5 June 2017
Tim Koch has spent a day at ‘The Met’:
‘The Met’ (the Metropolitan Amateur Regatta or MAR), an event which has been in existence for 151 years, could easily be a very conservative institution. In fact, while the regatta has remained conscious of its heritage and its traditions, the MAR’s organisers have continuously adapted to changes in the sport and have thus maintained its position as one of the most prestigious and competitive of British domestic rowing competitions.
The MAR website says of its origins:
The Regatta, which was officially first raced in 1866, arose out of a challenge given by the relatively short-lived West London Rowing Club to London Rowing Club the year before. On 8 August 1865, two races were held on the Tideway from Putney to Chiswick Church… the initial challenge had resulted in an invite being sent to the captains of the Metropolitan rowing clubs, inviting them to enter a junior eight-oared crew made up of men who had never previously competed successfully in any open races… The event was so successful that it was decided to establish an annual regatta on the Putney water… (Since 1869) the management of the regatta has been in the hands of London Rowing Club. The Regatta’s first Hon. Secretary was Charles Dickens, Jr.
Possibly aided by the fact that it has never had the social cachet of Henley, throughout its history, the MAR has never been afraid to break with custom and practice. In 1966, for example, it was one of the first regattas to run on a Sunday. The website tells of some of the other radical changes that were made to maintain or improve standards:
By 1883, the regatta had settled on a shorter course (than that of Putney to Chiswick Church) of about a mile and three-quarters (from Putney to Hammersmith or vice versa according to the state of the tide). In 1977, the decision was taken to move the regatta away from the Tideway and its traditional home and it was relaunched in 1980 at Thorpe Park, Thorpe, Surrey. This resulted in the first senior multi-lane regatta in the south-east of England, held on four-lanes over 1,500 metres on one of the village’s large lakes created from gravel works. In 1988, the regatta was relocated to the Royal Albert Dock, raced on a seven lane course over a distance of 1,750 metres. In 2001, the regatta moved to the… international-standard course at Dorney Lake which (now) has eight racing lanes over 2,000m and a separate channel for crews to go to the start and to warm up.
In particular, the initial decision to move the course from in front of the London RC clubhouse to a gravel pit 25 miles away was a brave one and one which allowed another progressive move, the introduction of women’s events. In his history of London Rowing Club, Water Boiling Aft (2006), Chris Dodd wrote that Paul Reedy, the (then) London coach, now GB, rated the Met next to Henley in importance, seeing it, and to a lesser extent Marlow Regatta, as ‘vital measures of how the season is building’. It may be interesting to compare the Met with Molesey Amateur Regatta. For many years after its founding in 1867 (a year after the Met), Molesey was regarded as second only to Henley, both in rowing and in social terms. However, times changed but Molesey did not and today it is an enjoyable but unimportant up-river regatta.
The 2017 Met continued to innovate. It was one of the first to experiment with British Rowing’s new Personal Ranking Index (PRI), an attempt to provide a better reflection of a rower’s ability and expertise and create a fairer level of competition in races. The ranking system takes into account performances in both head races and regattas and is an attempt to overcome the ‘bottleneck’ in competition caused by the fact that overwhelming majority of British Rowing members fit into its two lowest categories. On the Sunday of the two-day Met, Challenge Eights were offered with the format of a time trial, followed by semi-finals for some crews and finals for all crews. Results are on the MAR website here.
One aspect of the past that the Met preserves, and indeed adds to, is its splendid collection of trophies, several of which date from the first regatta in 1866. In that year, the entry details for The Metropolitan Champion Cup (8+), The Thames Cup (4-) and The London Cup (1x) stated that those events were ‘open to the world’.
At the end of the regatta’s first day, returning to Windsor along the river path from Dorney, I was delighted to find open a historic country church that I had passed many times but had never found unlocked (though nowadays the keys can be borrowed from nearby Boveney Lock).
The Church of St Mary Magdalene, Boveney, is a redundant (though still consecrated) Anglican church standing close to the river on the north bank of the Thames, near the village of Boveney, a hamlet of scattered homes within earshot of the Dorney Lake public address system, about two miles to the west of Windsor. Tree-ring dating of timbers in the church has revealed years between 1451 and 1519. The church has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building, and is under the care of the wonderfully named ‘Friends of Friendless Churches’. Incredibly, before the Friends restored the place in the 1980s, there were thoughts of demolishing the building. Its website says of its origins:
A church has been on the site since before the Norman Conquest (1066), but the fabric of the present church dates from the 12th century. Windows and the tower were added in the 15th century… St Mary’s in constructed in flint and chalk rubble… The tower is weather-boarded; it stands on a timber framework, which itself stands on the ground… Inside the church, some of the original 15th-century pews are still present.
While few things are as alluring as a country church on the epitome of a lovely English summer’s day, even to an atheist, it was the rustic simplicity of St Mary’s that particularly appealed to me. It has survived in its near original state because Eton School (properly, Eton College) had the right to appoint the priest and never imposed one with any architectural reforming zeal – such as inspired by the Oxford Movement.
I determined that St Mary’s would have a post on Hear The Boat Sing under the ‘nothing to do with rowing’ tag – but then was delighted to find that this label was not necessary. It seems that the church was built to serve the bargemen working on the River Thames; there was once a quay alongside the church for transporting timber from Windsor Forest.