The Queen, Some Footbridges and Wiltshire’s Wackiest Race; Chatting to the Creator of Devizes’ Boto-X

“When the Queen came to open it, the boat which was doing the ceremonial opening was on the lock below the Waterways Board yard. The approach was through there, where she met the union members, and they walked out along the bank, above the first of the top of the Boto-X lock. She met people who were lined up along the bank, trying to not to push each other into the water! She came to the footbridge but didn’t go over, she got in the boat, cut the ribbon, and the canal was open. But she was introduced to people, and she was laughing, I mean, Jill said it ‘looked as if she was having a day out,’ not on official business.”

“She was introduced to me as the chap who organised this ridiculous race up and down the locks, before there were boats going along it. She said ‘oh what was it?’ So, I started to explain. I was facing down the locks, and she was facing me. It was no good trying to explain it without seeing it, so I asked her if she would mind turning around, so I could show her. I stood beside her, which apparently wasn’t permitted, and I illustrated vigorously with my hands how the starting gun went, and everybody jumped to their boats, charged down the hill, fell into the boats, getting very wet in the process, paddled like hell, climbed out the other end, over the hill, and by the end, she was in fits; I’ve actually got a picture of her laughing. I was told afterwards that you should always face the Queen when speaking to her, and you shouldn’t wave your hands around rather keep them decorously by your sides. So, I was expecting to be arrested for high treason! I asked Bill to send her my apologies, but he said, you don’t need to do that, she was having a day off!”

Some forty-five minutes into our chat, John Petty apologised for taking up too much of my time, which I wouldn’t accept, I could’ve listened all day to his fascinating recollections. For John wasn’t feeling up to what he’d planned this weekend, visiting Devizes for nostalgic reasons and to plan a presentation on what he is renowned for here; being the brainchild of the legendary Boto-X.

If you take the Devizes stretch of the Kennet and Avon Canal, and the beautiful surroundings of the Caen Hill locks for granted, you might be surprised to know for decades after the coming of the railway, once the motorways of their day, canals were left to dilapidate. The Caen Hill Flight was reopened for leisure purposes in 1990, by the Queen. But prior to this much campaigning and fundraising had to be done, and as well as most likely the largest annual event ever in Devizes, the Boto-X was instrumental in that campaign.

“This was something specific, something which could only be done in Devizes; that’s what we tried to find.”

John Petty

If it wasn’t Devizes, I might’ve not believed my wife’s memories of the Boto-X when she relayed them some years ago, how “everyone came out.” It’s surely a story essential to archive, not only because due to health and safety regulations the chance of reviving it would be minimal, but the fact that, as well as the Queen, thousands upon thousands of people laughed, and thousands upon thousands of pounds were raised over the near decade it ran for.

John now resides in Exmouth. He came with his wife, Jill, to the Devizes area in 1978 from Ipswich. John was employed to run engineering firm, Roundway Mill. Having holidayed on canals, they were inactive members of the Canal Trust. The Trust at this time had moved their headquarters to Devizes, and so Jill became the Membership secretary, and John soon took the post of chairman of the local branch. At this time, John explained, “they’d done a lot of the restoration, from Foxhangers to Bath, and from Devizes up to Reading; but they were left with the twenty-six blooming locks, all forlorn with empty gates and side ponds.”

“We used to get annoyed, walking down the flight, thinking nothing was happening, but they needed another ten million quid, or something, to buy gates; we wished somebody could do something.” The Caen Hill Flight wasn’t used as parkland, “you went down the Flight, you couldn’t get across the locks, with no gates on them, and the other side the ponds had all been cleared out and were barren.”

The Rotary Club were assigned to organise an annual fundraising event. “It was suggested,” John chuckled, “we should have a dance, at Dauntsy’s School. We looked at each other and thought, bugger that, we’re not into doing dances!” Adamant an event needed to relate to the canal, inspiration came from the already well-established Devizes to Westminster canoe race, as they had to get out and carry the canoes around the locks. But John explained, “it was quite a gung-ho event, commandoes, army cadets, ranger scouts and pretty tough people. It was a great event, but it did nothing for Devizes, because people arrived about 2am, setting sail in the dark, and were gone.”

It’s unlikely the Flight would be the attraction it is today without John’s pitch to the union for footbridges. The only way across the canal before this was climbing over the lock gates which was forbidden through safety factors. At the time public assistance was reduced to pruning brushes, since the union didn’t want work taken from labourer’s hands. Because you’d need twenty-six bridges, they weren’t in the tight budget. As an engineer, John asked, “if I could get them made, would you blokes put them in? They all looked at each other and replied, ‘yeah, why not?’” Management approved his plans. “Each bridge had a plaque with the name of the donators on them; we had Pewsey Primary School, all sorts of schools and colleges, workplaces, volunteers from all over the place, arriving with a Land Rover and trailer with a footbridge on it. As soon as they were in, people started walking their dogs, and the place started to come alive.”

Asked by the Trust to raise some money, The Rotary thought, “why not do something big and bold?” And the idea for the Boto-X was born. There is little information about it online; to Google “Boto-X” will get you cosmetic surgery sites, a practise which came along during the reign of Boto-X, and John joked, they suggested suing them for taking their name! Though the name of this event is pronounced “boat-o-cross,” like Motor-X.

