Wars of the Roses – success of a veteran novice regatta

War of Roses veterans

No one is really sure when it all started – the Wars of the Roses, the northern rowing challenge that is – not the ‘bloody civil war’ between the Plantagenets. 

Last year there was a conversation among the members of the Bradford Amateur Rowing Club (BARC) Veteran crew on the way back from another cold winter head race about how novice veteran crews struggled to find genuine competition.


Bob Cannell, Yorkshire Rowing Council Veteran Commissioner and a BARC member said, ‘We have really enthusiastic veterans at Bradford but many of us have only been rowing seriously for four or five years. Most got involved through their children or as a way of staying fit as we got too old for running around type sports.’ Bob, who has been rowing at BARC for six years, says that many ‘late beginner’ veteran novices reach a decent standard at club level but in races find themselves competing against 20-year-old novices or elite veterans with decades of experience. He said, ‘It is dispiriting to be soundly thrashed all the time. Many clubs don’t seem to know what to do with this new type of veteran and the number of late starters is rising all the time. These people become the backbones of clubs if we keep them involved.’

Bob got talking with some of the more gnarled and seasoned members of BARC, who remembered the halcyon days of rowing in the Fifties and Sixties when rowers would travel by train and use the host club’s boats to race in at regattas. The seed of an idea was born.
Bob got in touch with veterans in other northern clubs to gauge their appetite for veteran novice competition. He confesses that he was surprised by the response: ‘In virtually every club I talked to, veterans were really keen on the idea. They wanted more veteran novice racing.’ Working with BARC’s Terry and Barbara Edwards, Bob came up with the idea for the Wars of the Roses – a competition for scratch veteran crews drawn from clubs on both sides of the Pennines.

Groups of veterans from Runcorn, York, Tees, Doncaster, Liverpool Victoria and even sole entrants from Northampton and Scarborough clambered to be involved. People came in groups or in pairs or even by themselves. The event was held on a sunny and windy Saturday in April. Bob said, ‘We were genuinely surprised by the interest from other clubs and how far people were prepared to come for such a novel event.’

The premise was simple. Numbered crews of mixed ability were made up from entrants for a series of eliminator races in Bradford fours and quads with Bradford coxes, over a splash and dash 300m course – and, because no one had rowed together before, it certainly was splash and dash! Veterans from different clubs from beginners to hardened competitors had to find and form their crews quickly, a sort of rowing speed dating, and race as their various club colleagues yelled encouragement from the river bank.

For the finale, names were drawn by lottery to represent the white rose and the red rose – this being the Wars of the Roses 600m eights race. The reds won by a canvas. One of the winners Gill Porteous said, ‘I, who was born and bred in Yorkshire, club captain of York City Rowing Club, not done sweep oar for over 35 years, found myself sitting in the bows of an eight racing for Lancashire. The last time I rowed sweep oar it was in clinker built boats with Macon blades.’ She said, ‘I had forgotten how long an eight is and, without my glasses which I had left in the changing room in the dash between races, I could only see a vague figure who I presumed was the cox! Well it was now my boat and my crew and I was as hungry for the win as if it were the Olympics!’

The day was rounded off by a traditional Bradford curry attended by more than 80 people. After the success of the Wars of the Roses, it’s surprising that such events are not more common. BARC Secretary Barbara Edwards, who managed the day’s racing, said, ‘I have helped with the organisation of many regattas and head races and they are always fraught. This ran like clockwork and with good humour throughout. It was wonderful to see how everyone entered into the spirit of the occasion. The response from competitors was fantastic – one chap came up to me at the end to tell me he had been rowing for years and this was the first time he had won – however his friend had won in both the fours and the eights so he knew he wouldn’t hear the last of it on the way home.’

BARC now plans to run the War of the Roses Veteran Regatta annually and Bob Cannell throws out the challenge to veterans in the region to take part and for other clubs to organise similar events. Two have already indicated they are planning to do just that. He said, ‘The War of the Roses started as a bit of fun but the response underscores the appetite among veteran novice rowers to be involved in competition while meeting new rowing friends and having fun at the same time. I expect a lot more entries by novice veterans in northern regattas and more active veteran competitors overall as a result of this day.’ BARC President Richard Phillips was effusive. He said, ‘What a fantastic day of racing we had. It’s got to have been one of our club’s best public relations jobs for years – given the feedback. We had over 50 entries in a scratch regatta. People were telling me they would come back next week and do it all again, they had such a good time. You can’t get better than that.’

Words by Ian Green

Photos by Jeremy Richardson