Navigating the Wye

'We never had any transport in those days, in the fifties, and so we put our blades on the train at Ross Railway station, travelled up to Hereford on the train and walked through Hereford with them, all the way to Hereford Regatta on the Wye bridge.' Brian Dean, life-long member of Ross Rowing Club

‘I seem to remember Derek Jones hunting in Herefordshire in the 1930s, and going to one of the tributaries of the Wye River and seeing a canoeist for the first time. He just couldn’t believe it. They were like Indians! He had never seen anything like it before.’ Dylan Jones.

Scottish explorer John MacGregor was introduced to the canoe on a trip to North America in the 1850s. On his return to Britain he designed a 4.6 metre craft based on the Native American canoes he had paddled on his travels. Constructed from oak planking and covered with rubberized canvas, the boat had an open cockpit and was powered with a double-bladed oar. His book, A Thousand Miles in the Rob Roy Canoe, brought the craft, and the activity, to a European audience. Fast forward 150 years and canoeing on the Wye has really taken off. Not everyone is happy about it and there continues to be tension between users of the Wye’s navigational rights and those enjoying its riparian rights. Mostly, however, they rub alongside each other quite well.

One of the early canoeing holiday pioneers was Peter Gordon Lawrence (died 2004). An experienced canoeist, he had negotiated many European rivers in the 1950s before settling on the Wye as the base for his holiday idea, with a promise of ‘anorak waterproof top jackets, dining marquee, and hutted ablutions!’ From its former base in sleepy Hole in the Wall, outside Ross-on-Wye, Peter built PGL into a huge international organisation. The navigational rights and the sublime countryside were bonuses. Kenneth Johnson, a friend of Peter’s, was on one of their maiden Wye voyages. He wrote in his diaries:

‘Maybe you have never experienced the thrill of canoeing down the Wye through the peaceful English countryside. I could tell you about the stormy night at Symonds Yat and waking in the morning to watch the opposite bank creeping upwards into the sunlight; or of a paddling across the river to fetch the morning milk at Weirend. Or I could tell you about the various short, steep excursions to shops and a castle and Yats. I could tell you so much.’

Peter Daines 82: ‘We used to wander on both the Lugg and the Wye.

Peter Daines 82: ‘We used to wander on both the Lugg and the Wye. My earliest memory of canoeing is on the Wye at Litley Orchard with an older cousin who lived just down the bottom of Hampton Dene Road. We also used to get on the river at the bottom of Old Eign Hill, opposite the present veterinary practice, but was then the Whalebone public house. To transport our canoes, we made a trolley out of a couple of old pram wheels and used it to trolley the canoe down: or you found someone to carry the other end. When a friend built a canoe, I decided I wanted to build one too so I just did. In those days, you would get some plans and build the canoe making the frame out of wood and then you covered it with canvas. Over the years I have made lots of canoes this way.’

Camping today is so easy: you buy a tent in a bag, shake it out, and hey presto, you have your overnight accommodation. It wasn’t quite as quick in Vic Gammage’s day.

Vic Gammage, 71.

Born and bred a Herefordian, Vic is the stalwart behind the Hereford Canoe Centre on Castle Green. He is passionate that this youth club continues: ‘You need places like this to pass the knowledge on to young people.’ He worked at the General Hospital as an engineer for 42 years before his retirement:

‘In 1958, I was at Hunderton Youth Club and we started to make canvas boats. It was cheaper to make one than buy one then and there were fewer canoes on the river in those days. There was a guy called Percy Blandford who drew up the drawings of the skeletons of the boat and we made them up with plywood. And then you wrapped them in canvas and held that down with copper tacks.

‘We launched just by Hunderton ferry. We would do just the Belmont Stretch at first and then we started to get a bit more adventurous when I was 15 or 16 and we started to go up to Glasbury and stop at Preston-on-Wye overnight, and stick the tents up. We used to make the tents too. Because there was a lady with the Education Authority in those days and she used to go around all the clubs and say, “What would you like to make?” And we said, “Well, we want to make a tent”. So she came to the Youth Club and we made the tents up ourselves.

Butt Camp (Doris Kershaw)

In the 1940s and 1950s, there was an encampment, upstream from Hereford at Warham, that was occupied from Easter through to winter and known as ‘Butts Camp’. There was swimming, fishing, sleeping under canvas and cooking over fires. But a day’s work still beckoned, and the campers made their daily trek to the work place, either on foot or by canoe.