For those grown up here, this will be a trip down memory lane, for others new to the area, like me, what exactly the Boto-X was can be best explained by this video, submitted to YouTube by Noel Woolrych, who also played a major part in the Boto-X. It was, in short, and by tagline, ‘the Wackiest Race in Wiltshire!’

The two-day event ran from 1985 to 1994, encompassing the grand opening of the Caen Hill Flights in 1990. But John reminded us at the time the pounds were dry. “I went to my friends in the Union,” John continued, “who were friendly, because they liked their footbridges, and said ‘if you drop the stop planks into five locks, what would happen?’ ‘Well, don’t be silly,’ they replied, ‘they’d fill up with water, won’t they?!’ So, I said, ‘would you do it?’ ‘Suppose so,’ ‘would you have to ask anyone?’ ‘Not really!’”

The original idea was a raft race, but people would have to build the rafts. “You couldn’t have canoes either, because they’d be terribly unwieldy,” he clarified. Avon Rubber Company from Melksham supplied dinghies. “This had never been done before,” John delighted to tell us. “We got just about every local charitable organisation, The Lions, Round Table, Rotary, Ladies Circle, Mother’s Union, scouts’ groups, everybody got the message, without mobile phones and internet.” In a quest for publicity, John borrowed the boats a couple of months prior, and asked beneficiary surgeons to paddle across the pond for the sake of newspapers, television and radio. This was also an aid to finding out how long it would take to complete the course.

They even created a free newspaper to promote the idea, an eight-page broadsheet which the Ladies Circle raised money for through advertising. “Noel [Woolrych] took over from me as chairman,” John explained, after also telling me about the programme. “The Boto-X News was just a single A3 fold, Noel was Raynet, the emergency communications people, and provided radio communication.”   

Finally, after this amazing origin backstory, we got to talking about the actual race! “We had teams of eight, and each eight was given a three-man inflatable,” John recollects, “because that was cosy!” Split into two, half the team raced down five locks, while the others raced back up. “We had the start and finish lines in one place, so we only needed one stopwatch. We also said we wanted them to get sponsored hereto very worthy causes, we’re trying to finish the canal off, and trying to get money for the Bath Cancer Unit.” Put into assorted sets, teams could be made up of girl guides competing against commandoes, “it didn’t matter!”

The heats were timed, the money was counted, ten of the fastest teams of each category got a plaque, and the best sponsorship handicap too. This equated as the money raised divided by the time taken, “so that you could go very fast, and not raise much money, but perhaps win, or you could raise a lot of money going ever so slowly, and still lose.” The winning teams of heats were put into semis and a grand finale, and cheques were awarded to the beneficiaries there and then. “We raised nearly ten grand the first year, from scratch, and it poured with rain the whole weekend!”

“The ladies all arrived in their best summer dresses and high-heels, and by the time they got to the locks they were plastered in mud, and it was so wet, and so muddy that everyone ended up in hysterics!”

“The ladies all arrived in their best summer dresses and high-heels, and by the time they got to the locks they were plastered in mud, and it was so wet, and so muddy that everyone ended up in hysterics!”

John Petty

I wondered if the idea came from programs like It’s a Knockout, but John said not. “This was something specific, something which could only be done in Devizes; that’s what we tried to find.”

This historically astonishing extravaganza, which at its peak attracted around 25-30,000 people, sadly ended. John recalled after twelve events, though records suggest it started in 1985 and ended in 1994. It folded because of the finding of viral disease in the water. “Jill and I were involved for five years, then we were punch-drunk, thought it needed reviving and passed it over to Noel Woolrych, under very good committee.”

It was Devizes event of the year,” John proudly said, so I asked him if there were many large-scale events in town at the time, other than carnival, of course. “Nope! I don’t think there was even a carnival at the time, or if there was it….” John trailed off at this point, to continue affirming, “the Boto-x was the biggie of the year, no doubt about it. As I say, it was always the canoe race which got Devizes mentioned, but it had gone by the time people woke up on Saturday morning. Whereas we had beer tents, helicopter rides one year, and we had teams from RAF Lyneham.” At about 4:20pm on the Sunday before the award ceremony, John explained, “if you looked down the flight towards Trowbridge, you could see a little black dot, and that was a Hercules, which would do a flightpath up the Boto-X course!”

The Boto-X remains confined to history books, surely to revive this, or to organise something like this today through modern health and safety regulations would be a minefield. Though, John was quick to express, “we never had any complaints, locally, about traffic, bad behaviour, anything. And the thing, this ‘wackiest race ever,’ they called it, it must have been in contravention of health and safety regulations, but we were careful, we had a lifesaver in every pond. We were careful and so well organised, I don’t how we managed it!” Wiltshire Constabulary sent one cadet to police the entire thing, John fondly giggled, “I can remember her coming, this sweet little girl, who said ‘I’ve come from Wiltshire Constabulary to look after you!’ There she was, in a crowd of what must have been twelve thousand people, that was our law and order!”   

We breezed over methods of documenting this event, and I hope my efforts today will be a catalyst to discussion, photos and memories being posted on social media to build more attention to this, absolutely astounding event, perhaps otherwise lost in time. Then, people looking online for Botox will be completely confused by an overload of images of people falling from dinghies, into muddy Wiltshire ponds!


@ The Pelican, Devizes

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