How It All Began

How it all Began
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How It All Began
In 1951 two brothers, solicitors in a Workington practice, their wives and families, spent a seaside holiday on the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales. They hired a 10ft rowing dinghy for the period and such was their pleasure in ‘messing about in boats’ they determined to start a sailing club on one of the lakes in West Cumberland on their return. From such domestic enjoyment Bassenthwaite Sailing Club was born.

The brothers were Ieuan and Elwyn Banner Mendus who spent their boyhood by the sea in the Welsh port of Fishguard but had settled in Cumberland to indulge their main sport of rock climbing. Their wives, Valerie and Enid, shared their enthusiasm for the Fells but the advent of children dictated a recreation which could be shared by all the family.

Returning from the holiday they decided to search for a suitable sailing boat and to visit the nearest lakes – Derwentwater, Bassenthwaite and Loweswater to asses their suitability, not only for sailing but for establishing a club, for by this time they had engaged the interest of several friends.

Ieuan Banner Mendus was to record the search for a suitable boat and the establishment of the club and the following extracts are from a manuscript in which he also documented a season’s sailing – not only on Bassenthwaite Lake but at various championships throughout the country.

At the start the project met with misgivings. “Local memory recalled for us as a sailing fatality and we were warned of dangerous winds more awful, it seemed, than any that ever pliedd our coasts with shipping. Indeed, long after the Bassenthwaite Sailing Club was established it was regarded as tempting Providence. However, we knew a flourishing yacht club had existed on Windermere since the last century and one day we went to see the superb 17-footers of the Royal Windermere Yacht Club with their 300 sq.ft. of sail, racing in a heavy blow, and were confirmed that Bassenthwaite Lake would make an admirable sailing water, accessible from Carlisle and the West Cumberland towns.”

Starting a club meant that members should have the same type of boat if they wanted competitive racing and it must be suitable fro conditions on the Lake. Contact had been made with a boat owner already sailing on Bassenthwaite – Noel Beggs, who had built a 12ft sailing dinghy and who was to become the Club’s Commodore.

Ieuan writes: “We knew from observation that squalls could be heavy and vicious so we reluctantly abandoned the idea of International 14’s, Wildcats and others. Expenses, too, came into it, obviously the cheaper, within limits, the better”.

“Then in the autumn, my wife and I visited the South Bank Exhibition, introduced ourselves to the boat section there, explained our ignorance and asked advice. We were recommended to the Yachting World General Purpose 14ft sailing dinghy, newly designed by Jack Holt, designer of the enormously successful Cadet”.

“It seemed just what we wanted, not too dear, hull £115, sails £17 and the original specification of the Yachting World in commissioning the design had stipulated for a stable boat able to carry four adults, with a good racing performance. Built of bonded plywood with a hard chine, drawing only 7ins of water or 3ft with the centreboard right down, this boat in the course of a few years has leapt into popularity for both inland and sea sailing and as I write 750 of them have been registered with the Class Association. Commonly known now as the “G.P.”, the name is deplorably prosaic and it is a pity that no inspired midwife was standing by at its birth to give it a brilliantly imaginative name such as was given to the Firefly Class, but G.P. it is and will, I have no doubt, remain”.

“Back in Cumberland we reported on what we had been told, and then we learned the Royal Windermere Yacht Club, encouraging the development of a dinghy section, had a number of newly designed 14-footers so Noel Beggs arranged for us to inspect them. The demonstrator was C.H.D. Acland, soon to become a close friend and next year to be the first G.P. Champion with his aptly named boat Pointer”.

“Sure enough, the Windermere boats were G.P.’s and after a sail in Pointer, Noel Beggs, David Hatrick (who had been, with his family, a member of the original seaside holiday party), my brother and myself, returned convinced she was the boat for us and aware also of the advantage of using the same boat as Windermere”.

“The next problem was to find a suitable beaching ground near to the Lake. Although the G.P. is designed to ride at anchor, Noel Beggs’ experience of damage done by skiffs coming alongside to inspect made it imperative for that reason, if no other, that our boats must be hauled out. I know just the right place to provide us with temporary headquarters until we could find our own, the private beach of the Armathwaite Hall Hotel. This is one of the most superbly situated Hotels in the English Lake District, facing due south and looking the length of the Lake, with extensive beautifully wooded grounds running right to the Lake itself. I had some acquaintance with the proprietor, Mr. Alec Wivell, a third generation hotelier, and a deputation of us visited him. Welcoming the advent of sailing boats to the Lake, he kindly gave us permission to share his beach and the use of a large hut fitted with changing cubicles for the convenience of his guests when bathing”.

“We are still on that beach although with the increase in our fleet we have almost outgrown it. Determined efforts have failed to provide us with another site and we are in the curious position of owning a large sectionalised pavilion with nowhere to put it. So little of the Lakeside shore is suitable for headquarters. A vast area of land drains through Bassenthwaite valley with the results that the Lake has what is reputed to be the highest rise and fall any of the Lakes, ten feet. Last summer for example, we scarcely saw our jetty and the water rose even to the floor of the hut, this summer the jetty was equally useless for there was not sufficient draught of water alongside. Add to those extremes, the extremes of the shore itself which tends either to be so low as to flood or too steep to pull boats up, and the advisability of keeping to the more open northern end, and there is only one suitable site left. That would be ideal, free of trees, near the road, near a sewer, with electricity and water supply within reasonable distance, but the owners refuse to sell. The problem is becoming acute but we do not give up hope”.

Without Mr. Wivell’s assistance then the Club might never have been formed, but we were fortunate too, having the close co-operation of the owner of the Lake< Mr. John Wyndham of Petworth whi had just succeeded to the estates of his uncle, Lord Leconfield. He became our Patron and he and his agent, Mr. H.C. Pinkney, have always sought to calm our waters”.

“Having completed our arrangements we turned ourselves into salesmen. Our friends must have found us fearsome bores obsessed with the fanaticism of enthusiasm. Doubtless we could have talked on other subjects, in fact we seldom did and on the 27th March, 1952 the Bassenthwaite Sailing Club was formally founded, unhappily without my brother who conception it had been more than mine, but he will, I hope, be remembered for some time yet in the Club’s principal competition which is for the Elwyn Banner Mendus Cup”.

“At the end of that first season we had five boats (we rigidly encouraged the G.P. realising the necessity of establishing a homogeneous fleet if we were to enjoy good racing); the next year was us with 12, the third with 16 and now we have 18 G.P’s with 3 cadets (we shall soon have more as our children grow up), a National 12 and a Heron.”

To complete the story – the search for a permanent home went on and in 1956 persistence and negotiation secured the site Ieuan refers to and is the one the Club now occupies. Even after the purchase of the land at Dubwath there were further difficulties when local residents objected to the establishment of the Club. There was a planning inquiry at which Ieuan put on his solicitor’s hat, represented the Club and won the appeal.

Ieuan Banner Mendus became the first secretary of the newly-established Bassenthwaite Sailing Club and went on to become President of the G.P. Class Association in 1958. It was in that year, while taking part in a Club race on Bassenthwaite with his wife as crew, approaching the Ouse Bridge buoy he suffered a fatal heart attack as he rounded it first. His last words to the closely following second boat were “I’m clear ahead”.

Valerie M. Rickerby (formerly Valerie Banner Mendus)

Page last modified 01 April, 2008