5 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor | 5th June 2018
Five years ago, I was asked for a quote for a piece in the Horse & Hound, To be honest, it sounds more auspicious than it probably is. If you were anyone in the sprockets and grommets market, you’d soon end up getting quoted in Sprockets & Gromits Weekly (or whatever it is) but anyone of any prominence in the ‘horse world’ will, sooner or later, end up in ‘H&H‘, one of our country’s more idiosyncratic publications.
I don’t think it’s too wide of the mark to describe it in such a way. When, in ‘Notting Hill’, Hugh Grant’s character (Ben Thacker) was trying to infiltrate a press conference to see Julia Roberts’ character (Anna Scott), the writers decided that the most ‘British’ and therefore most comedic thing he could do was to pretend to be a representative of was this very title. It might be regarded as something of a bible within the riding community but in the ‘muggle’ world beyond, it’s a perfect embodiment of every ‘hooray Henry’ stereotype that equestrianism tends to invoke.
Okay, full disclosure: it wasn’t my first appearance in the magazine – and it wasn’t my last. I’ve done plenty of PR pieces before about store openings, a fire and at least one product recall. Since this story, I’ve been interviewed and quoted in there about the impact of the Covid pandemic, in 2020.
It’s also led to something of an ongoing rivalry between Helen and me. I’ve probably appeared in Horse & Hound about five or six times and, while I think I’ve only ever seen Helen in there twice (for Top 3 finishes in her section at various Events), she says it’s more than that. We both claim to have appeared on its pages more than the other.
To be honest, whatever the ‘score’ is between us, she did have to work a lot harder to get her mentions than I did; actually winning a rosette instead of simply forging a minor reputation as an industry rent-a-gob.
10 years ago | Vasco de Gama Bridge, Lisbon, Portugal | 2nd June 2013
Ten years ago, I drove over the longest bridge I’ve ever been across – the 7.67-mile Vasco da Gama Bridge in Lisbon. We’d spent a week on the Algarve but flown in and out of Lisbon, meaning we’d needed to drive the 170 miles each way – which I was, of course, quite happy to do…
I know it’s quite a nerdy thing to admit to but I like to keep a note of ‘records’ I’ve notched up on my travels – a sort of personal Guinness Book or Records of places I’ve been and seen. Highest elevation? Dercum Mountain summit, Colorado (11,640ft). Lowest elevation? Bombay Beach, California (-223 ft). Most Southerly point? Phillip Island, Australia. Tallest building? ‘Top Of The World’ Observation Deck, South Tower, World Trade Centre, New York City (1,310 ft). Biggest stadium? Melbourne Cricket Ground, Australia (100,024).
Sometimes you know the journey will involve a record-breaking element, as was the case the first time we crossed the Millau Viaduct in France (890 ft above the valley floor) – the bridge’s reputation preceded it. On this occasion, the significance of our surroundings was lost on us. Happily, because of the internet, it’s possible to learn all about things like that, after the fact.
As long as it is, most of this bridge is a ’causeway’ style bridge, built across lots of supporting pillars, with only one wider-spanning section, to allow marine traffic to cross beneath. For this reason, this bridge would never appear on any list of longest ‘single span’ bridges – considered by many to be the ‘sexier’ of the bridge record categories. Most of those notable examples are now in the Far East, although I have been across two in the top 20: The Humber Bridge (10th in the list at 1,410m) and the Golden Gate Bridge (19th at 1,280m).
* Wikipedia describes the Vasco de Gama Bridge as ‘the second longest bridge in Europe, after the Crimean Bridge’. Not only does that make it the longest bridge in the European Union but, between October 2022 and February 2023, the longest on the continent, while the Crimean Bridge was damaged as part of the ongoing Ukraine War.
15 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor | 27th May 2008
It’s brilliant what pub conversations can lead to, isn’t it? Fifteen years ago, I had a three year-old son and a Thursday night routine which involved going to the Hesketh Arms (now sadly no longer a pub) for last orders. A chance conversation one night led to a call out of the blue, months later, and an incredibly gracious invitation…
Thursday nights used to be quite the set piece in our house. Most weeks, we had guests round. I’d put Charlie to bed while Helen would cook tea for everyone. When he was asleep, around 8pm, we’d eat and talk. By 10:30, I used to slope off to the pub for last orders. By that time, various friends had made it there after touring a few other hostelries and there was usually a game of pool or darts in full flow.
One night, I was talking to one of them, a former pub-football-team team-mate from a farming family, asking him how things were going. He told me he’d just ordered a new tractor. I knew very well that it would be a John Deere – he was always very clear about his family’s affiliation with the brand. As I had a young son who loved tractors – when he was two, the first evidence we had that he wasn’t colour-blind was his ability to tell a Massey Ferguson [red] from a John Deere [green] – this was something I was keen to learn more about.
I learned a few things. Chiefly, that new tractors are not cheap. Which is a euphemism for ‘eye-waveringly expensive’. But, for your many tens of thousands of pounds, you do get regular updates throughout the build process, from the factory in Mannheim, Germany. “Yeah, this week, I got an email telling me they’d just built the gearbox” my friend informed me.
This became something of a running gag. “What have they built this week?”, I’d ask on subsequent Thursday nights, eliciting an update on the finer points of the developing ‘6930’ model. Eventually, the answer was “They’re delivering it in the next week or two”. It occurred to me that, to a tractor-mad three year-old there can’t be many things that are cooler than the chance to see – or maybe even sit in – a brand new tractor. “Would it be okay if I bring Charlie up to the farm when it arrives?”, I asked. “Sure, no problem!” was the reply.
That’s not what happened. One random Tuesday night, I got a phone call around tea time. The tractor had been delivered, to the dealership, and my friend was driving it home. He was wondering if we were at home as he was planning to pop in, on the way. “Yes, of course!”, I replied, with mounting excitement, looking hastily for my digital camera.
Ten minutes later, he arrived in his gleaming new John Deere and Charlie was awestruck. “Of course he can sit in it”, was the reply when I asked if it was okay to get a few photos. “You can have a drive if you want”, he then added. I wasn’t going to pass up this generous offer. The three of us squeezed into the two seats of the cab and I started up the 6.8-litre engine. A minute of brief explanation of the controls later (largely similar to those of a car), I engaged that freshly-built gearbox and we moved gingerly away.
I should point out we weren’t on a public road. Our driveway is basically a 250-metre loop road. In a car, it’s not particularly narrow – you barely notice the width. In a nearly-nine-foot-wide tractor, it suddenly felt like a footpath. With overhanging branches brushing the top of the cab, I carefully guided this brand-new 5.6-tonne monster to the end of the drive, using the ‘T’-junction section to effect a three-point turn in order to drive back. Throughout, Charlie’s face was a picture!
It was a great experience and I’m so grateful for the opportunity – I really wasn’t expecting it. Not many people would ask you if you wanted a go in their brand new car on the day they collected it, let alone this expensive, unfamiliar piece of working machinery.
The whole episode had one other happy outcome. A year later, we decided to drive around Europe (for the first time) for our family holiday. On the outward leg, we stopped at Paris and had a day at Disneyland. Coming home, two weeks later, we decided to spend a day in Mannheim – at the John Deere Visitor Centre. Guess which day our young tractor fan enjoyed more….
20 years ago | Monte Baldo, Veneto, Italy | c.15th May 2003
2003 was my first-ever trip to Italy; a week staying around Lake Garda with friends, sampling the local cuisine and the stunning scenery. Pre-parenthood, it offered us the chance to have the sort of holiday you pack away with other aspects of your life when you have a young family, hoping one day to re-visit. And that’s how it was that I walked down Monte Baldo…
We were staying in Malcesine, on Garda’s eastern shore. There were five of us in all: Helen and me – and three friends. We spent most of the week catching ferries around the lake and finding different places to eat in each different town, every day – which is absolutely the right way to ‘do’ the Italian lakes.
On one of the days, we’d decided to take the cable car from Malcesine up the mountain (Monte Baldo), to see what the lake looks like from above. Even agreeing to do it had been something of a challenge. Not all of our party were thrilled at the prospect of a cable car ride, being not great with heights. Someone had the reasonable idea that if they faced into the mountain from inside the car, the possibility of vertigo would be less pronounced. Unfortunately, this plan was ruined by the fact that, as the car began to ascend, it slowly rotated clock-wise, ensuring everyone had a chance to take in the magnificent views!
Once at the top, we mooched about a bit and – I’m pretty sure – took a drink or two in the bar. When it was time to descend, either I or the other male in the group had the idea of the two of us walking down to meet “the girls” back in the town. The idea was, I’m sure, initially ridiculed but we were determined and before long, we left them to board the cable car down and off we went on the clearly-marked footpath.
It started off as a pleasant hike. The weather was perfect and the view was breath-taking. What was there not to like? And then the topography began to steepen and the path became more challenging. We were two lads from England in trainers and suddenly, we were being overtaken by hard-core Alpine holidaymakers with walking poles. Had we made a mistake here? More disconcertingly, a little later on, one of the next passing party of pole-wielding mountain walkers missed his footing and rolled down the mountainside for an ignominious few seconds.
Our response to the challenge was to go all ‘Lord of the Flies’ and fashion our own staffs from sticks we found in the forest through which the path was cut. As the altitude reduced and the temperature rose, it became necessary for us to wrap our T-shirts around our heads, ‘Rambo’-style. We were going to meet this challenge with a typically British resolve to simply ignore the possibility that we were ill-prepared for the task.
Almost three hours later, the path began to grow less steep and the slab of blue far below had become a thinner sliver of silver just beneath us. Looking like extras from ‘Bridge On The River Kwai’, we marched triumphantly into Malcesine and straight into the bar we’d agreed to meet up at – to howls of laughter from the other three, who’d been in there for at least two hours, by that point.
Monte Baldo is 2,218 m at its highest point. Lake Garda is 65m above sea level. It’s not unreasonable to suspect we walked down two vertical kilometres that day – equivalent to one-and-a-half Ben Nevises or two whole Snowdons. It was a long, long way down.
What I remember most were the physical consequences over the following days. A three-hour workout of muscles you only use when walking downhill had the strangest effect. For the rest of the week, I could still sprint upstairs like before but even stepping off a kerb produced a kind of wince-inducing pain that I’d rarely felt before.
