The Weather's Nice...Not!
We don’t want to tempt fate, here at By the Dart Towers, but this summer so far has been a bit less sunny than we would have hoped – and we are starting to see a few similarities with a summer from this town’s past, one which was also full of patriotic spirit, sporting prowess and lots and lots of rain….
As we consider the upcoming Regatta, it’s good to consider its proud history – becoming a Royal Regatta thanks to the great Queen Victoria, who visited in 1856 with her beloved husband Albert. They were so impressed with the enthusiasm and size of the Regatta (although they left before it started) they allowed the organisers to term it a ‘Royal’ regatta and gave money for competition prizes.
100 years later the Queen wrote to the organising committee to tell them she ‘graciously’ accepted the role of patron of the event.
The summer of 1956 had been one of heavy rain and much misery for local events – and the winter before had been bitterly cold. Another big event, the awarding of the ‘Freedom of the Town’ to the cadets of the Britannia Royal Naval College in February had been conducted through large amounts of snow and tales of people stuck in the lower town because of ice (pic. above).
The town’s old-favourite Carnival was to have a torrid time in July – though everyone had been so hopeful it would be a success.
The bad weather and the presence of the inaugural Tall Ships race spelled disaster for the Carnival – which was normally a huge hit with local punters. It was scheduled for the same week as the Tall Ships, which organisers thought would guarantee success, as there were so many people around.
But the Tall Ships race was a huge event. So huge in fact, that just the participants created huge demand for hotel and B&B rooms, not to mention pressure on bars and restaurants. This meant that all the local businesses needed lots of people to man tills, prepare and serve food and, generally, work very hard.
This meant that they had very little energy to participate in events, which had taken the Carnival committee months to get ready. Visitors didn’t know about the carnival and, frankly, didn’t care either.
Add to this the terrible weather: rain, wind and cold lashed the town for most of the summer (sound familiar?) and it all added up to a massive failure, especially financially, for the carnival.
It was such a failure even its failure didn’t make the front page: the Tall Ships took that too.
But Royal approval seemed to guarantee the regatta much greater luck just a few weeks later.
Britain was gripped in patriotic Royalist fever in 1956 – much as we all have been in Diamond Jubilee year – but this time simply because she hadn’t been on the throne long. Queen Elizabeth II was only in the third year of her reign and the personal letter she sent to the committee was greeted with rapture by the whole town.
Chairman Gilbert White, to loud cheers from huge crowds, read out the Royal letter at the Regatta opening ceremony.
Unfortunately it didn’t bring much luck.
The sailing and local rowing were described as descending into ‘chaos’ because of violent and bitter gales that swept in from the Atlantic.
Many yachts involved in the sailing competition were capsized, one was dis-masted and another split her mainsail, giving the safety boat crews a nightmarish few days.
It was described by the chairman as “The Coldest Regatta in History” – not a moniker which would inspire fond recollection. But his stoic demeanour in the face of such a terrible destruction of what was supposed to be a fun event was an example for us all.
“May I express my thanks to the many competitors who so nobly carried on in spite of the weather and also to the committee and other helpers who stuck to their work and did such an excellent job,” he said after the event finished.
“Financially, we shall be down, but personally I am sure the committee also went to bed on Saturday night with a feeling of elation rather than depression because never have I had so many good wishes from so many people.”
The good news is the next year the town celebrated a regatta in glorious sunshine and crowds thronged the town.
It brought complaints from the old guard that it was now simply a commercial event, which cared nothing for tradition, and incidentally, brought lots of visitors to the town who made it difficult to park.
How life repeats itself? Happy Regatta!
By Phil Scoble
First Published August 2012 By The Dart