Saturday, 13 August 2022

Record crowds celebrate town’s boating heritage

Record crowds celebrate town’s boating heritage

A HISTORIC powerboat which set three water speed records in the Thirties roared back into life at the Thames Traditional Boat Festival in Henley.

Blue Bird K3 was the star attraction at the 40th annual event, which took place on the banks of the river at Fawley Meadow, off Marlow Road, from Friday until Sunday last week.

Its owner Karl Foulkes Halbard piloted the craft along the royal regatta course at speeds of up to 60mph from Temple Island to the festival site, where he came to a stop and moored up again.

He performed the display, which was sponsored by Henley watchmaker Bremont, on the Saturday. Many of the thousands of people who attended the festival crowded on to the banks and jetties to watch through binoculars or take photos and videos.

An enforcement team from the Environment Agency, which gave permission for the display to take place, drove downstream about 10 minutes beforehand to ensure the main channel was clear.

The boat, which was built by British racing pioneer Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1937, was towed to the start by another vessel as it has no neutral or reverse gear and will begin cruising forward as soon as its 27-litre Rolls-Royce V12 engine is switched on.

Berylla II, a smaller hydroplane vessel from the same era was first to appear followed by Blue Bird, which created a large amount of wash and rocked the jetties as it passed.

People cheered loudly and clapped as it came to a stop followed by an escort from the Royal Marines and another from the ERT Search and Rescue team, whose headquarters are in Henley.

Mr Foulkes Halbard attempted a second run on the Sunday but the engine failed as it was kept idling for too long.

Blue Bird first attended the festival in 2015 and was due to take to the river but could not due to a last-minute engine failure. She was expected to attend the following year but pulled out, again citing mechanical problems.

Mr Foulkes Halbard, of Filching in Sussex, whose late father Paul purchased her in the Eighties, has spent decades restoring it and recently took it back to Lake Hallwil in Switzerland, where it set its third and final record of 130.91mph. He said: “It’s always an incredible buzz to drive it and it certainly isn’t for the faint-hearted because it gets pretty lively once it’s up on its plane.

“I’m used to piloting it on big, open lakes so the Henley reach is actually pretty claustrophobic by comparison but I just planned to come down as safely and sensibly as I could.

“You can do about 60mph without too much of a problem but we would never try to emulate its record-setting speeds. It may have been restored but it’s still an 80-year-old machine!

“I’ve really enjoyed coming here today. There’s such an incredible variety of boats and cars on display and it’s got to be one of the best events of its kind in the world.”

More than 15,000 people attended this year’s festival, which is believed to be a record, where almost 150 boats were on display including a number of Dunkirk “Little Ships” which took part in the evacuation of 1940. They paraded up and down the river on all three days.

Participants included John Calvert and Sally Bridgeman, of Goring, and their dog Monty, who attended with their 29ft motor yacht L’Orage, from 1938. It was originally known as Surrey and until 2009 was owned by late fighter pilot and BBC television presenter Raymond Baxter. Mr Calvert, who helped to launch the event as the Thames Traditional Boat Rally in 1978, said: “It’s been a fantastic weekend – you can tell from looking at the wonderful weather and all the people enjoying themselves.

“You won’t see so much enthusiasm for restored historic boats in many other places and I’m really pleased to see that it’s still successful after all these years. Everything about it has improved.”

The Royal row barge Gloriana was present for the fourth year running and performed rowpasts powered by members of Henley Rowing Club and Leander Club, who stood up on the deck and raised their oars in salute to the Queen while giving three cheers.

The Henley crew, who rowed on Saturday, also performed the salute as they passed a couple who were getting married on Temple Island.

The club’s Victoria Molloy, 62, who lives in York Road, Henley, said: “I was sitting near the bow and it was quite an amazing experience. I first saw Gloriana when I moved hear two years ago and had always wanted to go aboard.

“I felt privileged to be rowing such a beautiful boat, although it was difficult as she’s a heavy old thing and the blades don’t have gates so you’re having to watch that they don’t slip while striking in time with the rest of the crew.”

The Henley rowers finished in about 33 minutes whereas the Leander crew, which included president Jeremy “Rass” Randall and rowing commentator Robert Treharne Jones, finished in about 26 minutes.

