No Surprises Living In Devizes: Capital goal of DW canoe racers

Two of those taking part in the Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race set off from The Wharf


“BABY this town rips the bones from your back;” if you’re born to run you’d better take a few other albums with you fleeing Devizes, because it’ll be darkness on the edge of town before you’ve reached Cannings Hill garage.

Yep, the wildly romantic image of a Springsteen song played out but, unless you’re really running, like in the half-marathon or something, tramps like us could try getting out while we’re young, but queueing traffic will prematurely age you. The Boss wouldn’t last five minutes here.

Devizes; a town where the traffic is so bad, some opt to escape to Westminster by canoe. Least they accept their race assisted this week’s congestion; we don’t mind, if it didn’t happen there’ll be another, more trivial reason; a duck crossing The Crammer or a pothole singled out for repair.

Leaving nearly as early as a Planks milkman, the teams begun their 125-miles test of skill, physical and mental endurance right here in the ‘Vizes on Friday and Saturday; but will they ensure you’ve a bank holiday bottle of semi on your doorstep when morning comes?

According to Brian Greenaway, author of The Devizes to Westminster Canoe Race, like many local traditions, the events started as a Pewsey drunken bet in 1920.

With an impending national rail and bus strike, the wager was the possibility of getting to Christchurch via the River Avon in Pewsey in less than three days. Laughable by modern Wiltshire road standards, through Salisbury; it’d only take two.

Conveying the wager to some RAF servicemen and an earwigging farmer some 26 years later, the same guy in the same pub, (probably never left knowing Pewsey), the challenge was set.

One participant fancied going to London, or else took a wrong turn at Upavon and never made it, so, probably to avoid further embarrassment, the following year he let the Devizes Scouts take up the reformed race.

And so four 17-year-olds; Peter Brown, Brian Walters, Laurie Jones and Brian Smith, tightened their woggles and canoed the first annual Devizes-Westminster race in Easter 1948.

Despite a lack of Brians involved nowadays, it’s a colossal fundraising event, this year’s main charity being the RNLI. Famous DW medal owners include double-Olympic gold medallist rower James Cracknell, explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes and even previous Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Pantsdown.

Most interesting DW medal owner though is the first British woman to climb Everest, Rebecca Stephens; being until a staggering 1980, it was considered women need not worry their pretty little heads about a silly race. It was 1976 when sisters “did it for themselves” and the first female crew finished the race in 31 hours. Prior, women were banned from entering. They owe this equality to a lady called Sheila Burnett.

Shelia shoved aside the chauvinist assessment the race was too enduring and perilous for the “weaker sex”, by entering the race with Colin Dicken’s crew.

Signing her initials to disguise her gender, they completed the race in an unrecorded 35 hours, but by Westminster the crew was disgraced and disqualified when officials discovered she was a woman; probably pouted for a selfie.

Sheila represented Great Britain at the Montreal 1976 Olympics, but her team’s effort at the Devizes-Westminster race did not appear on official results.

I’ve always respected the story of Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967, who was literally wrestled by a race official attempting to remove her bib to disgrace her in front of press cameras, but in turn ended being the Emily Pankhurst for equality in sport.

I never knew we had a similarly inspiring story right here, but surprises in Devizes in what this column is all about.

Here’s one thing that smells of bull to me; as big hairy men we deliberated it not chauvinistic to disallow women in sport, but merely considered it was best for their welfare. It’s a farcical pretext to shadow the embracement men have with the obvious notion women are equally good if not better, at all sports other than the cream cracker challenge.

We think we’ve gotten over it, but there’s still underlying inequality stealthily abundant in sport. Take the two things blokes love the most for example; women and football; put them together and hardly anyone cares, yet enough funds to solve worldwide famine is happily thrust into men’s “beautiful game”.

Oh the hypocrisy of even calling it that, wouldn’t it be far more beautiful if we equally supported women’s football?

Returning to topic, posts are up on social media about the lack of support for the DW race but it’s hardly the Super-bowl; some guys in canoes isn’t much of a spectator sport is it… really? Not when there’s plenty of stuffing your face with chocolate eggs to be done.

Remember Jesus died so we could stuff ourselves with chocolate eggs, not for some blokes to canoe down the canal. Happy Easter folks and besides, if there are any spectators they have 125 miles of towpath to view it from, why get stuck in Devizes traffic?

“Someday girl, I don’t know when, we’re gonna get to that place, where we really wanna go, until then we’ll be stuck on London Road.”

DARREN WORROW

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