That Time I Crossed Europe’s Longest Bridge*

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.

Heading into Lison on the Vasco de Gama Bridge, approaching the Main Bridge Span

That Time I Marked The End Of An Era

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…

That Time I Dined With A Legend

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.

Alex Murphy and me. Say what you like about him – and many have – but he was great company

That Time I Was Chased By A Tiger

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.

That Time I Last Went Car Sledging

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…