A 2022 Crustaceans’ Adventure

Have you ever rowed along a canal, let alone the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal? Well, five intrepid Crustaceans did so this summer. The crew thoroughly enjoyed every minute, and we hope that this summary might amuse you, and even possibly encourage you to contact the College Boat Club with a view to rowing with one of the College alumni crews yourself….

So, from Tom Swallow (m. 1965), Peter Nelson (m. 1965), Gavin Suggett (m. 1966, who drove all the way from well north of Inverness for this adventure), Robin Kerr (m. 1962), Robert Holdsworth (m. 1975) and Kat Astley (Queens’ m. 1994, Cambridge stroke 1996-98, President of the winning Cambridge boat in 1998, and Christ’s College Boatman 2005-2010), read on:

‘I’ve worked on this canal for 23 years and I’ve never seen anyone else attempt what you’re doing.’ So said a canal maintenance worker as we neared the end of our two days of glorious sculling. In retrospect the crew was not surprised by what he said, but armed with a Canal and River Trust permit slip we had set off the day before, full of confidence that it was definitely possible even if possibly challenging. Mind you we had been warned: as the crew prepared to launch the leisure quad in Brecon basin, the Boatman in charge of the basin questioned whether the quad wasn’t too long for the locks that we would have to get through, and he doubted very much that we would have enough width for the blades at normal extension. Happily we knew that we would fit into the locks (just), and the crew had done a preliminary recce that identified the many sections where short blade rowing would have to be done but should be possible (but then there was that 300+ metre tunnel somehow to navigate, more of which anon!).

If you know this canal, you will know it for all its beauty, as it meanders peacefully through spectacular rolling countryside in the Brecon Beacons National Park; it’s a haven for wildlife, and the site of canal-side industrial heritage buildings (and a workhouse), and with a low-level canal tow path alongside it is an easy place to walk, to bicycle, and to be on a canal boat; it is, however, not at all a straightforward place to take a quad, but this Crustaceans’ crew is nothing if not adventurous and can-do in attitude.

Thanks to Gloucester Rowing Club we were able to borrow a leisure quad and a trailer that was about two inches narrower than the tiny Llangattock lane leading to where we stayed. Brecon Basin in the sunshine on a mid-summer day was a great place to start, and everything seemed easy, until we quickly found ourselves facing the normal width of the canal. The gap of a few inches between the blade ends and the bankside was often full of weeds, reeds and other detritus, but the crew swiftly adapted to the short blade rowing and a new cox’s command of ‘Whole crew. Tickle it along. Ready. Go’. ‘Tickling it’ may be the only time that antiphase rowing is permitted; it’s everyone for themselves and is a Welsh term meaning ‘to do the best you can with what you’ve got’! The rowing got even more challenging at the severe narrow bends in the canal that made Grassy Corner seem like an essentially straight stretch on an M25-wide river, and then there were the numerous bridges that had to be taken at speed with blades fully shipped (but only at the very last moment for stability’s sake). As for the locks, we soon learnt that it was much wiser not to have everyone in the boat with shipped blades, given the instability of being in the lock and the difficulty of getting out of the lock (with just the cox using a canoe paddle to get us going), but, once again, adaptability and the crew’s can-do attitude got us through. One particular challenge on the first day was the tunnel, with cox’s head torch reflecting eerily on the damp walls of the 343 meter long Ashford Tunnel, illuminating the ghostly faces of a rather scared crew; within the nominal width of 3.6 metres, withdrawn blades scraped awkwardly on both sides as cox was unable simultaneously to steer and provide propulsion with a canoe paddle, but after what seemed like an age, scullers and cox emerged blinking into the sunlight, and giggled with relief. There were the occasional stretches where cox was able to command firm pressure and we did manage one racing start, but it was only a racing start and four before cox had to shout ‘Hold her up firm’ when a canal boat came around the corner. We took it in terms to cox, to row, and to be on the support bicycle with Kat’s ever-faithful and ever-energetic sheepdog Bodge as company. Kat’s husband Rich was at stroke at one particularly tricky lock, and we did have to stop at one point to get a sheep out of the canal (another new task for a Christ’s cox to perform). So: not perhaps a normal outing for a Christ’s crew!

We managed a wonderful 15 miles on the first day in the sunshine before porting the boat to a field to leave overnight (with permission!), and then returning to our hotel in Llangattock and a very convivial dinner and a well-earned rest. Note: the only one to get wet on day 1 was Bodge, who felt that we needed keeping under firm and occasionally close observations.

According to the guidebook, day 2 promised no locks, a wider canal, and far more straight sections. The guidebook at least was right on the first of these….., but we soon found ourselves rowing through a beautiful but slightly entangling sea of waterlilies and reeds, and passing various canal boats. They have a speed limit, but the guidebook was silent on any speed limit for quads!! After an early start and some hot Wales weather, it was a joy to stop for the crew’s traditional mid-morning Suggett flapjacks before we carried on. There was a slight problem in terms of where to finish the row convenient to the support vehicle and trailer, but this was easily accomplished providing one accepted the new Crustaceans’ norm of lifting the boat up and over a barbed wire fence, carrying it down a very steep minor road for several hundred metres, and crossing a main road where we had to spin the boat (to the relative surprise of the stopped cars), all before loading onto the trailer and returning to our hotel for lunch and our journey back to Gloucester.

What an adventure…. Huge thanks to Kat and Rich for their practical support and to our wider support team who enjoyed the local gardens and joined us for lunch. All’s well that ends well, as you can see below….!

In case you are wondering, this was just the latest of 13 annual expeditions through the waterways of the British Isles including the Thames, Severn, Trent, and Ouse.  Next year we have the Shannon in our sights….

What about you? Maybe you’ve not rowed for a while, but not all these five alumni row regularly, and one only started a few years ago, so if you are at all interested in joining a College alumni crew, do contact Kate Hurst, who is responsible for running the boathouse; her email is csh54@christs.cam.ac.uk. The Christ’s Alumni had three crews out at the Fairbairn Cup this year; why not four or more for next year?

Some photographs to amuse you….