Saturday, 30 January 2016

Boatcakes and Bingo - Potters vs. Canaries


Boatcakes and Bingo

Stoke City F.C. vs. Norwich City F.C.

The Britannia Stadium - 13th January 2016


Getting to football matches on Saturdays is hard work at the moment, and paying for them is even harder, so my 69th club out of the 92 was joyfully going to be an evening in Stoke-on-Trent (you don’t hear that phrase often…) and when all that was required to get into the away end at the Britannia Stadium for a Premier League clash with my best friend‘s team was a frankly outlandish £15 I was all over it like a tramp on a discarded bag of chips.  1,275 other Canaries obviously also agreed with me.

Whilst this may not be a ‘football by footpath’ of the ‘yomp over Dartmoor’ variety, it’s still worthy of a small write-up, as we did find ‘another way’ to arrive, and consciously avoided the moaning minnies who park next to a 28,000 seater ground and then complain how difficult it is to get out after the match.  Rumour has it that bears do still sh*t in the woods, even well trained ones.

As Mike and I have travelled to away games all over the country for the past 25 years we have talked some complete flimflam in our time, and in scenes reminiscent of Alan Partridge’s infamous ’Monkey Tennis’ stream of consciousness, we often brain storm on what could make good away travel topics, or even future books.  One that I have championed since walking up the Coventry Canal to get to the Ricoh Arena for the Sky Blues’ 3-0 humbling of the Canaries in September 2006 would be visiting grounds via our once mighty canal system.  Admittedly it could be a bit of a slow quest, but doing the 92 by barge could be one heck of an interesting trek, and without having done all any of the research (the back of a fag packet is far too gargantuan for my blue sky thinking) I suspect a surprisingly large amount of grounds could be visited that way, especially if allowed to walk ‘inland’ a fair distance.

After a peek at a map I came up with a parking spot on Old Whieldon Road (ST4 4HW) just off the A500 dual carriageway that dissects Stoke into east and west; or as it is know by locals, grim and grimmer.  A wander along the Trent & Mersey Canal then takes you straight to the ground.  It worked a treat although it is worth pointing out that there are other places in the general area that are a shorter walk and will also offer the avoidance of the madding crowd and the A50.  If time permits a pub can be added to the walk - the only one in the surrounding Mount Pleasant area though is the 1930’s art deco ‘Regent’ further down Whieldon Road (ST4 4JG), and that would rather negate the canal walk, as a simpler stroll from the Regent is down Grove Road and across the playing fields.

As the South of England was dry I stupidly hadn’t bothered to look at the forecast.  I stomped along a soggy towpath in the near dark getting wet on top and also wet down below, as my shoes were not designed for 20 minutes or so of Northern puddles.   Although the towpath is mainly tarmaced it could hardly be expected to resemble a freshly laid motorway.  My fault entirely.  It is probably a relatively pleasant walk in dry daylight but to be frank it was a drag in freezing rain and almost pitch blackedness.

I had read about two canal barges that float near the stadium, one selling oatcakes and the other beer.  As our off the beaten track route obviously didn’t have any shops ion it I prayed they were there and as we got closer we could just make out a barge in the distance and a neon sign winking ‘open’ at us.  It was just a solitary barge, but that was better than nothing, and if truth be told I needed the oatcake barge more than I needed a beer barge.

Mike wondered how a Scottish style oatcake could be much of a fast food meal, so I tried to explain what a Potteries oatcake was like.  One fall back explanation was of course a pancake or a crepe, and I could also throw in the Ethiopian injera ‘pancakes’ I have devoured a thousand times, as I used to work / live there, and my wife is also of that persuasion.  

My (Staffordshire) oatcake experience goes back to 1997 when I worked at a dead end job in Bath and two new managers were imported down from the Stoke branch.  One was named Idris and as the only ‘Idris’ reference point I had at that point in my young-ish life was the Muslim jazz funk drummer Idris Muhammad, imagine if you can my surprise when on his first day I came face-to-face with a booming big Welshman with a ‘tache like a Russian shot putter and a voice like Jones the Steam.   Idris and Craig went on about oatcakes every bleeding lunchtime and would sometimes agree to bring a packet down for me if they were going ‘home’ for the weekend.  I rapidly became a big fan although unfortunately I’ve only managed to snaffle any to eat a couple of times since.  They aren’t easy to find if you’re not from ‘round those parts.