Frank Ford: ‘The Butts was on the riverbank just beyond the milepost above Warham and people used to camp out there from Easter – a whole crowd of them – dad always used to say their first swim was Easter Sunday and when he was a bachelor he used to live there right through until about Christmas time. My mother was a Sister at the County Hospital. They weren’t married then, but she used to go up to the Camp and Dad would take her back to work at the General Hospital by canoe.’

Another Butts camper was Frank Williams: ‘For two years, I camped there with Leslie ‘Bunnie’ Harris, Fred Nichols and Leslie Beason, all in one bell tent. The following year I moved across the river, where there were many more tents. We had to walk to and from work every day, a distance of two miles. Swimming in the river was a favourite past time, especially diving off the branches of the trees. One summer there was a drought and the river was low and I went for a swim, dived in the usual place and hit the bottom, badly cutting my head. I still have the scar.’


British success on the water at the Olympics has made rowing hugely popular in recent years, which is good news for our local rowing clubs, Hereford and Ross. There have been lean times and buoyant ones too, but they thrive today, with active junior and veteran members and an impressive collection of ‘pots’ between them. The club attracts rowers, crews and spectators locally and from across the country to their annual Regattas. But in the pre-Second World War years, club members were exclusively white collar, professional people and the artisans, men who worked with their hands, were excluded for fear their ‘brute’ strength might make them fearsome competitors on the water. And women had to fight for their places on the water too.

Hereford Rowing Club

In 1949 Hereford Rowing Club’s clubhouse and boathouse were crumbling wooden buildings and their racing fleet modest. The balance sheet at the AGM that year showed just £270 in the bank. However, in 1952, a remarkable stroke of good fortune lead to dramatic change at the club. Five club members were travelling to Birmingham to attend a divisional meeting of the Amateur Rowing Association. They were Geoff Hammonds, Harry Pressey, Norman Groom, Fred Lee and Malcolm Startin. At Kidderminster, a large number of Harriers football fans got on to watch their team play at Birmingham in a round of the FA cup. One of the fans started to chat about a successful lottery being run locally by the Catholic church and he promised to send the Hereford Rowing Club members details. And he did. So, at the club’s extraordinary general meeting that year, it was agreed they would start their own lottery on the same lines, called the River Wye Guild, managed by the directors, including Geoff Hammonds, Harry Pressey and Tommy Dawes. Tickets were sold through individual agents, clubs and societies, with large sales across the area including south Wales. Sales grew very quickly and within a year it was possible to start buying new boats and by 1954 there was enough money to build a new boat house and in 1958 new premises opened with unique indoor rowing tank.

At its height 200,000 Wye Valley Pool tickets were being sold each week with many community groups also benefitting, including other rowing clubs, like Ross-on-Wye.

Hammonds Family

Many Herefordians may be familiar with the Hammonds name through their photographic business in the city in the last century and still continuing today. Certainly, for many years Geoffrey Hammonds, commonly known as Geoff, (d. 1983), was Hereford Cathedral School’s official photographer, and the Rowing Club’s too. The family’s links with the club goes back to the 1880s, when Henry John Hammonds (Geoff’s father) started at the club in 1886 as coxswain and steered the club to victory in the race for the Wye Vase. He was Captain of the club for over 25 years. In 1896, he received a bravery award when he rescued a woman from a sinking boat. In the report of the day, Henry, ‘without divesting himself of his clothes, at once dived under and succeeded in bringing Miss Dallow to the surface in an unconscious condition but he had the great difficulty in getting her through the weeds’.

Ross Rowing Club

Ross Rowing Club – also known as the “Henley of the West” – was established in 1870. Old photographs show the distinctive wooden boat house on brick stilts. William Butcher was one of a number of townspeople who helped build it and form the Athletic and Rowing Club. Regatta programmes from the late 19th and early 20th centuries illustrate the multi-disciplinary activities that included sports other than just rowing; there were swimming and diving competitions (in the river), jousting (in the river!) canoe races, and a multitude of cycling events.

