Tyne United Rowing Club

PUBLISHED: 15:07 11 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 February 2013

Tyne United teams have the benefit of being situated on one of Britain's great rowing rivers

Tyne United teams have the benefit of being situated on one of Britain's great rowing rivers

Mention rowing and thoughts immediately turn to the 'blues' of Oxford and Cambridge. But there's a rich pedigree of this rather upper-crust sport right here in the North East, as TV's Roger Tames discovers.

Gateshead is rightly proud of its sporting reputation. The town has produced footballers like Paul Gascoigne and Chris Waddle. The Harriers can boast a string of Olympians who've followed Brendan Foster's lead, while Graham Onions is the Gateshead lad straining to be unleashed against the Aussies as England strive to regain the Ashes.

How many people, though, would expect Britain's next Sir Steve Redgrave or Sir Mathew Pinsent to step out of the winning boat at the Olympic rowing finals and talk of their national pride with an unmistakeable Geordie accent?

Rowing is usually associated with places like Henley and Cambridge, not Blaydon and Dunston. Yet it was Tyneside that produced the great champions when the sport was in its professional heyday way back in the 19th century.

So the rebirth of a rowing club on the south bank of the River Tyne is a welcome first step back to the spirit of times when tens of thousands would line both sides of the river to watch the great professional rowers of the Victorian era.

Rowing attracted bigger crowds than even football has managed - with betting on the racing one of the major attractions. The top rowers were all spawned by the river's industrial heritage, with the heroes making major contributions to the design and development of the modern boats.

Tyne United Rowing Club is the river's first new rowing club for more than half a century. Based at the Blaydon side of the Newburn Bridge, it's currently enjoying its first full year in operation on the river.

Even though the first of the great Tyneside professional rowers, Harry Clasper, was born only a few decent strokes away at Dunston, the motivation for Tyne United is not primarily about producing another champion for the North East.

Clasper, like the other great Tyneside oarsmen of his time, Robert Chambers and James Renworth, were all working men who became champions of their sport. They were heroes of the ordinary people, unlike many of the modern rowers, who have traditionally enjoyed the privilege of public school and university backgrounds.

'We like to think we're quite a ground-breaking club,' explains Tyne United's Secretary, Chris Smith.

'We decided to form a new club that would be accessible to everyone and not just elitist. So we've gone out to schools and the wider Gateshead community to promote the sport and encourage new people to become involved in rowing.

'The response has been really encouraging. Plenty of kids in Gateshead are enjoying competing on indoor rowing machines but never actually get in a boat.' Tyne United have been running a ten-week course for youngsters from Gateshead schools and students from Gateshead College. They operate first taster days and sessions for adults to learn to row. Saturday morning club sessions see rowers of all abilities mixed into crews and out on the river.

The original Tyne United Club was formed after the Second World War when several former clubs, like Empire and Hawthorn, amalgamated, only for the club to sink in the mid-Sixties, but not ultimately without trace thanks to the new set-up.

'We want members to get whatever they want out of their rowing,' says founder Smith. 'We have two Great Britain Junior internationals in the club, and want to make sure that we provide a pathway to excellence for rowers with real talent. But recreational rowing is fine as well.

'The success of gold medallists like Pinsent and Redgrave, James Cracknell and others has made them household names and given rowing a high profile. It's up to clubs like us to build on that.'

Tyne United have had to establish their own boathouses and build steps down to the river. They've received vital help from Gateshead Council and Sport England while even the National Grid built them a roadway since a massive electricity pylon sits on their site.

Although there were more than 30 clubs at one time on the river, rowing is still strong in the region, particularly through our universities. Durham, who have already forged links with Tyne United, are the traditional local stronghold, though Newcastle might challenge that after their first win in their now annual Boat Race on the River Tyne.

All the rowers enjoy a single great facility for which they own a debt to the forces of nature, as Chris Smith and his newcomers appreciate only too well: 'The country really has three great rivers for rowing - the Thames, the Trent and the Tyne. We are just so lucky up here.'

Anyone interested in trying rowing should go to www.tyneunited.co.uk.

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