Afterwards, Gloriana moored up and the winners of an earlier raffle could climb aboard while others looked on and took photographs from the jetty. Attendants maintained a queue to prevent the platform from becoming overloaded.

There was also a number of amphibious craft including Schwimmwagens, which were built by Volkswagen for the German forces during the Second World War, as well as American and Russian models and more modern examples.

On Saturday and Sunday, three aircraft from the First World War performed a flypast. The German Fokker triplane and two RAF biplanes were preceded on the Sunday by a Second World War Hurricane bomber from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

Another popular event was a fun dog show judged by Lady McAlpine, of the Fawley Hill estate, who took charge of the rally when it looked set to fold in 2014 and relaunched it under a new name the following summer. She was accompanied by royal biographer Ingrid Seward, the editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine, Mark Griffiths, owner of Happy Dog pet food, and Henley artist Clive Hemsley, who specialises in dog portraits.

The winners included Gabriela Stone, of Peppard, whose one-year-old dachshund Diabolo came first in the puppy class and third for waggiest tail. Best in show on the Saturday was JD, a four-year-old Staffordshire bull terrier belonging to Charvil residents Barry and Tracey Allen, who provided toilets and showers for the event through their firm ASP Toilet Hire. Mr Hemsley, of Hart Street, will paint JD as a prize.

Mrs Allen said: “We’re pleased as we’ve taken him to a few shows and he’s won awards at the ones in Binfield Heath and Harpsden but this is the first time he’s been first-placed. We didn’t know the dog show was happening until the last minute so we’re glad we entered and I think the judges loved the colour of his coat.”

Mr Allen said: “Lady McAlpine has really done an incredible job and this year seems to be going very well. We always enjoy coming as everyone’s friendly and we’ve got to know a few faces.”

There were also dozens of classic cars and motorcycles as well as trade stands and market stalls. Among those taking part were Henley Sales and Charter and its sister venture E-Boatique, Henley boatbuilder Henwood and Dean and the town’s River and Rowing Museum and Phyllis Court Club.

Gillian Nahum, of Henley Sales and Charter, said: “This is my favourite event because it’s convenient to get to and a chance to catch up with lots of customers past, present and future. It’s incredibly well-run and I love the fact that it runs into the evenings.

“There’s so much River Thames history and heritage on display and it’s really important to preserve that and keep it alive.”

The event was compèred by Jan Stanton, a boat owner and former Henley resident who organised a floral flotilla on the Thames in 2013 to mark the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s coronation, and her husband Mike.

The couple moved to the West Country in 2016 because Henley’s growing air pollution problem was worsening Mr Stanton’s asthma. He said: “We love it here and come with our boat Kyrenia every year. It’s a superb festival that always enjoys tremendous attendance and it’s been especially good this year because of the weather.”

Mrs Stanton said: “We’re very thankful to the Environment Agency for allowing Blue Bird to run. It really was such incredible fun and I’ve never seen so many smiling faces.”

Catering was provided by the Crooked Billet at Stoke Row, which had a pop-up restaurant on the site and hosted live performances by Henley bands The Covered on the Friday evening and Highly Strung the following night. 

There was also a vintage-themed tea shop run by Time for Tea, also of Henley, while Franca’s Ice Cream, which runs the Henley Piazza café on Mill Meadows, had several vans which attracted lengthy queues and had almost sold out at the end of each day.

Visitors John and Sarah Miles, of Deanfield Avenue in Henley, who attended with their one-year-old granddaughter Ivy, said: “The weather is beautiful today and it seems to have brought people out in their thousands.

“We’ve come every year for the past six or seven years because it’s a good opportunity to enjoy some stunning views on the riverside. The festival was struggling a few years ago but it’s really been rejuvenated.”

Henley resident Caroline Chisholm said: “I come every year because I love the boats and know this stretch of the river well as I often go canoeing along it. It seems very well-attended this year, probably the best I’ve ever seen in fact. There’s so much to see and so much history on the site, which I think is the main appeal.”

Henley town councillor Sam Evans, of Reading Road, who attended with her Labrador Hector and friends Pam and Mark Hayes, of St Andrew’s Road, said: “It’s a shining example of Henley at its best.

“It’s something a little less formal after the regatta and festival and there are so many people and boats here this year – what’s not to like? We’ve very lucky to have it.”