‘The Oatcake Boat’ (now sagaciously renamed ‘the Boatcake‘) sells through the hatch almost aping the way many houses and small businesses used to in the Potteries. The last remaining such business, aptly called ‘the Hole in the Wall’, apparently closed in 2012, if that bastion of factual correctness, Wikipedia, is indeed accurate.

After two cheese and mushroom oatcakes for the princely sum of about three groats I was refuelled and ready to face the extra five minute tramp to the stadium.  I would have liked one savoury and one sweet one but there were no sweet options and I later found out that sweet fillings are frowned upon by the oatcake police.  I wonder if such a seller could be charged with Grievous Bodily Honey, or Assault and Buttery? 

I’ll get my coat…

Just up the path from the barge a man sold the Stoke fanzine ‘The Oatcake’ in the increasing rainfall.  I really should have stopped to buy one; I don’t know why I didn’t as I do usually try to support anyone who’s a DIY writer / publisher, especially when standing in the rain.  Seemingly there used to be another Stoke fanzine, with the even more deliciously clever title of ’A View to a Kiln’.  I would swim through hot treacle for that title.

For the game itself I invented a game of Norwich bingo.  Every time an apt, pre-decided phrase could be used for a player, it was a bingo moment, although it wasn’t played to any particular degree of gravity.  I must admit the £15 ticket, the long journey and the slightly peculiar Wednesday kick-off had gone to my head, like a bottle of Robinson‘s ‘Old Tom‘, and it felt strange to think that the same three points were on offer as they would be at a more traditional Saturday match for double or triple the price. 

Therefore on this occasion the travelling really was more important than the arriving, especially after Gary O'Neil’s utterly bizarre scissor tackle from behind after half an hour rather ruined Norwich’s chances; and all for a ball harmlessly running out of play.   I hope a plethora of bets hadn’t been piling in on him, as a 32 year old collecting his first Premier League red card in over 200 appearances would have raised more eyebrows than a Roger Moore promotional video on a continuous loop.   #stupidestfixinhistory

Sebastien Bassong’s bingo word was ‘just’ because he makes a habit of ‘just’ winning the ball, or ‘just’ making a howling error.  ‘Ungainly’ could probably be his other bingo moniker, which could also be mutually shared with Alex Tettey.  Tettey’s main slogan was ‘unorthodox‘ as he rarely seems to do what most midfielders do, instead preferring to, say, head a ball near the ground, or use a flying star-fish jump to win a ball in the night sky.  Russell Martin rapidly became ‘oh my God’ as he looks painfully out of his depth at right back.  He has all the physique and lack of culture of an old school Centre Back and should probably stick to being one. 

As an admirer of super Johnny Howson I would give him ‘sweet strike’ or ‘driving run’, the former of which would certainly have scored points this wet night as he clobbered in Norwich’s equaliser to shock a Potteries crowd who had probably assumed that 1-0 up against 10 men was almost job done.  Sadly the equilibrium only lasted another 12 minutes before Joselu’s strike gave the initiative firmly back to the Ramblers.  By now ex-Canary loanee Peter Crouch was on the pitch, raising a chuckle with me as I recalled Bristol City’s alleged interest to tempt him into becoming a Championship relegation battler instead.  If there ever was a club as arrogant and deluded as the sh*t I’ve still yet to find it.

If Martin Olsson was playing I would have ‘woeful defending’ as his bingo phrase.  I realise others will applaud his efforts higher up the pitch, but the space he leaves behind is often dangerous and brazen, especially if left with a tortoise like back three of Bassong, Ryan Bennett & Martin.  Bennett suffered the ignominy of a headed o.g. for Stoke’s final goal, and was on the receiving end of a witty and thoroughly mischievous Potters rendition of “He scores when he wants, he scores when he wants, Ryan Bennett, he scores when he wants“. 