For some reason, Helen found this to be hilarious…
10 years ago | Old Trafford, Manchester | 13th May 2013
Ten years ago, Sir Alex Ferguson retired as Manager of Manchester United and the club won their last Premier League title. A decade on, it’s difficult not to conclude that one of those facts has largely determined the other. I hadn’t attended a trophy parade since an unforgettable afternoon on Deansgate to welcome The Treble winners in 1999 but I decided to drive to Manchester to add my appreciation for the 13th and final title of Sir Alex’s reign….
That wasn’t the only reason. A couple of years previously, I’d managed to interest my son Charlie in going to United matches, freeing him from the clutches of the Liverpool-supporting elements of the wider family before it was too late. This was to be his first opportunity to experience a League Title parade and I didn’t want to miss the occasion – because I distinctly remember wondering (against all hope) that it might be the last for some time.
As we would for a match day, we parked up at The Lowry car park and crossed the footbridge you can see on ‘North West Tonight’, over the Ship Canal, and walked from Salford Quays to Old Trafford. There, we joined the growing crowd of fans waving flags and awaiting the appearance of the team. Behind us were raised camera gantries with several familiar faces: well-known sports correspondents from BBC, ITV and Sky.
Before long, an open-top bus appeared and the crowd cheered its appreciation. Vidic and Evra at the front of the bus, just in front of Van Persie, Ferdinand, Chicharito, Carrick and Giggs. Towards the rear you could spot De Gea, stadium announcer Alan Keegan, Sir Bobby Charlton, a bored-looking Paul Scholes and, right at the back, the man himself, Sir Alex.
A microphone was passed around the players, giving each the chance to individually thank the fans. One or two took the opportunity to show off their singing talents (if that’s the right word). Eventually, it made its way to the back of the bus where The Boss gave a short speech about the determination of the team and his appreciation for the fans’ support over the twenty-five-and-a-half years of his tenure. Predictably, every sentence was raucously applauded.
I thought back to those drab days of November 1986, when the club lost patience with the cavalier style of Ron Atkinson and appointed this dour Scot who’d spectacularly broken the ‘Old Firm’s grip on Scottish football and shared a Scotland dugout with the legendary Jock Stein. Even to a football-mad 13 year-old, his credentials seemed impressive but the big question was whether or not that pedigree counted for anything in the greater challenge of English football.
For the next quarter of a century, we found out – albeit not immediately – that it would. And how! From the shaky beginnings of the late eighties and an FA Cup win in 1990 that began with a supposedly make-or-break win in Nottingham, an avalanche of trophies followed: the first two Premier League titles, two League & Cup doubles in three years and, gloriously, The Treble. A second decade of domestic dominance followed, with another European Champions League and a World Club Trophy thrown in. It was all a far cry from that first game, a 2-0 defat at Oxford United in 1986..
Many of those watching the 2013 parade weren’t old enough to remember a team not managed by Alex Ferguson; nor were they likely to be familiar with the experience of many trophy-less seasons. Those of us who were qualified thus knew not to expect an unbroken succession of trophies from whoever would follow. Pessimistically, maybe – but as things turned out, realistically. I mean it shouldn’t have been like that, given the reputations of some of those who’ve inhabited the Old Trafford hot-seat since then, but the relative struggles of the last ten years have only served to further underline Ferguson’s genius.
When he arrived, we were searching for our next Sir Matt Busby. He eclipsed Sir Matt half-way through his reign and went on to deserve all the adulation he received on that day and since.
We shouldn’t expect to see Fergie’s like again – but another ‘next Busby’ is still not too much to hope for…
30 years ago | The Plough Inn, Galgate, Lancashire | 3rd May 1993
It was hard to be a Manchester United fan in the 1980s. It was a decade of inconsistency, frustration and under-achievement. Worse than that, the dominant team of the age was Liverpool, whose relentless accumulation of trophies further highlighted the gulf between hope and expectation. With each season, the number of years since United’s last league title (in 1967) was quoted ad nauseam by newspapers and rival fans alike. Today, you may feel the need to refer to the word’s smallest violin but that’s largely because in 1993, the counter finally stopped at 26 years…
The inaugural season of the FA Premier League had been another rollercoaster of a season. Unsurprisingly, we’d lost our first-ever game in the new competition, 2-1 at Sheffield United, with Brian Deane scoring its first goal, after five minutes.
Six weeks later, I’d started University. Having chosen Lancaster over my second choice (Salford), I knew the opportunities to get to Old Trafford would be fewer than I’d enjoyed over the previous few seasons. While I was enjoying life as a Fresher, we continued to stagger into the season, drawing five games in a row and then losing to Wimbledon and Aston Villa.
Not that feelings were to be trusted. We’d finished the previous season in second place after imploding spectacularly with weeks to go. And then there was the heady 85-86 season which began with ten straight wins and ended with 16 points dropped in the last ten games. Bitter experience had shown that winning titles required more than mere excitement.
Cantona continued to galvanise the team, inspiring a crucial win at Norwich. Steve Bruce famously did the same, deep into added time, at home to Sheffield Wednesday. A midweek win at Crystal Palace meant that Aston Villa had to beat Oldham to stay in the race on the Sunday. When Oldham got an unlikely win, the wait was finally over – the title was coming back to Manchester.
On Sky’s Monday Night Football, the match at home to Blackburn became the coronation of the first-ever Premier League champions. Kevin Gallagher threatened to dampen the party by scoring for the visitors before goals from Giggs, Ince and – improbably – a Gary Pallister free kick made it 3-1 to United.
I was watching with friends at the Plough Inn in Galgate, a short walk from Lancaster University. At the final whistle, it was a scene of celebrating United fans finally exorcising the ghosts of Charlton, Law and Best. For many, like me, the wilderness years had extended well beyond their lifetime.
As Bruce and Robson lifted the trophy, we witnessed the genial smile of an octogenarian Matt Busby and knew that, truly, the flame of greatness had been passed. For as long as I could remember before that point, I had supported a team, that weren’t the best in England. Now, finally, the pecking order had changed…
25 years ago | River Thames, London, UK | c.29th April 1998
In April 1998, we are invited to attend the Your Horse magazine industry awards in London. In their fourth year, they were to be presented once again aboard a pleasure cruiser which set off from the Royal Festival Pier, sailing down the Thames almost to the tidal barrier and then back. It was a full day out, and quite ‘liquid’ in more ways than one…
In addition, we’d been nominated for an award: ‘Best Mail Order Company’, with the winner voted for by the readership With more readers than any other magazine in the UK (even the more widely-known Horse & Hound), it was quite an accolade. It seemed to be as close as it was possible to get to an ‘Oscar’ ceremony for such a relatively small industry.
I took the train down to Euston and then the tube to Waterloo. Not being familiar with this part of London, ‘south of the river’, and before the advent of the mobile internet, I expected to need to take a taxi from there. When I got to the front of the taxi queue, I was surprised when the cabbie claimed not to know where The Festival Pier was. Even an out-of-towner from the North knows that every taxi driver has to do ‘The Knowledge’. It made no sense.
It started to make a lot more sense a couple of minutes later when I spotted a sign nearby, advising that the Royal Festival Hall was only a two-minute walk away. So, obviously, was the pier and clearly, the cabbie hadn’t waited for so long in that taxi rank just to get a thirty-second fare.
To tell you the truth, I wish I could remember as much detail about the day itself. The sun shone brightly as we wound our way downstream, showing London’s famous sights, as it often tends to do, in their most flattering light. I think we were already on the hors d’oeuvres as we sailed beneath Tower Bridge. The main course arrived at around the same time as building site of the much-anticipated Millennium Dome. After dessert and drinks, we arrived at the Thames Barrier, where the boat turned around and our hosts started to announce the awards.
As the title to this post suggests, we won the award in our category and I stepped forward to accept the framed certificate and pose for a picture. It’s important here not to get too carried away: winning at one’s industry awards is hardly comparable to collecting an ‘Oscar’ in front of the world’s media but I have to say, it’s a whole lot closer than not winning one. It was still a genuinely thrilling experience and a lovely way to gain a bit of positive PR for months thereafter. Nowadays, the social media value can make the value of such occasions exponentially higher.
Anyway, I’m pleased to have had that experience. It was a lovely day, with good food and good company and it involved a highlight to my career that not everyone can say they have had. That we went on to win this award for a number of years made it even more special.
10 years ago | Ashton-in-Makerfield Golf Club, Wigan | 20th April 2013
Ten years ago, I was at a charity fundraiser run by our local rugby club and arrived to find that I was to be seated next to a man you’d describe as rugby league royalty – although my grandma might have called him something else…
I had no idea there was going to be anyone noteworthy there but when we arrived, we learned that the organisers had pulled some strings and secured the after-dinner speaking services of St. Helens, Leigh and Great Britain legend, Alex Murphy.
And so I spent much of the evening chatting to a man who’d captained three different teams to win the Challenge Cup, a man who’d had a brief, controversial time as coach of Wigan and the man I’m pretty sure was only ever referred to by my grandma as “that dirty bugger”.
When he rose to speak, I got the sense that he was ‘phoning it in’, probably from delivering the same classic material several times a week over many years to an invariably uncritical audience. But that didn’t matter to me because when I spoke to him, one to one, it was the Alex Murphy I remembered: the gravelly voice, “the Mouth”, the glint in the eye, the fire still burning in his belly.
You’re advised never to meet your heroes but that didn’t bother me because, like anyone in Wigan, ‘Murph’ was always more of a pantomime villain – and even in his seventies, he knew how to play his part. He might have been a swine on the field to opposing fans but the charisma that gave him his competitive edge as a player was still there that night – and it made him great company.
5 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor | 10th April 2018
Five years ago, I found myself on a local history Facebook group, in a conversation with a regular poster who knew a surprising amount about our family history. It led to the sharing of an old family secret that’s now available for anyone to read, for many years to come…
Stan Aspinall was the Facebook poster at the centre of this story. Stan is a retired teacher turned town historian who, it turned out, was in the process of writing a book about the history of Standish. As the former Deputy Head of Standish High School in its early days, he was also very well-acquainted with my grandma, Marjorie Bentham, a leading voice in the campaign to build the school and its first Chair of Governors.
