Les Gee worked in education for much of his life, and for some years was very involved in establishing the Norfolk Schools Sailing Association, and the purchase of Hunter’s Yard for Norfolk Education Committee.
I was born in Derby in 1930 and I’m told I cried for my first boat when I was about two. Of course, it was only a toy boat at the time. I was always interested in boats and started building model boats and sailing model boats. At Easter in 1945 I had the opportunity to come on to the Norfolk Broads in a sailing cruiser with a member of staff from my school, a Mr House. We had two boats, Zephyr 1 and Beryl 4, from C&G Press in Wroxham. I decided, at the age of fifteen, that Norfolk was where I wanted to live. It took me until 1956 before I could afford it and had acquired a wife, and I moved to Norfolk after I changed from insurance to teaching. I went into insurance in June 1948 and almost immediately was called up for National Service on the 16th September 1948. I was a clerk in the Royal Army Medical Corps, at the Army Vaccine Laboratory in Wiltshire. Very small unit, we only had 23 people altogether. We made all the TAB vaccines for the army and the navy. I didn’t make it, I simply distributed it, paid everybody, drew the rations and things like that. I came out the day after my birthday on the 26th April 1950, and carried on in insurance till 1953 when I decided that I’d rather be a teacher.
Working in Education
Shortly after I was married, in August 1956, I started teaching in Bowthorpe Road at the Henderson School. I was only there for a year and a term as we were negotiating the building of a bungalow in Charles Close at Wroxham, and I heard that Norfolk Education Committee were building a school in Hoveton. So I applied for and got a job there, and that was it. I was back in Norfolk. In 1957, a group of teachers had persuaded Dr. Ralphs, the then Chief Education Officer, to allow them to run a sailing course at Martham, for children and teachers during the summer holidays. There was to be an inaugural meeting to form a schools sailing association in 1958. I attended that meeting, was appointed to the development committee, and subsequently, on to the committee to run the place, with such people as George Southgate, who became headmaster of Fleggburgh Primary School, Eric Howells who became headmaster of a secondary school, Melton Constable, and one or two other people, and we formed a committee to organise things from there.
Establishing Norfolk Schools Sailing Association
As we had no centre at the time, we continued to run annual sailing courses for pupils based in Martham Primary School. Slightly downmarket that, because we lived in the classrooms on camp beds, safari camp beds, everybody did, teachers and pupils, and there were outside toilets which had to be emptied. However, in 1962 Patricia Landamore had joined the Norfolk Schools Sailing Association and together we managed to persuade Norfolk Broads Yacht Club, of which I was already a member, to allow us to run a teachers’ course at the Club. It had to be run during the Easter holidays and was restricted to four days midweek. We couldn’t be there at weekends because they wanted to race. Then, through the good offices of Major Power, an ex-Commodore, and I think at that time, a Flag Officer of the Norfolk Broads Yacht Club and a landowner round Filby, we managed to negotiate with Great Yarmouth Water Board, the use of Filby Broad. It is still used by the Schools Sailing Association today although they’re no longer teacher dominated or owe any allegiance to Norfolk Education Committee. Norfolk Education Committee moved their operation to Whitlingham Broad sometime in the ‘90s.
Then things expanded a bit. George Southgate, the son of Dick Southgate who founded Southgate’s Boatyard in Horning, and I got our heads together one day in the pub at Horning, The Swan. We decided that certain teachers who wanted to be instructors couldn’t really be trusted with our children on the waters. We decided we needed some hoops for them to jump through, so we instituted instructors’ qualifications. We were not alone in this respect. A number of schools sailing associations had been formed all over the country. There was Hertfordshire, who still sail at Barton, and West Sussex, Northamptonshire, Hampshire, all of these had coalesced and formed a National Schools Sailing Association, and almost at the same time, were creating instructor qualifications. A little later we were possibly first into personal qualifications for young people. We didn’t really need those until we had Hunters’ Yard where we had quite big boats that we needed sixth-formers, senior pupils anyway, to take charge of boats.
