very English pub

Three Goats Heads

rivalry was alive and passionate a road away in the next pub. husband and wife team on opposite sides of both the bar and the match with relayed updates by phone. ruud van nistelrooy was just stepping up to take the penalty as BITE was discovering nokia 6100s dance if you stand them on end on varnished surfaces and enable vibrating alert. confusion as to which floor the toilets were on, sets of stairs going up and down - seemingly forever.
"Sorry, no genes"

The Kings Arms

the lunch stop for most. tiny table procured the BITErs did shifts of getting up to order food from the kitchen. the curious system meant only two orders could be placed on any tab because (and i kid you not) "the chef doesn't like it if there's too many things to make". heaven forbid he should ever find out how the staff get around this restriction! as it happened sarah didn't get her food anyway and settled for a refund.
Armed and hungry

The Wheatsheaf

tucked away off the high street was this public house whose inner architecture mirrored the alleyway onto which it opened. racing tips from the barman on his last shift, 2-1 to united, drinks supped up and off we went.
slim and shady

The Head Of The River

so, the moment of truth! would some of the BITE bets come good. would any of them?

edonica turned up - most unusually - in a boat, life jackets and everything (very safety conscious of them). half a table to perch at and enjoy the weather and a tv inside for enjoy the racing.

a big crowd jostled for positions, settled down then went mad with enthusiasm. alas none of our bets came in but darren's punts on the previous day yielded winnings - he just didn't know how much. pace slowed as another round was bought and edonica took anne and sarah out for an oxford boat tour.

beating sun and beating hooves

messing about on the river

Folly Bridge Inn

just over the thames to the next port of call. opposite the folly bridge was a sturdy looking wall and padlocked gate presumably to keep people out of probably the shabbiest looking greenhouse in the world. it's amazing what people keep locked up.

it was starting to get a bit cold by this point but BITE elected to sit outside still since it was still light and not a very nice interior. phil bought a veritable food mountain of crisps which were eaten with relish (as in enthusiasm, not as in sauce) and the packets made into origami triangle things.

drinking and talking at the same time! amazing

The Old Tom

another thin fronted boozer which went back forever. enclosed courtyard with high walls but ivy to detract from the prison exercise yard feel.


with the light fading people were staying inside and making the place pretty busy. still we got half a table and marvelled at the beer mats on the ceiling. cheaper than repainting.
won't catch much beer on the ceiling...

The Bear

alcohol fuelled confidence about the location of the next pub and the group split as mike, sarah and phil straggled behind to stop off for kebab munchies. drunk people tend to be single minded once they've decided what they want.

"chip bun please"
"sorry no buns. chip pitta bread?"
"go on then"
"what did you order?"
"chip pitta bread - they haven't got any buns"
"ok...chip bun please"

The Bear proudly claims itself a "historic pub since 1262". presumably before that it was just a plain old pub. the building, whilst looking old did not display the signs of every one of its 741 years so we must assume it was rebuilt at some point. that being the case they might have spared a thought for those of us more than five feet in stature. an impressive a collection of bits of tie in glass cases as you're ever likely to see! it was only afterwards that mike thought of the "does a wood shit in the bear" gag...

not at all grisly

The White Horse

if only we'd come here first! adorning the wall of the white horse is the official oxford pub crawl. impractical to attempt as this juncture and far too many places to get through in one day. confusing "ladiesgents" toilet sign meant several wrong turns before the toilets were discovered. phil did his usual trick of falling asleep in the corner.

some kind of impromptu bar staff guitar playing meant drinks took longer than they should, but it had been a long day and a lot of drinking had already been done.

more yellow than white really

heated debate


last pub. very busy now so no room for youngsters - phil got ID'd. we managed to set ourselves up next to the quiz machine which proceeded to take all the money we gave it for very little return. graham went outside to take a picture and sarah held him up while he stood in the middle of the road.
last call

in spire'd stuff?

mike was under the impression the bus was driving off rather than moving to the stand and it took some smooth talking from phil for the driver to forgive his rude outburst. with darren and anne's food not yet fully munched and stories of drunk people needing ambulances they caught the next bus.

the return journey was only slightly busier than the outward one so back seats were commandeered once again and some tired BITErs set off for home. mike, sarah, jay and graham got out in shepherd's bush - phil went back into town and tubed it home still carrying the last of his pint from o'neills.

second leg - cambridge, sunday

oh what a beautiful morning
oh what a beautiful day
BITErs are going out drinking
new pubs in cambridge today

putting their oar in: darren and anne, phil, graham, mike techno and sarah, andrew, julian, ben, keith and lisa.

nothing easy about this sunday morning. in a noticeable change of tardiness mike and sarah were first to the station - just in time to get lost running around the temporary boardings put up for redevelopment of kings cross and miss the 10:53 train. not that it mattered, none of the other BITErs were on it.