We swapped a couple of stories about her and then it occurred to me that I had a couple of nuggets of information that I was sure would be of interest to Stan. The story I had in mind was a little delicate in nature so I warned Stan that it wasn’t really my story alone, to share so as long as there were no living relatives beyond our family, I was happy for him to include it.
A year or so previously, I’d become interested in genealogy and set up a family tree on Ancestry.com. As a result, I’d discovered all sorts of long-forgotten tales: the fact my Grandad had two older brothers who’d died in infancy (both called James – which is why he wasn’t); the story of Harold Latham who was killed in the First World War just over a month before the Armistice; and the story of Charles Ford Asbrey who left Standish, was called up in Australia and died in France after the War had ended, probably of ‘Spanish Flu’. I’d also begun to take note of several verbal recollections within the family.
And it was one of these whispered recollections that was the story I thought would be of interest to Stan. It concerned Ernie Bentham (1877-1945), my great-grandfather… …and his long-term extra-marital relationship.
In 1924, Ernie opened a Cinema in Standish – ‘The Palace’ – which stood where ‘The Hoot’ bar can be found today. Next door, was the sweet shop, run by a young lady called Hettie Charnock, who was almost twenty years younger than Ernie – and his mistress.
By all accounts, it was an ‘open secret’. In a close-knit village (it seems odd to use that word for Standish today but my Grandma always called it “the village”), everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business and anything as scandalous as adultery was almost impossible to keep secret. So why did the relationship last so long? And why did my great-grandmother, Margaret (1877-1955), appear to tolerate it?
One reason suggested was that Margaret had been left with “a disability” following a cart accident, around the time she was pregnant with my grandad’s younger brother Sydney. The story goes that she was aware of – and perhaps even gave her blessing to – her husband’s need to ‘stray’, as a consequence of it.
Had Miss Charnock gone on to have a family of her own, I don’t think it would have been fair to expose this story – at risk of being accused of besmirching a woman’s name, based on little more than rumour. But two things happened to remove such a concern. First, Stan was already well aware of the ‘affair’ and second, Hettie died, aged 100, in 1996, still known by her maiden name. That she lived for so long and never married suggests that she may have really loved Ernie, even decades after his own death. If I’d known all this, I could have even asked her myself – until the age of 23. That sort of realisation starts to make seemingly ‘ancient’ history suddenly begin to feel very real.
And so, with no reason not to publish, the story found its way into Stan’s book and a copy sits today on my bookshelf, waiting to be unearthed in decades to come by someone else who’d like to know a little more about their forebears. Far from being kept in the shadows out of mis-placed judgement and shame, I’m grateful to Stan for including the story – I found it helpful to my understanding of my ancestors and in a hundred years from now, I’m sure that sense of connection will remain just as strong.
30 years ago | Drunken Duck Inn, Barngates, Cumbria | 9th April 1993
In our first year at University, a few of us decided to meet up in the Lake District over the Easter weekend. We arrived at the campsite at Low Wray, on the north-western shore of Windermere and set up our tents.
With everyone having assembled by around tea-time on the Maundy Thursday, there was nothing else left to do but go to the pub. But where was it?
Fortunately, someone had spotted a small sign pointing up the hill about a mile and.a half back down the road to the site. That was good enough for us, so off we wandered, hoping it wouldn’t be too much further from the sign.
Not only was it almost another mile further on but the rest of the walk was a steep incline, climbing for over 300 feet. We were all starting to work up a thirst. Hopefully, this place would be worth the effort required to get there.
Was it ever! We arrived at a charming pub called the Drunken Duck Inn, ordered a round of Old Peculiers and sat outside, around the bench tables across the road. In the mild spring sunshine, we chatted and ate and drank as the evening wore on. Through nothing but pure luck, it just became one of those magical nights when all the elements were perfect.
Not only did we go back the next night but we were there the next year as well, each time expecting the experience couldn’t possibly measure up to that mythical first night. Every time, we were pleasantly surprised that it did. The place seemed to be enchanted, as if it could only be accessed from the outside world via a portal.
I’ve been back a few times since then, over the years – I even bought the T-shirt on one visit. It’s gone a little more gentrified in recent times but at least it’s still there, still legendary. One day I’ll go again and when I do, I’ll sit at those bench tables across the road.
30 years ago | Shevington Moor – South Woodham Ferrers, Essex | 27th March 1993
Thirty years ago, I spent a weekend in Essex, visiting family. Just over two years after passing my driving test, it was by far the furthest drive I’d done at that point. And it involved the setting of something of a milestone which I doubt I’ll ever come close to repeating…
The weekend before Easter 1993, I nipped down to Essex. To avoid traffic, I set off at about 10pm. This was not an uncommon practice; the M6 Toll was still years away and the M6 between Walsall and Birmingham was notoriously liable to congestion at most times of day.
The other major difference to the roads in those days was the lack of speed cameras. With so many miles to cover and so little traffic, it was also not uncommon to make the best of the conditions – and the anonymity. And so it was that, in this Ford Sierra, I completed the journey to Essex in by far the shortest time it has ever taken me.
It may be thirty years on but I’m still not going to say how quickly it took me to cover the 241 miles – or the average speed I worked it out to have been. The only detail I will add is that I was only overtaken once throughout the whole journey: by a police car with its ‘blues and twos’ on, around Walsall. Call me cautious but it felt like the safest course of action all round, to slow down and let him pass.
It’s important to say that I’m not particularly proud of this ‘record’ and I include the story more to highlight the differences between those times and today. Given the amount of road surveillance added over the years since, it’s probably safe to conclude that it’s almost impossible for anyone to attempt to do anything similar – which is probably better for everyone using the roads.
15 years ago | Great Langdale Campsite, Langdale Valley, Cumbria | 22nd March 2008
From my first year at University, it became something of a tradition for us to go camping in the Lake District over the Easter Weekend. More on that in weeks to come but in 2008, fifteen years after our first camping weekend, we decided to resurrect the old tradition….
There are two things you need to know here:
1, we were no longer students and
2, that year, Easter was about as early as it’s possible to be.
If I remember correctly, one reason for the Easter reunion that year was the impending nuptials of one of our number. Most of the rest of us had already been married off and/or produced offspring. In my own case, with a three-and-a-half year-old by then, it was a very rare opportunity for a night out.
Unlike our first-ever Easter camping weekend, we were reasonably well-prepared. The standard of tents, sleeping bags and other equipment reflected that we’d all become better-funded than in our student days.
Just like our first-ever camping weekend, we did as little camping stuff as possible and disappeared to the nearest pub – in this case, the Hikers’ Bar at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel, I think. And there the evening unfolded as planned, and all was well.
The next morning, I awoke to one of the worst hangovers I can remember. It was made many times worse by the fact that when I opened the tent for some fresh air, I discovered it was actually snowing.
The best thing to do was get out of the tent, sit in the car, with the engine and heating on and nurse the half-bottle of Fanta that I had until such point that I was able to function again.
What felt like weeks later, I became marginally less sickly and 100% more legal to drive. There was nothing else to do but say “we must do this again”* and limp home to groan on the coach and elicit very little sympathy. Good times!
40 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor | 17th March 1983
If you wanted schoolboy humour on the telly in the early 1980s, there were plenty of places to find it but for the ‘gold standard’ of the form, there was only one place to look: The Kenny Everett Television Show...
TV-wise, Thursdays were the best night of the week. Perhaps it helped that my Dad used to work late on a Thursday, so it was easier to decide which of the four channels our only colour television would be tuned to, without being over-ruled. As a result, it was inevitably tuned to BBC1 on Thursdays.
I loved Tomorrow’s World and, obviously, Top of the Pops was always ‘appointment TV’, back then. As soon as the TOTP credits had rolled, it was time for ‘Cuddly Ken’ to assail our senses – and what a half-hour it was!
‘Sid Snot’, ‘Gizzard Puke’, ‘Marcel Wave’, ‘Brother Lee Love’, ‘Maurice Mimer’ and ‘Reg Prescott’ were among the blizzard of comedy characters unleashed on our disbelieving eyes. Each one was an instant hit with perfectly-crafted catch-phrases for playground recital, the next day.
I remember liking things that I knew were popular before Kenny Everett but I think it’s fair to say that his show was among the first things I liked because I knew it was ‘cool’. I also can’t think of anything before Ken that I loved specifically because it was subversive. You knew it often skated along the ragged edge of what humour could get away with – which made it all the more appealing.
And there was no greater example of the show’s risqué quality than the sketches featuring the spoof Hollywood actress character, ‘Cupid Stunt’. I can still remember it being one of the highlights of my nine year-old life when I thought to reverse the spoonerism – and shocked myself with what I’d discovered: the most obscene in-joke imaginable, hiding in plain sight.
Ken as Cupid may have offended millions and pushed the boundaries of television’s final taboo, in a far more restrictive age than today – but it really was all done in the best possible taste…
40 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor | 10th March 1983
What child of the 1970s and 80s didn’t love an American car chase show? I’d been an avid viewer of The Dukes of Hazzard for a few years but one day, I saw something that immediately challenged The Dukes’ status as My Favourite TV Show – Knight Rider…
“Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of man who does not exist. Michael Knight, a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless in a world of criminals who operate above the law.”
With its synth-pop theme tune and mysterious opening monologue, I was instantly hooked. Suddenly, Bo and Luke in “The General Lee”, their orange ’69 Dodge Charger, started to feel dated and cartoonish, a muscle-car ode to the previous decade.
In contrast, ‘KITT’ was installed with futuristic AI, the cutting-edge looks of an ’82 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am – and he was bullet-proof! It was as 1980s as it could be. What nine year-old could resist the conclusion that this was the future of TV entertainment?
There was another key difference: instead of outrunning incompetent, corrupt cops every week, Michael Knight was an agent for F.L.A.G., the Foundation for Law And Government. As with Star Wars the honour and chivalry of medieval knights was irresistibly fused with mind-blowing technology, like a watch you could make calls from.
Clearly, I was in the key demographic for the show. Just as with E.T., it was so in tune with our worldview, it felt like Hollywood had a direct line to the playground at St. Wilfrid’s Primary School. What I didn’t know, until writing this, was this bit of historical detail, which I found on Wikipedia:
“The studio held a marketing campaign for Knight Rider. Fans could write to the network and they would receive a pamphlet detailing some features about KITT. The first campaign was held in August 1982. The pamphlet said, “The Competition is NO Competition!” KITT was pictured parked alongside a vehicle that resembled the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard.”
