Tuesday, 09 August 2022

Man who helped save traditional boat festival dies, aged 71

TRIBUTES have been paid to the man who helped save Henley’s Thames Traditional Boat Festival.

Robin Ford, who was one of a small group of people who revived the event in 2015, died suddenly at his home in Amersham on Monday last week.

The 71-year-old joined the festival committee just over a decade ago, when it was known as the Thames Traditional Boat Rally, and was one of few members to remain after a series of resignations in 2014.

The two-day summer event on Fawley Meadows, which is now in its 38th year, was cancelled that year as the site had flooded over the spring but returned 12 months later under a new name.

It is now organised with help from Lady McAlpine, of the Fawley Hill estate, whom Mr Ford approached for assistance.

Thousands of people have attended the past two festivals and more than 200 boats took part on each occasion.

Highlights have included a flotilla of Dunkirk Little Ships, a rowpast by the Royal barge Gloriana and an appearance by Sir Malcolm Campbell’s record-breaking speedboat Blue Bird K3.

Lady McAlpine, now the festival’s co-chairman, said: “We first met a few years ago to discuss resurrecting the event and I remember he was a very big, gentle and softly spoken man.

“He was a true gentleman and very hard-working, although he never raised his voice or lost his temper even when he was getting quite cross.

“The festival had ceased to be sustainable but we made it work and he put a lot of effort into the marketing and compiling the programme, which was a mammoth task.

“He put in so many hours to an extent that was well above and beyond the call of duty considering that he wasn’t young and had been unwell.

“He was a lovely man and I was shattered when I heard the news. I’d spoken to him two days earlier and we were due to meet the day after he passed away. It just feels so unfair.”

Mr Ford grew up in Hampton and attended Hampton Grammar School, for whom he rowed. He met his widow Kath, 70, on a holiday in the Norfolk Broads when he was 18.

The pair were on separate boats with their schoolfriends and Mr Ford’s group engineered a collision so they could chat with the girls.

Although Mrs Ford lived in Cheshire, he and Kath maintained a long-distance relationship while she studied at university in Sheffield then married when she graduated.

The couple had two children, Jonathan and Nicola, and four grandchildren.

Mr Ford worked for most of his life in marketing, both for agencies and as a consultant, before retiring in 2004 after suffering a heart attack.

He was a lifelong boat lover who owned numerous traditional wooden vessels including canoes and a skiff, which he would often launch from Henley Sailing Club’s headquarters at Willow Lane in Wargrave.

He was a keen photographer and would often take fellow enthusiasts out on this stretch to capture the surroundings throughout the seasons. His family hopes to scatter his ashes in this area and may also seek permission for a memorial bench. Mrs Ford said: “I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t a boat of some kind in his life.

“It was a huge passion of his and I didn’t keep track of all the societies he was involved in because it wasn’t a hobby we shared.

“I’ve received many letters saying he basically rescued the festival when it was in danger of folding.

“It was very much a part of his life, perhaps too much, but he was very proud of it and hugely relieved when the revived festival was a success.

“He kept promising to work on it less as it took up so much of his time but he couldn’t let it go because it was such a part of him.

“He was highly valued and his passing will leave an enormous hole.

“A comment I’ve heard several times, which I think sums him up very well, is that he was both a gentleman of the old school and a gentle man.”

Mr Ford’s funeral will take place at the Chilterns Crematorium in Amersham at 1pm on Wednesday.

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