THE YEAR is 1976, Harold Wilson resigns as PM, Britain battles through a heatwave, the Queen opens the NEC in Birmingham and even closer to home – crafts take to the River Avon for the very first Lions Raft Race.
This summer the race – run by the Wellesbourne and Shakespeare Lions clubs in support of different local charities – marks its 40th anniversary. Since 1976, it has banked an impressive £750,000 for local causes.
This year’s main beneficiary is Heart of England Mencap, the Stratford-based charity supporting people with learning disabilities across Warwickshire and Worcestershire.
Raft race organisers are urging teams to sign-up for the challenge – a 7.5 mile paddle from Wasperton to Stratford, over two weirs and in a craft entirely homemade.
But they also want people to paddle down memory lane – sharing their stories and photos of the raft race gone by.
Anyone who has taken part, helped at the riverbank or watched from dry land is being asked to share their memories via the Raft Race Facebook page – www.facebook.com/lionsraftrace
The very first raft race was run in the extreme summer heat of 1976 following the chance encounter of then Wellesbourne Lion President Brian Walden of a similar event in Birmingham. He appointed Lion Robin Hammond to lead the event and make it a reality.
Robin is still a member of Wellesbourne & District Lions to this day. He used his many contacts to set about finding suitable launching and finishing points along the River Avon.
He decided upon a field for the start in Barford and the finish was to be opposite the iconic Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford.
Realising there were two weirs to be negotiated Robin approached local sub aqua clubs for their help in making the weirs safe for the rafters and St John ambulance to provide medical cover. Local ambulance, fire and police services were very supportive in entering rafts and in the end a total of 58 were launched.
Wellesbourne Lions nominated charity was Selly Oak Childrens Kidney Unit and when the counting up was done a total of £1,800 was donated.
A few years later the start was moved to a field in Wasperton, where it remains, and over the years the number of rafts increased buoyed by local firms such as Automotive Products, the Coventry motor industry, N C Joseph, Flavel, Alfred Herbert, Potterton, Triumph and more – until some 300 were launched one year.
Today, the race still attracts 60 plus rafts who manage to raise well over £10,000 and help to fund important charitable projects.
Current race committee chairman Kelvin McIntosh said: “The history of the race is fascinating and we would love to hear the memories of those brave enough to take part over the years – and to see any photos from the archives too.
“It’s a very special event – started in the days when challenges like this were far from the norm. We owe a huge thank you to everyone who has helped make the Raft Race such a success over the past four decades – and to all of those who will help us make another 40!”
The 2016 race takes place on Sunday July 24 – and now’s the time to enter, or to volunteer as a helper on the day.
Visit www.raftrace.org.uk for further details, and to the Facebook page to share memories.
Resting up in 1984. (s)
A crew from AP in Leamington paddling hard in the 1980s. (s)