For the record, I never fell out of love with The Dukes of Hazzard but they did become an ‘old favourite’ rather than a current obsession. Before the year was out, The A-Team had also arrived on our screens and, rather than creating competition between these shows (and others, like Magnum, P.I. and The Fall Guy), it simply felt like a golden age of television – although I do remember playground arguments about which one was best.
30 years ago | Roker Park, Sunderland | 27th February 1993
Thirty years ago, I stayed at a friend’s house in South Shields, while he was home from University for the weekend. I’ve been to some pretty cold places around the world but I’ll never forget just how cold it was to stand in a bus queue in Sunderland in February…
Weekends away from University were a great way to see different parts of the country, whether it was visiting friends from home at their Universities or with friends from Uni back to their homes. Over this weekend, aside from the usual activities (a tour of various local pubs) that such weekends usually entailed, we also planned to go to ‘the match’.
The club in question was Sunderland and their ground in those days was Roker Park – an ‘old school’-type ground with wooden stands and end terraces, which had hosted four games at the 1966 World Cup. Naturally, we stood in the Fulwell End, the home fans’ stronghold.
The opponents that day were West Ham United, whom fate had decided would give this game extra notability, due to the untimely death, three days previously, of their (and England’s) former captain, Bobby Moore.
Before the game, 19,068 people observed a minute’s silence as immaculately as, I think, I’ve ever known a crowd to. Moore may have been a West Ham legend but he was (and remains today) the only Englishman to lift the World Cup. It was a powerful moment and a fitting tribute. With the formalities over, the home fans then spent most of the next two hours singing less-than-complimentary songs about Newcastle United fans.
The game itself was a fairly uneventful 0-0 draw which would struggle to live long in the memory – although it earned a point for each side that would keep Sunderland safe from relegation and see West Ham promoted to the Premier League.
What I do remember is the wait for the bus back to South Shields, afterwards. Even though I was fairly suitably attired for the time of year, standing for twenty minutes in the teeth of a bitter easterly wind coming straight off the North Sea is just about the coldest thing I can ever remember doing.
Honestly. I’ve been in far colder temperatures: -20°C in New York, one January; a similar reading in Pennsylvania, in another – and both with significant wind chill. In both instances, staying outside for any amount of time wasn’t a good idea, so I didn’t stay outside long. Conversely, on the ski slopes, the physical exertion of skiing generates the body heat to offset the freezing conditions. I’ve even jumped into an outdoor swimming pool in Denver in winter, reasoning that it must be a heated pool, only to find out that it wasn’t – and it was still a less uncomfortable experience.
If I have been colder than that day in Sunderland, I don’t remember it – and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have happened in this country, wherever it was.
I’ve been back to watch a match at Sunderland since then – at the Stadium of Light – but walking back to a car that December night was positively balmy compared to waiting for that bus in 1993.
10 years ago | SoccerDome, Wigan | 23rd February 2013
Ten years ago, when I was a ‘Rugby Dad’, I was playing for the team’s off-shoot ‘Dads’ touch rugby team one night, when Sky Sports cameras rocked up and took some footage. A day later, it popped up on my screen…
As any parent of a sporting child knows well, one minute they’ve joined a club, the next, your weeks became quickly punctuated by training sessions in midweek and a match on Sundays. With tournaments, club outings and end-of-season presentation nights to attend, being involved in junior rugby very quickly became less of a parental commitment and more of a lifestyle choice.
So as surely as a kick follows a fifth tackle, the idea of a ‘Dads’ team was floated. It was touch rugby, to maximise participation and to take part in the healthy network of mini-leagues in and around Wigan. It was a great way to boost the fitness levels and a bit of fun on a Friday night.
One night, we arrived to find a Sky Sports camera crew there, to take footage for a piece on the inclusivity of rugby league. When it was time for our fixture against the Orrell St. James’ Ladies’ team, suddenly the cameras were trained on our pitch.
I didn’t think much more about it, expecting to end up ‘on the cutting room floor’. A day later, I happened to have Sky Sports News on and heard the introduction to a piece about touch rugby. Surely, it couldn’t be last night’s footage, could it?
And then there we were – and, if you look really carefully, there I was. The few seconds’ footage of our game against OSJ Ladies came from a time when I was on interchange, which is why I’m at the top of the screen, off the pitch.
Despite the fact I appeared on a minor channel, at the back of the shot, for all of three seconds, fame is still yet to beckon…
15 years ago | The Metropole Hotel, NEC, Birmingham | 17th February 2008
Fifteen years ago this week, I found myself at an awards ceremony in Birmingham – as one does – and couldn’t wait to get away and drive home. I’d just heard that I’d officially become an uncle for the first time…
Max Bentham was born in Wigan Infirmary on 17th February 2008. By then we already had our own three year-old so the novelty was not of there being another generation but the realisation that I wouldn’t just be a parent but would also get to inherit all the (often cooler) privileges of being slightly removed from parental responsibility. I was fortunate enough to have the same realisation when Max’s sister, Abi, was born the following year.
I should also give a mention to the ‘unofficial uncle’ status I hold amongst the children of close friends – and to all those ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ who also enjoy that status. Peter Kay once said “He’s not my real uncle – my dad borrowed a belt sander off him once” but this (is it predominantly a Northern thing?) practice of imbuing semi-familial status is a special honour that’s far more profound than merely a work-around to stop kids calling adults by their first names.
It’s been fantastic to watch Max grow and develop over the last fifteen years and it’ll be wonderful to see what mark he (and Abi) will make on the world. In particular, it’s been lovely to help him develop his love of cinema, especially science fiction. Countless Film Night’ appointments in recent years (usually featuring my own version of ‘KFC’) have seen us watch – and discuss – a wide range of films and themes. He’s always amazed me with his perceptiveness and the maturity of his observations.
Eagle-eyed observers may have noticed that this week’s Weekly Pic is taken neither at Wigan Infirmary nor The Metropole Hotel. Similarly, it seems not to include any day-old infants. I have a picture of Max, aged a few hours old but, hey, he’s about to turn fifteen – do you think he wants that kind of thing plastered on the internet? I’m not going to do that to him – that’s what parents are for!
Instead, here’s a picture of the two of us last year at Villa del Balbionello on Lake Como, at exactly the spot where Anakin Skywalker married Padmé Amidala in ’Star Wars Ep. II: Attack of the Clones’. If enabling his inner Star Wars nerd is the only way I’ve ever influenced him, I’d say that was an uncle’s job well done!
10 years ago | Howlett’s Wild Animal Park, Canterbury, Kent | 8th February 2013
Ten years ago, we made a half-term trip to Kent, which involved a visit to Howlett’s, just outside of Canterbury.
If you’ve never been, it’s a brilliant place. Bought in 1956 by John Aspinall, a casino owner, friend of Lord Lucan and member of ‘The Mayfair Set’ to house his private menagerie, it was opened to the public in 1975.
It was later re-organised as a charity (the John Aspinall Foundation) and has since become well known for its conservation programmes, particularly the western lowland gorilla. If you’ve ever seen footage a wild gorilla in the jungle emotionally greeting the man who’d released him years previously, that man will have been Damian Aspinall, John’s son, who now manages Howlett’s and its sister park, Port Lympne, also in Kent.
We’d been to Howlett’s before but this time, I wanted to take some better photos of the animals and, before long, we arrived at the Amur tiger (also called the Siberian tiger) area. It just so happened that the park had managed to breed two new cubs but had had to rear them by hand, after their mother showed no interest in them. This was the week the five month-old siblings, Kazimir and Arina were given their own enclosure.
Elsewhere, the various tigers are usually fairly motionless, as big cats tend to be. One of the Sumatran tigers was sat on the roof of his shelter, gnawing quietly on what was clearly a pony’s leg. In the interests of creating engaging photography, these cute, inquisitive cubs were clearly a more interesting option.
And so we waved at them, spoke to them, engaged their curiosity and ran up and down the side of their enclosure, hoping they’d respond. Kazimir, the young male was more inquisitive and started to follow. It led to us being ‘chased’ by this young tiger – with a fence between us, obviously – repeatedly up and down the length of the enclosure, until he became bored of us. The fence didn’t help much with the photography but it was quite a privilege to connect with such a beautiful, exotic animal – and I managed to get a lot of great pictures of the two cubs.
30 years ago | Centre-Ville, Calais, France | 5th-7th February 1993
In my first year at University, I found myself doing all sorts of things I’d never done before and one of the most memorable was the annual RAG Week Charity Hitch to Paris – sort of…
A load of us signed up, paired up, did next to no preparation and dressed perhaps marginally differently, for the wintry conditions. I was paired to travel with my mate Paul, which was great, mostly because we get on so well. With what was to come, we’d need to!
We got up ridiculously early (even for non-students) that Friday morning and hung out at the hitching post on campus, to get to our first port of call – anywhere on the M6. “See you in Paris”, we’d say, as each of us got in our respective lifts, heading south.
Time now clouds my recollection of much of the day’s travelling. I remember taking most of the day to get from Lancaster to Dover, with ‘stops’ by the side of the road at (think) Hilton Park on the M6, Gaydon on the M40 and (again, I think) South Mimms on the M25. There were probably more than that.
I do remember taking, for my first time, the new Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at the Dartford Crossing over the Thames, opened just over fifteen months previously, and then being dropped off at the intersection of the M25 and the M2 – which I think was then just the A2. Either way, it was a ridiculous place to expect someone to stop for hitch-hikers. Miraculously, before long, a truck did pick us up, headed for France. We hoped he’d offer to take us onto the ferry – and beyond Calais – but he didn’t.
It was late and we could only get foot passenger tickets for the first sailing the next morning so we managed to get a couple of hours’ kip in the terminal.
The next day, we got on the boat, ready for the short hop from Calais to Paris. Scotland were due to play France at the Parc des Princes in the Five Nations so we were confident we’d get a lift right into Paris. We disembarked at Calais and walked to the gates at the entrance to the Port and got our thumbs out. This was going to be easy!