Olsson’s replacement for the time being is Robbie Brady who sadly would have had ‘wasted’ as his point scoring word.  Not for any negative reason, but because his obvious skills are wasted when asked to play as a traditional left back; nay, almost a ‘left back in the penalty area’ given the amount of defending he had to do.  When released forward later in the game his noticeable ability made him one of the contenders for man of the second half; if only football was as simple as that though...


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Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park.  In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy.  Five more books later and he’s just hit sales of 100,000 real books, 70,000 of them via his own publishing efforts.  Having been exiled from Somerset for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 69 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and he recently edited and published an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk

Monday, 17 August 2015

Can anything good come out of Yeovil?



football by footpath - Yeovil Town F.C.

What better way to celebrate avoiding the deluges affecting other parts of the country than taking a sunny trip into the deepest darkest depression of Somerset.

I have always been suspicious of Yeovil and indeed have never bothered to visit the town in any guise; not even the football ground, amidst the delightful trading estate that surrounds it, despite it sometimes being one of my closest away days.  My suspicion is based purely on looking at a map of Somerset and feeling that somehow Yeovil, like Sherbourne, belongs in Dorset.  And if it belongs there, then it must be a cuckoo in the nest of the land of skull cracking cider, coastal mud, amazing music, and tales of Avalon; a Quisling of the West Country; a low down, sneaky, whistle blowing, snake in the grass.  Yeovil strikes me as the kind of shifty place that makes its own moonshine, marries off pigs in nocturnal sky clad ceremonies, and could well wake up one day and unilaterally decide to declare independence, or become a Rutland style state, dwarfed by its more serious neighbouring counties.  It’s just not right to be forced to witness this underbelly on the map of Somerset, like a fat man dragging his testicles and semi-liquid paunch along a floor.  Its quite unbecoming of a proud county, one that my father almost died for in Cyprus. 

Even though I love Somerset, the county I was born in (or was I? Avon and Wiltshire complicate things; don’t ask, all I can say is that I’ve had an identity crisis ever since entering this cruel world), and could quite happily hug a stranger from Portishead, Watchet, Shepton Mallet, or even the wonderfully entitled Marston Bigot, I’ve never felt any attachment to Yeovil at all.  And although I won’t trot out the tired and rather condescending cliché of Yeovil not being a place of any particular interest, it is a simple fact that whilst Yeovil has three buildings with Grade I listed status, the City I spent most of my youth in, Bath, has over 600 such exceptional structures. 

I am slightly reminded at this point of a certain incident around 2,000 years ago.  Readers who went to Sunday School may recognise the following passage from John’s Gospel [ch 1, v 43-46], albeit with a few geographical amendments.  “The next day he [Jesus] wanted to leave for Clifton. Jesus then found Philip and said to him: “Be my follower.”  Now Philip was from Bath, from the city of Andrew and Peter.  Philip found Nathanael and said to him: “We have found the one of whom Moses, in the Law, and the Prophets wrote: Jesus, the son of Joseph, from Yeovil.”  But Nathanael said to him: “Can anything good come out of Yeovil?”.  Philip said to him: “Come and see.” “

Birds on a wire - Near The Carpenters Arms

My admittedly jaundiced and intolerant assumptions of Yeovil probably weren’t helped by bypassing it as a kid.  I have fond ‘memories’ of Minehead, where I won ‘Best Baby’ at Butlins in the early 70’s (I suspect it was a walkover, and that my parents had accidentally booked us in for the over-60’s week).  I can still feel love for Cheddar Gorge, despite the cheesy touristy tat, and have memories of adequate days out at Weston-Super-Mud, amidst swathes of Brummies.  I have climbed up Glastonbury Tor, yomped on Exmoor, and had a wazz at Taunton Deane services.  But Montacute House is the closest I’ve ever been to Yeovil.

