A secluded corner of the Trentham Estate lake is home to a growing sports club that is nurturing some future Olympian rowers. Jane Bewick Green was invited along to meet some of the team members.
“FOLLOW the signs for the 'Monkey Forest," he said. So I did. Simon Drakeford met me in the car park and then showed me through a nearby gate. I had no idea there was a rowing club just yards from the A34, and in such a stunning setting.
"I think we're the only rowing club in the UK that's lucky enough to be set in Capability Brown designed gardens," explains Simon, who has the arduous task of raising funds to keep the club going.
Trentham Boat Club, which can boast three youngsters already in the GB Development Squad, was founded in the summer of 2004.
The Trentham Estate had implemented a complete ban on motorized sports on its lake due to the damage being caused to the plant and wildlife, but enquiries were made into the possible use of the Trentham Lake for rowing, which could work perfectly in the surroundings, with little disturbance to the abundance of fish and birds. Luckily it was agreed, and the Trentham Estate has been very supportive of the club's activities."We've just held our 5th Annual Trentham Boat Club Regatta," explains Simon. "We were lucky enough to have fabulous weather. 26 clubs from all over the UK attended; there were 600 rowers, 293 races over a 750m course, and the catering was manic. We, as a club, did it all ourselves.
“We got through over over 650 sausage baps, 200 oatcakes and goodness knows how many chillis, curries and cakes, not to mention the drinks — all provided by our members. It was our best regatta so far. The Estate kindly stopped all fishing and boat rides for the day so that rowers could use all of the 1.3 km stretch of water. We had over a thousand people here from all over the country. Racing started at 8.30 in the morning and went on until 6.30pm, and the winners all got a commemorative pot made here in the Potteries, so they had a little bit of Staffordshire to take home with them.” We sit in a lovely spot close to the boathouse and overlooking the magnificent lake, which this evening is like a mirror.
There's just a hint of a breeze, which, I'm told, is perfect for the beginners who are taking their first sweep of an oar in bright yellow learning boats called — oddly — viruses.
The club now boasts 100 members, from age 11 and with no age limit. They run regular 'Learn to Row' courses which have a permanent waiting list — mostly down to the inspiration of the 2012 Olympics. An 'Access to Rowing' scheme is run in nearby schools and feeds a good number of curious children to club, including Simon's own sons, Oliver, 16 and Ewan, 14. "They're at National Championship level now," smiles Simon, "and so of course, I'm a dad taxi — we're here all the time."
The club has an impressive tally of medals from various national and international competitions, including winning bronze and silver at the Australia Youth Olympics 2013.
Dr. Naomi Ellis is the Ladies' Captain. She lectures in PE and mental health at Staffordshire University, is a keen sportswoman and joined the club after being 'spotted' by a coach, seven years ago. "I had a go on a 'virus' and loved it,"
she says. "Two months later I was in my first race and we won! I'm very competitive, and love the sport, but the social side of things here, too, is a great attraction". Her list of wins is long and her home is full of her hard-won trophies and medals. "When we moved house, I was concerned about some getting lost or damaged," she laughs, "and I have to confess — with embarrassment — that I counted them all to make sure they were all there!"
I have always, wrongly, assumed that rowing requires and builds great arm and shoulder muscle. Naomi explains that it's all about the legs. "The power to row comes from your legs which are driving off a footplate — a bit like a squat but horizontally. That, combined with good technique, is what makes a good rower."
She makes it sound easy, but it clearly isn't, and is down to a lot of hard work and dedication.
A good rower stands close to us, washing down a sleek, beautiful single boat that I manage to get a close look at. The engineering of the boat is subtle, but amazing. Everything about it says speed.
The boat belongs to Jack Kidd, 16, and one of the GB Development Squad hopefuls.
He tells me the boat cost a whopping £13,500 and that his family clubbed together to buy it for him. A pair of silver shoes are attached to the footplate — they are part of the boat. A modern little electronic gadget sits in front of Jack and can tell him how fast he's going and how many strokes per minute. Everything is geared towards helping Jack go as fast as possible. His goal? The 2020 Olympics.
The boathouse is full, floor to ceiling, with very expensive looking boats. Up close, I'm astonished at how long some of them are — nearly 50ft in length. The club has 50 boats altogether, and thanks to a recent Sport England grant of £10,000, they've just secured another secondhand 'doubles' boat. It comes from good stock — winning the World Championships in a previous life. I'm astonished at how much a boat costs.
There seems so little of it.
"I'm afraid they are very expensive," sighs Simon. "We're very fortunate to have built up a good number of them over the years, but we still need more, and now we need more space to store them. It's the level of engineering that makes them so expensive. We have gym equipment and weights here too as obviously, all-round fitness is very important. We're always seeking more investment in the club — especially from businesses interested in sponsorship.” Simon is keen to point out that rowing is not the elite sport many assume it is. "It's not all like Henley-on-Thames, you know.
Rowing is accessible to anyone, of any age, and you don't need fabulous settings like we have here to be able to row. We've been to terrific regattas all over the country — and we've met people in their 80s who are still rowing. It really is a sport for everyone".
He's right. I think my name might soon be on the waiting list.
Pictures courtesy of Trentham Boat Club.