Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Summer Holiday Highlights 2016

So this time last year I was contemplating having spent the summer (as indeed I had the spring) slogging away on the new house, with the majority of my time apportioned to clearing the garden of slabs, trees, roots, stumps and the huge massed pile of rubbish that required two builders skips. My solitary week off had been decimated by poor health; firstly my own then followed by both girls having contracted chicken pox. Trips and days out were cancelled and the whole sorry thing became an exercise in hope with planning for the patio and garden work providing a solitary crumb of comfort in among the gloom of not actually being able to go outside, such was the state of our health and the state of the garden itself. Fast forward a year and much has changed. The patio and garden were completed in autumn and then spring what was a hideous, long-abandoned (and quite unsafe) jungle was turned via a herculean effort of hard graft and to put it bluntly financial investment into a clean, modern and quite attractive area in which the girls could actually play. Not withstanding the 4 week period in which we had to stay off the grass, it has proved a success, especially when the weather has been dry and many afternoons have been spent with the girls playing and actually gaining some value from the space. 



Following a week’s holiday to Wales, we’ve also managed to do some stuff. Despite the fact that the traffic on the roads in and around Kingswinford can be atrocious, there is the benefit that within an hour’s drive in any direction there are a multitude of places to visit and things to do. The problem with children comes when there is even the slightest age gap and especially when one of them is very young, as pushchairs and feeding are challenges in themselves. However, with Liv a year older, we’ve managed to find enough places in which they’ve both been able to cope “off the reigns” and it’s worked out fairly well. Here’s a quick breeze through some highlights...

Dudmaston Hall...
Just a twenty minute drive up the road and a nice freebie with the help of a generously-bequeathed National Trust pass, this was a scorching hot day and started with a headache and hayfever, so my hopes were not high. However, it’s a nice location, easy to park up with a small play area in the shade of some trees. We had a picnic then took a walk around the grounds, the designated path arching around some sort of lake or stream. Nice and photogenic. Slightly marred on the final leg when the pushchair was directed through an enormous cow pat and then had to crust off in the heat of the boot on the way back home…

Weston Park...
This is an old favourite – forty minute drive up past Wolverhampton. I would put this in the same bracket as Ragley Hall as it has a great combination of lot’s of open space and paths to walk pushchairs around, coupled with a massive play area for kids of all ages. This year they have actually invested in changing some of the set up; one of the tree houses has gone, there are some new trampolines and the zip line has been upgraded. I seem to recall having to turn around with Em last year owing to rain, so this was a step forward.

Arley Arboretum...
I originally took Em here last year for a children’s birthday party, my main curiosity being centred around the term “arboretum” and to this day I still can’t really fathom why this word needs to exist. Essentially, it’s an area of parkland with lots of trees (some of which are not indigenous – hence the fancy title), a couple of very well presented gardens (including one with a water feature) and a big play area. This year there was an Alice-In-Wonderland themed treasure hunt and we also managed to find our way to the centre of the maze. Aside from all of that though was the biggest highlight of Em being occupied for twenty minutes whilst Liv slept in the pushchair, allowing me to feast on a magnificent pot of tea and slice of coffee and walnut cake.

Eastnor Castle...
This was a complete punt; a shot in the dark. I’ve driven past Eastnor before but it was a bit further out and in fact ended up being quite a trek with the M5 still full of roadworks and the sat nav sending us into traffic jams on the way back. However, it was the best of the picks from the first week off I had as there were so many things to do. There are two really nice play areas – one with tree top walks and the other enclosed in a brick walled garden – a digger park, a huge maze that we got completely lost in (that thing when you hold your right hand does work if you want to escape) and a big dipped vale in front of the castle where you can eat a picnic. The castle itself is extra to go include (it looks medieval but is actually only Victorian, having been built in that style) but we avoided that and instead when on a long walk around the grounds and lake where there are more areas to play and an ice house to explore. For value for money and variety you can’t go far wrong.

