Having spent some time dwelling on the prospect of turning the cricket square into a lake last week, I thought I might venture down to the river to see what the water-based Salopians have been up to.
Before embarking on my quest for information, I was forcibly bundled into a picture with the girls’ 1st VIII by their enthusiastic coach Rob Wilson. They are currently rowing in the Giles Bell (a boat that by coincidence shares my name). I wondered if it was strong and powerful through the water and gave the crew a sense of awe and additional confidence. I put my thoughts to Livi Bothamley-Dakin. Livi told me, “Actually, sir, it is really embarrassing rowing in a boat named after you, but because we can’t wait to get out of the boat it makes us row really fast. And therefore in a way it is inspiring us to great times, which I think is why Mr Wilson chose the boat for us to row in.”
Livi may find her tutorial reports are no longer as good as they used to be. Mr Wilson may be off my Christmas card list too, although I can’t be too nasty to him as he is married to Mrs Incredible – a.k.a. Elastigirl.
The top squad have had a very successful couple of weeks, winning at Bedford and Wallingford. At Wallingford Regatta the 1st VIII won their competition, the 2nd VIII won their competition and the 1st VIII won the Open competition, which included beating Keble College Oxford, who had a crew containing three of this year’s Blue boat.
I wondered who I could talk to about the prospects for the National Schools’ Regatta...
Mr Fox appears to be several feet short of a full oar...
And so who better to talk me through the current crop of future Olympians than Phil Lapage, who has been heavily involved in rowing at Shrewsbury for 36 years. It is Phil’s last year at Shrewsbury, and I began by asking him if he had any anecdotes of his time here. As the sun began to set over the Kingsland Bridge and the ducks tucked their beaks under their feathers in preparation for a good night’s sleep, Phil drew breath for the first time in four hours as he talked me through every race that he had been involved with since 1882. (That’s not actually true. We had a brief chat while the group of young men who will probably form the majority of the 2nd VIII warmed up.)
Phil Lapage decided not to be a journalist, despite his name – or maybe because of his name. Instead he was attracted by the idea of teaching chemistry. “I have always been good at coming up with the right solution to life’s problems and I find students react well to me in the classroom,” he told me, in an effervescent manner. He has always loved messing about with boats, and apart from dropping a bit of sodium in a bowl, he can think of nothing better than wafting a paddle in the general direction of some of the wet stuff.
He was taught the basics at Monkton Coombe and then went on to row at Exeter University. This involved some success at Henley, and I sense he may still enjoy a few afternoons there in his retirement.
I asked Phil if there had been any highlights on his Shrewsbury voyage. He paused for a few seconds before proudly mentioning the 1988 coxless four that won a gold medal at the National Championships. Not only that, he could rattle off their names Tom Fea, James Heaven, Will Mason and Ed Shropshire (Uncle Ed, as two current members of Ridgemount like to call him). He also had three successes with the 3rd VIII at National Schools, winning the West Cup.
Yet for Phil it is not about the medals and the cups. He would like his legacy to be that he introduced countless young Salopians to the joys of messing about in boats. It does not have to be rowing boats; he was recently involved in a scheme that involved the building of coracles on the site and then taking them for a trip across the river to see if they actually worked. The Navy section were involved in this! Apparently they did make it! Phil has also taken various sailing trips around Greece, across the Channel and to the Hebrides. Brexit will not affect him!
I have never been that keen on sailing, as I have a deep respect for the oceans and what lies beneath. Phil would have none of that. “A good wind is when young people discover their limits,” he assures me, without convincing me! When he starts to wax lyrical about the puffins in the Treshnish Islands and speaks of the beauty and seclusion of the Hebrides, I begin to get a sense of what the ancient mariner is on about. He is also quietly satisfied that his sons Patrick and Sam are busy coaching at Harvard and St Edward’s Oxford, whilst Bridget is working at St Paul’s and rowing at Vesta, which is a club in London (a rowing club). “I think they saw what I was on about,” he says with a smile.
I drag Phil back to the present. What about his current crew? What he is trying to get out of them? “The Buzz Factor.” I tell him I know they are the B(ee) crew! Phil goes on to explain that he wants to bring his crew to technical perfection but he also wants to find out if they can race. Have they got the mental toughness to respond under pressure in a tight race? He thinks his present crew may have the sort of qualities he is after, but it is early days. He is not out to tempt fate by predicting them success, but I sense from the twinkle in his eye that he believes they are a special bunch. He describes them as great fun to work with. “They are real tigers and almost completely bonkers,” he tells me. This is quite disconcerting, as it seems I am about to talk to a bunch of mentally unstable ferocious wild beasts!
They are in fact a bunch of pussycats who purr whenever I mention the name of their coach. Henry ‘I-really-am-over-60 kilos’ Fletcher tells me that the crew have been conditioned on ‘Candy-up’, a chocolate drink they became addicted to on their French rowing camp. Ben ‘I’m-liked-by-the’ Holehouse mentions that Mr Lapage is a ‘bit of a lad’, while Bryce ‘the jet’ Rutter adds that he is always inspired by Phil’s catchphrase which is “go get ‘em”!
Moreton ‘Maverick’ Moss mentions the concept of Rouge de Guerre. There is a knowing look from the whole squad as they tell me they have covert tactics that they cannot disclose but are totally legal and do not involve outboard motors. At that point Danger Zone by Kenny Logins sounds out on the Boathouse speakers, and that’s the cue to get down to business. They disperse as silently and smoothly as a large predatory feline.
I very much hope they will have too much for the other crews at National Schools and they can bring a gold medal back for a living legend in his last year as a coach. After all, I sense that Phil has given a huge amount to generations of Salopians down the years, and a gold medal to finish with would be fitting. No pressure, lads!
The 2nd VIII squad are Ben Holehouse, Henry Fletcher, James Joseph, Adam Pattenden, Bryce Rutter, Moreton Moss, Ali Davies, Lucas Rowley, Ed Hart, and cox Oli Toms.