Take me to the river

Rowing is the sport which defines Chiswick more than any other

Chiswick’s iconic sporting event is the Boat Race. The annual tussle on the Thames between the elite eights of Oxford and Cambridge ends at Chiswick Bridge and is the only sports event in the area with global appeal. 

Each year, the race attracts TV millions from 200 countries and a quarter of a million people flock to the riverbanks to cheer for their favourite shade of blue at an event which can look (to an Oxbridge outsider) like an Open Day at a Pall Mall Gentlemen’s club or a Flash Mob for college scarf fans.

Even if you only watch the Boat Race in the hope a boat sinks or to see how far the cocky coxes can test the match referee’s patience by clashing oars like rutting deer, it’s hard to deny that rowing is the sport which defines Chiswick more than any other.  

With the river running through it, it’s not surprising so many rowing clubs have hunkered here since the sport took off at the turn of the 18th century. The Middlesex side of the Thames has several clubs, toad like maisonettes squatting on the muddy banks. They are human versions of the burrows which used to house smaller mammals like water voles until the American Minx dined them out of existence in the 1990s. 

Famous rowers have congregated in Chiswick, too. There’s a gold post box outside Chiswick Town Hall to celebrate the Olympic gold winning efforts of local Pete Reed in the 2012 Men’s Fours and a blue plaque in Grove Park Gardens for Jack Beresford, who won five back-to-back Olympic rowing medals of which three were gold. Beresford’s gargantuan feat probably makes him Chiswick’s greatest ever sportsperson and his haul of five successive Olympic medals was only recently matched by Sir Steven Redgrave.  

Not that you need to be an aspiring Olympian or have rippling biceps to enjoy rowing (though it is a superb sport for those looking for a ‘whole body’ exercise routine). Most are in it for fun. After all, as folk singer Josh Macrae said, ‘there’s nothing quite like messing about on the river’.

Image above: Fiona Betts, captain of the Tideways Scullers Club

‘I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone fall into the river in one of the courses!’

‘Sculling allows you to be alone with your thoughts and escape the pressures of life. Or rowing in an eight develops teamwork in a special way. We have people here aged 13 to 80. Some come to potter and others come to push themselves as hard as they can,’ says Fiona Betts, captain of the Tideways Scullers Club, which was founded in 1957 and has approximately 200 members.

(For those that don’t know, the word scull is a noun and a verb. It is the name for a boat designed for one and the act of rowing. To complicate things, oars are also called sculls. The only thing a scull is not is a skull, which is what pirates put on their flags.)

The club has a number of serious rowers. It has been represented at every Olympics and most years it will have juniors and alumni competing at an international level. But it also welcomes beginners and those after a fitter, healthier life.  

To get newbies out on the water, the Club offers a week-long introductory course called the Alec Hodges Sculling Course, which is named after a founding father of the club and a former captain. Alec died in 2008, but his passion to pass on his love of the sport is captured forever in this course, which is open to all ages. The goal is to get everyone confident enough to race in a regatta or a time trial by the end of the course. 

‘The first thing we do is basic technical training on a rowing machine. Then we send them out onto the water in a three-person boat with experienced rowers. We always make sure we have a high ratio of trainers to beginners. I don’t think we’ve ever had anyone fall into the river in one of the courses!’ says Betts. 

‘The training is very high quality and is delivered by qualified paid coaches. And with new people we try really hard to make them feel welcomed and part of the club. We’re an inclusive friendly club,’ she continued. 

Image above: Tideways Scullers Club

I went to a ‘rowing school’. The boathouse was a Temple to Jockery, a religion marked by its intense physicality and wellie wearing. The rowers were a laager lot, river Voortrekkers who enjoyed being shouted at by older men with megaphones and thought the rest of us were weeds. 

The culture at Tideways Scullers is, of course, nothing like this. Several of the senior executives are women and the membership is balanced across genders and age. It’s a community club with an active policy of trying to diversify the membership and build an inclusive supportive culture (if that doesn’t make them sound like the tofu eating wokerati so detested by Suella Braverman). The club is also encouraging rowers from schools which don’t offer rowing to join – a strategy which is beginning to bear fruit with their junior teams. 

‘Recently, a young lady with juvenile arthritis came to see me. She wanted to learn to row because it will help with her condition. We welcomed her and now she’s rowing with us regularly. My message is: we will do our utmost to help you try out the sport and stick with it,’ says Betts. 

I don’t understand the hierarchy of rowing competitions. But Henley at the end of the month is a Big Deal for competitive rowing. It’s also significant culturally as it is the last surviving place in Britain where straw boaters and extravagantly feathered hats can be worn without irony. 

I ask Fiona if the club has hopes of medals this year. 

‘We’re in a rebuilding phase as far as senior competitive rowing goes. We have seniors racing at Henley and Henley Women. Having said that probably half of our rowers compete at a very high level.’ 

Tideways Scullers is the sort of place I’d try rowing if I could overcome the fear that my beer belly would deliberately capsize me as I got into a scull. It feels like an interesting place to be. There’s a mix of people. Some working hard to race hard and others, like Ratty and Mole in ‘Wind in the Willows’, simply happy to scull about a bit before heading to the club for a chin wag over a cheese toastie and a cup of coffee. Competitive but collegial at one and the same time. 

The Boat Race attracts the attention of the world’s non-rowers. Once it’s over, though, us dry bobs go back to our daily land-lubbing grind and forget about the river. Meanwhile, quietly Chiswick’s myriad scullers, pairs, quads and eights are out on the Thames (with or without a cox) making something out of this great public asset. 

By the time, I finish my interview, Al Green’s song ‘Take me to the River’ is playing inside my head. Maybe it’s time to pack away my memories of the school boat house and give sculling a go. Even if my beer belly has to come with me. 

[You don’t need a boat to start rowing. But if you do get hooked there is a joining fee of £100 and monthly membership costs £55. Student fees are less at £31]