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Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 13th September 2018
G.J.W. (Barney) Frith
1937 – 2018
The past few years have taken a steady toll of those whom many older Cygnets fondly remember as the ‘Last of the Summer Wine’ generation. Named after the TV sitcom of the same name, these aged swans would regularly gather at the boathouse on Tuesdays and Thursdays to engage in some light training followed by a lengthy period of contemplation and reflection in the Cygnet bar. One of their number was Graham ‘Barney’ Frith who died on Tuesday, 4th September 2018, following a long battle with Motor Neurone Disease. He was 81.
Barney Frith joined Cygnet in 1961 and rowed with the likes of Mike Arnold-Gilliat, Derek Bush, Colin Dominy, John Ellis, John Hildrey and Len Huggett to name but a few. Although the sixties were not an era of huge success for Cygnet, Barney nevertheless played his part in securing such coveted trophies as the Twickenham Cup for the third time since the war, in 1962. Derek Bush recalls rowing with him in the club regatta and Len Huggett liked to relate the story of how Barney cost them a race at Kingston Regatta because he spent more time trying to swipe a swan than ‘getting on with the race’.
Blessed with a head for numbers, Barney found his professional niche in the National Audit Office and apparently displayed a keen mathematical interest in gambling. Such attributes would later be turned to good effect playing the financial markets in retirement and picking potential winners for the Last of the Summer Wine horse racing syndicate.
Barney never allowed rowing to interfere with his social life. Contemporary accounts describe him as a ‘young blade’ for whom assignations with the fairer sex always held more attraction than ‘jugging’ it up with his crew mates after an outing. In the fullness of time, Barney met Miss Right – Brenda – and they married in the late-1960s. Rather than send a telegram, his crew mates penned an ‘Ode to A Young Swan’, which lamented the fact that Barney had hung up his blade and traded his carefree days at Cygnet for a life of domestic bliss.
Soon afterwards, the newly-weds moved away and started a family and Barney retired from active rowing. It would be some years before he resurfaced at the boathouse, having escaped the clutches of the National Audit Office, courtesy of an early retirement scheme. However, no sooner had he become a paid-up member of the Last of the Summer Wine set than he fell into the clutches of club chairman Mike Arnold-Gilliat, who dragooned him into the post of club treasurer.
Despite his accounting background, Barney was not a natural treasurer; he agonized over any expenditure, wrote a long committee paper outlining a doom scenario for club finances and concluded that the club should stop buying boats until further notice. It was not a match made in heaven and he and the post of treasurer were soon parted, much to the relief of all concerned. Doom mongering tended to be Barney’s stock-in-trade and he would later emerge as a strident opponent of a proposed merger with BBLRC, condemning it as a financial accident waiting to happen.
Shorn of his official duties, Barney was free to devote himself to managing his share portfolio, honing his skills at bridge – he played a mean hand by all accounts – and entering into the full extra curricula activities of the Last of the Summer Wine set. One high spot he always enjoyed was the annual President’s lunch at Henley Royal Regatta. The Friths had lived in Henley-on-Thames for a good deal of their married life and were well known on the bridge circuit, which continued to draw them back long after they had moved to Gerrards Cross in the early 1980s.
Barney was nothing if not a creature of habit. John Hildrey recalls that on their regular lunch time visits to the William Webb Ellis in Twickenham, Barney always brought a cushion (he suffered from a bad back) and always ordered ham, egg and chips. Many will remember Barney as a heavy smoker, but he rarely imbibed to the same extent as some of his less inhibited compatriots, preferring not to put his driving license at risk. This marked him out as an obvious taxi driver, a task he always performed with dignity and aplomb, decanting the likes of Mike AG and Len Huggett home to their respective front doors at the end of a ‘heavy’ day.
In later life, Barney fretted that most of his closer associates were older than him, presaging a lonely old age. In reality, the Cygnet social safety net was always close at hand and many older members will lament his passing. Barney’s wife, Brenda, predeceased him by some years; he is survived by a married daughter, Helen, to whom the Club sends its sincere condolences.
Barney’s funeral will take place at 11.45am on Tuesday, 25th September. Details are available here.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 19th July 2018
21st May 1953–1st July 2018
None of us can ever truly know when our ‘time is up’. For Noel Davison, who died on 1st July 2018, just weeks after his 65th birthday, following a long battle with cancer, that time was far too soon.
Although most of his adult life was spent in London, Noel was a proud Irishman from County Londonderry in Northern Ireland. Educated at Coleraine Inst, a local grammar school for boys, he learned to row on the River Bann, the longest river in NI, before striking out overseas to St Andrew’s University in Fife, Scotland.
Following graduation, he headed south, seeking employment with the Inland Revenue as a District Tax Inspector, and arrived in London in the early 1970s as that rarest of beings: a competent oarsman who had no rowing points – in short, a coach’s dream. As a newcomer to the metropolis, Noel wasted no time in seeking an outlet for his waterman ship skills and Cygnet RC beckoned, along with nearby lodgings at 14 Vernon Road, East Sheen, the legendary home of Mike Arnold-Gilliat, the then captain of Cygnet RC.
Life at Vernon Road was an unstoppable merry-go round of rowing, sleeping and eating with the occasional sojourn to the nearby Hare and Hounds. Noel made some lifelong friends and a taste for Young’s ‘Ordinary’, but the whole experience did little to advance his or other inmates domestic housekeeping skills.
