London bridge is falling down - so annual Boat Race to relocate for first time since WWII

Spectators crowd Hammersmith Bridge to watch the Boat Race on the River Thames in London, on March 31, 2013. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (REUTERS) - Next year's Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge will take place outside London for the first time since World War II - because a bridge that passes over the usual course is close to collapsing.

The annual event between rowing crews of England's top two universities usually attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators to the west London stretch of the River Thames, with many standing on Hammersmith Bridge to watch the boats pass underneath.

But the suspension bridge, built in 1887, has been closed to motor traffic since April 2019 following the discovery of hairline micro-fractures in the brittle cast iron pedestals. In August, it was closed to pedestrians and cyclists, and river traffic beneath it was banned, due to a sudden increase in the size of the fractures.

This poses the risk that the bridge could suddenly collapse, according to Hammersmith and Fulham Council, the local authority that owns it.

In the light of that, and also because Covid-related social distancing measures may still be in place by then, Boat Race organisers said next April's event would take place on the River Great Ouse in Ely, in the county of Cambridgeshire.

The men's race has previously been run once in Ely, in 1944, when it could not take place in London because of the war.

"While we are sad not to be able to welcome the usual hundreds of thousands of spectators along the course, we will be inviting our communities and wider audience to get involved via our social media channels, and... the BBC," said Mr George Gilbert, chair of the race and operations committee at the Boat Race Company.

The first Boat Race took place in 1829, making it one of the world's oldest sporting events. The 2020 men's and women's races, which had been due to take place on March 29, were cancelled due to Covid.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.