Wednesday, 28 July 2021

From Beatles make-up girl to wacky races in pink boat

JOAN BLAND has never been one to shy away from the spotlight.

JOAN BLAND has never been one to shy away from the spotlight.

A Conservative member of both Henley Town Council and South Oxfordshire District Council, she often speaks out on a range of issues, sometimes controversially.

She also runs Asquiths teddy bear shop on the corner of Bell Street and New Street and often speaks up on behalf of her fellow traders.

But perhaps surprisingly for a woman in her fifties who suffers from asthma, she also rows.

She trains at weekends in a quad made up of friends out of Phyllis Court Club.

Their bright pink boat was bequeathed to the club by Ms Bland’s first rowing partner, Suzanne Roberts, who died of cancer in September 2011, aged 49.

Ms Bland, a former TV make-up artist, first got into a boat about 10 years ago.

She explains: “I had a party with friends and one of my pals asked if I would cox a pair the next morning and I said yes, despite having a hangover. They were absolutely rubbish.

“I didn’t think I would be able to row because I have asthma but when they said that I should have a go I thought, ‘if they are this slow then I could possibly do it’.

“I got into an old wooden tub and started to row and I have never stopped.”

She used to scull with Mrs Roberts and supported her when she was diagnosed with cancer.

She recalls: “When Suzanne had chemotherapy I asked her how she looked and she replied ‘like a little boy’ so I went round to see her.

“I turned her hair into punk-style — I stuck her hair up with glue and made it pink. Then I put a pink pashmina round her neck and she looked fantastic. After that she always wore shocking pink.”

The former policewoman even wore pink when she married her photographer husband Chris in 2010. “It was the most amazing outfit,” says Ms Bland.

The pink boat Mrs Roberts bequeathed to her girlfriends sports her signature.

Ms Bland says: “The quad was for us girls. It is a lightweight because all the others at the club are heavy and at the time they only had second-hand boats.

“Before we had one double scull which was absolutely knackered after some men wrapped it around a buoy.”

Ms Bland grew up in Paddington with her parents Jim, a lorry driver, and Alice, a cleaner, and her older sister, Maren.

Due to her asthma, she had to have lots of time off school and failed her 11+, which she says made her “furious”.

She was told not to worry as she could always get a job in a factory but this made her more determined to succeed.

Ms Bland says: “That was the best thing anyone has ever said to me — it inspired me to do well in life.

“Because I was so unwell I couldn’t do games, so I used to work in the library at school and categorise books. I came across one about the theatre and make-up and, at 13, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

She went to night school to obtain the necessary qualifications and then worked for cosmetics firm Gala before applying to be a make-up artist at the BBC.

“I was 17 but you had to be 23 so I lied about my age,” she admits. “I thought I would tell them my real age at the interview but as I sat sinking into an armchair with six people in front of me I didn’t get to tell them.”

Her white lie came to light after two years when she became eligible to join the corporation’s pension scheme and was asked to produce her birth certificate. “I owned up but they told me not to worry about it,” says Ms Bland. “They told me that it would be ‘our secret’ and I would have been the youngest make-up artist ever.”

In four years at the BBC she did the make-up for The Beatles, Nat King Cole, Henley singer Dusty Springfield and the Black And White Minstrel Show.

Ms Bland then left, still only 21, because she wanted to travel.

She says: “I went to Melbourne but that was too cold so I went to Sydney and worked for ABC Television where the standard was really awful — it was so behind England.”

She met her future husband Barnard Rose at a swimming pool in London and they moved to Trinidad via Australia where he and her sister’s husband set up a finance company.

The couple moved around South America and the Caribbean and Ms Bland worked for the theatre guild and raised money to buy a bus for the Peace Corps.

They married at the Red House in Trinidad, the day after having a car accident in Suriname.

Ms Bland recalls: “We went to a party in the bush and left really early in the morning. The driver fell asleep at the wheel and we crashed and I cut my lip very badly and banged my knees and my husband broke his nose.

“I remember getting to Pan Am airlines and asking for a brandy with a straw and the hostess saying they didn’t have straws but it was the only way I could drink. On the day we were married we looked so odd that people kept looking at us.”

