29th March 1930 – 16th June 2017
Len Huggett, who has died at the age of 87, was one of the paid-up members of the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ set who gathered at the Boathouse every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, pontificating on the world through an alcoholic haze. Collectively and individually, they were a near perfect replica of the TV series of the same name. While there was never any doubt who ‘Foggy’ was (John Bull), a number of candidates vied for the role of ‘Compo’, not least Len and Mike AG.
Born in 1930, Len Huggett grew up in Stoke Newington and Edmonton amid the urban bomb sites of World War Two and the austerity years that followed. Upon leaving school at sixteen, Len joined the Central Telegraph Office in 1946, part of the Post Office, before doing two years National Service in
Following his ‘demob’ in 1950, Len returned to the Post Office and soon started devoting his leisure hours to Crescent Rowing Club, which was based on the River Lee in East London. Like Cygnet, Crescent was allied to the Post Office and it was here that Len would strike up life-long friendships with the likes of John Ellis and Peter Bailey, both of whom remain Friends of Cygnet.
Given the limited boating facilities on the Lee, Crescent members were often invited to Cygnet to gain experience of rowing in Vllls on the Tidal Thames and to make up crews for the Head season. Crescent also competed regularly in the Civil Service Regatta and was a force to be reckoned with in the 1920s and 30s. Over time, ambitious young Crescent members often defected to Cygnet and Len duly followed suit in the late 1950s. The first photograph we have of a young Len Huggett afloat was taken in 1959 and shows him seated at two in a Cygnet Vlll at Kingston Regatta.
The 1960s were not an auspicious time for Cygnet and regatta victories were relatively few and far between. Nonetheless, the era was not without its high spots. Thus, in 1961 Len stroked a Junior Eight to victory at the Metropolitan Regatta and subsequent years often found him stroking Junior-Senior Vllls at local regattas, some successful, some not. Among the regattas he often used to wax lyrical about were the Welsh Harp and the Serpentine. Like so many of us, Len did his time as club captain, in 1966. His rowing ‘swan song’ came in 1973 when, rowing in a coxed lV with Roy Ellison, Peter Jeffs, Peter Roche and Robert Henry (cox), he won at Vesta International Veterans’ Regatta, beating Barclays Bank and Frankfurt.
Although not a confirmed bachelor as such, despite having several long-term relationships Len never took the plunge and tied the knot. His friends would probably argue that ‘no woman would have him’ and, in truth, he was a contrarian to his core, impossible to pin down to any commitment large or small. Yet, through it all he remained a dedicated member of Cygnet, immensely kind to his friends and wholly unpredictable, often turning up out-of-the-blue at regattas far from home – St Neots was one of his favourites. And, no matter where you were, Len always knew of a hostelry just around the corner or in a far-flung country lane.
A North London boy through and through, Len lived at home in Edmonton with his parents until their demise in the late-1980s. Then, in 1993, on a whim (and allegedly after a late night with Mike Arnold-Gilliat), he ventured down to Henley-on-Thames to visit the Club’s late president, Peter Sly. Sly took Len to see his late mother-in-law’s house in Greys Road, Henley, which had recently gone on the market. Much to Sly’s surprise, Len agreed to buy the house on the spot: it was probably the biggest decision he had ever made in his life.
Len would spend the remaining twenty four years of his life in this house; few people ever saw the interior and he rarely drew back the curtains. Nevertheless, living in Henley actually suited Len quite well. Friends often visited and there was no shortage of agreeable hostelries nearby. He, in turn, was a frequent visitor at ‘Old Blades’, the Sly residence, and would never tire of relating the story of how in 1977 he alerted Peter Sly to an auction of two old workmen’s cottages on the Henley reach that would ultimately be reborn as ‘Old Blades’.
Like so many of his generation, Len Huggett remained fiercely independent, living alone until the very end, despite having suffered several strokes. In reality, of course, the Cygnet safety net was always close at hand, with Pat, Pru and Oscar Sly increasingly alert to Len’s wellbeing in later years.
For many of us, our abiding memory of Len Huggett in his twilight years will have been of him ‘holding court’ on the patio at ‘Old Blades’ on Henley Regatta Friday – he would never commit to going, but he always turned up, contrarian to the last, and invariably pronounced it to be ‘a lovely old day’.
20th June 2017
Please feel free to share your memories of Len using the Comments box, below.
(Len is at 2 in this VIII from Kingston Regatta 1959)Author: Neil Pickford