ONE of the world's most famous boat festivals, Henley Regatta, takes place at the end of the month. Among those attending will be Wisbech resident and former Olympic rower James Crowden, who has been working as a steward there for almost half a century. Rachel Wareing talked to him about a life aquatic.
ONE of the world's most famous boat festivals, Henley Regatta, takes place at the end of the month. Among those attending will be Wisbech resident and former Olympic rower James Crowden, who has been working as a steward there for almost half a century. Rachel Wareing talked to him about a life aquatic. EVEN in his retirement, James Crowden hasn't strayed far from the water.
His home for the past 36 years in North Brink, Wisbech, overlooks the River Nene and is filled with memorabilia from his rowing days.
His living room is lined with oars, and the old Quaker school house in his back garden is a miniature museum of memories.
He is very modest about his achievements of half a century ago as he shows me his collection of old photographs and certificates, but it is hard to ignore a brimming sense of admiration for the life he has led.
He first discovered rowing at Bedford School, and got his first taste of victory at Henley Regatta in 1946 as part of the school team. They won their race, and their prize was the Princess Elizabeth Cup, which was presented by the future Queen herself.
Little did he realise that he would one day represent her in his home county as Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire.
After school, he went on to study at Cambridge University – the perfect place for a budding rower, apart from Oxford of course.
But Oxford's loss was Cambridge's gain, because in 1951
he was part of the winning side in the annual Oxford and
Cambridge Boat Race.
However, it took two attempts before they managed to beat their old rivals.
Mr Crowden said: "It was the year when Oxford sank, and the umpire stopped the race and ordered a rerow the following Monday.
"If we had gone on we might have sunk, too, because the waves were terrible.
"In the second race, we won by 12 lengths. I think we had exhausted them.
"We spoke to each other afterwards and there was tremendous fellowship between the two teams."
Their reward was to be sent to the States to compete against the two great American college teams at Yale and Harvard.
The trip was to become one of his most treasured memories.
It was the first time he had ever been to the US, and at that time the flight was a 48-hour trip, with tea breaks in Iceland and Canada.
After winning both their races, the team travelled home on the Queen Elizabeth cruise liner.
Mr Crowden said: "We were in cattle class, below the water line, but we had great fun. The singer Gracie Fields was aboard, and she invited us to some of her parties.
"I remember she sang Now Is The Hour as we sailed up the Solent and it was then that we received a telegram from Buckingham Palace. The King was unveiling a stained glass window at King's College and he expressed a wish to meet the crew on the lawns after the service.
"We were all lined up to meet him, and he was very charming. He was suffering from cancer and died the following year.
"The Princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, were there, too.
"It was something that will never happen again, and it was very special."
The same year, he won gold at the European Championships at Macon, in France, and in 1952 he competed at the Olympic Games in Helsinki.
At the age of 78, he no longer races, but he has
maintained a life-long passion for the sport.
He said: "It is a sport which teaches you some lessons of life. Everyone depends on each other. It is the sport of comradeship and togetherness."
The intense experience of racing and training together forged friendships between the team mates which endure to this day.
After his own racing triumphs, he became the Cambridge crew's coach for the next 20 years.
He said: "I used to ride alongside them on a bicycle with a trumpet. I used to shout a bit, but I've always believed that, like any sport, the point was to enjoy it."
His own training in the '50s was quite different to the modern approach, which makes use of modern technology and the latest scientific research.
He said: "We met at 7am and had a run and a cold bath and then ate breakfast together. We had very little lunch and a good meal in the evening. Rationing was still in effect, and I remember eating venison and whale meat. It was alright, but I haven't had it much since!
"We got supplementary rations, as we were covering a tremendous amount of mileage on the water. We had to be in bed by 10.30pm and weren't allowed any wine or spirits, though we did get a pint of bitter each day."
Sixty years after his first win there, he is returning to Henley for his 47th year as a senior steward.
He has also been involved with Peterborough Rowing Club for many years, and describes the its annual regatta as one of the finest in the country.
His links with Peterborough go back to his father, Lieutenant Colonel Reginald Crowden, who went to King's School and later fought in the First World War with his three brothers, who miraculously all made it back alive.
Lt Col Crowden later commanded 1,100 Peterborough men – a third of them fellow veterans from the Great War – in the city's Home Guard regiment. He was a city councillor and worked as a senior partner with auctioneers and valuers Fox and Vergette in Priestgate, Peterborough, where he was later joined by his oldest son John.
James Crowden also followed in the family profession, and became a chartered surveyor with auctioneers Grounds & Co, which has offices in March, Wisbech and Chatteris.
He was born in Tilney All Saints, near Wisbech, but grew up in Peterborough and attended King's School for some years.
He now splits his time between Wisbech and Elton, which is the home of his second wife Margaret (who was his brother's widow). His first wife Kathleen passed away in 1989 and his only son Richard was killed in a road accident in 1982.
As well as his rowing activities, he also became a familiar face to local people through his role as Lord Lieutenant of Cambridgeshire, which he did until 2002.
One of his proudest achievements while in the role was being involved with the Cambridgeshire Olympic Committee, which raised more money than any other county for four separate years.
He is also a vice-president of the British Olympic Association.