There are moments in time which lodge in your mind, and stay there. Over the last decade, two such incidents seem to have had this widespread effect on much of Beeston. You may remember the first. If you do, you’ll likely never forget it. Nicola Jenkins definitely won’t.
It was a warm July afternoon in 2017, and Beeston had enjoyed a decent spell of summer. In the Rylands, the Canalside Heritage Centre had opened just the previous month, bringing with it an optimism of rebirth, along with many curious visitors exploring this beautiful corner of Beeston, where the town – and to some, the North of England – ends as it tumbles down into the Trent.
“We knew something was wrong when we heard the sirens – there were two” she explains “My son, Owen was a real outdoorsy type, and always getting into accidents – I used to joke we needed a permanent parking space outside A+E. I thought “I bet he fell out of a tree and broke his arm”. She ran down to the weir – ‘’and if you know me, you know I don’t do running’ where emergency vehicles were gathering “I knew it was Owen”. A friend’s daughter approached drenched with her mother : “It’s Owen” the parent said, sobbing “He’s gone”.
The police dive team was led by James Patterson. With only 10 minutes left on his oxygen tank he had to choose carefully where to search- a hunch led him back to an already-searched area, and that’s when Owen appeared. “James has always said Owen didn’t want us to go home” Nicola explains “Without him being found. Another unexplained ‘OWEN’ moment”.
“Four hours I spent down there, yet looking back it felt like ten minutes. I remember the air ambulance hovering over low, then the police helicopter taking over. I remember a cup of coffee in a Hard Rock Cafe mug, which I somehow put down somewhere and lost, and fretting that I needed to replace it”. The news – that her son Owen had rescued a girl from the weir where she was trapped, then went back to rescue another, but lost his life in doing so – was confirmed while she sat on the Weir Field changing room steps, and her life changed forever.
“Nobody thinks it will happen to them. It feels surreal. I couldn’t eat for a week, and just kept expecting him to appear again. There was so much to organise, so many things to think of. When a child dies – well, you’re obviously not prepared”.
Her police liaison officers, Paula and Simon “Were brilliant. They still are. Simon has since retired, but still keeps in touch. They did wonderful things to help”.
Then, something happened. Something spontaneous, something unprecedented in most people’s memory of Beeston, something that showed more distinctly, more emotively, what community means. As the news broke across the town, the town collectively threw its arms around Nicola and her family.
“I felt cocooned by it, kept safe” she says, as, through Facebook community groups, chats in pubs and over garden fences, Beeston tried to do what it could to soften the blow. A Just Giving page was set up in the first instance, raising £10k for the funeral. People shared memories of Owen- how tall he was for his age (6ft 1), how much he loved his rugby, how he would go and help neighbours dig their gardens when he saw they were struggling, with no expectation of reward and with a smile on his face. How this boy, so tragically taken away, had touched so many lives in his short stay in this world. At The Beestonian, our man-with-the-camera, Christopher Frost, discovered he’d snapped Owen walking in the parade for Beeston Carnival, mere days before the accident. A confident, handsome lad striding confidently into a bright future, blind – as we all are – to what would come to pass.
There were numerous small acts of kindness, with people volunteering food, offering help, sending condolences. Purple – Owen’s favourite colour – began to spring up over town in the form of ribbon bows. At one point, it seemed every door, every lamppost was adorned, as if to say “You don’t know me. But I am thinking of you, and my heart is with you”.
The fence on the newly opened Canalside Heritage Centre – which itself held a sculpture in memory of a young girl, Annie Grundy who had drowned in this river 90 years previously – was filled with flowers, purple, scrawled and heartfelt messages.
Nobody organised this. No one gave it permission. It was a genuine spontaneous reaction, a collective act. Then, the funeral.
This will be the second memory that will be burnished deep into the memories of many Beestonians. Myself, I was with my wife and young son at the Beeston crossing by the corner of Natwest, where Wollaton Road segues into Station Road. The crowd was thick with people, well past Hallams. Looking left towards the Rylands, people lining the streets. It was a sea of purple. Looking right up Wollaton Road, similar. It was, as Nicola says “Like a state funeral”. 500 motorbikes, rode by riders from as far away as Cornwall and Scotland, accompanied the 4 horse carriage that took Owen – in a full size coffin, too tall for a child – away from the Rylands forever. A town mourned.
Yet the story doesn’t end there. It is up to the living to keep the dead alive, even when the body has perished. Nicola has spent the last four years doing just this with an urgent, brilliant energy and determination to ensure Owen is with us forever more, and to ensure that no parent has to go through what she went through.
You would have seen the evidence of this. Long after the purple bows faded into pale blue, Owen has become an ever-growing symbol of the town. He gigantically runs, rugby ball tucked under-arm, across the tall wall high above Robert Ellis, immortalised in the Street Art that brightens the town. The area around the weir is named “Owen ‘Hero’ Jenkins’ Place”, and the shingle beach that emerges each spring on the Clifton side is “Owen’s beach”. The new-build estate on the Rylands side of the station has a street called “Owen Jenkins Close”. He is remembered in multiple ways, his act of self-sacrifice firmly part of the Beeston story.
On a practical level, OWEN – the Open Water Education Network, was set up by Nicola to educate about the dangers of wild water – has ran countless sessions in schools, fundraised many tens of thousands (and donates excess to the Air Ambulance) and, it is hoped, spared at least one family having to go through what Nicola and her family went through.
“I’m an optimist” Nicola tells me, “I’m a doer. I have this drive to make a better future, to use the tragedy and heroism of Owen to make the world a good place”. She sighs, then says “I still cry, I still have days I can’t do anything but sit and cry. I keep thinking he’s just on a long holiday, and I’ll kick his arse for worrying me when he gets home . Sometimes I notice pictures on the wall have been set crooked, or objects have been moved, and I feel that mischievous boy is with me”.
He will, through the memorials around town, be with us all. And for those who remember that strange, tragic yet beautiful Summer of 2017, he -and what he inspired -will never be forgotten.