History of Bray Lake - About Us
In a small picturesque corner of Berkshire, not far from the River Thames, is a 50 acre stretch of water dedicated to the use of watersports enthusiasts, and home to one of the longest running windsurfing centres in the country. Indeed, having survived everything that the changing fortunes of the windsurfing industry can throw at it, Bray Lake Watersports in 2004 celebrated its 25th anniversary. Looking at it now, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was ever thus, a healthy, flourishing business with a large clientele and an excellent reputation. However, it didn't quite start out like that and the journey to date has had its fair share of terrific highs and scary lows. So lets wind the clock back, and begin at the beginning...
From Lorry to Log Cabin
The seed that eventually grew to become Bray Lake Watersports was actually sewed in 1978 when two young entrepreneurs by the names of John Lindley and Nigel Fawkes signed up to one of the very first 'learn to sailboard' courses formally run in the UK. Immediately they were hooked and by the middle of 1978 both had become instructors and could see that this sport was going to go big, big, big. They formed a partnership and became wholesale agents for Sea Panther Sailboards (a British board brand), trading as 'London Sailboards' and operating out of Nigel's basement.
Windsurfing, or sailboarding, as it was then better known, was still very much in its youth, but its popularity was growing with breath-taking speed. Accessible inland locations suitable for windsurfing were hugely in demand by those unable to get the coast, so in true entrepreneurial style, John - armed with an Ordnance Survey map - took to the skies to scour the Home Counties in search of suitable venues which could be used to offer windsurfing tuition. A number of lakes were pinpointed, in particular one to the west of London between Windsor and Maidenhead, conveniently situated close to a number of major roads. Soon after that, the sailing rights to the lake at Bray were purchased from Summerleaze Gravel (the lake owners) and in the summer of 1979 London Sailboards formerly opened their first windsurfing school.
The Lake was in fact still a working gravel pit (affectionately known at Bray Pit) but what the hell - it was also an ideal inland location for learning to windsurf! The school operated predominately at the weekends out of a timber-lined lorry (originally used to carry safety matches), which acted as board and sail storage, mobile office and changing facilities. Once the business became established, the partners went a stage further and got themselves a caravan, which could be towed behind the lorry and provided better - although still pretty basic - amenities. Before long there was a flourishing community of happy windsurfers gathering every weekend at Bray, to either learn or simply enjoy their new found sport.
By the early '80s John and Nigel, along with their wives, finally gave up their other commitments to devote their full attention to their burgeoning business.
The Pit Grows Bigger
'The Pit' at this time spanned about 20 acres, and was still undergoing excavation when London Sailboards began teaching windsurfing. The club members potted about on the water learning or perfecting new skills to a backdrop of ever-changing scenery, as a large barge trudged back and forth with heaving loads of gravel dug out of the west bank. Gradually over a period of several years the bank was nibbled away, basically shifting the size and shape of the Lake until it eventually reached the 50 acre shape you see today. As the Lake changed in its appearance, the club did too.
The lorry was eventually replaced with a semi-permanent club house in the form of a 'no expenses spared' portacabin plus shipping containers, with landscaping consisting of home-made 'rustic-style' benches and tables dotted around, plus all-important barbeque pit. The changing facilities were upgraded slightly, but at best could still only be described as functional, with a large black tarpaulin dividing the guys' and girls' areas. The idea of hot showers was nothing more than a very distant dream! As for the kit on offer, life was much simpler then. You could have anything you liked - as long as it was a Sea Panther...
Training Centre Status
As business grew, the centre evolved from a weekends-only affair to a full time commitment open for business seven days a week from March right through to October. Out of season John and Nigel were concentrating on their rapidly expanding wholesale and retail business known as the Fawlin Group. The retail side of this venture trading as ACTIV and their first acquisition was the take-over of the London Windsurfing Centre in Battersea Park Road, London. Further outlets followed near Reading and Gillingham, North Kent. This was the time when every town needed a windsurfing shop! Meanwhile on the wholesale side, the Fawlin Group became import agents for Klepper, a highly regarded board manufacturer based in Germany. Everything was coming together very nicely...
During the early '80s the demand for windsurfing equipment and tuition was at an all time high. The popularity of windsurfing was phenomenal and it wasn't long before the RYA stepped in to proffer their experience and knowledge in developing a network of regulated centres all offering a standardised formula. And thus Bray Lake, now operating under the ACTIV banner, became a registered RYA school.
Managers Come - Managers Go
Bray Lake was not the only inland water to which John and Nigel had acquired sailing rights - they also had two other schools, based at Longside (near Staines) and Pumney (near Oxford), both of which also achieved RYA recognition. To run their sites a number of young lads were employed as Centre Managers, usually sticking around for 2-3 seasons before moving on - in some cases to start their own centres elsewhere. Indeed, many of the names who passed through the ACTIV organisation have subsequently gone on to help shape and develop the whole UK windsurfing industry. Amongst this 'hall of fame' is Peter Hart (RYA guru), Buster Nixon (owner of Datchet Watersports), Martin Noyle (partner at Aquasports) and Charles Kinsley (owner of Europa Holidays, based in Italy), to mention but a few.
