2,000 years

SWIMMING HISTORY

Leicester

Aylestone Boathouse

The sport that defined Britain

If you live in Leicester and have ever visited the Orchard Tearooms at Cambridge you cannot help but feel a pang of sorrow at the loss of Aylestone Boathouse.

This page is dedicated to the memory of: Roger Hutchinson, local historian and author.

Nigel Allsop remembers: We moved to Aylestone when I was ten from Great Glen, my stepfathers relations lived in Middleton Street in a row of terraced houses to the right of the Union Inn.

My uncle Arthur owned them and he and Nan lived in one, uncle Walter and wife in another and we lived in the end one next to the Union inn.

Nigel with his young brothers Kings Lock 1957
The Biggs Family c 1890

In one of the old store sheds I found remnants of the Boathouse days, postcards and advertising leaflets and old ledgers, The only building left was a brick built café that was still being run in the late 50's by an old chap, the clientele were mainly young motorcyclists and their girlfriends so the café couldn't have been very profitable. It was quite a large room with metal French doors and was very run down, I think it may well have been used for dances many years ago. There was a dilapidated sign advertising the "Riverside Restaurant".

Nigel on horseback, Boathouse Field 1959
Middleton Street, our house on the right

Arthur had worked for Gordon Biggs as a boy before taking up engineering in Leicester. At weekends though he continued helping Mr Biggs. Arthur had started to breed dogs in his spare time. I used to go to the Boathouse kennels with him and got to know Mr Biggs quite well and in fact worked for him for a few months before leaving home to work on a farm in Derbyshire at the age of fifteen.

Mr Biggs was very quietly spoken, he had a great regard for herbal medicines. Two or three times a day I would have to take him a mug of hot water to which he added various powders in his small office. He was a great believer that the dogs could benefit from herbal remedies, and most days they would have dried garlic or some other herb added to their food. He was also partial to snuff which was taken at regular intervals, he offered me a pinch once, and laughed as I sneezed my way out of his office. He very much reminded me of Tony Hancock the comedian who was very popular at the time, same hat and dark full length overcoat. I remember him employing a young lad from a very deprived background from one of the estates, poor lad used to get in a bit of a tangle when given a task, but Mr Biggs showed remarkable patience and understanding which helped to build up the lads self esteem. The kennels were on the opposite side from the old boathouse, and constructed the same way out of timber with creosoted for protection and raised on small concrete pillars as the site was liable to flooding.

His family were quite wealthy and John Biggs three times Mayor of Leicester was a close relative, he had lived in a large Victorian house on Plantation Avenue or Lutterworth Road as a young man. The photograph of the family (see above) was sent to me some years ago by a descendant of the Biggs family and he thought Gordon was the boy on the right, he also sent a scan of the original map given to people who hired a boat, some of the names make me think he read Longfellow's Hiawatha.

As a youngster in the 30's, my Dad used to help out at the Boathouse. A deposit was required to hire a boat. A gentleman would have to leave his hat against the return of the boat but some of the young men would hire a boat taking along any old hat they could find and after they had had more than their fair share of fun would sink the boat in a backwater. Dad and his mates would be sent out late afternoon to try and find it, usually they had been tipped off where it was and would recover it and be rewarded on its return.

In its heyday it was a very popular spot for young people with not only the boats, but dancing, tea room and many other things to amuse them, including a Japanese garden. In one of the pictures two boys in swimming costume are talking to a tall gentleman in a suit, this I feel sure is Gordon himself, I remember Arthur telling me that a lot of the postcards of the Boathouse were at the instigation of Gordon Biggs, some have his name printed on them.

Dad was born in Aylestone and only left at the outbreak of war, his childhood centred around the village and the most popular spot was the canal. They used to jump into the canal off the humpback bridges, one a friend did it and surfaced with a broken bottle stuck on his knee, there were many hazards to contend with but with the aid of a grappling hook they could clear things like old prams and bikes.

The history of Leicester. Baths, bathing, parks and swimming pools.

As kids they could not afford the penny admission fee at the Aylestone baths, if they had a penny it would buy a bag of rocks (sweets). One of the more dangerous pastimes was to get a screw top bottle three quarters fill it with water and drop in a small piece of carbide, then quickly screw the top on and throw it in the canal where it would explode underwater.

A favorite place for them to swim was the Porridge Pot (see the map) where they would take great pleasure in splashing the people in the boats who didn't stand a chance of retaliating as the lads were as slippery as eels. Dad always spoke of his childhood in Aylestone in glowing terms, times were very hard, money short with mass unemployment but they had lots of fun.

Just a small anecdote to finish with, Dads first job was in a factory in Jarrom Street, he bought a very dilapidated bike out of his wages to save on the tram fares, one miserable winters morning at 6.45 he was biking to work when his front wheel slipped into the tram-line and off he went, knees bloody and badly shocked he picked up the remains of his bike and ran hell for leather the last half mile to work. Standing outside the main gate, pocket watch in hand, was the owner of the factory. He looked at his watch then at Dad and said "You are one minute late, if you are one minute late in the morning your sacked". At that time nearly 5 million men were out of work, so no room for even a glimmer of compassion.