There were no Health and Safety regulations at the time. The first time we used lifejackets or, should I say, buoyancy aids, was when we actually got on to Filby. Everyone had to be able to swim and that was thought enough. Great Yarmouth Water Board said they didn’t mind us drowning somebody but they were quite certain that we had to be able to recover the body! So buoyancy aids were the order of the day, and of course this developed into the BSS 3595 lifejacket, a two-stage lifejacket, which was developed in conjunction with the British Canoe Union. I was also a coach for the British Canoe Union and on their National Coaching Committee at one time, for a number of years. We started running intermediate courses in about ‘62 or 63 using Wayfarers. Wayfarers were designed just after the Schools Sailing Association was formed. Till then all the boats we were using were hire Half-Deckers which were ideal, but they were a considerable expense, and if we were going to have Norfolk Education Committee boats we needed them to be portable so they could be trailered to schools for maintenance. In 1965 I was given an office in Wensum Lodge where I took over what were the coopers’ workshops. We had people coming in to maintain boats there, but most of the boats were allocated to schools to be maintained. We also had some boats called Bitterns, little 11-foot miniature Norfolk dinghies, designed and built by Leslie Landamore, Patricia Landamore’s husband, of course. Very handy, that.
Eventually this schools sailing business became rather too much for the PE organising staff who resented having to do all this work and wanted someone to do it for them, so, in 1965, they put out an advert for a Sailing Instructor Fleet Warden. I applied for it and got the job. I was still teaching Woodwork at Hoveton. Dr Ralphs, Chief Education Officer, had made it pretty clear that he wanted a permanent base on the Broads which would accommodate all the boats. Various sites were suggested, in total, by the time we’d finished, about 140, all submitted to Norfolk County Planning, and all turned down. So Dr Ralphs was a little frustrated so I said, ‘would it be a good idea if we asked the Planning Committee where they thought it should be?’ So this was done and they duly came up with a suggestion. We met on the site in a field behind the pub at Stokesby which was entirely the wrong side of the bridge, it’s highly tidal down there, we’d have had to go upstream through Acle bridge before we could start sailing. A non-starter.
Purchasing Hunter’s Yard
Again Dr. Ralphs was a bit frustrated. What other suggestions? Well, I came up with the idea of Hunter’s Yard. Percy Hunter had formed the yard in1933 with his two sons, Cyril and Stanley, and in 1947, Tom Grapes started there, as a seventeen-year-old. It was a flourishing yard, and they’d managed to maintain their boats all through the war. They’d kept ‘em out of the water, they weren’t moored out on the Broads to stop enemy aircraft landing on the Broads, seaplanes and that sort of thing. I think Percy had kept the boys on a fairly short lead. He’d bought them each a home down Horsefen Road, and they were both quite comfortable. I don’t think he gave them very much pocket money, so when he died, really, they wanted to see some result for their labours. They had worked damned hard. So the place was up for sale. Everybody knew that if this boatyard was sold somebody would put motorboats in the sheds, the sailing boats would be sold off, they would immediately sprout bowsprits and would go to all the sailing clubs around to be used as racing cruisers because they have a very good reputation for speed. That was not a good idea, we all thought, so I put up the idea that we should buy the place. It went to Finance and General Purposes Committee two or three times, and was turned down. I was very disappointed but a few weeks later Dr Ralphs called me in again and said ‘we’ve been frustrated by Planning again. We’ve had a £100,000 allocated for youth facilities in Kings Lynn, it’s desperately needed there and we’ve been turned down again. We’ve got to spend it before the end of the year. Now, if you could possibly find me an outdoor education centre in the Broads area, and there was enough money left over for your Hunter’s Yard, we could probably get it through.’ Well, How Hill was for sale. I lived in Wroxham. I went to Drapers. I got hold of a leaflet. I took it in. I went to the auction with Joe Harper, Dr Ralphs’s deputy, and it was knocked down to Norfolk Education Committee for £37,000 with 350 acres… wonderful, wonderful. Yep. So, in 1967, after I’d spent a great deal of time negotiating the purchase with the Hunter family and helping Mr Lincoln of Appleyard and Lincoln of Ely, who came to do the stock-taking, we got Hunter’s Yard, which cost about the same as How Hill and that was that.