Pen pushers vs tradesmen: The Belmont Plate

The Belmont Plate was a hotly contested boat race that pitched club rowers against their less likely competitors, pub and work crews. Many of these ‘once a year rowers’ were, by their own admission, more familiar with a pint of ale and a pack of cigarettes than with competitive rowing. But that didn’t mean they weren’t competitive. For a fortnight each year pub teams entered into a regime of training that was a shock to the system of many, with men bent over gasping for air and retching after a training session. But something was clearly working for The Vaga Tavern team at Hunderton. They were the team to beat, with some of them, including Roy Williams, Geoff Edwards, Trevor Whitefoot, Keith Scott and Terry ‘Tug’ Bullock, achieving legendary status in ‘Shanghai’. Serious rivals to The Vaga during the 1970s included the Moon at Mordiford, The Strongbow from Bulmers and the Orange Tree’s Motor Cycle Club. Over the years the Bullock family, Tug and his brother Les, put their names on the Plate as winners no fewer than 28 times.

Pleasure boats

‘There were loads of boats on the river in the summer. You could get pleasure boats every day and people used to have the time of their lives.’ Joan Lloyd.

Pleasure boat cruising on the Wye was a popular day out for many families up until the early 1960s. Motorised trips still continue in Symonds Yat, but the day of oar-driven, clinker built vessels are long gone. Ross Rowing club, like the Hereford Club, rented out pleasure boats to its members – but you had to book. Once on board, picnic baskets would be safely stowed away, children were told to sit still, fishing nets at the ready, while dad took up the oars.

Doris Kershaw, nee Townsend, painted a blissful image of languid summer days boating up the river, straight out of an E.M. Forster novel:

‘My mother, Gladys Ruby, brothers, Norman and John, and I lived with my grandparents, John and Rosetta Kate Marshall, in St Nicholas Street, after my father died. Grandfather John, a piano tuner and church organist at St Peter’s and St Paul’s in Tupsley, ran the family music shop next door. The Marshalls were members of Hereford Rowing Club for over 50 years and many hours were spent on the Wye. My friend, Barbara Jordan (of Jordan boats), and I spent lots of time messing about in boats and were bought up to respect the river’s dangers.

‘The most memorable fortnight of the year was when my relations came from Bradford for their summer holiday. The Great Western Railway ran their trunk in advance and they followed by train. Each day we packed an enormous picnic and rowed upstream in two of Mr Crissal’s largest boats, The Comet and the Randan. Grandma steered and we rowed sometimes as far as to Bridge Sollars and Monnington Falls, but more often to magical Breinton, where, from the shingle beach below Belmont Abbey, we could moor our boats and swim. On August Bank Holiday the Windsor family would join us, making up a party of 16. Wilson, the grocer opposite our house, delivered food while Gardiners the fishmonger provided fruit, veg and fresh salad. I remember buying 17 loaves for sandwiches, cutlery, crockery milk in terracotta coolers and swimwear. Once moored, we lit a driftwood fire and boiled a kettle for tea. Lunch was a major operation; my mother and aunts sitting in a row, conveyor-belt style, slicing and buttering bread, adding salad, then meat. Grandfather always carved. Adults drank cider and we were treated to Corona. Afterwards, grandmother made daisy chains or balsam leaf hats trimmed with buttercups. There were nature walks to learn the names of wild flowers. After a game of cricket or rounders, we returned to the boats and set off downstream, racing the Hammond family if we encountered them. A pennyworth of chips from Elcox rounded off the idyllic childhood Bank Holiday with the tantalising possibility of a scoop of free batter bits.’

Raft race

‘My first husband and I sponsored a raft in the first race in 1978. In those early days crews had to carry all their equipment for the trip. Our raft had a coffin in the middle with all the gear stored inside!’ Race organiser, Tricia Hales.

In 1977 a poster appeared in a number of Herefordshire pubs challenging customers with the question: ‘Have you the guts to compete?’ Curiosity piqued, some intrepid locals were to become the prototype rafters in 1978 for the first 100-mile River Wye charity raft race. This first race saw ten ill-assorted home-made craft make their way down the river from Hay to Chepstow. The race was designated “self-sufficient”, i.e. rafts carried not only the crew, but also tents, clothing, bedding, food and all other essentials, including the most important cargo for some, beer and/or cider. The winning time in 1978 was 28 hours over a four-day period.

The raft race continues to run each year raising funds for the Plynlimon Trust, an amazing £2,000,000 since the beginning. At the forefront and the energy behind the raft race is Tricia Hales. She’s a second-generation raft organiser. Her parents, Ron and Kit Hodges, came before her and Tricia’s sons may yet continue this particular river “dynasty”. She organises everything that goes on the river during the raft race and always has a float from Horizon Training.

Tirelessly energetic, Tricia and her team continue the raft race. It’s become a Herefordshire/River Wye institution.

Interesting Photos & Stories

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