Mr Ray Newcombe of Aylestone related in the Leicester Mercury of June 27, 2011 that he had many fond memories of swimming in the back waters of the canal at both the Porridge Pot and Tattenham Corner. The Porridge Pot was deep enough for diving and Tattenham Corner better suited the less adventurous.

In a booklet recently discovered as part of an auction acquisition (thanks to Andrew W. King) the Aylestone Boathouse is described in sumptuous detail.

I have included a couple of photographs of the Pack-horse bridge, the small triangle of land on the left of the photograph was rented by uncle Arthur in the late 50's when he decided to keep pigs, we pollarded some willow trees at the kennels and made stakes to drive into the ground and run a barbed wire fence around the land, all the stakes we drove in on the canal side rooted and became small trees, the ones there in the modern photograph seem to be the result of our endeavors, the pigs escaped with amazing regularity and Arthur gave up after a couple of years. The land belonged to T Gordon Biggs I seem to remember. Arthur eventually bought a small holding near Dunton Basset, his pigs continued to escape. 

The booklets title:

Leisure hours amid delightful scenery and cooling waterways at Aylestone Boathouse

...sets the tone.

Looking at the area today, nature has certainly taken a hold. Some may see this as environmental reclamation, but most others as neglect.

 

Take a look at what Leicester once had to offer with boating and swimming promoted shamelessly in Aylestone. 

 

If only we had celebrated our waterways throughout the 70s and on wards they may still have been in use today.

Do you know what it is like to feel so healthy - so full of life that your very finger tips pulse for the joy of it. With the ills of winter gone, and in their place glorious sunshine, delightful scenery, wonderfully cool waters, and the charm of out-door association. There are the multi-coloured toilettes upon the river, the uniform whites of the tennis lawns, the restful gardens with their fashionable patronage. The summer sunshine fills us with the zest of life; and yet it is hard to realise that such pleasures and such scenes can be obtained within such close proximity to our city  -  and yet all these are every day experiences at the Aylestone Boathouse.

Hours of Idling

...under the willow and aspen trees, slowly sunbathing despite the multi-coloured parasols. Sipping lemonade or having tea from the well-ordered Boathouse Cafe; this is just one simple way - and yet a delightful one - of spending our summer's leisure at the Aylestone Boathouse.

Gardens

 

The orchestra will play in the gardens on Thursdays and Saturdays, from 3-5p.m.

Boating

Yes! that's a most fashionable and desirable thing to do. Everybody boats in the sunshine. Some row, other paddle - whiles others prefer to pole their way along, but whichever you choose - the river's the place for a summer's day.

Picnic baskets may be obtained from the Aylestone Boathouse Cafe.

Locks Ahead!

A new set of rollers make it possible for the Aylestone boater to pass by this lock and visit a new reach of water hitherto unknowns to him.

Always remember to ship oars and to remove rudder of rowing boat before passing over rollers (the rollers were removed during the second world war, melted down and used in the construction of tanks).

Kings Reach

...is the newly opened - up water way between King's Lock and Blue Bank Wood. This reach makes a fine rowing course, the opens up some delightful scenery. Upon approaching the wood many pretty picnic spots will be found on the right bank of the waterway.

Punts and canoes may enter the backwaters by means of skids from landing stage opposite Blue Bank Wood.

Mallards Retreat.

From the main stream we enter Mallard's Retreat. To the left will be found Blue Bank Reach, Ratby meadow, the Otter Range and also the grounds of the old historic church - St. John - and old Saxon remain. The scenery and atmosphere of the water course is so delightfully restful that it is difficult to realise the city is in such close proximity. A half-day upon these waters gives one a wonderful change.

The Reaches

The backwaters and open pools at Aylestone are amongst the most beautiful water spots in the country, comparing in scenery and in volume of water to the fashionable reaches of Cherwell and the upper reaches or the Cam.

You start in the heat of a summer's day, but soon you are gliding along underneath a canopy of trees, negotiating bend after bend of delightfully cool waterway.

Pool of Nokomis

If there is one thing better than an hour on the water at Aylestone, it is two or even three. You may then give way to that very English habit of tea drinking. Picnic spots are marked en route.

Just a reminder! Mowing fields are barred.

Just a reminder! Mowing fields are barred.

Lovers of Nature

...will be charmed with the varied vegetation to be found along the backwaters, and during the peaceful hours of the day, many uncommon species of birds, and otters may be seen.

The tours will be made much more interesting by following the sign posts erected, land by referring to the plan provided upon the centre page of this booklet.

Old Roman Pack Horse Bridge

...at the entrance to the backwaters is a part of the Old Roman Fosse Road. It is only possible to visit these waters in a punt or a canoe, as in some places the water is not wide enough to enable oars to be used. There is now plenty of water for the former however, as all the shallow places have been deepened.

Tennis and Camping.  

Why not the simple life amid delightful scenery. There are many excellent pitches for tents with every facility for swimming and boating in the early hours of the day.

Within 5 minutes of the Aylestone terminus.

Souvenir of Aylestone Leicester

Take a trip back in time! Discover just how many official ASA recommended outdoor swimming facility's were available to a nation keen to take the plunge back in 1912...

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