Boats at How Hill
When Norfolk Education Committee actually purchased How Hill there were a couple of very interesting boats there. One called Bobs was built in 1900 or 1901 and was an apprentice’s masterpiece. The apprentice was Ernest Woods, the man who designed the Yare and Bure One Design and built a great many other significant yachts on the Broads. A great man, Ernest Woods, retired at the age of eighty six or seven and promptly died. He only retired because his son had a heart attack and wanted to retire. Bobs was his masterpiece. It was a 0.3 rater, otherwise known as the Decimal 3, an obscure sort of boat really. Goes back a great many years. The Decimal 3 design, a class really, was inaugurated by a group of people who decided that the Yacht Racing Association wasn’t doing enough for dinghies so they formed a dinghy racing association in opposition to YRA, and decided that dinghies should be between 13 and 14 feet in length. At the time the racing rule was the so-called length and sail area rule which states that the length, in feet, multiplied by the sail area, in square feet, divided by six thousand should be the rating. So if you take the length of the dinghy, somewhere between 13 feet and 14 feet, multiply that by the sail area, and divide it by 6,000, you should come to 0.3. There was an existing class called the Half-Raters which were a little bit bigger, usually very long and thin, but dinghies are, by definition, short and fat because they develop from rowing boats. This Decimal 3 was 13 foot long, beautifully built, sailed wonderfully and it was bought as a wedding present by Mr Colman for his daughter who was marrying Mr Boardman and it ended up at How Hill. And it was left there.
There was also Norfolk Punt Number One, called Shrimp in which various people learnt to sail, including Christopher Boardman who sailed in the 1936 Olympics. Another gentleman from this area who won the Burton Cup fourteen times, so he must have been good, also, apparently, learnt in Shrimp. Shrimp was given to Bob Smithson, a marshman who was allowed to use it as a punt because it was a nice little one and could do all those dykes at How Hill. Bobs was taken over and moved to Hunter’s Yard, and I used her on several sailing courses. For a time everyone seemed to have lost sight of Bobs but she turned up at the Museum for the Broads. The last time I was there, she wasn’t there, so I made enquiries, and was told she’d never actually belonged to the Museum of the Broads, she belonged to somebody who was connected with the Museum and I fully intend, the next time I’m there, to try and run this person down and have another look at Bobs, because she was a really lovely boat, built of Austrian oak, thirteen planks a side, with teak trim. Very nice boat.
Boats at Hunter’s Yard
In 1968 I was told that I had three years to make Hunter’s Yard pay because I had said that we could probably continue letting to the public. The boatyard was to be run very much in the same way but we would have it during holidays and our schools would have priority booking at a reduced rate. We didn’t keep all the boats there, but boats which couldn’t be maintained in schools were shipped over to Hunter’s Yard for a bit of t.l.c. We tried to keep that to a minimum. At one stage we did buy six sailing boats from the Norwich Amateur Rowing Club. They needed cash, we needed boats and we made a very smart purchase of these rather nice clinker-built 11-foot dinghies which were conventionally built, very much like our Bitterns which were glued clinker ply, and so we had quite a fleet really. I was on the Committee along with Eric Howells and Maurice Pearson, headmaster at Downham Grammar, who was secretary.
At this stage the Norfolk Schools Sailing Association was mainly teachers but with some youth leaders. I worked with Cyril Hunter. Stanley was not well, and didn’t want anything to do with it really, but he used to come for coffee occasionally, and a talk, but Cyril was always there. It was his life, he loved it. He was paid a retainer of £500 per annum in those days, and he did most of the boat-building. I tried to help where I could, being a woodworker. We used to do the turn round between us. I had two rather unsatisfactory secretaries and then came a wonderful Loddon lady called Josie Webb who was absolutely superb. She could write my letters as well as I could. I took over Hunter’s Yard with Cyril’s help. Couldn’t have done it without Cyril’s help. And just one secretary. We had Roger Nudd, Tom Grapes and that was it. Cyril and I did the repairs. I must say that Cyril was a superb craftsman. I know one time when a boat came in which had been out on hire, someone had poked a bowsprit in the starboard front window and out through the front of the cabin and it had taken out the corner of the cabin. Fortunately most of the bits were in the boat and we spent a long time finding little bits, finding where they went. It was a 3-D jigsaw puzzle really and a lot of glue, but the boat was out next week.
