Women's eights racing at Holme Pierrepont

When Britain lacked a 2k rowing course

Of the 33 nations who competed at the 1960 Olympic Regatta, Great Britain and Greece were the only countries that didn’t have a 2,000m multi-lane rowing course, according to a letter in the April 1961 issue of Rowing magazine.

While the correspondent may not have been wholly correct in his assertion (did Peru, Mexico and Uruguay really have these facilities?), for a country that had invented he sport of boat racing, we had fallen seriously behind the curve. The first such course in Europe – in Duisburg in what became West Germany – had been opened in 1935, with the Bosbaan in Amsterdam following a year later. Courses were also installed on natural lakes and rivers all over the Continent.

The lack of such a course was considered to be the main reason for the malaise gripping GB rowing as, without a 2k course on which to practice ‘pack’ racing, or home events which incorporated repechages, British rowers struggled when they needed to perform in these situations abroad. And, of course, it meant that no European Championships that involved men’s racing, World Championships or Olympic Games could be staged in the UK.

It’s a picture that’s hard to imagine today, with five FISA-standard 2k, 6-lane courses dotted around the country at Holme Pierrepont in Nottingham, Strathclyde Country Park, Eton Dorney, Docklands (although no regattas regularly take place there currently for various infrastructure reasons), as well as the GB rowing team’s facility at Caversham and the Peterborough 1k, 4-lane course, and the glory of the 2012 Olympic regatta at Dorney behind us.

But the journey to where we are now involved a large number of dead ends, documented in the annual British Rowing Almanack in a series of reports that almost all involved the word “hope”, only for the next year’s installment to explain how the yearnings had turned out to be, at best, misplaced.

Plans A and B: Wales and Staffordshire

The need for a 2k multi-lane course was first mentioned in the Almanack in 1956, which laments, “Perhaps what we lack most of all is accessible water where three crews may fairly row three abreast dead straight for ten furlongs (2,000m),” then adding, “What a pity it is that some generous-hearted ballast company will not dredge out a ruler-straight series of gravel pits eleven furlongs long and 200ft wide somewhere in lovely country and within reach of this great Metropolis of ours!” Although the last comment is clearly tongue-in-cheek, it’s just as clearly an indicator that the need for such a course was leading only to wistful hope rather than any practical action.

By the following year, nothing more had happened but in an example of the ‘scope creep’ that plagues so many projects, the ‘requirement’ had gone up 33%; “We have remarked before that Great Britain is short of courses where fair four-abreast racing conditions can be obtained. Great hope [see? – Ed.] is entertained of one such course that has been surveyed in Wales for the 1958 Empire Games – Llyn Padarn near Llanberis [marked in purple on the map below].  In England none has yet been surveyed though lakes such as Rudyard [near Leek in Staffordshire – marked in red on the map below] might well merit further investigation. However, as both of these lakes are comparatively inaccessible, some lake or canal nearer a large transport or holiday centre is really needed.”

Plan C: Another Staffie option

These same points were reiterated in the 1958 Almanack. “Last year we spoke of the great hopes [optimism is still at a high – Ed.] that are entertained of Llyn Padarn. There is no doubt that the lake is in a lovely setting for an International Regatta and should prove eminently suitable for Empire and Commonwealth Games. But it is a trifle inaccessible. Lake Rudyard by Leek in Staffordshire has many protagonists, but again it is inconvenient of access. Cannock Water [blue on the map above] has been surveyed and found too short. We feel that British Rowing will be at a disadvantage, internationally speaking, until some gravel pit is discovered or dredged that will provide us with an aquadrome near the centre of gravity of our rowing population.”

It’s OK, we now have a Sub-Committee

I’m being a little unkind here because the formation of a ‘National Course’ Sub-Committee did drive the work on, albeit from its pretty low base. Initially, though, it seems only to have confirmed what was already known about the unsuitability of various locations, as the 1959 Almanack says that the need to have a minimum of four lanes, “Rules out at once the excellent 2,000m, three-lane course at Boston [Plan D], Padarn is ruled out by its remoteness, and Rudyard because, being a reservoir, the water level cannot be guaranteed except occasionally and by giving a year’s notice.”