After seven years in the Caribbean, she returned to England for a few months with her husband and daughter Charlotte before moving to Australia but the marriage failed.

Mother and daughter moved to Windsor and Ms Bland was divorced when Charlotte was two.

Needing money and a car, she got a job as a rep for a gift company and was very successful.

She says: “I was able to put Charlotte through private school. She had a hearing problem as well as asthma like me and needed to go to a school so that I could work.”

In 1975, Ms Bland met her current partner Ian Wainwright, a graphic designer and photographer. Together, they started a business supplying Playboy with specially made handkerchiefs and wristbands.

She said: “I used to buy linen handkerchiefs from Ireland and the bunnies from Sussex and I got my daughter’s friend to iron them on. My mum would fold them up and my dad would put them into boxes.

“They were all boxed up in my house and a lorry would come and take them to Leeds for distribution all over the world.”

As the business expanded and became Asquith Designs, Ms Bland decided to get into retail and bought a shop in Windsor with a £10,000 bank loan. She recalls: “My mother gave me £300 and told me it was to bury her and my father. I remember asking whether she had any plans to die imminently and if I could use it to buy stock.

“I was selling gifts downstairs and upstairs was an office. I used to sell little bears made from clay which people would come in and ask for and I realised people loved bears and that there was a gap in the market.

“My aunt came over from the States and she wanted a jointed teddy bear and we looked everywhere, in Hamley’s and so on, but we couldn’t find one so I decided to make some bears and that’s how I started.

“The gifts went out the window and I opened the first teddy bear shop in Europe.”

She then opened a shop in Eton and the couple moved to Pearce’s Orchard, off Henley’s Fair Mile.

They had a son, Tristan, in 1982 who attended Trinity School and The Henley College. He now runs an inventory business for lettings in Oxford.

Four years later, Ms Bland opened her third shop in Friday Street, which is now the Yeuk skateboard shop.

Ms Bland says: “Our bears were handmade from luxurious fabrics which make them very expensive so I went to Korea and Thailand to get some made more cheaply and I was exporting them all over the world.

“A lot of companies took our designs and put them on stationery, bags and trays for which I received a royalty.”

In 1993 she was named businesswoman of the year at the Women in Business Awards and received an award from then prime minister John Major at the newly refurbished banqueting hall in Whitehall and had afternoon tea at the House of Lords.

She also became the first woman to chair the Eton Traders Association.

A year later, she opened her current shop together with a restaurant upstairs, which was opened by then Mayor Ken Arlett.

The restaurant was successful but she decided to close it in 2004 when the chef moved to Cornwall and she couldn’t find a suitable replacement and didn’t want to run it herself.

She had also just become interested in rowing. “I was spending more and more time on the river,” she says. “By this time, companies here had started manufacturing bears which meant that I didn’t have to go to the Far East and there was a lot more choice.”

As the leases on the shops in Eton and Windsor came up for renewal she let them go.

Ms Bland says she had a slow start as a rower while she built up her stamina and fitness.

She rows with friends Katherine Coombe, Emma Leech, Georgina Jagger and Mary Bromelow as well as Judith Burn, their coach.

“We are old but our technique is good,” she says. “Judith is really strict — you can’t talk or have fun when you are rowing as you are always trying to improve and you work as a team.

“We go out in quads, double sculls and singles. We row every weekend at 7am, sometimes earlier. We are the first crew on the river and row the year-round.”

Ms Bland has competed at Wallingford, Mortlake and the Henley Head as well as in London and around the country.

She also takes part in what she calls “wacky races” at Phyllis Court Club, where she has been a member for more than 20 years, and in distance rows along the Thames. “Ian would lock and open the gates and throw us Mars Bars,” she laughs.

Last year, the women went to a boot camp in Vermont and were shown around Harvard Boat Club by the captain and went out in a training boat. They are going to Seville in October and perhaps to Bled, Henley’s newest twin town, next year.

Ms Bland says that although she is still learning, she loves rowing.

“It is just so exhilarating to go fast,” she says. “It is fantastic when you get it right and you get the perfect stroke.

“It is also extremely good fun with the girls when we have coffee in the club afterwards. You can feel the laughter reverberate around.”

With her attitude to her pastime, it seems that Ms Bland will be laughing for many years to come.

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