Black Country Museum...
It seemed strange that for all the time we had been living in the shadow of this place we had never visited. Of course, we had both been quite a few times as children on school trips and such like, but Em had always seemed a little young for it. As such, we had a good day and noticed quite a few newer buildings and displays, though it isn’t cheap and there are a few queues in front of the more popular shops and buildings. I took a few pictures of the canal section where they filmed some of Peaky Blinders and even managed a sneaky pint of Mild in the Bottle and Glass Inn.

Ludlow Castle... 
Let’s save the best for last! The Bank Holiday Monday was portrayed as a “Family Entertainment Day, featuring Battle Heritage and the Heritage Cup.” Thinking it sounded great, we got up early to ensure we could park in what is notoriously a nightmare town to drive through. As it turned out, parking was cheap and easy, the weather was blazing hot and the day at the castle cost only £14. For that, we got to have a go at archery (Em managed to hit the target with the medieval bow), junior jousting, full combat, the treasure hunt and a tour of the medieval village. Lunch was a picnic, complete with hot pork roll, followed by a climb to the top of the keep. The highlight though was the Battle Heritage knights who put on an amazing show – firstly in single-handed combat and then later on in a team event where they went full pelt at each other, smashing their opponents down to the ground with swords, poles and axes. It was only due to a whinging two-year old who had had enough that we prised ourselves away before the end. Highly recommended.

Monday, 22 August 2016

What sporting events do you wish you could have attended in person?

Having enjoyed the Olympics (I tend to prefer it when Team GB actually perform well as per the last few Games verses say Atlanta when our medal haul was pathetic), I have naturally reflected on what the atmosphere must have been like and I get the sense that it paled a little when compared with London four years ago. The 2012 Games were packed out with huge demand for ticket ballots in almost all events – even the dull ones like Dressage. Given that at the time Em was not yet two years old, the idea of being able to attend was almost impossible in practice which meant that I didn’t bother; however, there were two things that did make me feel a little jealous of those who did. Firstly the cycling in the velodrome – the atmosphere was amazing and we won so much that it must have been the place to be. The second was the main stadium during “Super Saturday” with three GB gold’s coming in quick succession. It got me thinking, if I could go back and attend any sporting event during my lifetime, which ones would I choose and why?

Here goes...

Football... FA Cup Semi Final – Spurs vs Arsenal 1991 Wembley Stadium
This was very much a match of two differing perspectives in the run up to kick off. For Arsenal and the media, it was another inevitable step towards their expected double (the league was theirs and the rumours were that they had already been fitted for their cup final suits). For Spurs, the club was facing bankruptcy and likely to have to sell off their star players. The biggest of these, Paul Gascoigne, had single handedly taken them to the semi-final, but had suffered several injuries and was still recovering from a hernia operation that had been rushed through after the quarter final. Not only was he unfit, but he was requiring sedatives to get him to sleep the night before a match and was faced with the prospect of an £8.5m transfer to Lazio.

The decision to move the game to Wembley for the first time in the FA Cup Final’s history was not a popular one with the players or fans, but given the high level of demand for such a high profile derby match, it was deemed inevitable by the FA and ensured that over 80,000 people would attend, whilst millions more would watch on live television to see if Gazza would actually even make the team.

It was fortunate for Spurs and Gascoigne that the only man to have really managed his talents was at the helm. Knowing that his star player was capable of only 30 minutes high-intensity football, Terry Venables packed the midfield and ensured that he had enough ball-players on the bench to retain possession should the gamble come off. What he would not have anticipated was the contribution in return. After 5 minutes, Spurs won a free kick just over 30 yards from goal and with a helpful word in the ear from Lineker (“Just smash it”), David Seaman was beaten in his left hand corner by the greatest free kick ever taken at Wembley. Several minutes later, another sweeping move orchestrated by Gazza resulted in Lineker putting Spurs 2-0 up. Although he barely made it to half time, before being replaced by Nayim, his work was done and Spurs would progress to the final as 3-1 winners.