I also hold Shepton Mallet in high esteem, mainly for many happy days at agricultural shows at the nearby Bath & West Showground, but also for the free gift that kept on giving; the drive past the Jeff Koons-esque Babycham fawn that seemed to jump and prance from the roof of the Showerings factory as the car rattled it‘s way down the hill into the Mallet.  And how could I almost overlook bouncing on beds at the J.R.Haskins showroom, THE place to go before Ikea ripped up Eastville, imposed their cultural hegemony on a proud nation built by Mr. Chippendale (no, not those Chippendales!) and crushed the humble furniture retailers of Britain in their massive Viking hands like a moderately portly man sitting on one of their dreadful £6 chip wood triangular side tables (probably called ‘Bumtings’ or ’Fartburst’) painted in an oh-so wacky colour that gets your wife’s pretentious friends talking as they stick their obnoxious noses in the bottle of Farm Foods Irish Wine that you told them was a Waitrose Zinfandel - God knows how they got the cat to sit on that bottle.  They couldn’t tell the difference, but I bet they think they could. 


 The Babycham fawn as it is now, next to the factory [Photo by Wurzeller - via Wikimedia Commons]


But Yeovil was always bypassed, until today.  Any journeys beyond the Shepton Mallet area were invariably heading for the South Coast, and there was definitely no reason to stop on the way towards leaping into the sea, sand and sunshine of Weymouth and Bournemouth, both proper Dorset destinations.  Yeovil existed in this twilight zone of nothingness, betwixt and between.  Even Albert Camus and J.M.Coetzee would find it impossible to find any existence there at all.


My ‘football by footpath’ mini adventure starts from The Carpenters Arms on the edge of Chilthorne Domer, at the crossroads of the wonderfully entitled Vagg Lane and Tintinhull Road.  The official postcode is BA21 3PX, but if you’re a satnaver try BA21 3PY, which actually drops you closer to it.   It’s just one mile from Huish Park and avoids the traffic / parking and lack of pubs that Pirates always protest about.  If you prefer double the walk you could start at the more prominent Halfway House Inn, on the A37 itself (Illchester Road, BA22 8RE) which lets you sample the delights of a walk through Chilthorne Domer village itself - more of that later.

The Carpenters Arms has an adequate car park, adequate beer, adequate food, above adequate staff and describes itself as “…sympathetically restored and modernised…"; you mean made to look like every other airy but bland restoration job, more akin to a Jif commercial than somewhere to feel truly at home.  Molson Coors’ Doom Bar (only partly from Cornwall these days) seems to be the regular ale, with a guest on the other pump.  Today it was a rather cloudy, and slightly sour Glastonbury Hedge Monkey, which according to its maker, is "Brewed in honour of Glastonbury’s many free-spirited cosmic visitors (hippies in other words!)".   I wonder how the French say cliché? 


The 20 minute walk to the ground is straight down a single country lane, so getting lost is virtually impossible, and as the lane is a no-through road, it’s more akin to a private path, with probably one tractor a day, a few cars per week and a young herd of Holstein Friesians occasionally being moved around.  The lane passes through the gorgeous hamlet of Thorne Coffin, with various curiosities to arouse the inquisitiveness of polymaths like myself, and presumably would be a great place to film a zombie slasher epic?

Apologies for the poor photo; a bog standard mobile phone doesn’t like strong light contrasts

There is a herringbone stone wall [see photo above] the likes of which I’ve never quite seen before, a Jubilee Hall which looks more like it should be on a Dorset beach [see left], and the stunning Thorne House, which could almost pass for an Elizabethan Manor House if it hadn’t been built in 1882, by Sir Thomas Graham Jackson one of the most distinguished architects and scholars of his day, being remembered mostly for numerous work in Oxford, including the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ that joins two parts of Hertford College over New College Lane.
Thomas Graham Jackson's 'Thorne House'
Thomas Graham Jackson's 'Bridge of Sighs' in Oxford  [Photo by Chensiyuan, via Wikimedia Commons]


The barely visible clock tower suggests there is a stable block behind, and the incongruous ’Conference’ sign was thankfully pointing away from Huish Park!  There is no way we want to be going in that direction ever again.















Finally the tiny 14th Century ‘Church of St. Andrew’, a grade II* listed building, is worth a quick gander, with a charming North porch dated to 1613 (apologies for the poor photo).


As this lane finishes, walk straight over the road, down a path and you are suddenly into the Trading Estate where Huish Park lies.  They even handily put the away end at the North end, just for us football by footpathers.