Sadly, it was the opposite. It seemed every car that went past, all morning, was full of expectant Scots, with very few able to take two extra passengers and none of that small cohort offering to do so. Hours ticked by and we knew that as time passed, even the best scenario of getting to Paris would involve us having to turn around and come straight back.
We had to make the call and, by early afternoon, we made it. It was gut-wrenchingly disappointing. Now, we had to get home. We booked our return foot passenger tickets and, again had hours to kill before the next available sailing. There was nothing else to do but mooch around Calais.
From what I remember that day (and one day there since then), it’s a charming little place that’s unfairly saddled with being associated with ‘booze-cruise’ warehouses and its status as just about the least exotic part of continental Europe. This may be, in part, due to the fact that, from 1347 to 1558, the town was actually a part of England, not France.
We trooped around the street market and walked past the Town Hall, as darkness fell again, before walking back to the port to get on our return ferry. By the time we arrived back in Dover, we’d had enough of hitch-hiking and just wanted to get back as soon as possible. We bought National Express tickets to London Victoria Coach Station. Once again, we dozed on benches, waiting for our next ride.
I remember looking blearily out of the window as our coach left the South Circular and began to approach London, and then wind through the Elephant & Castle on a deathly quiet early Sunday morning, before crossing the Thames. At Victoria Station, we booked our next journey to Lancaster and found somewhere to sit and wait with our vending machine cups of tea. The next thing I remember was seeing tea splash everywhere as Paul fell asleep where he sat, dropping his full cup in front of us. We were both so tired.
I remember very little of that day as our coach wound its way up the country, other than that it was dark (again) by the time we arrived in Lancaster. I think we persuaded the driver to drop us at the entrance to the campus and we walked dejectedly up the hill to our rooms in Bowland Tower. I’m pretty sure we then ate everything we could find in the fridge and just crashed out. We’d just about managed to travel internationally that weekend – but Michael Palin had nothing to worry about!
The photo I took of Calais Town Hall was not from that weekend but from a day, 20 years later, when we arrived early at the EuroTunnel and they wouldn’t change our return train time. Once again, we had hours to kill in Calais. That’s why, for every year since then, we’ve paid the extra for a Flexi-Pass…
10 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK | 26th January 2013
When we first moved to Chamberlains Farm, in 1981, the best part of living here was the space. Five acres of fields and driveway offered ample opportunity for a wide variety of games and, yes, mischief.
That first winter was one of the harshest for a generation, with drifting snow and consistently below-average temperatures. I’m not sure if that was the year we ‘invented’ car sledging but I think it might have been.
It’s as simple as it sounds: tie a sledge to the back of a car with a length of rope and drive around with someone on the sledge. With two fields to go at, and a driveway of about a sixth of a mile, a decent snow covering can provide hours of fun.
And it did. I remember coming in after what felt like the whole evening (it was probably only an hour or so), with numb fingers and toes, on an adrenaline high. The only problem with it was – even forty years ago – the very few times it was snowy enough. Perhaps that scarcity value is what makes it, even now, feel like a special treat. I could probably count on two chilblain-afflicted hands the number of times we went car sledging in the whole decade.
Over the years, I grew up, moved away and moved back again and it wasn’t until Christmas 2009 – now with a whole new generation in the family – that we resurrected the concept. That winter and the following winter were both snowy enough for good car sledging and by then, we also had something we didn’t have in the 80s: four wheel drive. The only bit of a downside was that, at 6, 2 and 1, the kids weren’t really old enough to be excited by it.
So when we woke up that Saturday morning in January 2013 to a fresh layer of snow, we knew we had to make the best of the weekend ahead of us.
It was just as much fun as I remember it, with the kids all in the perfect age zone to enjoy it fully and friends and family coming over to take part, just like the old days. It was a brilliant day and I have loads of stills to prove it.
We’ve had snow since then, but sadly, not enough for us to tie the sledge onto the car. Who knows how many m ore years it will be until it happens again? I couldn’t believe it’s been ten years since our last day’s car sledging and I’m now very aware that with each year, there’s less of a guarantee that our fast-growing-up kids will feel like taking part.
It was always a rare event but you just wonder if it’s now more accurately described as ‘a thing of the past’. Hopefully, now I’ve suggested that, we’ll have two feet of snow overnight before this winter is out…
45 years ago | Bradley Lane, Standish, UK | 20th January 1978
Forty-five years ago, I had, what I now think was my first full experience of chart music: the unforgettable ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Kate Bush…
I was still only four and I think I was having breakfast before school, with the radio on in the kitchen. I’d been aware of pop music before that point but I don’t remember much of it making an impact on me. The family record collection included both Chicago’s ‘If You Leave Me Now’ and ABBA’s ‘Knowing Me, Knowing You’ but I was listening to them well after their time in the charts had ended. Almost inevitably, I seem to remember being aware of Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, albeit also well after the event – although I do know where I was when it was Number 1, but that’s a different story…
Nor was it my first recollection of a song that was in the charts at the time. I’m pretty sure that distinction goes to Paul McCartney and Wings with ‘Mull Of Kintyre’, which I remember watching on ‘Top of the Pops’, with the band of pipers marching into the studio at the end.
What I mean is the appreciation of a chart song, not just for the music itself but also as an item of fashion; in the knowledge that others would be aware of it, listening to it, knowing it mattered that week. I can still remember marvelling at its soaring melodies that morning, wondering what kind of creature was making those impossibly high notes.
When I came to watch the wide-eyed, pouting, dervish of flailing limbs that was Kate Bush on ’Top of the Pops’ or possibly ‘Swap Shop’, I was even more amazed. I’d taken my first steps into pop music and I loved it.
On reflection, the phenomenon unleashed on the listening public in January 1978 was such a random collision of factors: a prodigy performance artist from Kent dancing expressively to her self-written song based on a (then) 140 year-old novel by Emily Brontë, set on the West Yorkshire Moors. Nothing about it fits any kind of formula for pop success but it got to Number 1 in the charts and stayed there for a month.
And so, as with any other child of the Seventies, thus began a decades-long journey of Radio 1-listening, TOTP-watching and chart-following as the constant ebb and flow of new music seemed to chronicle our lives.
Eventually, I tired of Radio 1, ‘Top of the Pops’ went to the giant glitter-ball in the sky and, for various reasons, the charts began to lose their relevance. Such is the natural order of things, you may agree. But for a large part of my first 30 years, chart music seemed to matter a lot – and I can’t remember ever feeling that way until I heard Kate as Cathy.
40 years ago | *ABC Cinema, Wigan, UK | 9th January 1983
Forty years ago, we went to the cinema. It doesn’t sound that big a deal now. It wasn’t really that remarkable then, If I’m honest – except for the fact that it was only my second-ever trip to ‘the pictures’, to watch the film that everyone was talking about: ‘E.T. – The Extraterrestrial’.
In spring 1981, I’d had my first cinema experience, watching ‘Superman II’. I remember being wowed by the action on screen and bitterly disappointed by the taste of the exotic hot dogs served in the foyer. The experience had clearly stuck with me because I distinctly remember giving the same counter a wide berth, this time.
The other difference this time was that I was very aware that this was not just a film but a major event. That the mere fact I was going to watch it carried its own level of kudos. The film had been hyped for weeks and radio, television and even daily conversations seemed to consist of very little else. It was probably the first blockbuster film release that I was old enough to understand as such.
Predictably, I loved the film. At the age of nine, I was probably in the ideal demographic for it. Looking back, there was something else that may seem largely superficial now but at the time felt hugely profound: the chase scene at the end involved BMX bikes, something most school-age kids were very impressed by, in the early 1980s.
By embracing something that was so clearly part of the zeitgeist, Spielberg was able to make his story all the more compelling to his target market. It felt to us as if the conversations we were having on our playground were actually shaping Hollywood films. It may not be too much of a stretch to say that they were – in a way. Although we, like everyone else, thought it was just our school that was so ‘influential’, when, by definition, it was every school.
I remember getting the novelised version on E.T. in paperback from the school book club, not long after and devouring the written story. I think I still have it. It’s still one of a small number of films that, if I happen upon it while flicking around the channels, I will feel the urge to watch it to the end, every time. ‘Jaws’, ‘Educating Rita’ and ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ being other notable holders of that particular accolade.
It also imbued in me a love of cinema itself. Even the grotty old Wigan ABC fleapit (where twenty years previously, my Dad had watched Roy Orbison and The Beatles) was enough to light a passion which still burns today. Only years later did I learn that my Grandad, great-uncle and great-Grandad owned a cinema in Standish (‘The Palace’) for 30 years so it kind of is in my blood.
A pandemic and home streaming have reduced my cinema-going in recent years but I’d still rather take in a quirky movie in a theatre than watch a so-called ‘must-see’ series. Unlike the eponymous ‘E.T.’, ‘Home’ is not my preferred venue, when it comes to film consumption. Give me the chance to go to a cinema any day – and ‘I’ll be right there’…
5 years ago | The Great Barrier Reef, off Queensland, AU | 4th January 2018
Five years ago, we snorkelled in the Great Barrier Reef. Let’s just let that just sink in for a moment…
Even as I type those words, part of me can’t quite believe I’m able to. It’s a preposterous thing to be able to say. I grew up in a pretty normal 80s household, watching ‘Russ Abbot’s Madhouse’ and having sliced bananas in milk for ‘afters’ at teatime. Ten year-old me would think it an impossible thing for grown-up me to have even contemplated doing.
The Barrier Reef was the sort of thing we’d see on a David Attenborough programme. Of course we knew this was somewhere on the same planet because, well, it couldn’t not be. But it wasn’t realistically in our orbit. It existed solely “on telly”, in the same way that JR Ewing or Hilda Ogden did – and it might as well have been equally as fictional.
And so, when the opportunity came to see it ‘in real life’, it had to be taken. We were on the third leg of our Australian tour. We’d spent Christmas in Melbourne and New Year in Sydney, with a still-hungover flight up to Cairns on New Year’s Day morning. An hour’s drive north is place called Port Douglas and it was recommended to me by an old business contact from Geelong as the best place to do the ‘Reef.
He wasn’t wrong. It’s a small town by a big beach, surrounded by resort hotels and a tropical rain forest, but with a charming main drag of pubs and restaurants. There’s a look-out point from which to admire the view and a harbour from which to book your Reef adventure.
