Looking back at Lerwick . . . No 1
This year June 25th will be a special day in the history of the North Road Championship Club, for this is the date that is scheduled for this famous old club’s 100th race from Lerwick.
Although the club was formed back in 1901, for the express purpose of fostering long distance racing from the north, two world wars and one or two other contingencies such as bad weather, interrupted the continuity of races from the Shetland Islands, hence the 100th anniversary of competing from this most challenging of racepoints has not arrived until 2016.
So what could be a more appropriate time than now to look back, over a few articles, and reflect on some of the outstanding performances by brave birds and astute fanciers over the past 99 races?
The first winner from an entry of 171 in 1901, was JT Hincks, of Leicester, whose pigeon flew 520 miles at a velocity of 815 yards per minute in a west north west wind
The latest name on the coveted King’s Cup is that of the popular Ivan Rich of Isleham, in rural Cambridgeshire.
Over the years the coveted King’s Cup has been won 10 times with velocities over 1600ypm, 31 times at speeds below 1,000ypm, and many variations in between. This year it was 1030ypm for 544 miles.
Only nine fanciers verified birds on the day from an entry of over 1,000 birds.
Only two birds on the day were flying more than 500 miles.
Now Ivan has joined the Hall of Fame among some of the best fanciers ever to have graced the sport.
Who was the best of them all? A case could be made for a number of past legends but, surely, the man to come out at the top of any impartial vote would be the late John Lovell.
Why? Well, the statistics substantiate the claim for him. He is the only man to have won the King’s Cup three times, and was also runner-up, and third, plus many other healthy positions. Incidentally, he also won the NRCC twice from Perth.
I am indebted to Terry Welby, the long-serving secretary of my own club at Swineshead, and no mean Lerwick flyer himself, for details of John’s Lerwick winners. They were good friends for many years and Terry was a close witness to the superb exploits of this outstanding fancier.
The first two wins were when John was farming at Donington (in south Lincolnshire for those who don’t know), and he was reputed to be just as shrewd and fastidious with his farming as he was with his pigeon racing.
The Lovell pigeons excelled on difficult days, speaking volumes for the manner in which they were prepared for their big test.
To Donington from Lerwick was 502 miles, and his first win was in 1965 when there was an entry of 1,507 birds. In a west wind, the winning velocity was 752 yards per minute, the second lowest velocity between the resumption of racing in 1946 after the Second World War and the present day. (The lowest in that 66-race span was in 1988 when Mr and Mrs Payne, of Kings Lynn, won on 504ypm).
Terry Welby recalls that the winning pigeon, timed on the morning of the second day, was a three-year-old blue hen subsequently named Blue Jean, and was of Kirkpatrick lines acquired from Louis Masserella.
The second win was in another hard race in 1972. This time there was an entry of 1725 birds, and there was little help for the birds in a light south west wind. It was just after 10pm on the day of liberation, in fading light, that the two-year-old hen, another blue, dropped at the Northorpe lofts in Donington to record a velocity of 841ypm.
This was named Shetland Twilight, and she was one of only two birds timed on the day, the other being to Otter Brothers, of Lincoln, flying 20-plus miles shorter.
John had, apparently, sent this bird with a lot of confidence as she had come through a very hard Banff race a few weeks earlier in good condition, and blossomed yet further in the build-up to Lerwick.
It was, according to Terry, unusual for John to send two-year-olds to Lerwick. They were usually tried and tested three-year-olds that carried his hopes from the Shetland Islands.
He also took third place on this occasion with Shetland Twilight, timed early on the second day.
The Lovell lofts came perilously close to completing a hat-trick in 1968 when they were second to Fred Hudson, of Lincoln, who won on a velocity of 1237ypm, although I understand that there was a pigeon into Lincoln that day to beat both of them, but it was a Federation-only bird and not entered with the NRCC.
This Lovell runner-up was a three-year-old grizzle hen which carried the name of Silver Queen.
By the time the third Lerwick win came along in 1989, John had moved to Lincoln on retirement from farming. His impressive home in the Canwick Hill area of the city was no random choice but had been selected after his usual meticulous research and, one suspects, to improve his chances of another entry on the King’s Cup. In the meantime he had kept his eye in with those two wins from Perth in 1977 and 1980.
Competition was now hotting up in the NRCC and there was an entry of 3, 766 birds for the Lerwick race and his winner, in another light south west wind, endured another solid working day to record a velocity of 1155ypm..
This time it was a three-year-old dark chequer Van Bruane hen which was given the name of Shetland Ede, and she had flown 480 miles to clinch her win.
John Lovell was a shrewd, highly intelligent man, an uncompromising competitor who gave no quarter to anyone. You only had to watch him play football in his younger days to realise that he did not like losing.
He aimed for perfection in everything he did, and the NRCC benefitted enormously when he brought this single-minded approach to the office of President from 1975 to 1993.
During this time entries for the Blue Riband race from Lerwick rose from 2019 in 1975, when Wigg Bros, of Knodishall, were the winners, to entries of 4235, 4450 and 4024, in 1991, 1992 and 1993 respectively.
As a matter of interest the winners of these three races were all from the Nottingham area – Jake Cotterill, of Boughton, GH Dobb, of Sutton in Ashfield, and Mitchell Bros, of Bilsthorpe.
From some of the shorter races there were entries regularly topping 4,000 and 5,000.
Also during John’s Presidency, the profile of the NRCC was raised with sponsored cars as prizes, and with household names from the world of entertainment and sport presenting prizes at the annual dinner.
His working relationship with legendary secretary, Arnold Dicken, was reckoned to a formidable, far-sighted one.
But it was as an outstanding pigeon fancier, shrewd in his acquisitions and always seeking out the best, in this country and the Continent, that John Lovell was best known.
Above all, he was recognised as the supreme Lerwick flyer.