We depended on volunteers for instructing but not for the boat maintenance. The instructor courses were run at Easter and at the start of the summer holidays we had the beginners’ course which usually had about seventy youngsters on it, manned by roughly 30 staff. We tried to have three to a boat but when we got Hunter’s Yard they happened to own a motorboat called Saskia, a two-berth motor cruiser, so she went along with the sailing courses as a sort of mobile first-aid department, anyone needed a bit of t.l.c., we had someone in there to look after them. And that was good. We mainly sailed the northern rivers. The beginners’ courses were mainly on Hickling and Horsey Mere and up and down the river Thurne. The intermediate course was sailing very much in the same area but based on Acle. We started the intermediate courses at Acle School when it was built and that was very successful. We moved from the primary school to the new secondary school at Martham for accommodation purposes. That was a big improvement really. We also had an advanced course which was run in Bittern dinghies based on Fleggburgh school.
Fleggburgh school had a wonderful cook who deserved a medal, if not a statue. The children fed very well there, and so did the staff. She looked after the children at the school very well too, I can say that from experience. There was some wonderful people in the schools. All this relied on the catering staff in the schools and the care taking staff, so we had to make a bit of special thing of them. They were duly thanked, presents, everyone applauding, it was done properly. There are, incidentally, three 16 millimetre films about ten minutes long. One was made on a typical sailing course, showing how children came in, how they were welcomed, how they ate, how they slept, how their rooms were inspected every day. All that sort of thing, and a prize usually, a tin of chocolates, presented to the winning dormitory. It was properly done, you know, it was all very good. They enjoyed it and we enjoyed it, the staff enjoyed it. We didn’t do it entirely for nothing. Dr Ralphs insisted that we had an honorarium, two guineas for a week, always guineas. The Chief Instructor had ten guineas and the Deputy Chief Instructor, five. All the courses were residential, for a week, except the teachers’ courses which were four days at Wroxham. We would have breakfast and immediately afterwards there’d be some sort of a statement of who was going in which boat, where we were going to, what to expect from the weather and that sort of thing. We would set off down to the boats which usually involved a bit of a walk, and off we would go. We would probably be at the boats by nine or nine thirty and we continued sailing till fiveish I suppose, in all weathers. Packed lunches would be provided. We did very well for weather really but there were occasions when we had a downpour as you might expect.
Moving to the Lake District
By 1970 I decided that I was having far too good a time. I had been teaching eskimo-rolling in canoes, at an approved school in Norfolk, Buxton Redhouse Farm School. I had two children, one who had taken the 11-plus and passed, the other was nine, still had two years to go in primary. If we didn’t move then we never would. So I bought a Times Educational Supplement and found an approved school, in the Lake District, wanting a woodwork teacher who could possibly introduce either sailing or canoeing to the school. They already did fell-walking and rock-climbing. I got the job. It was called Starnthwaite Ghyll School, in the village of Crosthwaite, half way between Kendal and Bowness. I was there for seven years and then I got a job as Deputy Head of a rather larger school in Blackburn and spent fourteen years there as Deputy Head until I retired. When I retired I didn’t come back to Norfolk immediately. I bought a boat on the Mediterranean in Yugoslavia, and my wife and I had one season sailing there and thoroughly enjoyed it. Laid up in Sibari, where the Sibarites come from, in the Gulf of Taranto in Italy. Sadly, the following February, my wife died very suddenly. I stayed up in the Lakes until 1997.
Return to Norfolk and Hunter’s Yard
I got together with Jean, who was born in Norwich, and once we were married, as I’d always wanted, I came back to Norfolk. We bought the house we’re in now in 1997. And, of course, I had to go back to Hunter’s Yard. I couldn’t keep away could I? (Laughter) I’d been bombarded with enough Eastern Daily Presses through my letterbox to light a bonfire – all about the sale of Hunter’s Yard by Norfolk Education Committee. I wrote to various people, including the EDP and the long and short of it was, it was bought by a Trust, and is as it is now. I did notice there are now at least two boat builders, a manager, a foreman and various other people. It’s a very successful yard, the boats are highly maintained, it’s progressive, I think, in many ways. I joined the Friends of Hunter’s Yard and was elected to the Committee, pretty well as soon as I came back and then a couple of years later I became Chairman and stayed there until I thought I was too old to do the job properly. I used to do their two-hour sails but, again, I thought I’m getting over eighty, it’s not a good idea really, particularly as the Wherry Trust, just up the road from Hunter’s Yard, had put an age limit on their skippers so I thought well, perhaps I’d better put an age limit on this one.