Football... FA Cup Semi Final – Spurs vs Arsenal 1991 Wembley Stadium None of the tragedy of injury, ill-discipline and destruction to come could have been contemplated by anyone who witnessed Gazza in that match and as a spurs fan who has since lost interest in football, I look back to that game and recall thinking that everything would always work out just fine. It rarely does in sport.

Cricket...5th Ashes Test – England vs Australia 2005 The Oval 
In what has to be the greatest test series in modern history, it all came down to the wire in South London on Monday 12th September 2005. Having battled back in the game on day four, with a 2-1 lead England simply had to bat out the final day in order to force a draw and reclaim the Ashes after eighteen miserable years of Australian domination. If the Aussies had managed to sneak a win, then even a drawn series would mean the Ashes would remain with the touring side.

England started solidly on 34-1, but the inevitable batting frailty soon emerged and with the Aussie bowlers going all out to attack, England lost a succession of wickets in the first session, with Flintoff being caught and bowled by Warne on the stroke of lunch to leave them 127-5 and facing a likely defeat. One man who had miraculously managed to remain was Kevin Pietersen who had been dropped by Warne at slip and survived a torrid spell to remain not out. With two sessions remaining, Ricky Ponting ordered his bowlers to launch an all-out assault on the remaining English batsmen, convinced that he could force the remaining wickets and have his batsmen chase down a small total. Shaun Tate and Brett Lee dually responded and, reaching speeds of 95mph they decided that if Pietersen was going to try and hit Warne out of the attack, they would try and kill him instead of taking his wicket. What ensued was the most exhilarating session of cricket I can recall: on one hand everything was at stake and it felt like the whole summer was going to come crashing down in a disappointing mess, and on the other we knew we were watching an remarkable and quite unique contest. Pietersen responded by outrageously hooking Brett Lee repeatedly off his nose into the stands in front of the gas holders on his way to a magnificent maiden test hundred and by the time England had been bowled out for 335, the game was beyond Australia.

The final roar that greeted the two umpires finally removing the bails and signifying the game’s end and the series victory would have been worth the admission alone.

Boxing...WBC Heavyweight Title Fight, Frank Bruno vs Oliver McCall 1995, Wembley Stadium
I have always been a fair-weather boxing fan so I cannot claim to have watched the majority of the great fights (not least because of the amount that Sky have charged over the past twenty years!). However, for sheer partisan joy of seeing your man finally make it over the line, this one surely makes it as a contender in the list.

Bruno had already had three failed shots at the title – twice in the 1980s (I recall his defeat at the hands of Tyson in his prime whilst at first school) and then again to Lennox Lewis whilst Tyson was languishing in jail. However, an unexpected opportunity arose in 1994 when Oliver McCall upset the odds and knocked out Lewis at Wembley Arena. He then defended his title against Larry Holmes and came back to the UK to defend it against Bruno. I stayed up to watch the bout and remember feeling apprehensive when nobody gave Bruno a chance – by all accounts McCall was a loose-canon who used to openly weep as he made his way to the ring, “visualising the victory ahead.” Of course, when he emerged with tears in his eyes the narrative was written that Bruno would yet again fail to win the title. 

However, knowing that with his massive physique a knockout victory was his only chance, Bruno threw everything at the man they called The Atomic Bull and despite McCall managing to stay on his feet, the points were all his up to the final couple of round. At that point, McCall suddenly sprang into life, realising that the points were gone and he would have to knock Bruno out to win the bout. Even watching it on the TV I could feel the road of the crowd as they willed big Frank to stay put and take the hammering and when the final bell sounded the outpouring of emotion was huge and a tearful Bruno was able to address the post fight interview having finally been made champion.

