21st British Rowing Tour 29th to 31st August 2014

After months of planning by the Upton RC recreational rowing committee, on Thursday afternoon boat trailers from all over the country began arriving at Worcester Race Course for the 21st British Rowing Tour. Solent galleys, a wherry, touring boats of various designs, and fine boats were unloaded and re-rigged ready for the following morning. Meanwhile crews were being welcomed to their base at the Puckrup Hall Hotel by Upton “Tour Makers” in their distinctive lavender polo shirts. During the evening buffet Andrew and I were surprised to learn that we would be rowing in the morning to substitute for an injured rower and so would become honorary Weybridge Ladies for a day.

On Friday morning two large coach loads of rowers were bussed to Worcester. With many extra hands for the heavy boats, 21 boats were launched from Worcester Rowing Club’s landing under the interested gaze the media. They were particularly impressed by the wide age range (up to octogenarians) and the large number of women participating. Participating rower Ruth Marr, a rowing tour organiser from Winnipeg, Canada, was also a centre of media attention. Maurice joined a ladies crew from Henley RC in Peter Barker, and with some trepidation Sheila and Judi joined the crew of one of the Solent galleys.

Under brooding skies I set off in the last boat with three Weybridge Ladies and Ruth. While waiting to enter Diglis Lock they were excited to see our first non-cygnine wildlife, a young cormorant, soon followed by a kingfisher. After locking down we set off on the day’s main stretch to Upton into a gusty headwind. As the Severn meandered southwards the conditions alternated between rippled and choppy waters but our scratch crew coped well in our fine quad. A quick burst of light rain added to the sense of endeavour. The rain didn’t return and we set a steady pace with short bursts of firm pressure to keep warm and almost caught the group of slower boats ahead who had locked down well before us.

At Upton Marina everyone moored or hauled their boats out to be welcomed by the Mayor of Upton, Cllr Pete Webb, and Upton RC Captain, Steve Cox. They then enjoyed a buffet lunch at the Wheelhouse. The Solent galley crews were relieved to find that beer was available after the lack of riverside pubs since Worcester. It wasn’t long before the crews were keen to get back on the water, including Sheila and Judi who had decided that fixed seat rowing was easier than they had expected, though hard on the arms, and Solent galleys were great boats. After lunch I handed my seat over to Andrew and re-joined the Tour Makers.

BR Tour Lower Lode

After about an hour of rowing, the tourers reached Mythe Bridge where they were treated to tea and a mountain of cakes by AB Severn RC. Another short row took them to Upper Lode lock where they were able to lock down in three groups. A wider more exposed stretch of choppy water greeted them as they approached the end of the leg at Lower Lode, Tewkesbury. The boats were hauled out for the night at Cheltenham College BC and the coaches returned them to Puckrup for dinner with the mayor of Tewkesbury, Mike Dean, and his wife.

On a cloudy but dry Saturday morning the tourers returned to Lower Lode. The wide concrete ramp at Cheltenham College BC made launching straightforward and a steady stream of boats headed off around the bend to Deerhurst, Apperley and Wainlode.

The Tour Makers headed to the East Channel outside Gloucester Lock to rig ropes for holding boats in the strong tidal stream expected around high tide. After a long delay from the MV Edward Elgar monopolising the East Channel and causing northbound narrow boats and cruisers to queue for Gloucester Lock, the tour was finally given clearance to row down to the lock. As they arrived and grabbed onto the throw ropes, there were some concerned conversations. “Was that a plastic bag we just passed or a body floating in the river?” “I thought it was a body.” The message was passed to the leading MISAR safety launch and they took off to investigate. They soon returned with a confused soul who had decided it was a good idea to go for a swim in the river. MISAR handed her over to the police and the care of the ambulance service.

BR Tour Glos DocksThe second batch of boats was shepherded through the lock and into Gloucester Docks where there was a scramble for the last remaining moorings and a rush for the toilets after the long delay. At the lunch provided by the Waterways Museum, the mayor of Gloucester, Deb Llewellyn, welcomed the tour to her city alongside her rower daughter and the captain of Gloucester RC, Jon Garner.

The tourers made a whistle-stop sightseeing tour of Gloucester Docks before returning to their boats. After little more than a mile of rowing the tourers reached Hempstead Meadows, where ground has just been broken on the site of Gloucester RC’s new clubhouse, and hauled their boats out for the night.

On returning to Puckrup, the tourers swapped their Lycra and sun hats for blazers and dresses ready for drinks before the gala dinner in the ballroom. After dinner a series of speakers talked about touring past and present and speculated about the future.

Sunday morning started with broken cloud and blue skies but instead of clouding over like most days for the last month it cleared to a glorious warm sunny day. The touring rowers were bussed to Hempstead Meadows to start the final leg down the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. There they were joined by day rowers from Bewdley, Ross and their hosts Gloucester.

Earlier in the week the Tour Makers had been to the tour finish at Purton to trim back the brambles from the canal edge and extend the small landing stage with a floating pontoon. On Sunday a large working party returned to Purton to direct trailer parking and to pitch two borrowed scout tents to shelter (or as it turned out to shade) the lunch. The non-rowing tourers arrived having walked the towpath from Slimbridge and lunch arrived on schedule so everything was set for the arrival of the rowers.

The shore party stood by Purton Bridge staring up the reach eager for the first sight of oars. After a few false alarms from narrow boats the first rower appeared around the last corner, a single sculler from Gloucester RC who had been determined to keep a Bewdley women’s eight behind him all the way. It wasn’t long before more boats arrived. They had helpfully become strung out due to stops along the way, meaning that there was very little queuing for the short landing stage. All the larger boats were hauled out bow first, due to an awkward 90 degree turn into the car park, and carried to the trailer field opposite. Many locals and day trippers looked on in fascination as the assortment of 28 boats were recovered from the water.

The tourers de-rigged and loaded their boats before tucking into a classy picnic lunch served from an old fashioned canvas and wood tent that seemed to be in character for such an event. Circles of rowers sat cross-legged in the sunshine reflecting on the tour. The consensus appeared to be that this was the biggest and best organised tour yet. There were many happy waves from departing crews. The Tour Makers struck the tents and tidied the field before enjoying a well-earned cup of tea from Purton Church. They returned home weary but glowing with the satisfaction of a job well done.

Duncan Jardine

The tour was featured in the Worcester Evening News – a link to their article can be found here.