Mr Hayes said: “We’re regulars as I bought a boat here 12 years ago and I’m not sure my wife has ever forgiven me!

“It looks like it’s bigger and more popular than even this time. I can remember when you’d have seen everything after a short while but now you can easily make a whole day of it.”

Fellow councillor Will Hamilton, who attended with Henley Rugby Club’s director of rugby Rob Heginbotham, said: “It’s very well laid-out with lots to do and a great addition to the town’s summer season.

“The weather has helped and I can’t wait to see whether Blue Bird will finally make it this time.” Once the sun had set on the Saturday, there was an illuminated parade of boats from all entry classes and people could sit enjoying food and drink until the site closed at midnight.

Awards for the best entries were presented at the Crooked Billet stand on the Sunday and the Fred and Sheila Bourne Trophy for best boat in show went to Sweet Myrrh, a 27ft fast open launch owned for more than 20 years by Richard Hicks, of Wargrave.

It was built in about 1912 by celebrated marine engineer Samuel Saunders, of Goring, using his “Consuta” method of stitching wood together using copper wire, and has been maintained by Henwood and Dean since Mr Hicks bought it.

Most recently Tony Knights and Dan Wood, who took over the firm in 2016, upgraded its steering to a hydraulic system and replaced its engine. The pair and Mr Hicks were also presented with the festival’s Thames Heritage Cup.

Mr Hicks said: “I was delighted because Sweet Myrrh is very much a ‘boatbuilder’s boat’. There were lots of larger and more glamorous boats on display and you wouldn’t know there was anything special about it unless you knew the history and the significance of Samuel Saunders.

“There are very few Saunders boats left and I believe three of the other four that remain are umpire launches. They didn’t suffer the near-disaster Sweet Myrrh did 30 years ago when she was being put to work at a yard in Norfolk and had a tow post attached.

“Henwood and Dean have done an amazing job and she’s very usable now.”

Mr Wood said: “Everything that’s visible is still entirely in keeping with its original appearance but we’ve made a lot of improvements under the surface. We’ve never shown at the rally before so we’re pleased to have won something on our first time and proud to have done such a wonderful boat justice.”

Lady McAlpine, of Fawley Hill, helped organise the festival and was delighted it has grown into one of the biggest river and rivderside events in the world.

She said: It was the ruby anniversary of the festival, which started 40 years ago at Fawley Meadows, and has grown into one of the biggest river and riverside events in the world.

Festival chairman Lady Judy McAlpine said: “A year’s hard work; but so well worth it when you see so many happy people: Now I just hope we can keep the event going and grow it: but not too much! Everyone thinks regatta and Henley Festival are so important yet this is the only big event actually held in Henley and it offers a great weekend for everyone.

“The wonderful heatwave weather set the scene for three days of packed activities and the rivercraft ranged from little canoes to the big 'Little Ships' used during the evacuation of Dunkirk in the war who now treat this event as their annual gathering.”

Lady McAlpine said the “real star” was the late Sir Malcolm Campbell’s Bluebird K3 world water-speed record breaker

She added: “The thousands lining the Thames banks waited in silent anticipation on Saturday afternoon for Bluebird to run the Henley Regatta Course - not, of course, at record-breaking speed  but a more leisurely 12 knots to comply with EA regulations.  

“Bluebird was preceded by Berylla, a much smaller but similar craft built in 1935.  Having languished for years without an engine she was back on the water for the first time for decades. A roar of applause went up as Berylla raced by, then the silence until the gurgling roar of Bluebird’s engines was heard seconds before she flew past, up on her plane, no wash, gone in a flash.

“The noise from the banks was phenomenal - and there were tears, too - it was an emotional moment in the festival's 40 year history, being her first public run in this country since restoration.  

“Sadly, the following day, due to Environment Agency restrictions, she was kept idling too long and as she began her run her engine died.  She was towed past as 'Land of Hope and Glory' was sung - somewhat ironically - over the PA system.”

Other attractions included Gloriana, the Queen’s rowbarge, and a large boat from the Thirties - Magyar – that had just been rebuilt from a bare hull, displayed on a trailer for the public to visit and admire.

"That is, of course, what the show is all about," said Lady McAlpine “Preserving the skills needed to conserve these rare beauties and to create new versions for those not fortunate enough to be able to buy an old one. That said, it is also a great family weekend with something for everyone to enjoy."

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