The parts we’d snorkel in were about twenty miles out to sea and as we skipped over the waves in our 40-foot craft, we were treated to just about the best – and certainly the most Australian – ‘safety announcement’ I think I’ve ever heard:
“If the boat gets into difficulties, we’ll ask you all to put on your lifejackets as we drift aimlessly around. I’ll send our location on the radio and set off a flare – and then we’ll get the tinnies in while we wait for the Channel Nine news-copter to come and find us”
Anyway, before long we got to our intended location, slipped on the jellyfish-proof ’stinger’ wetsuits and jumped in the ocean. Reader, I won’t lie, it was every bit the awesome, “pinch-me”, unbelievable experience that I’d expected it to be.
The bit that was different to billing was the distinct lack of vibrant colour that, thanks to the aforementioned Mr. Attenborough, I’d been led to expect. There was some colour and plenty of exotic species but it wasn’t the rainbow-infused dazzle of colour I’d seen on TV at home. The fact it was more drab, more monochrome, more – dare I say it? – bleached meant the experience was just as profound as I’d wanted, just not in the way I’d thought it would be.
You see, there’s something else that we know exists because how can it not? Something that we tend to see evidence of primarily “on telly”, where fact and fiction are less clearly delineated and, much of the time, the endings are already written. Climate change is that real-life storyline and it occurred to me that this was the first physical evidence I’d seen of it with my own eyes, after decades of being shown it via some other medium.
I know none of this should matter. We can all believe the science, we can all know the issues and we can all understand the choices that climate change forces us to face. It’s simply a question of logic. The problem is that human beings are, to a large extent, not logical. That profound sense of witnessing something I’d only previously experienced second-hand has stayed with me ever since.
What I saw was the future we’ve been warned about “on telly” – in real life. Maybe if everyone had the opportunity to do what I’ve done, the issue would be more in our orbit and we’d be closer to solving this most real-life of problems…
5 years ago | Phillip Island, Victoria, AU | 27th December 2017
Five years ago, I took my Northern-ness as far south as I’ve ever been – to Phillip Island off the south coast of Australia…
At 38°29′S, you can only be stood further south if you\re in other parts of Australia, in New Zealand, Chile, Argentina or Antarctica. If we’re being picky, you can add the Falkland Islands to that list.
We were there to watch the island’s famous Penguin Parade, a nightly spectacle in which large numbers of the native Little Penguin (Eudyptula novaehollandiae) swim ashore at dusk after a day’s fishing. As part of the Phillip Island Nature Park, the Penguin Parade is the only commercial venue in the world where you can see penguins in their own environment.
The predictability of the event makes for a great spectacle but it also means the penguins are targets for marine predators so they’re understandably nervous as they approach the shoreline and, as a result, the thousands present are expressly forbidden from any form of photography once the light fades, as inadvertent camera flashes can scare them off, away from safety. That’s why you can’t see a penguin in this picture. Sadly not every visitor observed this rule quite as assiduously.
Once they emerge from the waves, they then walk along their well-worn paths to the myriad of nests that pepper the dunes beyond the beach. The paths are well-lit and allow visitors to watch the penguins closely, with some observation areas dug down, to raise the passing wildlife to eye level. Wallabies and other local fauna roam around, freely.
It was an amazing experience, well worth the travel tine it requires, being 70 miles south of Melbourne. If you’re ever in Victoria, it’s an absolute ‘must’ to add to your itinerary. Luckily, I’d heard about it before our trip to Australia. Even more luckily, we had a friend who was able to take us there.
You can view the Park’s YouTube channel (with live coverage of each night’s parade – around 9am in the UK) here:
25 years ago | Pendlebury Street, Warrington, UK | 20th December 1997
Twenty-five years ago, we moved in to the first home I owned, in Latchford, Warrington, despite all common sense suggesting that we shouldn’t…
Actually, I’d owned the house since July but we’d spent months having to strip out the electrics, the plumbing and – somewhat dispiritingly – the kitchen floor. We installed central heating, new wiring, damp-proofing, loft insulation, a new bathroom, a new concrete base and did a lot of re-plastering and decorating.
By December, It was still barely habitable. The kitchen was little more than a glorified vanity unit with a fridge and an old cooker, most of the furniture was spectacularly mis-matched, generously donated ‘hand-me-downs’ and the bathroom was still un-tiled and missing a door. It really wasn’t ready to be moved into.
But I’d grown impatient. Once the wooden floorboards downstairs were all sanded to a point it had been unclear that they could ever be returned to, the last vital job that couldn’t be lived around had been done. I’d promised myself we’d be in for Christmas and, sensible or not, I stuck to it.
It didn’t make for a classic Christmas but the giddiness of finally having my own place, living – as my Grandma put it – “over t’brush” (old Lancashire for pre-marital co-habiting), outweighed any thoughts of missing out on festive traditions.
By Boxing Day, I was painting and staining, putting up curtains and planning how to spend Christmas money. I remember not long after, we blew about £500 in Warrington Ikea on storage boxes, a dining room set, crockery and cutlery and light fittings.
Moving into your first house is a great way to uncovering all the necessary things that you don’t yet own and so began the long process of acquiring them all. In our case, it led to probably the most boring New Year’s Eve of all time, as we saw in 1998 in bed on an ancient, very grainy, portable TV.
It all sounds a bit depressing now but at the time, we wouldn’t have it any other way.
30 years ago | Old Trafford, Manchester, UK | 12th December 1992
Thirty years ago, we saw a shift in the tectonic plates of English football – and I was there to witness it: a 1-0 victory over Norwich City…
Manchester United spent the 1980s as perennial under-achievers and the 90s as a dominant force. Many people believe the single turning point was in their Third Round victory at Nottingham Forest in 1990, won by a Mark Robins goal that supposedly saved Alex Ferguson’s job.
While it was certainly a significant moment, it still only led to a Cup win, something United had done twice in their under-whelming previous decade. Even more elusive, over the previous 26 years, was any sense of expectation of league success.
In December 1992, the inaugural Premier Leagues season, recent Champions Liverpool and Arsenal were in transition. Leeds United were Champions, Blackburn had arrived as a cash-rich challenger and Norwich had somehow climbed to the top of the league.
Over at Old Trafford, 5th-placed United had been cajoling performances from a team that had faded dismally the previous spring, handing the last ‘old’ League title to Leeds. There were moments of quality but, as ever, inconsistency seemed to limit the team’s potential. Yes, the Youth Team had – as is now legend – won their cup, months previously, but it was still too early to see the ‘Class of 92’ realise their potential.
Two weeks earlier, an astonishing transfer coup had taken place, with the arrival of the mercurial Eric Cantona from Leeds. He’d only in played the second half in the derby victory six days beforehand and was making his first United start against the league leaders.
Played against the backdrop of a half-built ‘new’ Stratford End, with twinkling Christmas lights on the cranes and free plastic capes for fans sitting in the uncovered seats, this was my first sight of ‘King Eric’ in a United shirt.
The game wasn’t a classic but it wasn’t as close as the 1-0 scoreline suggests. United spurned several chances before Mark Hughes seized on a defensive error to spin and finish in his usual emphatic fashion. Here’s the highlights:
More impressively, this was a team with the grit to withstand an impressive Norwich team who were eight points clear at the top, after eighteen games. As we streamed out of the ground after the game, there was a sense in the crowd that Cantona could really be the final piece of the puzzle after so much unfulfilled promise.
The next two games were both away draws (at Chelsea and Sheffield Wednesday), with Cantona scoring in each. The next home game seemed to confirm the optimism of the Norwich game: an impressive 5-0 victory over Coventry City, with that man Cantona scoring a penalty and providing two assists. I was there for that game too.
Something had changed in this team. Maybe they were capable of finally emulating Busby’s ’67 team. An increasing number of the crowd began to dare to dream again – but it would take another five months before the hope became a reality. I’ll tell you where I was that night, when we get to 30 years after that event…
40 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK | ??th December 1982
In 1982, we opened a shop next door to a computer store and I was a regular visitor to this new and beguiling place. It may now seem a little laughable to talk with wonder about the Commodore 64 or the ZX Spectrum but in the early 80s, this was quite a heady thing to be able to say. The world was on the cusp of a home computing revolution and ‘computer whizz-kids’ was a phrase that started to appear everywhere in the media and wider culture.
Better still, we got to borrow a demonstrator model of a ZX81, which we immediately hooked up to the ageing black-and-white portable TV in the dining room – the only telly we had other than the main 24″ rental in the lounge.
With it, my Dad and I began to immerse ourselves into this brave new world, anticipating the many doors of wonderment that would open before us, as all the hype was suggesting. The reality was, I’m afraid, not entirely the kind of valuable experience we were hoping for.
We soon learned that we couldn’t just “replace the typewriter” or “control household budgets” because that would require “software”, which came separately (and which we couldn’t borrow). I seem to remember there being a “graphics package”, which was the digital equivalent of attempting to create an image from two-inch painted blocks. In mono. Oh, how our ambitions were stymied – bot on we persevered.
The thing was written on BASIC, which immediately put me at an advantage over my Dad because, aged 8, I’d done one term of night school on BASIC programming, which meant I could do the following:
10 PRINT “Paul is ace” 20 GOTO 10
And for the first time in my life, I learned that new technology was a perfect arena for kids to out-smart their parents. With every derisory sneer from our own 18yr-old, I’m still ‘benefitting’ from that early insight.
The valuable introduction to computing it did give us, was to lower our expectations, engender limitless patience, expect things to go wrong for no discernible reason and always have a Plan B. Not quite what we were hoping for but perennially useful, nonetheless.
As I type this on my MacBook Pro, surrounded by a variety of tech with unimaginably greater levels computing power than every item in that shop combined, the value of those formative lessons remains. Early 80s computing was crap – but it was necessarily crap.
5 years ago | The Brewery, London, UK | 30th November 2017
I’ve been to industry awards nights before and even picked up the odd award or two but this was the first time I’d ‘won’ an award for someone else.
