Rowing Club Stories 6 - The Day “Blue Peter” Came


Sometime, during the 1970’s, the newly formed Leicester Civic Society decided that it would be a good idea to tidy up the canal towpath and the surrounding banks. They approached us and asked if we would be willing to help. We said we would and a date was fixed. In the meantime somebody had decided that the effort would benefit from some publicity and informed the media. I have no idea how it happened, but word reached the children’s TV programme “Blue Peter” and they thought it would make an interesting topic for the programme.

It was agreed that the best place to base the clean up would be at the rowing club and, I seem to remember, as arrangements progressed it became obvious that the rowing club would be doing nearly all the work as the Civic Society had been unable to get much help from anywhere else! It has to be realised that, at the time, the riverside was in an appalling state and only frequented by hundreds of anglers, a few rowers and many of the city’s undesirables. The towpath was a rubble–strewn track, full of potholes and quite dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians. Normally, it would be lined with anglers, one about every 10 feet, who would think nothing about dumping their rubbish all over the place. The banks were completely overgrown and filled with all sorts of rubbish and assorted debris would be floating in the water, including unwanted dogs that had been tied to car tyres and thrown in to drown! Couple this with the surrounding area of scrap metal yards and railway sidings and it’s easy to see why most of the population of Leicester turned a blind eye to the area and just didn’t want to know.

The day approached and we were informed that the BBC would be sending a film crew along with the legendary John Noakes to cover the event. We didn’t know it at the time but John Noakes is a canal enthusiast and was very keen to do the job. He  duly arrived, at the wheel of a sports car that he had built on the programme. I think it was a Caterham kit car and everyone gathered around it for a good look and, for a time, lost interest in the clean up day!

Eventually, we got started. People set about collecting rubbish from the banks under the puzzled gaze of the assembled anglers and I took my place as one of the rowers in the “Tub Pair”. This was our basic training boat and was easily large enough for extra bodies who could pull rubbish from the river with grappling hooks. Soon after we had started, we were called to the bank by the Blue Peter film crew and asked to take John Noakes with us so they could film him pulling rubbish out of the water into our boat. Obviously, this was thought to be “better television” than collecting it from the bank and putting it into bin bags. Everything was going well until he pulled out a bike frame “the wrong way”! The director shouted that that was no good and could he do it again, please? So that the bike wasn’t lost forever, we tied it to the grapple before throwing it back in. I saw the same bike dragged from the river at least half a dozen times before he got it right! How the finished version was any different from the first (true) version, I will never know but it wasted a lot of time for us.

Later in the day, the film crew left but John Noakes stayed behind and helped us tidy the area behind our changing rooms. He turned out to be a really nice bloke who was genuinely happy to muck in with the lads and, when we had finished, he joined us in the bar for a drink. After the hours of filming and the disruption to our activities, the finished item filled less than 10 minutes of the programme!

Because of the delays caused by the filming, we didn’t get as much done as we had hoped and decided to have another go a few weeks later. One benefit of having a TV crew on the first clean up was that the Leicester Mercury felt moved to cover the event and maybe this led to the Civic Society being able to get more volunteers and the clean ups became quite a regular event. I don’t know who eventually paid for it, but I’m sure the clean ups led to the towpath being given a proper surface and the banks being properly cleared and grassed. 


Malcolm Neal