The advantages of worked-out gravel pits as a starting point for a National Course were quickly appreciated by the committee, “To dig a course somewhere near London would require funds that the ARA could never contemplate, but the possibility always exists of finding a chain of gravel pits that reduces significantly the amount of excavation required.”

In 1960, the Review of the Year explained (yet again), “The prime need of British oarsmen remains – as ever – an international 2,000m course in still water with some six lanes [further lane inflation, this time to meet new FISA requirements – Ed.] about 50ft wide. Things have moved slowly in the search for gravel pits but the outlook is not wholly unhopeful [! – Ed.]. But such a rowing centre is a long term project and it might be well into the late 1960s before we see it in action.”

I won’t spoil the suspense for readers who don’t know when our first multi-lane course opened, but suffice it to say that the target of the ‘late 1960s’ was built more on, well, hope than reality.

The 1961 Almanack offers a glimmer that real progress might have been made although it’s tantalisingly circumspect; “The Committee… has been very active, and has achieved significant results. It would be premature to go into details, but the investigations have reached the stage of actual survey of possible sites.”

All this appeared to be dashed in 1962 when the Review of the Year said, “There are no exciting developments to report for the moment on the… important scheme for a National Course,” although the ARA Report suggested that progress had been made behind the scenes. “The search [for potential sites] has been narrowed down to two or three areas, and there is every hope [hurrah! – Ed.] of substantial progress in what is necessarily a long-term project in the coming year.”

Plan E: Sonning Eye

By the following year, 1963, “The search narrowed to possible sites in the Thames Valley Area and application has now been made for Outline Planning Permission to develop gravel pits at Sonning Eye, near Reading [marked in blue on the map below].”

If you think this sounds promising, don’t get too excited, as the 1964 Almanack gloomily admitted, “Unfortunately there is little progress to report… No decision has yet been announced on our application for outline planning permission at Sonning Eye, and other sites that have been viewed during the year have proved to be not available.”

The delay in considering the planning application was actually perfectly valid, as it was dependent on a decision being made about the route of the M4!

Knowing what we know now, for Sonning Eye is where the Redgrave-Pinsent Rowing Lake – GB’s Caversham training base – is situated, this site was clearly an excellent option, so it’s marvelously ironic that, at the time, Rowing magazine commented that, “One queries whether it would ever be possible to produce, in a worked-out gravel pit, a setting worthy of the occasion.”

Plan F: Basildon-on-Thames

Better known as Beale Parke to anyone who has ever competed at the Pangbourne Junior Sculls head race, this potential site (marked in purple on the map above) was actually a section of the river Thames, and scored well on being accessible from London and being close enough to Reading University that halls of residence be used for accommodation for major regattas in the summer holidays.

However, to fit the course in, not only would the bank need to be cut back in a few places, but “two rather scruffy islands should be eliminated,” according to Rowing magazine, and while the landowner supported this move, the council did not, on the grounds that this would be “detrimental to the riverside landscape”.

The Basildon option was later crossed off the list when the landowner changed his mind about making the required land available.

Plan G: Lea Valley

All was far from lost, though, as the 1965 Almanack brought news of a completely new option. “A Civic Trust plan to incorporate a £1,000,000 rowing course in the River Lea Development Scheme may end the long search for a suitable site. The course at Cheshunt on the outskirts of London, is to be created by linking up worked out gravel pits to form an artificial basin where crews can race eight abreast.”

The ARA Report for the year also invited readers “to send us suggestions for more [possible sites],” which at first sight seems a bit amateur but it actually made a lot of sense to appeal for local knowledge in a era when travel was considerably less common than it is today, and the whole of the ARA were volunteers with little time, never mind budget, to explore the countryside.