Noel always said that his novice years at Cygnet were some of his happiest afloat. Carefree days spent paddling up and down the Chiswick reach were rewarded with several non-status wins on the River Lea, where one spectator pronounced them to be a ’tasty crew’, and the Royal Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth, before losing their rowing virginity at Curlew.
Higher status wins followed. Noel was one of the anchor men of the crews coached by George Plumtree in 1977-78, which saw the participants ascend from Senior C to Elite over two years, starting with the Senior C Pennant win in the Head of the River in 1977.
Not one to stand on ceremony, Noel nevertheless felt that it was important to introduce his future wife, Eleanor, to his crew mates quite early on in their courtship. And so it was on a cold winter’s evening at the height of disco mania that the happy couple braved the dank surroundings of the Cygnet bar. Needless to say, the bar fell well short of health and safety norms, even by 1970s standards, and the company was not much better. The look on Eleanor’s face said it all. Still, all was not lost and over time she came to love both Noel and the inner sanctum of the Cygnet bar, if not the crew.
Cygnet was Noel’s first port of call, but we cannot claim a monopoly; he also rowed at Molesey Boat Club and, latterly, Tideway Scullers. Molesey provided Noel with the springboard he craved to achieve greater things: regular wins at Elite would follow, coupled with impressive performances at Henley Royal Regatta and National Championships. On a lighter note, in 1979 Noel starred in a TV commercial that featured him stroking an Vlll as it gently slipped below the waves while the cox, Ronnie Corbett, blithely puffed away on a Hamlet Cigar. The commercial can still be viewed today on You Tube.
Noel always appreciated the importance of putting something back into the sport and in late-1983 the opportunity arose to return to Cygnet in the self-styled role of Squad Co-ordinator. The experience he had gained at Molesey proved invaluable in changing the training and racing ethos at Cygnet and laid the foundations for some of the club’s most successful years in 1984-87, not least a coxless lV that he coached virtually singlehandedly from Senior B to Elite in one season.
Family and professional commitments subsequently took priority. Noel bade farewell to the Inland Revenue, joining Arthur Andersen where he obtained a chartered accountancy qualification, before moving on to Ernst and Young in 1994. EY played to Noel’s strengths and he became a much-respected international tax partner working on some of the most prestigious accounts of the day. As a devoted family man, there was never any doubt that Noel and Eleanor made a great team, while he adored son Paul and daughter Julia, encouraging them in their every endeavor; they, in turn, embraced his unwavering work ethic, carving out their own paths as successful young people, determined to maintain the Davison traditions.
All work and no play is never a good recipe for life andthe draw of the Tideway is hard to resist. Noel returned to veteran rowing in the mid-noughties, gracing one or two heads and regattas along the way. His talents as an oarsman were much in demand and he rowed at both Cygnet and Tideway Scullers, before illness curtailed activity afloat. Even so, Noel continued to fulfil his landward duties as Honorary Examiner at Cygnet and Honorary Secretary at the Head of the River Fours until just months before his demise. Indeed, he was arguably one of the few officials who managed to get his head around the new points system – for that alone he will be sorely missed.
Irrespective of which club he rowed for, Noel always brought wisdom, dedication, a certain air of authority and sheer bonhomie to the water. Prior to writing this piece, I asked, Rhodri Walters, a longstanding friend of Noel’s, how he would describe Noel; he replied “much like his rowing style – long in the water, steady on the slide and easy to follow”. Lawrence Williams at TSS recalls: “I remember a pause in one of our earlier more catastrophic outings when he (Noel) was sitting behind me and I filled a gap in conversation by informing him that we now had two professors in the crew. His immediate response was brief and typical - "Good, we need all the intellectual firepower we can get."
Appearances can be deceptive and some will argue that Noel was a man of few words. It is true that he was certainly not one for small talk. However, all those who spent time with him will know that once you scratched the surface, he was always happy to engage in debate on all manner of subjects and often held quite strong views. An economy of words, coupled with his calm demeanour, meant that whenever Noel did hold forth, the assembled company, whoever they were, always sat up and listened.
Rowing was not Noel’s only passion. He also had a great love of literature. Retirement gave him an opportunity to cast off his professional mantle of international taxation and immerse himself in English Literature, obtaining a degree from Oxford University in 2017.
Against his better judgement, Noel also partook of several canal trips organized by Malcolm Burman and his cohorts at Cygnet. Malcolm recounts: “..not sure what he made of those. He seemed to enjoy them, despite the fact that it rained most of the time - but I seem to remember he was very keen on steering, particularly in the tunnels and we had to drag him away from the tiller [for lock-opening duties].”
For many Cygnet members, their last memory of Noel will have been of him sagely presenting his report at the February AGM in his capacity as Honorary Examiner, a post he had held jointly with Malcolm Burman for eighteen years. For the crew of 1977-78, a happier memory of Noel will have been of him sitting in the Cygnet bar reflecting on a lifetime afloat on the occasion of the 40th reunion of the Plumtree Vlll in March 2017. He will be greatly missed.
Author: Neil Pickford | Date: 20th June 2017
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
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(Len is at 2 in this VIII from Kingston Regatta 1959)