The Telegraph, 3rd February 2017
Co-bylined with Camilla Turner, Education Editor
It is one of the country’s most prestigious sports clubs with an annual boat race that draws millions of spectators.
But now Oxford University’s Rowing Club (OURC) has become embroiled in a row with local houseboat owners, which has led to claims of eggs, tomatoes and insults being hurled at student boaters.
Thames Valley Police and the Environment Agency have been alerted to the spate of recent incidents which come against a backdrop of heightened tensions due to a renewed council crackdown on illegal mooring.
Minutes of OURC’s meeting, seen by The Telegraph, reveal the mounting concern among Oxford rowers about the escalating dispute.
Thomas Coles, the university’s rowing sabbatical officer explained to attendees “that he had been in contact with the police and the Environment Agency about the houseboats on the bottom stretch”.
He added that the rowing club’s advice to students is to report all offences to the police and pass the incident number to the sabbatical officer.
The minutes show that Mr Coles told rowers that the “wheels are turning e.g. PSPO [public space protection order] but please take care in the meantime”.
Oxford’s houseboat community are campaigning against the council’s proposed PSPO which seeks to curb unauthorised mooring, and could lead to boaters having to relocate every 48 or 72 hours to avoid fines of up to £1,000.
Landowners such as a number of Oxford University colleges, the Environment Agency and Network Rail have all supported the draft order, which is staunchly opposed by representatives of the houseboat community.
Mack Grenfell, who is vice president of University College’s rowing club, told The Telegraph of an incident last term “when locals threw eggs and shouted homophobic abuse at one of our club’s novice crews”.
He said it was reported to the police at the time, and recalled a separate incident which left a rower hospitalised.
Mr Grenfell, a fourth year physics and philosophy student, went on: “Since then there have been cases of drawing pins left on the towpath to puncture the tyres of the rowers who cycle down in the morning, houseboats disrupting and delaying races. I was part of a crew that had tomatoes thrown at it several weeks ago.
“An Isis Winter League race two weekends ago had to be called off mid-race due to a collision between a houseboat and a St Catherine’s crew. Many rowers believe that this incident was fuelled by hostilities between rowers and locals.”
Ciara Ward, a second year mathematics student and Christ Church rower, said she has had rocks thrown at her and races disrupted by house boat residents who “intentionally drive down the river during events”.
She said: “There are a few of them that really don’t like us and have been known to shout abuse or throw things at us – one man threw stones at our boat because he thought we were too loud one morning. It’s been getting worse recently.”
Alan Wildman, chairman of the Residential Boat Owners Association, said he is not surprised to learn of the fracas, adding that: “everyone seems to think they have right to do what they want to do whenever they want”.
“Whenever you have rowers and boats moored there are conflicts,” he said. “Rowers go tearing past quite quickly. Even though the rowing boat is long and narrow, it creates a lot of wash and rocks the houseboats that are moored on either side.”