Earlier that year, I’d been asked to write the award entry documentation to support CSG’s participation in the Manchester Chamber of Commerce Awards, in the category of ‘Best Use of Technology’. Such is the way of these things, you don’t just type in your company details and hit ‘Submit’. The documentation is more like a bunch of exam questions: “Demonstrate X” or “Show how Y”. Anyway, they won the Manchester award and went through to the National Awards in London. Kindly, I was invited to attend, although unfortunately, we didn’t win that night.
As a related note, I’ve recently submitted an award entry for another client and found out that they too have been nominated for the Award – I’m still waiting to hear if they won it. It would be nice to keep up my ‘success rate’!
* Obviously, I didn’t win anything. The content in the award submission was entirely CSG’s. I merely researched the full extent of their relevant activities and structured the details to their greatest effect in the entry documentation. You could have the best-performing organisation in the world and if that excellence isn’t accurately reflected in the entry process, you probably won’t win. That’s the bit where I can claim a little credit.
30 years ago | The Sugarhouse, Lancaster, UK | 25th November 1992
Not a picture from the night itself (it’s ”borrowed’ from the Sugarhouse twitter timeline) but this is exactly how I remember nights in the Student Union-owned nightspot – although slightly more out of focus, perhaps. I don’t know what was playing when this was taken but in my head, all I can hear is ‘Jump Around’ by House of Pain, ‘People Everyday’ by Arrested Development and perhaps a little smattering of ‘Dancing Queen’ by Abba.
So how is it I knew I was definitely in “The Shagga” this random midweek night in 1992, you may well ask. A diligently-kept diary? The law of averages? Not quite. Some internet research tells me that the following day (the 26th) was the date that Eric Cantona officially signed for Manchester United and I distinctly remember hearing “on good authority” from a fellow-reveller that the rumoured deal was done, while we were in the queue to get in.
Was this just a bit of alcohol-fuelled optimism that got lucky or was there really a direct line from Old Trafford to fist-year undergraduates in Lancaster? We’ll never know. All I can say is that the rumours were right and the next day, it happened and… …well you probably know the rest.
Anyway, let’s raise a 70p shot of vodka to the good old Sugarhouse: the site of many a top night out and perfectly situated for the kebab shop and bus stop afterwards. Cheers!
10 years ago | Orrell St. James RLFC, Wigan, UK | 18th November 2012
This is a post to mark the dedication of junior sports team families. For nearly five years, our Sunday mornings were mostly dominated by junior rugby. To the uninitiated, that may sound like an hour or so on the touchline but the reality is more like a lifestyle choice.
Two-hour training sessions, twice a week, travel to away games across the North West, pre-match team breakfasts, social occasions, fundraising activities, club outings and parents’ nights out. Then there’s all the stuff you need: the kit, training kit, footwear, safety wear, kit bags, a first aid kit, balls, kicking tees, raffle tickets, club merchandise. And then all the constant, incessant washing, It quickly takes over a large part of your life.
But then you wouldn’t have it any other way. The opportunity to reinforce the importance of achievement, of belonging to a team, the life-lessons of sacrifice and effort, the irregular moments of pure joy when everything goes well and the value of forbearance when things get tough.
It doesn’t end there. There’s a camaraderie amongst parents, a pooling of resources to keep the club functioning well and stories of club events that will only ever resonate quite as strongly to those who were there. What often starts with an invitation to ‘join in’ can become a defining part of family life.
And then one day, with almost no notice, it can all come to an end. You can’t force kids to carry on in a team just because you’ve moulded your life around it. You have to respect that and mould your life around something else. In many ways, it can be like a bereavement. As such, the best advice is not to mourn the loss of what was there but to be thankful that it was ever so special.
20 years ago | Bellagio Hotel, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA | c.11th November 2002
Part II of our honeymoon was spent in Las Vegas, five weeks after we got married. Things immediately got interesting when we landed in Philadelphia and went to check in to our connecting flight, to be told that “the airline went out of business yesterday”.
Fortunately, for $100 each, we could transfer to an outgoing US Air flight – if we were quick. We weren’t quick because US Airport Security was still painfully slow, over a year after 9/11, and the queues stretched back almost to the main entrance. Even more fortunately, we got through it all in time to take the last two seats on the replacement flight.
Here we are in front of the Bellagio’s lake, the home of their famous fountain display and a location in the recently-released ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. The even more recogniseable Caesar’s Palace is visible behind my right shoulder.
It had been an expensive year so we couldn’t afford to stay on the Strip itself. We stayed just off the Strip at the Gold Coast Resort, on West Flamingo, just the other side of Interstate 15.
We had a week of touring the casinos and various attractions, with a very moderate amount of gambling that reflected our we’ve-just-funded-a-wedding budget. We rode the rollercoaster at New York, New York and the Big Shot atop the Stratosphere Tower, we visited the car museum in the Flamingo, an Elvis museum…somewhere – and we didn’t bother with the Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. I was also gutted tho learn that a bit of pre-trip internet research (it was only just becoming a ‘thing’) would have told me that Aerosmith were playing the MGM Grand…
One morning, I was. a bit too keen to hit the breakfast buffet at [name withheld] and I think I might have had something that had been there a few hours because by that afternoon, I was being violently ill – a lot – with suspected food poisoning. To make it more interesting, we’d booked on a flight over the Grand Canyon the next day.
Consequently, I’m now one of a select group of people to have been spectacularly sick in at least three bags in a small plane over the place consistently named as the Worlds Number One ‘Place To See Before You Die’…
45 years ago | Wigan Infirmary, Wigan, UK | c.5th November 1977
Forty-five years ago, I nearly killed myself. I realise it sounds like hyperbolic clickbait to say so now but, it’s still absolutely true – and I can prove it. Also, while a happy ending today would probably elicit a ‘sad-face’ hospital-bed selfie now, it isn’t the sort of story you’d have commemorated with a photo in the 70s – so I’m afraid this library image will have to suffice.
When I was 4, I used to have a Tonka truck just like this. You may remember them. They were much, much bigger than Matchbox or Corgi toy cars but, even for small children, annoyingly just a little too small to sit on. Made of metal, they were absolutely indestructible and the hinged tipper part could be raised to tip out sand or stones or whatever else you could imagine it was being used to move. The best – actually, let’s make that ‘the most fun’ – way to play with it was to put a hand on each side and run around, pushing it at speed.
One day, in late October 1977, while running and pushing it around, bent over it, I remember thinking to myself, after a while, ‘it’s a bit uncomfortable to run around and keep looking up – so I’ll just run without looking’. It wasn’t the best idea I’ve ever had. I ran into a real truck, parked nearby, and fractured my skull, badly. I don’t remember anything else until almost a week later.
Unconscious, I was rushed to Wigan Infirmary for emergency surgery. I’m told that when a nurse was asked what else anyone could do, she replied “well, you can pray”. Under the care of our wonderful NHS, I eventually regained consciousness, with a significantly dented head – and was kept in for several days.
I’m not sure of the dates but I do remember being in hospital on Bonfire Night and seeing fireworks through the tall Edwardian windows. The scenes in ‘Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets’ where Harry is hospitalised, in an old iron bed in a high-ceilinged ward following his quidditch injury, have always strongly reminded me of those days and nights.
When I finally came home, I’d been given a cool sand-pit play area. Strangely, the Tonka truck was never seen again.
5 years ago | Houses of Parliament, London, UK | 25th October 2017
Five years ago, I got to spend a day at the place from where the country is governed. Not only did I manage to see inside Westminster Hall, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, I also got to see a Prime Minister’s Questions, featuring the then PM, Theresa May. All of these things are that not difficult to arrange as it’s every citizen’s right to be able to see how they are represented. But in addition to all that, I also managed to get a ‘backstage pass’ to the inner workings of the building, that very few members of the public are able to see…
Take a close look at this photo: the location of the camera, relative to the Thames. It’s Parliament but not from an angle you’re used to seeing. That’s because this is the Members’ Terrace: to be here, you have to be either an MP or their guest. A trip to Prime Minister’s Questions and some good contacts (Helen’s Mum) resulted in us being invited into the inner sanctum by the then Member for West Derby, Stephen Twigg.
We were treated to lunch in the Members’ Restaurant, which we had to pay for but, yes, it was quite significantly subsidised. It seemed to me to be about half the price you’d expect to pay, actually probably an even smaller proportion of Central London prices.
I’d encourage everyone to visit the Palace of Westminster and attend a PMQs to get a glimpse of how this country is run (especially at a time like this). And if you ‘know people’, you might even get a picture like this…
30 years ago: Bowland Tower, Lancaster University, UK – ??th October 1992 I’ll be honest, I have no idea on what date this photo was taken – do I look like I would? From the locked kitchen cupboards, the décor and, yes, the hair, I *can* tell you this was from my first year at university. I’d begun my degree course this month, celebrated my 19th birthday during Freshers’ Week and was firmly on the voyage of discovery that constituted that particular, mostly memorable, year. One port of call in that voyage was ‘Tizer’, the rudimentary home cocktail made from lots of rum, lots of vodka and a small amount of random red-coloured non-alcoholic drink. This, I believe, was an early foray into the world of ‘Tizer’ parties that would punctuate my three years there. Therefore, mid-October 1992 is as good an estimate of the date of this photo as any.
20 years ago: NEC Arena, Birmingham, UK – 11th October 2002 For two years, we were the main sponsor of the Prince Phillip Cup, the most prestigious competition in the sport of Mounted Games, with the final held at the Horse of the Year Show at the NEC in Birmingham. Helen and I were asked to present the prizes at one of the evening performances, hence the formal attire. I was due to do the same thing a year later but circumstances intervened and I had to decline the invitation – which effectively meant that I ‘stood up’ Princess Anne. Not many people can claim to have done that!
35 years ago: Central Park, Wigan, UK – 7th October 1987 I’m almost certainly on this picture. I was one of the 36,895 who packed into Wigan’s old Central Park ground to watch the cherry-and-whites become World Club Champions. That we were packed tightly at the very back of the corner terrace, far behind the floodlight pylon, suggests, as many believed, that there were well over 40,000 present – today, pretty much anyone in Wigan over 40 now claims to have been there! Wigan won a tense, physical, try-less affair 8-2 and history was made. Thanks in part to this game, 30 years later, I took the Manly ferry from Sydney and spent the day there.