Two new twists

After the Amateur Rowing Association and the National Amateur Rowing Association merged in 1955, there had been no suitable occasion for the NARA’s magnificent championship trophies to be awarded and this was one of many reasons why the ARA was keen to reintroduce National Championships, so the ARA Report added, “The Committee is very anxious to find a suitable course (even if providing only three or four lanes) where National Championships and trials can be staged for the time being pending the construction of a full-scale course.”

Grafham Water in Cambridgeshire was soon identified as a temporary venue, and it was announced that National Championships would be held there in 1967. In a delightful turn of phrase, the Almanack noted that as Grafham Sailing Club’s clubhouse was not large enough to accommodate a major rowing event, “It will be necessary to install tentage on a liberal scale”.

In the end, this plan was cancelled for financial reasons, apparently mostly to do with the costs of buoying a course in a deep reservoir, and Grafham was added to the list of unsuitable sites when someone worked out that it was way too windy there most of the time anyway.

Plan H: Nottingham!

After several years with no news of any real progress, the 1969 Almanack carried an up-beat report that, “Attention is now centred on developments in two areas, Cheshunt and Nottingham. There is now little doubt that both these sites can meet the requirements for a course up to FISA standards and that the Nottingham course could offer at least the necessary water area at a very early date.”

As for the National Championships, it added that the ARA had decided that these would not be held until a permanent 2k course was available, but, “With this in mind, developments at Holme Pierrepont [Nottingham] are being watched with great interest and optimism, and every hope [ah, haven’t heard that one in a while – Ed.] that we shall not have to wait for our first Championships until the great Lea Valley scheme provides the necessary water.”

From this point on, the dream began to be turned into reality and the National Course became the first item in the ARA Annual Report until it was completed, instead of being covered, as it had until now, in a subsidiary position which others might describe as “burying bad news”.

Ready for 1971?

The 1970 Almanack reported, “The most important and welcome news of the year was the announcement that construction of the Holme Pierrepont rowing course at Nottingham had started…. Will be available for rowing in the autumn of 1970, although no major event will be held on it until 1971, by when it is hoped that the building of the boathouses and other requirements will be well advanced. The enterprise and determination of the Nottinghamshire County Council deserve the gratitude and admiration of every oarsman [sic] in this country.”

Based on this plan, National Championships were planned for July 1971.

Unfortunately, the construction schedule slipped considerably, and as the 1971 Almanack explained, “The new course is rapidly taking shape, and now has sufficient water in it to give some idea of its eventual appearance. There should be rowing on it in the summer of 1971, but there will be few facilities for spectators, and it is for that reason that no major competitions will be held on it this year… in 1972 the course should be in full use (although buildings will not be complete before the end of the summer).”

The first National Championships were cancelled for a second time.

This was only a temporary setback, though and as the 1972 Almanack explained, “Excellent progress has been made in the construction… The course itself was operational in 1971 and was used for trials and training of the team which represented us at the European Championships. Building should be completed by the summer of 1972 and in July the National Championships of Great Britain… will inaugurate a new era in British rowing.”

According to Rowing magazine, the first official event at Holme Pierrepont was the Inter-Regional Youth Rowing Championships held on 20 May 1972 (just an Olympiad after the estimated “late 1960s”), and the long-awaited first National Championships of Great Britain finally took place at the third attempt in July of that year. Britain at last had its 2k multi-lane course.

And don’t we just love it?

5 thoughts on “When Britain lacked a 2k rowing course

  1. djbiddulph says:

    An interesting history. On the subject of London Docklands, I’m glad to say that the start pontoons have been replaced.


    • Helena Smalman-Smith says:

      Excellent news – thanks, David. I’ve updated the mention of it above to remove my comment about it being out of action for racing whilst there was a debate about who should pay for replacing the dilapidated start pontoons.


  2. pennychuter says:

    As far as the main building was concerned, I remember attending the first Silver Level (as it was called then) Coaching Award Course in January 1973 – There was no heating, so we sat in the lecture room in fur coats and woolly hats. In addition there were a number of leaks in the roof, which wasn’t yet completed, so buckets were distributed around the room as required! Those were the days!!

    Liked by 1 person

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