It wouldn’t last; in order to secure the McCall fight, Bruno had contractually agreed to defend it against Tyson who promptly came out of jail and knocked him out on his way to the Evander Holyfield bouts. But no matter, a title, is a title and at least Bruno would not fall into the Jimmy White Bucket. 

Rugby...2nd Test British & Irish Lions vs South Africa, 1997, Durban
I was tempted to put the 2003 World Cup Final down here, but as I was in Australia for most of the duration of that tournament and was able to watch the final in New Zealand, I almost feel like I should make the most of this hypothetical opportunity and choose another match from the annuls of rugby history...

Just because of the number of times I have watched the Lions DVDs and especially the 1997 vintage, I think this one has to be up there. I don’t care much for a trip to South Africa, but it must have been an incredible moment to have witnessed the second test of 1997. For context, the Lions were written off before the series began, with the Springboks having won the World Cup two years previously and having a monstrous pack of forwards who basically steamrollered opposition teams for fun (let alone touring sides hastily assembled from scratch). What they hadn’t bargained for was Jim Telfer coming in with his fire and brimstone team talks and the appointment of the abrasive Martin Johnson as captain. As such, the Lions surprised the Boks in the first test with Matt Dawson scoring the crucial try, catching their opponents unaware.

By the time the second test came around, the whole of South Africa were baying for blood and the Lions had to respond. I recall reading that Johnson and Lawrence Dallaglio gave each other a “look” after five minutes which acknowledged the ferocity with which the Boks had come out; for many it would be the most brutal game of rugby of the decade. Miraculously, the Lions managed to stay in contention, thanks in part to their opponent’s inability to kick their goals, but also the herculean defending from Richard Hill, Dallaglio and centre Scott Gibbs, who even managed to flatten the 21 stone prop Os du Randt. With scores level, it seemed inevitable that South African brutality would ultimately prevail, only for Jeremy Guscott to casually ping over the winning drop goal and clinch the series victory. I can almost smell the celebratory beer and barbeques every time I watch the highlights...

The Lions are not supposed to win; the odds are stacked against them and so it remains a miracle that the tour even exists in the modern era. We have to savour these experiences whilst they last...

Tennis...Wimbledon Final – Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal, 2008
I should point out that I can’t really stand Wimbledon. I find it full of conceited arseholes who think it’s the centre of the universe, I hate Pimms (it tastes like fizzy Benolin), I don’t want to pay twenty quid for some manky strawberries and squirty cream whilst listening to lame schoolgirls cheering on a Scotsman who doesn’t even like England (“Andy, Andy, ra ra ra”). There’s also the horror of Sue Barker’s simpering grin and Cliff Richard’s sporadic rain-gap entertainment. The whole thing is a fortnight of misery wrapped up in a clich├ęd towel of despair. And then you throw in the fact that I don’t really like that style of tennis – serve, volley, serve, volley. The novelty of repeatedly thumping aces wears off after about two games and quite frankly I would far rather watch the French Open in which rallies are allowed to actually develop and the players are not going to be escorted off the premises for wearing their normal clothes.
The main reason I can’t stand it, however, is that in the modern age at least it has always favoured the dominance of the wooden, characterless robots to dominate. Those players for whom a big booming serve, a predilection to race to the net or drop onto their favoured forehand is their default setting always tend to reign supreme, as the conditions are stacked in favour of an orthodox fast, tight game. Ever since I can recall, the likes of Stefan Edberg, Boris Becker and Pete Sampras have consistently dominated, even when unable to win other major tournaments or execute other techniques. They don’t even need any personality – just keep their default game in check and Bob’s your uncle, two weeks later they get to fall to their knees whilst the engraver adds their name once more to the trophy.

