Memories of St Neots Rowing Club by Simon Adlam
My first memory of St Neots Rowing Club goes back to 1949 when Fred Bryant, (our next door neighbour in Rycroft Avenue) accepted the new Carnival Queen shell coxed four with his crew at a presentation on the Market Square and proudly walked it head high to the Club.
A few years later I recall push biking down to the Club to learn to row under the guidance of Stan and Percy Page, George Cole and Bill Bath – all sadly now long gone – but perhaps it is worth noting that all save for Percy usually had a cigarette dangling from their lips – that’s fitness for you.
Percy for his part was forever worrying about his young son Cedric (who was learning to cox) falling in the river. Long will I remember Percy’s warnings “Cedric keep away from the edge” “Yes Dad” – Splash.
Gilbert (“Smiler”) Meeks was another coach in those days who for reasons best known to him was forever washing his hands – he was a good oarsman and sculler.
My first regatta was at The Welsh Harp Willesden on the North Circular probably in 1957 when I was dragged in as a last minute replacement for the Novice Four stroked by George Cole’s son Maurice with Gus Albon (who is still about) and I think Pete Walker – Richard Osborne having dropped out. We lost.
Subsequently two of the senior Club oarsmen Albert Saywell and Tony Hainsby ably assisted by Tony Ingle decided that a Schoolboy Four should be raised and I was lumped together with John Moore and Malcolm Safford from Kimbolton School and a big old boy from Huntingdon Grammar, Barry Jex.
John and Barry are here tonight. Malcolm unfortunately died a few years ago. Our Golden Years were 1958 and 1959 when we won eleven events ranging from Novice to Senior as well as half a dozen schoolboy pots including the then prestigious Serpentine Sprint Regatta.
In 1958 our cox was Roger Rowlatt (of the road haulage family who transported the boats on their lorries to regattas on a “Dexion frame” we built) and was distinguished by his Elvis Presley hairstyle and “brothel creeper shoes.”
Although Roger was a good steersman he was not the best at shouting orders and encouraging crews as his incessant smoking rendered his vocal cords useless.
In 1959 our cox was Clive Childs, who is now also dead. His sisters Stephanie and Julie rowed for the ladies as did Anne Osborne who later married Malcolm and Pat Jex (Barry’s sister), but enough of us, the Club was a happy Club.
The club was ruled for many years with a kindly rod of iron by Norman Moore (John’s father) as Secretary and our current President Robin’s father Eric Davies as Chairman.
The Clubhouse at its best could be described as basic with just two rooms upstairs, a general meeting and changing area without any washing facilities and a Committee Room cum bar area without any alcohol. The alcohol was consumed in The Bridge Hotel, sometimes in copious quantities particularly on Sunday mornings after training.
Downstairs there were three open bays for storing sculling boats. The rest of the boats were kept in the boathouse created out of the adjoining old mill stables and sheds which collapsed in a storm in 1976.
The lavatory arrangements were rudimentary to say the least and most members preferred to make other arrangements as the only provision in this respect was a grubby Elsan outside toilet used only by all the desperate.
It was this Elsan toilet which featured heavily in the pre Regatta preparations when the annual emptying of the Elsan ceremony took place. This consisted of an old oar being passed through the carrying handle of the Elsan and a cox being invited to hold the end nearest the river with a more experienced and usually taller man holding the Town side end. The purpose of the exercise was to transport the Elsan and contents to the river’s edge and jettison the contents into the river so that the Elsan could be reinstalled and used during the Regatta. What health and safety?
On the command “lift” the team would raise the pole to their shoulders so that the Elsan would look rather like an Edwardian explorer being transported through the jungle by native bearers. On the level ground all was well but on descending the steps to the river the shorter cox at the front was usually unable to hold the oar high enough to prevent the Elsan slipping down the pole with some of the contents spilling out over him. How we laughed! We did it every year!
Preparations for the Regatta also required the following:
- Contact Mr Pibworth, the grazier of the Regatta field, to get his cows off the field
- Cut the field, bridge the ditch, buoy the course, cut the reeds
- Collect the clinker boats from neighbouring clubs (as most races were in matched clinker built boats provided by the Committee) reinforcements were required. (Only in Senior races were you allowed to row in your own shell boats)
And most importantly of all erect Eric Davies’ scaffold tower so that he could commentate on the races. This wretched tower caused more problems than the rest of the Regatta!
Once that was done the Regatta could proceed (Saturdays only then) over the full course, with no bar in the field, other than that a Mr Brown an outside caterer from Keysoe would come and sell his drinks and sandwiches.
Invariably towards the end of the day an elderly bearded man from St Albans would arrive having used public transport which took all day to see the last couple of races before returning whence he came, and reappearing late again the following year. I think he was a Mr Harvey.
The festivities on the Saturday night were held in the pubs in the town, no drink and drive then. A dance in the Public Rooms (long since pulled down on the opposite side of the river to The Bridge) where in the very early days Eric Davies would appear as the banjo player in the famed Ripples Dance Band!
During the season the club would compete at all the other local regattas including Bedford, Huntingdon, St.Ives, Peterborough and Kettering, as well as further afield especially on the Whitsun bank holiday weekend when it decamped to Worcester and Evesham Regattas, racing at Worcester on Saturday, travelling to Evesham on Saturday night and setting up camp, exploring on Sunday and rowing at Evesham Regatta on Bank Holiday Monday.
The Club would turn out in force for this little jolly with many members and friends going along for “social reasons” where there was an opportunity of meeting ladies from afar especially at Evesham where the they seemed to take a particular shine to the lads from St Neots and vice versa.
Until recently I could never understand why the supporters and non-rowing members of the party were so concerned that they had got their “hooking tackle” with them for the weekend! Most of us went for the rowing not angling!
It should be noted that The Club won the coveted Vale of Evesham Trophy twice, once in 1951 and again in 1964 when Albert Saywell, Pinky Page, John Major and Richard Garrett were in the crew with Phil Yates coxing and Tony Ingle coaching. Some of them are here tonight. So it was not all pleasure.
Two other things before I complete this note on my early days;
Cambridge University visits in the Winter to train – On a number of occasions CUBC would be unable to train on the Cam or more particularly the Ouse at Ely due to the rivers icing up whereupon the Club invited them to boat from St Neots where the Ouse rarely froze thanks to the warm water outlet from the Lt Barford Power Station’s cooling towers.
One of the benefits of this arrangement was that for a few years the Club’s Annual Dinner (then usually at The Cross Keys and later at The Bridge) would be graced by the President of CUBC and their coach James Crowden of rowing fame.
For a number of years there were two annual club events apart from the Head and Annual Club Races which are of some note. The first being the Boxing Day eights race between married and single club members which did not represent rowing at its best, and the Spring “Row Through The Lock to Buckden” when all the Club turned out in whatever boat was available to row through Lt Paxton lock and down to Buckden Mill lock where the tyros would disembark secure the boats and run a couple of miles to a pub in Buckden to consume a hearty lunch before struggling back to the boats and home! Good fun or what?
I then went to Imperial College, got in the first VIII, came 16th in the HORR and rowed at Henley, joined the Drama Society, met Heather got thrown out of college and returned home bruised.
I then married Heather, worked in St Neots until retirement, bought up a couple of kids and continued to be a member of the Rowing Club doing lots of things including winning a couple of pots with my mate Bob Loughlin and finishing up President for a few years and now I’m one of your Honorary Life Members!
So there you are. Thank you St Neots Rowing Club, you have given me many happy memories.