20 years ago: Statham Lodge, Lymm, UK – 29th September 2002 We got married twenty years ago, this week. I’ve previously shared more obvious pictures from that day but this shot is one of my favourites. We’re gazing longingly into each other’s eyes, for a cameraman trying to create an image. We’d argued in that Bentley going from the church to the reception venue and, during the meal, the hotel told us the cream in our profiterole wedding cake had gone off, leaving 150-odd people with tinned fruit and ice cream for dessert. Life is imperfect, often false and, occasionally, gloriously good, especially when surrounded by friends. Our wedding day wasn’t entirely the ‘fairytale’ people tend to want – but the perfect preparation for a strong, loving marriage, which is precisely as it should be.
20 years ago | Robinsons Superstore, Ashton-in-Makerfield, UK | 19th September 2002
Twenty years ago, I got the kind of ‘phone call that you hear about ‘other people’ getting; the kind that stops you in your tracks and leaves you in no doubt that life will never be the same again. It was just a regular Thursday evening in September. Helen and I were living in Warrington and were ten days away from our wedding. We’d just got back from doing some shopping at Sainsbury’s when the ‘phone rang. “The shop’s on fire”…
Thursdays were always ‘late opening’ nights, with an 8:30 closing time. The fire was first noticed around 7pm, which meant there were still staff and customers in the shop! We jumped in the car and drove to Ashton, two junctions away on the M6. We exited the M6 and took the familiar A49 but by the time we got to Haydock Racecourse, we were stopped by the police cordon which had been set up. This was obviously serious.
We told them who we were and they waved us through. We parked up in the bus lane used by the two schools across the road from the shop. A gaggle of onlookers were gathered as close as the safety cordon would allow, on the other side of the road. Over an hour since the fire had broken out, the flames had calmed down but they had clearly claimed most of the building and by now there was little for the Fire Service to do but contain it while it burnt itself out.
Despite the shock, we had to apply some perspective. Most importantly, no-one was killed or injured and all that was lost could be replaced. Stories emerged of customers having to be quite forcibly ushered out of the building by some heroic members of staff when the alarm was raised. All the cars had been cleared from the car park. The only thing left was to save as much of the building and contents as possible but the speed of the fire was too much. Even though the Fire Service arrived quickly, the chance to save the building had already passed.
This single event would dominate our lives for the next fourteen months, as we first cleared the site then re-built the store (bigger and better) and finally re-opened it, six weeks after the first anniversary of the fire. Inevitably there were rumours that the fire had been ‘an insurance job’ – to pay for our wedding – which I found darkly amusing.
If you’ll allow me to cite a cliché at this point, I’ll reflect that “whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”, which I’d have to say absolutely applied in this case. No-one was harmed and, while none of us had been looking for the challenge of replacing a huge store in just over a year, the experience of doing so, from crisis-management to the planning of the opening event – which was a whole other story – was certainly one that we all found to be beneficial.
25 years ago | Robinsons Superstore, Ashton-in-Makerfield, UK | 13th September 1997
Yes, that’s right, twenty-five years ago, I stroked a celebrity, repeatedly and in full view of the watching public. And I think the celebrity liked it. Okay, this isn’t as creepy as the headline suggests. ‘The celebrity’ was a world-famous horse, ‘Milton’, a former European Showjumping Champion, who’d represented Great Britain at the 1992 Olympics. and he was, at the age of 20, making something of a career out of personal appearances….
If you were re-opening a feedstore for horse feed and bedding in the 1990s, there was no bigger equine celebrity to perform the grand opening than Milton, one of the most famous and successful horses in British showjumping, who’d famously won over a million pounds over the course of his career. Having obligingly ‘cut’ the ribbon (actually two ribbons tied to a tempting carrot, an idea of mine that I’ve since seen copied elsewhere), we invited customers to ‘meet’ him and have their photo taken by him.
We only had him for a few hours and he was marvellously well-behaved throughout. As our time with him was drawing to a close, we posed with the VIH himself.
We’d planned the day meticulously throughout August 1997 and then, following the death of Princess Diana in Paris, we were suddenly aghast that if her funeral was to be scheduled a week later than it was, it would eclipse this once-in-a-blue-moon in-store event. Thankfully, it wasn’t.
Thanks also to Adrian (main picture, left) for sending me this photo, earlier this year.
10 years ago: Salford Quays, Manchester, UK – 11th September 2012 I took this photo as we climbed out of Manchester Airport on a flight to Gothenburg. You can see the Manchester Ship Canal winding its way past the Trafford Centre to Salford Quays, Media City, the Lowry and then Old Trafford football ground. Behind the plane’s engine is the centre of Manchester. Even though I’ve flown over Manchester more times than I can remember, it’s rarely this clear.
10 years ago: Hockenheimring, Hockenheim, Germany – 31st August 2012 A 2012 business trip to Germany just happened to be on the doorstep of Germany’s famous racing circuit. When it was time for lunch, our hosts had booked us in “a local restaurant”. We didn’t know any more than that until we arrived at the circuit itself. Between courses, there was the opportunity to watch a succession of race-specification Porsches whizzing past as part of their testing day. Sadly, financial uncertainties have meant that there have only been four German Grands Prix held since I took this picture – with only three of them held at Hockenheim.
30 years ago: Monsters of Rock, Castle Donington, UK – 22nd August 1992 I’m almost certainly on this picture. Two days before, I’d got my A-Level results and learned my offer to go to Lancaster University had been confirmed. I celebrated by standing up all day with 70-odd thousand rock fans at a race circuit in Leicestershire. The bill included The Almighty, W.A.S.P., Slayer, Thunder, Skid Row and the mighty Iron Maiden. During Freshers’ Week at Lancaster, I managed to get hold of a bootleg cassette of this concert, although it’s since been released as an official Maiden live album. Whenever one of the tracks comes up on rotation, I always remark “Oh, I’m on this album”…
10 years ago | Orléans Cathedral, Orléans, France | 17th August 2012
It’s exactly 10 years since we decided to drive into Europe for our main holiday. Technically, we had done a driving holiday once before – in 2009 – which I’d thought was a one-off. Probably as a result of that experience, a successful family jaunt to Normandy for Helen’s 40th and, if I’m honest, a feeling that getting on planes had stopped feeling like fun to me, we decided that the three of us, with Helen’s sister and her husband would pool our resources and book somewhere for us all to go – by road.
Following a bit of planning, Orléans was to be the stopping point at the end of our first day on the road in France. We were en route to Bourg-sur-Gironde, north of Bordeaux. We arrived at the Campanile hotel in Orléand (Sud) and decided we weren’t happy with it, managing to get a transfer to the hotel in the north of the city (which was marginally better). We then went into Orléans and found the cathedral. We went inside and viewed the tapestry of Joan of Arc, forever linked with the city.
In the decade since then, we’ve ventured further: to Avignon, to Catalunya and, in 2020 -the year of Covid, into Italy. We also did a road trip together around California one year. We’ve seen so much of these countries that we would otherwise have just flown over.
Driving to holiday locations is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.
5 years ago: Mas Bernad, Vilademuls, Spain – 14th August 2017 Five years ago, we discovered this haven in Catalunya, northern Spain. Owned by the charming Ignacio (we get to call him “Iggy”), it has become our home from home. We’ve been back there twice since 2017 and we were particularly sad not to be able to visit in 2020, due to Spanish quarantine laws. This picture was taken during our first visit: with Ursa Major shining brightly in the pitch-black night sky.
10 years ago: Headingley Cricket Ground, Leeds, UK – 2nd August 2012 A summer holiday grand day out, to watch England v South Africa from the legendary Western Terrace at Headingley. This was only my second time at the Yorkshire Test venue, having watched an Ashes Test during the one-sided 1993 series – that heralded the rise of some strutting spinner called Shane Warne. We had a great day at the Test and even nipped next door to the rugby ground during a rain delay.
10 years ago | Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK | 27th July 2012
In a ‘scene change’ of the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony, I made a brew and allowed myself to be caught up in the national-image-reaffirming positivity of the evening. The Queen had just ‘parachuted’ into the stadium and we’d shown the world all that’s great about Britain, from Shakespeare to Mr. Bean, via the NHS. What could be more appropriate than a cup of tea in a Union Flag mug?
Can it be just ten short years ago that we had a country we were so proud of – and a flag that we could so unselfconsciously wave? And now? Well you know what they say about pride – and what comes next…
30 years ago: Frog Lane Guitars, Wigan, UK – July 1992 Not the date of the photo but the purchase of my beloved Cherry Sunburst Epiphone Les Paul from a much-missed back-street music store that also sold prams and cots. I’d mortgaged all my 1992 Christmas present allocation to get a loan to secure this beauty. When I got it home. I instantly took off the scratch plate and de-tuned it a semitone to get the full Slash (Guns-‘N-Roses) effect. It got me through University and has continued to preserve my sanity every year since. I upgraded the humbuckers about ten years ago and still play it to this day. And, yes, it’s still de-tuned a semitone…
40 years ago | Great Yorkshire Showground, Harrogate, UK | 11th July 1982 This was my view of the 1982 World Cup Final, from a grainy black-and-white portable TV in a caravan on a showground in Harrogate. I was there (aged eight) as we exhibited at the Great Yorkshire Show. I don’t remember much about the game but I do recall that that was the show that I discovered Britvic 55 orange drink, ‘The White Helmets’ motorcycle display team and Jemima Parry-Jones’ falconry display.
15 years ago: Chamberlains Farm, Shevington Moor, UK – 7th July 2007 Not the date of the photo but the closest estimate I have for the day Marley was born. He came to us the following Easter and this picture was taken later that summer, when he was just over a year old. Simultaneously the softest-natured dog I’ve ever encountered with the hardest skull you’ve ever been run into by. He was a wonderfully faithful companion and we were privileged to be able to give him three years of extra life when he was diagnosed with diabetes in 2016.
30 years ago | Old Trafford, Manchester, UK | July 1992 In the close season before the first Premier League season, I made my regular summer trip to Old Trafford to purchase the new home shirt on the day of its release from the Club ‘Superstore’ (the small rectangular building in the bottom-right corner). I remember walking around the ground to see the demolished Stratford End and peering over the construction site wall, to see the interior of the ground. Incidentally, the beige bit of land across the Quays is now the Lowry and the green bit behind that is now the BBC.
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