Monday, March 26, 2012

Row row row your boat ...

I’ve posted a couple of times about the grammar school I went to in Shrewsbury and how in some ways it tried to emulate the rather more illustrious public school across the river.  Evidence of this in my early days there was the Latin crest on the school badge, the teaching of classics while looking down on modern languages, and being made to refer to the staff as ‘masters’ rather than ‘teachers’.  I didn’t mind any of this particularly; indeed I just accepted it for what it was, and in any event by the time I started there things were beginning to change with the arrival of a new headmaster.

Outside, this old school approach was carried into the world of sport.  No association football for us, it had to be rugby, which to be fair I did enjoy, although I never once felt the urge to throw a rugby ball around the park with my mates in my spare time.  The sport I took up with some relish though was rowing, which I first got into as a cox for my brother’s crew (which is not as ‘street’ as it sounds).

The cox had the relatively easy task of steering the boat and shouting instructions and encouragement to the oarsmen.  The fact that I was about 12 and could hardly see where I was navigating this expensive piece of equipment didn’t seem to bother anyone.  My main concern though was avoiding being held over the water from the pontoon by the crew and dipped in the river just enough to get uncomfortably wet.

A year or two later I was allowed to row too, and let me tell you that if you think it looks like hard work, it really is.  It introduced me to a world of ‘bum shoving’ and ‘catching crabs’ which is not as sordid as it sounds (technical explanation available on request).  We trained on the water 2 or 3 times a week, as well as doing distance running and circuit training, and looking back I must have been as fit as butcher’s dog.

In the warmer part of the year we would enter regattas all around the country.  Regattas were essentially sprint races against one or more other crews (depending on the width of the river or reservoir).  I liked rowing in the regatta races. They really hurt but at least they were over relatively quickly.

In the Winter we did ‘Head of the River’ races which were longer, endurance competitions where the boats did a staggered start at timed intervals. These could be truly miserable experiences – it was generally freezing, the race itself could be miles long instead of the usual thousand yards, and there would inevitably be congestion points as the faster crews caught up with the slower ones on an overcrowded river, with many curses and threats being traded between crews.  Strangely, the one Head of the River race which I really enjoyed was the 31 mile long Lincoln to Boston marathon, which we did just once and I loved it.  The aim on that occasion was not to win, but merely to survive.  Our training had included weeks of rubbing surgical spirit into the skin to prevent blisters on the hands. Trust me, it doesn’t really work, but for all that I got a great sense of achievement from just finishing the marathon.

Despite all the training we only ever won one competition. Winners were generally awarded engraved pewter tankards; pints for the oarsmen and a half pint one for the cox.  Speaking of pints, the regattas often had a beer tent where it was possible to get served at a ridiculously young age, and this was some consolation for getting knocked out in the heats. It was strictly forbidden by our teachers and parents, but sneaking a beer without them noticing was half the fun.  And far better to swallow beer than the water we had to row in at some places. There was said to be a rule at Liverpool Regatta that anyone falling in the Mersey was required to have their stomach pumped. A fanciful schoolboy rumour perhaps, but there were certainly a lot of oily toxins floating about the Victoria Dock in those days.

I stopped rowing completely once I’d left school.  I doubt I’d ever have become a Steve Redgrave or a Matthew Pinsent, but when I watched them on the television winning gold medals at the Olympics I would sometimes wonder if they too had ever dangled their cox in the water!
The river Severn at the English Bridge, Shrewsbury. The brick building behind is the Wakeman, the other grammar school in the town where I wouldn't have been able to play rugby or do rowing. But I would have played football there, and the school overlooked 'Gay Meadow', which was then the home of Shrewsbury Town FC.

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