Ahoy me hearties
- Credit: Matthew Usher
It is quite a spectacle to behold – a fleet of brightly coloured dragon boats lined up on the river in the centre of town for the Downham Market Water Festival.
Now in its eighth year, the event draws a crowd of thousands, boosting community spirit, promoting local businesses, charities and organisations, and creating some very memorable moments on the water.
John Doyle, mayor of Downham Market Town Council and chairman of the water festival committee, says he and the team of volunteers are incredibly proud of how successful it has been.
“We have got a river and a relief channel running through the town, yet for so many years they were almost ignored. We needed to find a way to highlight the river area and make it more of an integral part of the town, and I thought the best way to do that was to get people either on the water or watching something on the water, so we decided to create a special annual festival.”
John formed the water festival committee and began working on an event which would bring together the town and benefit the whole area.
“I wanted it to be a community-led event, not a council thing, and we wanted it to be free for everyone to attend. So we set up a working committee and came up with the idea of dragon boat racing. To be honest, none of us knew much about it, but we had seen it before and thought how colourful and fun it looked. The water festival committee has 12 members but we have an enormous team of volunteers who help on the day with setting up, the racing and making sure things run smoothly. Without everyone’s hard work it wouldn’t happen. It is now in its eighth year and it has been more successful than I ever could have imagined.”
As well as all the action on the water, there is a huge amount happening on the river bank, with entertainment, displays, stalls, food and drink and a fun fair. On the water, there can be nearly 30 dragon boats competing in the regatta and the committee has worked hard to keep the costs down for those who want to race.
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“At some events, it can cost up to £1,000 a boat to take part, but our boats are heavily subsidised as we want to be as inclusive as possible, so it is £160 a boat or £15 a head,” says John.
The river races feature teams from businesses, charities, organisations and community groups in the area and it is always a very competitive and lively affair.
“It is a great way of bringing the community together and also to promote some of the things Downham Market has on offer,” says John. “It can be very competitive and often people use it as a great team building exercise, but most of all we want it to be a lot of fun and we do have a lot of laughs. I am one of the only people in the town who has drummed for their boat underwater after we capsized. I just thought, why not carry on!”
The event, which is supported by Downham Market Town Council and sponsored by King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, sees the boats race on the Great Ouse Relief Channel around Hythe Bridge. Teams can be made up of eight to 10 paddlers and one drummer and no previous experience is needed, although each team member must be able to swim. A full briefing will be given on the day.