In the mid'80s another centre manager was taken on, by the name of Simon Frost. And it immediately became obvious that "Frostie" was going to stick around, especially when he was given the go-ahead to extend the sailing season beyond October, thereby sowing the seeds for all year round opening. John and Nigel were happy to let him run with this notion since it allowed them to continue the expansion of their retail and wholesale set-up.
Up until now, everything had been progressing very nicely. The Fawlin Group was going from strength to strength, people were enjoying the challenge of this young dynamic sport, money and time were seemingly no object and the friendly camaraderie of those who sailed at Bray and its sister lakes made them THE place to be. However, as we all know, by the late eighties the booming economy was beginning to show signs of cracking, and events began to unfold which ultimately caused the demise of the Fawlin Group. In quick succession, the three-lake enterprise was shaved back down to one, when firstly Pumney came under a compulsory purchase order from the local power station resulting in the closure of the operation there (the lake no longer exists, it was filled in with fly ash), and then Longside Lake, because of its close proximity to the M25, also came under a compulsory purchase order when plans were put forward to increase the motorway from 6 to 10 lanes. Despite fighting to keep the sailing rights, the school at Longside was eventually closed in 1989 - the extra lanes have yet to be built!!
In 1990 Simon decided it was time to pursue his own interests, and left ACTIV and Bray Lake. By this time the financial markets had crashed and the bubble had burst in the UK windsurfing scene. Things went from bad to worse for the Fawlin Group when Klepper folded. They'd pioneered a new composite polycarbonate construction method that looked great but turned out to be seriously flawed, resulting in the boards splitting along the rails. Klepper were unable to support the masses of warranty claims that ensued and went bust, leaving John and Nigel high and dry. At the same time their American ski-wear supplier also pulled out of their business, resulting in the ACTIV shops being sold off and ultimately the collapse of the Group. Nigel was now beginning to pursue other business ventures and as a consequence decided it was time to leave the Lake and pursue these.
From the Ashes
All was not lost, however. Having retained the London Sailboards name, John bought back the operation at Bray Lake with the intention of continuing to develop it as an all encompassing watersports centre. Peter Prior, the supportive owner of Summerleaze Gravel and Lake landlord, agreed to the erection of a permanent club house resulting in the portacabin being replaced by a comparatively luxurious pine log cabin complete with mod cons. The structure was built about 100 yards further along the north shore providing clearer views across the water. The original containers remained as storage for boards and wetsuits. At long last members had a proper club house with that longed-for hot and cold running water in the changing rooms and proper kitchen facilities - even a retail outlet! But this funky new premises alone was not going to be enough. With the rate of growth in the popularity of windusrinf now much lower than in those early boom years, the Bray Lake business had to diversify in order to ensure its future. The decision was taken to start offering formalised tuition in other forms of watersport including dinghy sailing, kayaking and powerboating.
To drive this forward, John contacted Simon Frost in 1994 to invite him back, not as manager, but as part owner. Simon agreed and got stuck into resurrecting the activities of a much reduced watersports centre. Bray Lake was then re-invented, rebuilding its reputation right back to the status as one of the leading UK windsurfing centres. In the mid '90s a new director, Guy Malpas, joined the team who helped with the continued diversification of the business, in particular tapping in to the youth market with great effect. The dinghy instruction side was going well too, and by the end of the 1990s, the school had also earned recognition from the British Canoe Union (BCU) as a kayaking/canoeing centre.
But there was still work to be done. As the nineties turned into the noughties, the Bray Lake team recognised that they were going to have to raise their game once again. Not only was there more choice as to where you could pursue watersports in the immediate area, but there was now much more competition from the rapidly expanding health and leisure sector. Joe Public wanted value-for-money activities with all the extras including good centre facilities, accessibilitiy and activities that kids could enjoy during school holidays. Somewhere fun and friendly, yet above all safe... To attract a wider audience, a considerably more slick operation would need to be implemented - for a start, that bumpy old dirt track was going to have to be sorted out. It did not exactly send out a positive message about what was to be found at the end of the road! Fortunately, Summerleaze agreed and financed the tarmacing of the road. With extra modernisations and additions to the club buildings, Bray Lake could now look to the future with confidence.
In 2003, the original co-founder of Bray Lake, John Lindley decided the time had finally come for him to move on to fresh waters (actually they are salt waters!) and relocate his retail business venture, The Trailer Sailer Centre, to the south coast at Hayling Island. Today the Watersports Centre at Bray Lake is solely owned by Simon Frost.
As a centre for windsurfing, Bray Lake Watersports, continues to be at the forefront of the industry, keeping pace with all the latest changes. As the world of windsurfing enter a new phase with its launch of the Fastforward Formula alongside exciting and revolutionary designs in new equipment with a mind-blowing assortment of kit for all abilities, Bray Lake remains in tune with the demands from those looking to learn to windsurf or who already been bitten by the bug. Over the last couple of years the Centre has grown and expanded still further and stands today as a thriving business which is a testament to the dedication, determination, self belief and bucket loads of enthusiasm displayed by those who started the venture and to those who continue to nurture, develop and drive it forward to ensure that Bray Lake has a secure future over the next 25 years. Whatever that may bring!