Roger Federer had a better all round game than those players and was certainly a more talented and natural athlete, but let’s be honest, he was a bit of a wooden character and it did get a little dull seeing him win year after year. Which is why when Nadal began to challenge him it suddenly got interesting; a man who didn’t quite have the flowing serve but who had an awesome return game and who injected huge personality into his game; eeking out every point and never accepting defeat until the game had gone. When they met in the 2008 final, few gave Nadal a chance, having lost the previous two finals, but an upset looked likely when he went two sets up after a rain-delayed start. The second rain delay allowed Federer to regroup and win the third and forth sets to tie to match and one assumed that he would go onto win a sixth title. Just before eight in the evening another rain delay took hold and they finally came back ontot he court as the light began to fade. In near-darkness, Nadal threw his entire body into defending a barrage of break points (Federer converted only one of 13 break points on Nadal’s serve) and after nearly five hours of grueling tennis the Spaniard finally made it through.

I would have braved the huffling masses just to hear Federer whinge that it was too dark. Same for both of you Rog!

Athletics...1988 Olympics Mens 100m Final Seoul
Given that I have already chosen a couple of events from the London 2012 Games, I can afford to be rather more swashbuckling with my choice here, which is why I am going to return to the late eighties for this one...

As a child, I recall being mesmerised by the concept of speed. Who was the fastest man in the world? Was he faster than a car? That sort of thing. Seoul 1988 were the first Games I remember (I had one of the official brochures with their mascot in a storyline – don’t know what happened to that!) and the only thing I was bothered about aside from Daley Thompson was the chance to see a new world record. The line up for the final (now dubbed the dirtiest in history) was pretty amazing with both Carl Lewis and Linford Christie poised to take on Ben Johnson, who promptly blew them away, smashing the record which previously had evolved only in micro-increments over the previous hundred years. Perhaps if he had not raised his hand at the point of victory, it would have been even faster. Perhaps, if he had not been drugged up on Stanozolo, his bulging eyes wouldn’t have been grown yellow and he might have finished outside of the medals.

Still, it wouldn’t have been quite so spectacular. After all, it pushed the field to new heights – Carl Lewis finished second but broke the world record and was subsequently handed gold. Calvin Smith was the first man to break ten seconds and finish third. And of course, none of the spectators knew at the time that Johnson would be disqualified as that happened two days later. It must have been awesome to watch.

Snooker... World Championship Semi Final Alex Higgins vs Jimmy White, 1982 The Crucible
Snooker is another sport that I have gradually fallen away from as the character have drifted away (I blame Stephen Hendry for that). I also blame Stephen Hendry for Jimmy White never having won the World Championship, which is why I would struggle to put one of those disappointments in this list. Of course, I could have gone for the 1985 pot black final with Steve Davis and Dennis Taylor, but that again would belie the fact that I actually had little time for either of them. The two most colourful men to play the game in the 1980’s were brought together in 1982, where they contested a semi-final that would prove to be a pivotal and telling moment in their careers. For the twenty-year old Jimmy White it was the one he should have won and perhaps would have beaten Ray Reardon in the final (who know what further triumphs). For Alex Higgins, it would be a swansong as his personal life and career would nosedive soon after.

The match was of high quality throughout and by the end of the third session it was tied at 11-11, only for the younger White to move into a 15-13 lead in the final session. Higgins managed to pull the next frame back to 15-14 but then White pulled into a 59 point lead in frame 30 and most people watching assumed he was all but booked a place in what would be his first Crucible final. When he missed the next pot, Higgins took to the table to perform what could be described as either the greatest break of all time or perhaps the worst, depending on whether the measurement is that of success or technical proficiency. The reds were scattered along the cushion and the task was made even harder as Higgins made little effort to position himself on the next colour. As such, every shot became almost a shot-to-nothing (had he have pulled it off in separate single pots the lack of colours would have reduced the points to requiring snookers. Somehow, whether by accident, design or genius, Alex Higgins managed to clear the table with a break of 69 and level the match at 15-15, taking the final frame and with it a place in the final.

As with many of these events, the joy would have been in the ignorance of not knowing what would come to pass. The thrill would have been watching two snooker players in full flow without caring who came out on top.