Memories of a lost boathouse by George Weeks

By George Weeks, VMC 2003-06. VMBC Treasurer 2004-5; VMBC Boatman 2005-6

Last December’s immolation of Van Mildert Boat Club (VMBC) was more than a straightforward fire; it consumed 56 years of history. 

I joined VMBC as a fresher in 2003. Unlike the majority of my sign-ups, this commitment lasted well beyond Freshers’ Week. Little did I know how prominently this tiny green shed would feature throughout my Durham career.

VMBC’s boathouse was a modest building, but its location was spectacular. Sitting on the edge of UNESCO World Heritage Site, arrival at VMBC always provided a sense of occasion, whether via Kingsgate Bridge or the riverside paths. The staircase leading from Durham cathedral to the boathouse was frequently used for land training a.k.a. hazing.

Open the wooden double doors and the prows of rowing boats old and new greeted the oncomer; an array of bow balls. An old-but-serviceable fibreglass Aylings sat on wheeled dollies, accompanied by the new-in-2004 George Patterson, the lightweight wooden Temptress, two single sculls, a venerable double called Non Sequitur and two other wooden fours. High in the rafters sat an array of bright yellow blades – VMBC boats were visible from afar.  

The George Patterson being prepared for its maiden voyage

VMBC was always too small for eights. Not that rowing was unpopular – far from it – the boathouse was simply too diminutive for anything bigger than a four. Unlike the neighbouring Chad’s and John’s/Mary’s boathouses, VMBC never had mains electricity, thus giving a speleological flavour to any expedition to the back of the boathouse. Deep in the depths of the building you’d find a bewildering array of old steel riggers from long-forgotten vessels; the bones of rowing history. 

Participation has always characterised Van Mildert College; this was similarly true for the boat club. Many first year rowers progressed to coaching in the second year; others led gruelling circuit training, ergo sessions and 2K tests (motto: “pain is merely weakness leaving the body”). In summer we bought rollers and painted the boathouse’s interior white. I dutifully marked all movable VMBC possessions (cox box, bicycle, etc) with small squares of yellow paint. 

Maintenance was a constant duty. Seats, riggers, shows, electrics…all  needed to be kept in good condition. In rowing, mechanical failure can lose a race…as can collisions and clashed blades.  We frequently took boats for repairs at Brown’s, the boatbuilder under Elvet Bridge. In my committee positions as Treasurer and then Boatman, this pained me greatly. My all-VMBC e-mails would plead for tenderness in handling our boats. Did we really want our precious membership subscriptions to fund the boatbuilder’s newest Mercedes-Benz? 

George Weeks prepares the George Patterson for launch

Inter-collegiate rowing was a highlight of Durham, with an overriding sense of competitive camaraderie between the college boat clubs. Participate in a regatta, or indeed any rowing-related event, and you had the sense of adding your own tiny layer of history to the VMBC story. 

Buildings do not need to be big or grand to have a sense of place. VMBC’s boathouse may have been no bigger than an average garage, but it encapsulated a half-century of rowing enjoyment. It welcomed thousands of Mildertians onto the Wear with bright yellow blades. It will be sorely missed. 

George Weeks, 2003-06. VMBC Treasurer 2004-5; VMBC Boatman 2005-6

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