If you’ve ever lived in the heartland of riverside pubs and middle class families thirsty for Oxbridge that is West London, you’ll know that trying to get anywhere on Boat Race day is a bit of a struggle, especially via public transport. Throw in Network Rail’s decision to close the exact four train stations that would be of any use (Putney, Barnes, Barnes Bridge, Chiswick) for engineering works, then, and it looks like a recipe for utter chaos.
There will naturally be rail replacement bus services to supplement the normal intricate network, but these buses will be especially sweaty, busy and horrible, and the traffic extraordinarily bad. What this leaves, realistically, is the Tube, which does cover the Boat Race area fairly well, and patches of rail and Overground services, the obvious substitutes being Putney Bridge, East Putney, Hammersmith and Mortlake. Whether you’re just popping down to the river to see some home friends or trekking into the city from one of those mysterious lands outside of the M25, however, there’s a whole plethora of more cunning ways to beat the crush.
The Boat Race is, of course, only very slightly about rowing, and considerably more about a) a nice day out and walk with good atmosphere or b) a cheerful sunny afternoon at a river pub (with a bit of cheering thrown in at some point). The best spot for the races and for atmosphere is, frankly, at the races’ midpoint Hammersmith Bridge, with wide views over the river in both directions and, crucially, a quite incredibly high density of riverside drinking spots.
Nonetheless, the starting point at Putney Bridge benefits from the lovely open feel to the bridge itself and the wide variety of restaurants just down the high street. Chiswick Bridge and the excitement of the finishing line also benefit from picturesque stretches of river-path, so long as you don’t mind overhearing gossip about Bartholomew and Perdita and their newfound love for almond milk.
If your plan is to get a spot at a pub, then there’s simply no choice but to get there early. Early early, even earlier than you would expect for this sort of busy day; everything will be moving even more slowly and everyone will have thought of the same thing. Camping out overnight might be excessive, but an outside spot on a sunny afternoon (as we must pray it will be) is hard enough to secure on a normal day. An outdoor or balcony table at one of those Hammersmith pubs is exactly what you want, but don’t be afraid to just grab a drink and stand. The Old Ship has a secluded garden feel (despite being right by the A4), The Dove is best for food and perhaps a little more grown-up, The Rutland is larger than you think but a little personality-less and The Blue Anchor… well, The Blue Anchor is what dreams are made of. Consider also The Ship in Mortlake (a little out of the way but a strong local choice) or the rather more refined Star and Garter in Putney.
If you’re used to Oxford (or cheaper) prices, be ready to pay through your teeth, and don’t expect much change from a fiver for your pint. Save money by spending a little time at one of the nearby Wetherspoons, or pop down to The Chancellor for a few drinks before or after: this cosy little pub in the centre of Boat Race territory offers extremely good value (four Jägerbombs for ten pounds, if I remember rightly) for anyone with a high tolerance for some suspiciously youthful-looking drinkers and a general air of dinginess.
If you’re in it for a stroll or a more family-friendly Boat Race experience, totally avoid the crowds by hopping off your train a little out of the way and enjoy a riverside walk into Chiswick and further from Gunnersbury or Kew Bridge station. Trying to get a good spot right at the front of the crowded bridges is going to be especially stressful thanks to these transport closures, so take it easy. You could even finish off the day by walking right down to Richmond with all its rail and Tube connections, or even heading into the centre of town; the south side of the river has a long, uninterrupted towpath that stretches lazily and beautifully from deep past Teddington into central-west. All of these pleasant suburbs have good and frequent transport links into the centre and no lack of good restaurants – you might call them idyllic or you might call them stifling, but that’s West London for you.