Changes noted in wildlife and on the waters
There are not nearly as many hire boats on the rivers as there were when I first came. Many many more private boats, thousands. I think if you put them end to end you’d be hard put to find enough mooring space for them. It’s fortunate that most of them are in off-river moorings, like the one that I occupy with my sailing cruiser at Hunter’s Yard, in the reed dyke there. Another good thing is the reed dyke, because it provides some sort of income, irrespective of hire. It’s always full. Years ago you saw very few grebes, you saw thousands, literally thousands of coots, quite a lot of moorhens, and the ducks were all wild ducks, recognisably mallard ducks. Nowadays you don’t see very many pure bred mallards, most of them are interbred. The grebes are much more prolific, the coots have virtually disappeared but I suppose you can’t have everything if you’ve got otters back. I’d never seen the marsh harrier until I came back and they’re now quite common. You occasionally see a hen harrier. I’ve only ever seen one once. I have seen a bittern flying since I came back but I don’t hear or see as many bitterns as I used to in my youth. The number of ducks has reduced as well. Of course, baby ducks are only a spoonful to a predator and they’ve got all the predatory birds, including herons which love them. You’ve got the predatory mammals like the otter and you’ve got pike. We used to have lots of visiting speakers and Philip Wayre, who ran The Otter Trust, brought a 16 millimetre film that showed a family of ducks which were born in the top of a pollard willow, leaping out, you know, rolling around on the floor, following mummy into the river, swimming across and the pike actually took one which was a pretty amazing coincidence for a film-maker wasn’t it?
When I first came we used to swim in the Broads, particularly at Irstead. That was absolutely famed for its swimming because you had a gravel bottom. Nowadays you can’t see what the bottom’s made of, it’s all opaque. I remember going over the side on a friend’s boat we were taking down to the Deben. We were going out through Mutford Lock, from Horning, across Breydon and we were on the southern rivers and the wind was foul, we were in a hurry and we had to catch a tide so we had the engine on and we caught a rope. I had to go over the side with a bread knife to cut it off and I can remember quite clearly seeing the propeller and the bread knife. You wouldn’t do that these days, I’m afraid, no. I wouldn’t want to get in, these days.
If you’re fairly good at sailing you don’t have too many epics. Epics are for other people. I try to sail well within my limits. My first wife and I had a boat called Viking on the Broads, a Cholmondeley and Hawkes boat. We had it for a fortnight so we sailed across the southern rivers and, in Coot Club, I think, the protagonists sail across Oulton in a thunderstorm and I did just that. We sailed across Oulton in a thunderstorm and sailed into a little harbour at Oulton Broad and that was quite a thing. I’ve never had quite such an exhilarating sail.
Plans for a Museum of the Broads
We wanted to set up a museum at Hunter’s Yard. This was in the early days of tape-recorders. The idea was that we wanted children to speak to all their elderly relatives and find out all they could about the Broads, possibly collect any artefacts, you know, bits of old sail, or sail-making tools, didals, you name it, and bring it in and put it in the museum. Also, to ask their relatives for accounts of their lives on the Broads in days gone by, and record it. These would then form a resource for other schools to do research. We were very fortunate in that we persuaded Dick Bagnell-Oakley to be our big name, and we had arranged with the Royal Engineers to build a concrete raft on the marsh at Hunter’s Yard and on that we were going to put three old wherries. Lord Roberts was given to us, came to Hunter’s Yard and we sank it in one of the dykes to preserve it. We also had two other boats promised. We had a clinker-built pleasure wherry, and a wherry yacht. I think we had the choice of Olive or Norada, as she is now. I think she was called White Moth in the old days and they were to be given to us. Nobody wanted them in those days, and we thought if we set ‘em up with a roof over the top we could perhaps keep ‘em going for twenty or thirty years. With a ladder up into them, we could make a very nice museum in the three hulls. We’d arranged for Broads Tours to bring people from Ludham Staithe so they would have the pleasure of arriving by water. This was duly put to the Planning Committee who turned it down because Horsefen Road is too narrow and you couldn’t possibly get the amount of traffic required down to Hunter’s Yard.
Leslie Gee talking to WISEArchive on 19th November 2018 at Stoke Holy Cross