There isn’t much to say about the ground.  I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s just that we went to a football match, and then left afterwards.  That’s about it really, except for the curious sight that greeted me in the toilets [see below], and the wry comment of a fellow visitor who mused “Hmmm…maybe we need some more paper towels?”.  Oh, and when hurriedly entering the ground I’m convinced a steward asked me if I had “any spices or bottles”, as if cinnamon sticks and massive nutmegs had recently become the sophisticated hooligans weapon of choice, mirroring the ubiquitous rise of pulled pork in a brioche roll, all served by some bearded, inked up Hoxton twat, necking a craft beer or a flat white.


The game was… well, adequate.  A sign seen later in the day, at Nunney Castle, would have actually been better off nailed to the away end, as us Gasheads were slightly climbing the walls wondering if we would every get one past Artur Krysiak; yes, the very same Artur Krysiak who was being scouted by Billy Smart’s Circus every time we used to play Exeter City.  Go figure.



If there had been cries of ‘bring out your dead’, then at least half the Yeovil Town team would have qualified.  As my mate opined, the bottom line about pre-season is that you get players fit.  Becoming tactical geniuses at the same time is merely a bonus.  Yeovil haven’t even managed to produce a fit and healthy team, whereas we mainly have.  Glovers fans must be extremely worried at three losses on the trot and the spectre of a triple relegation.  Hopefully Dan Cabell, the febrile Glovers fan who held up a distinctly home made sign live on TV just over a year ago, stating ‘Could be worse we could support Bristol Rovers #non-league’, will have kept his Magnus Opus and with a few amendments can be shown the error of his ways later this season. 

 Revenge is a dish best served cold   [Photo by Gareth Davies / Pinnacle]

























Whilst Yeovil were utterly woeful, unfit, and loaded with enormous donkeys front and back, Rovers need to be given credit for sticking to their task, mainly trying to pass the ball around, adapting to change, and showing far more desire than the Glovers.  I lost count of the amount of times The Beard, Ollie Clarke and even Chris Lines nipped into to steal the ball off a Glover, or win the ball back after momentarily losing it.  67% possession, 11 corners and 16 shots (half on target), tell a story of persistence, even if the final decisive ball was often lacking, and the formation seems to be confusing some of our players.


A wander through Chilthorne Domer village afterwards was a bonus although sadly we missed a mid 18th Century six seater privy that was in regular use until 1939.  Yes, a privy - an outside toilet, crapper, W.C., bog, loo, stinkpit, oval office, little room, dunny, thunder box, house of ease, latrine, necessarium, long drop, brick sh*t house, porcelain throne, lavvy, khazi, the poo room, los servicios, the swanie.  Call it what you like, it’s a Grade II* listed structure, meaning it’s in the top 8% of listed buildings and of “more than special interest” in our green and pleasant land.

The similarly Grade II* listed Parish Church of 'St. Mary the Virgin' has 13th-century origins and is easily spotted from Main Street (BA22 8RD).  It has two beautiful pathways of shaped Yew trees, intriguing gargoyles, and a eye-catching oblong bell turret, which is apparently very similar to the one at the Church of St. Andrew at nearby Brympton D‘Evercy, that one being in the illustrious company of only 94 Grade I listed buildings in South Somerset.



 


The churchyard contains the poignant grave of Piers Simon who tragically died in the Indian Ocean tsunami on Boxing Day 2004 whilst visiting his brother Luke in Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.  His family have set the Piers Simon Appeal up in his honour, with the ‘School in a Bag’ a particularly noteworthy initiative.  Luke Simon tells the heart rendering story here…




















The War Memorial by the entrance to the Church Yard includes an inscription for 25 year old Lieutenant Richard Madden of the Light Dragoons who was killed in Bosnia on 28th January 1996, alongside two other Dragoons, when their Spartan combat reconnaissance vehicle hit a mine at Titov Drvar whilst on peacekeeping duties with the Implementation Force (IFOR).  Overall 59 UK service personnel died helping to bring peace and stability to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Lest we forget.

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Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar.  In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy.  Having been exiled for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 68 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and he recently edited and published an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk



Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Salisbury F.C. - The Old Sarum Stroll

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive…“ 
- Robert Louis Stevenson

“Not all those who wander are lost”
- J.R.R. Tolkien


Salisbury F.C. vs. Bristol Rovers F.C.