graham arrived next while mike surveyed the station looking for pineapple juice, then graham went on a breakfast mission while darren, anne and phil turned up.

the next train was the lesser stopping 11:15 ("cambridge, & cambridge only" according to the departures board) and with pain au chocolate, bagels and dairylea at the ready the intrepid drinkers were off again.

the train gang

The Osborn Arms

five minutes into pub opening time the train arrived. waiting at the station was cambridge resident andrew who guided us to the first port of call. it was to have been the amusingly named Flying Pig but with no signs of life BITE opted for the adjacent pub instead.

a rather slack cambridge drinking crowd meant we were the first ones in. opinion was divided as to the first drink policy with several BITErs going for softies. darren grappled for some time to interface his palm tungsten to phil's ericsson t68i but eventually abandoned his attempts and let phil add the pubs "in place" as per the day before. isn't technology wonderful?

the pub told of thai food and as reassurance had framed basic food hygiene certificates on a window ledge waiting to be put back up - although after what phil did perhaps they should wait a bit.

the osborn

the osborns?

The Globe Ale House

the plan was to mosey on into the centre of town along hills road and The Globe was next. sunday lunch, sky sports and (in the fine tradition of coving pub walls and ceilings in all sorts of stuff) a beer towel duvet on the wall. phil and andrew ate mains and something that resembled...well you decide.
global appeal

is it a turd? is it a plain?

The Prince Regent

across gonville place hills road changes to regent street, from which the pub takes its name obviously. or the other way round. geography and etymology were of minor concern, some people were really hungry.

"ooh, a big window room. you can see the beer garden"

said mike. actually etymology did come in handy - big window rooms being conservatories and the beer garden was actually a common. so pretty much the same then.

with people tucking into greasy fry ups the numbers were swelled with the arrival of julian who was immediately embroiled in a heated debated about the worst film ever, how bad films should be rated on a drinks scale and whether two bottles of wine between four people made "the core" watchable. debate was not the only thing being heated, the conservatory had radiators on as well as sunlight coming through the glass. time to move on.

"mmm, lettuce!"


long ago hogshead pubs had the most heroically unhealthy foodstuff possible - deep fried beer battered cheese sticks. the introduction of garlic dough balls melt to the menu will do much to reassert it's position of the daddy of pub bites. this particular link in the chain boasted five tvs for boat race watching, shame we couldn't stay longer really. the barmaid serving was not familiar with the colloquialism "wife beater" (stella artois in case you're not either).
back of the 'head

The Fountain Inn

with build up to the reason for BITE being in cambridge in full swing the crawls arrived at The Fountain. large screen for the big race, smaller ones showing the football. the barman displayed a remarkable memory for drinks orders, and the enticing smell of chips was all around.

residents seemed rather uninterested in the spectacle but darren, anne and mike found a spot to watch the two crews battle it out in one of the closest ever races. cambridge almost came from behind and there was quite an atmosphere in the pub. oxford snatched it by a few feet.

"so i was like 'whatEVER'"

The Regal

several pubs claim to be the biggest in the country, so no crawl would be complete without a look round this cavernous wetherspoons. for big it was indeed - cinema fascia out front and an art deco feel inside. rubbish sign though. more pub snacks including a huge pile of nachos that even after ten minutes eating showed no signs of getting smaller and some chocolate cake fed by julian to an increasingly drunk andrew.

"they must be breeding!"
"survival of the fittest? nacho ral selection?"

feeding time

The Rat & Parrot

6:35 and someone had already thrown up in the toilets - perhaps we're not the only ones hitting the drink today. even reaching the toilet was compounded by the large plate glass window to be manoeuvred around. lisa and keith arrived in time for a drink since andrew was being so slow. phil was now registering on the beaufort scale such was the force of his emanations and so with heaving lungs BITE continued...

The Anchor

perched on the banks of the river cam and prone to basement flooding in times of high water, The Anchor looked nice and dry for our visit. large table found and neighbouring stools appropriated ben joined the throng as the final laps of an eventful grand prix were completed.

nights at the square table

The Eagle

a rather tipsy andrew disappeared at this point, and graham failed to take a picture of the guy with the crazy beard.

The Bun Shop

the group split at this point with julian, keith and lisa opting for the restaurant area and the BITErs going for more drink. they were peckish too though and amazingly the kitchen was still open. chips ahoy!

a leakly story!

across the finish line

well time was ticking and with an hour journey back to kings cross and another hour for most people after that BITE called it a day. after a pungent but otherwise uneventful journey darren and anne returned to surbiton, phil to harrow, mike and sarah to milton keynes and graham to chiswick (via this very appropriate poster).

we did walk past more pubs on the way back to the station than we'd been in during the day, and only did a fraction of the fifty on the official oxford pub crawl. same again next year? i should think so.

graham took the pictures this time.