In full flow

With the river and the British Open in full flow, master paddler Mick Owen went to see what impact the stars of UK’s top canoeing competition would have on their hosts and how the locals would fare in The Leisure Review ‘spot the Olympic medallist’ challenge.

Taking on Town Falls in the British open canoeing championship

As the TLR photographer and I drove away from a darkening Llangollen late on an autumnal Saturday we turned up the heating and the radio simultaneously. As feeling returned to our extremities it became clear that we weren’t going to hear an update on the 2008 British Open canoeing championships, the first rounds of which we had been assigned to cover that chilly day. The details of every single game of football played or about to be played in the UK over the weekend were relayed to us and we got a bit of Andy Murray and some rugby. But no canoeing. We heard all about Brechin City’s home victory over Queen’s Park – a game that only 487 Brechiners bothered to watch – but not a word about an event that featured Beijing silver medallist David Florence.

Such is the lot of the vast majority of the ‘heroes’ who climbed aboard Mayor Boris’ floats the other week;  four years of obscurity, constant training and, despite Lottery funding, an uncertain financial situation followed by the briefest of moments in a dazzling spotlight. For Florence the post-Beijing commercial opportunities must have been few and far between and, although he had spent part of his morning ‘opening’ a canoe equipment shop just off the high street, gigs like that won’t buy too many gold chains. Indeed the first paddler we saw as we passed through the picturesque little Welsh town that hosts the International Eisteddfod and its own steam railway was David Florence himself carrying his blue and white zebra-striped C1 back up to the start after his second run. They don’t stand on ceremony in the world of canoeing and not even Olympic medallists have flunkies. And with the competition on the aptly named Town Falls starting above the road bridge – which dates back to 1345 – and finishing just below it, the competition is fully integrated into the life of the market town. Shoppers, tourists and steam railway enthusiasts all stopped to see what the crowd of Gore-Tex-clad devotees were “up – up – upping” about and many were transfixed as paddler after paddler braved the mountainous boils, holes and stoppers that the recent rain had carved into the River Dee. Even those coming to canoeing for the first time would have guessed that the slalom was being held on a potentially lethal stretch of water from the looks on the canoeists’ faces and the inordinate number of official rescuers dotted around the banks and rocky islands just waiting for someone to “take a swim”. Given that this was the British Open and the paddlers were all the equivalent of black belts such precautions should not have been necessary but even Olympians can get it wrong – especially if they only have the one blade to work with; a dead canoeist can’t be good for ‘legacy’.

On the face of it the use of this stretch of water for top-level competition is the stuff of dreams for event organisers. Volleyball is desperate to build temporary sandpits in town centres for its Urban Beach series and who would not welcome such cheek- by- jowl interaction with the community? Well, the community apparently. TLR spoke to local resident Helen Baillie whose family have kept pubs and shops in the town for decades. “There’s been a lot of opposition to canoeing in the town starting with the anglers, ” she said. Canoeing on rivers in England and Wales is made complicated by access issues that even the governing bodies and government itself can not explain. According to the Welsh Canoe Association’s ‘Canoeing is not a crime’ website, “not even the Welsh Assembly Government can clarify the existence of statutory rights on even small pieces of water”. All of which means that the situation in 2004 that saw 500 members of the canoeing fraternity protesting in the town centre for the right to access the Dee seems set to continue.

Mrs Baillie then addressed herself to the ‘economic benefit’ of major canoeing competitions coming to the town : “They spend nothing in the shops and when they go in the pubs they buy one pint and ten of them sit round it for the evening.” She may have been exaggerating and the local B&Bs must have welcomed the custom of at least some of the visiting competitors, supporters and administrators but the self- reliance of the outdoor community has to be a given and compared to a couple of  coach-loads of foreign tourists the income generated can not be impressive.

But what of the kudos of having the British Open and similar high- level competitions in her own back yard? Mrs Baillie was unimpressed and although the news that an Olympic medallist was in town briefly piqued her interest the effort of explaining what a C1 is and what slalom entails soon quenched it. Indeed the town of Llangollen was totally under-whelmed by the whole affair and David Florence created far less buzz than the woman from ‘60 Minute Makeover’ who was having her lunch in a riverside pub, blithely unaware that someone with talent was at work nearby.


Mick Owen is managing editor of The Leisure Review. He came within a hair's breadth of representing Gibraltar in international competition.


The Leisure Review, November 2008



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“The details of every single game of football played or about to be played in the UK over the weekendwere relayed to us and we got a bit of Andy Murray and some rugby. But no canoeing.”

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