Raymond McEnhill Stadium, Partridge Way, Old Sarum, Wiltshire, SP4 6PU


What better way to celebrate the new Salisbury F.C.’s first ever pre-season friendly at the ‘Ray Mac’ Stadium, than to (a) play Bristol Rovers, and (b) go for a wander?

It may not seem obvious to the casual observer but Bristol Rovers ‘owe’ a huge debt of gratitude to Salisbury F.C., or technically its direct predecessor, the liquidated Salisbury City F.C..  Their most successful manager, Darrell Clarke, jumped ship to Rovers in June 2013, possibly spotting that the problems that had seen them demoted two divisions in the summer of 2010 where still not entirely over, even though DC had been the man, with Mikey Harris, to get them back to the Football Conference’s highest level with two gritty play-off promotions in three heady seasons.  If Salisbury were back to the 5th Tier of football, and playing in front of 1,000 fans in a decent new stadium, why leave for a basket case club trading on its former glory?


To Gasheads it was always a curious move.  Hot young manager at the most successful local-ish non-league club, taking a demotion to be an assistant only one division higher?  Immediately from his appointment, which apparently started from a chance phone call and was not part of any plan as such (the words ‘plan‘ and ‘Bristol Rovers‘ rarely do go together), most Rovers fans assumed he was being groomed as a Head Coach in the near future, whilst old dinosaur John Ward would move upstairs to be a comfy, well paid, Director of Football.  

That concept just about sums Rovers up.  Although John Ward had done well in 2013 to rescue Rovers from yet another terrible first half to a season, there seemed to be no real logic for him staying to be a hands-on ‘Manager’ when various evidence seemed to suggest a younger man was needed.  Anyway, the assumption is that DC came to Rovers either on the tacit understanding he could well end up as Head Coach or Manager very soon, or on the general feeling that Rovers will be the better long term prospect for an ambitious and successful young manager, who was popular and loyal where ever he had been employed in his career thus far. 

It was of course a marriage made in Hades and Rovers were relegated to non-league football for the first time since they joined the Football League in 1920.  I’ll spare you the details as this is supposed to be about walking to football grounds, not walking into an abyss with your eyes wide closed; the point being that part of the deal to let DC join Rovers included a minor money spinning pre-season friendly for Salisbury. 

This friendly, which brought 1,
068 fans through the doors, including at least 386 Pirates, was therefore the perfect ‘thank you’ to the Whites, and a fitting homecoming for a man who graced the club as a player/manager for six years.  Rovers had also plundered his ex-team when they sadly went out of business in July 2014 and although Jamie White proved to be a flop at the Gas and had already moved on to lower things, and Will Puddy was injured and unable play, cult hero Stuart ‘The Beard’ Sinclair did start the game, making his comeback from injury at his old club.  How perfect.  

As The Beard is omnipotent it was no surprise that he survived 60 mins untouched by human hands and was only subbed to give his luxuriant whiskers a well deserved rub down and ice bath.  I almost wished I had smuggled my recently liberated 'Beard' sign into the stadium to greet his return to action.




DC is clearly the best thing to happen to Bristol Rovers for many, many years, not just because of the results, but more importantly because of the ethos he brings, and the modern thinking that permeates his approach to all aspects of running a football operation; a Renaissance man born on a dodgy Council estate in Mansfield.  I would therefore walk over broken glass and have my hair almost shaved off by a small plane for this man of men, and I quite literally did. 

As the Ray Mac is miles outside the centre of Salisbury, and was pretty much on its tod until new houses began to surround it, I assumed that this would be perfect territory for a ‘football by footpath’ saunter.  I had been to Old Sarum before, the ancient pre-Salisbury settlement just a flints throw away, so to be able to link all three together in an afternoon was like a dream come true.  If Tony Robinson wasn’t a dirty shithead I might have even roped him along for the ride into bygone times.

A quick look on a map offered me a starting point at the hamlet of Ford, set off of a Roman road that leads from the Iron Age hillfort they used to occupy.  Any fellow football footpather can follow my footsteps by parking on any of the roads in Ford, such as Merrifield Road or Manor Farm Road, circa SP4 6DX.  

Then walk due North up the official footpath (Green Lane), past Manor Farm, or even better use the now closed road that takes you parallel to the lane, but right on the edge of Old Sarum airfield itself, which slightly surprisingly shows evidence that Salisbury has at least one spotty scroat who has ambitions to be a graffiti writer when he gets better at his craft.




Old Sarum airfield is one of only three in England that has been in continuous use as a grass flying field since its construction during World War I, and is the only one of the three currently in civilian use and open to the public.  It also has three of the four original World War I hangars still standing, all of which are Grade II* listed buildings.



The perimeter road you’ll be walking on passes right next to the Eastern end of the airstrip, with only a hedge of young trees separating you from the runway, so if you are fortunate enough to time your trip perfectly you’ll get the thrill of small planes flashing 15 metres above your noggin as they are seconds away from landing.  They are so close you can see what religion the pilot is.  Maybe.  My walk to the footy fortunately coincided with a pilot doing take-off and landing practice so I witnessed him go up and round and down several times.  On the way back later a throng of parachutists looked incandescent as they slowly circled down to earth out of the moody, sun drenched clouds.  




Once you’ve left the airfield behind you’ll be into the edge of Old Sarum Business Park, coming out onto the main road (the Portway) sandwiched between the Land Rover / Range Rover dealership and a Skoda / Kia counterpart.  There is a short cut to the football ground by crossing straight over the road, into Sherbourne Drive, where the new Charles Church housing estate is.  You know it must be Charles Church because each house has their name written into the front of the house near the door, as if a ’Charles Church’ plaque was a modern day equivalent of ‘Dunroamin’, ’Wynding Down’ or ‘Llamedos’ (think about it… or just use reverse gear).  As an avowed hater of advertisers shoving their pathetic ads right in our faces in public places, I’d be quite happy if a local juice monkey went joy riding on a nearby digger and smashed those plaques into oblivion.

The flaw in my Utopian dream though is that there isn’t anywhere to get drunk within a mile of here, so for supporters who are thirstier than I am the only thing missing from this ‘football by footpath’ entry is a pub, and I somehow doubt the beautiful new Mormon chapel on nearby Westside Close is going to offer you much, despite the courteous ‘Visitors Welcome’ sign outside.  The Mormons actually prefer to be entitled ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’.  So there you have it.  I have.  I imagine they also prefer people don’t accidentally leave the second ‘m’ out of their nickname, as I almost did.



Anyway, I have digressed, the short cut is via the third cul-de-sac to your left, Bunting Lane, and through a gap in the hedgey fencey thing.  The away end then slaps you in the face like a wet turbot.

If you take the short cut you will however miss the traditional entrance into the stadium.  So for the more conventional of you, walk West along the Portway and then turn right into Partridge Way.

As you approach the entrance to the Ray Mac it not only reinforces my feeling that many football fans are strangely obsessed with paying money to park inside crowded club car parks, but also that all over the country we have three little words that help to explain why we are so deficient at football at a national level.  When I’ve lived and travelled in Africa kids are playing football everywhere; literally anywhere, including rubbish tips, airport car parks and flat rooftops [hmmm, be careful when sprinting down ‘the wing‘ young ‘un].  Football is a unique and truly world-wide sport precisely because at its most basic level it needs no real equipment (a jumble of rags inside an old sock is the African predilection), no real pitch, no real organisation, and can be practised with virtually any number of players, including alone, dribbling around old tin cans, nutmegging local mutts, and being sharp enough to make sure your sock ball doesn’t roll into a rotting sewer.  No wonder the skill and balance levels there are often astonishing. 

So what does our society do to encourage our kids to have an off the cuff knockabout?  We stick up those three petty words that split apart communities nation-wide; ‘No Ball Games’.  The new-ish housing estate outside the Ray Mac had not only the largest such sign I’ve ever seen, but was bolted incongruously onto the side of a house and had the additional warning of ‘Strictly’ added beforehand, with underlining.  I’m surprised it wasn’t done in bold and CAPITALS as well, and have locals enforce the rule with a Tazer. 

The ubiquitous satellite dish next to it was allowed though, suggesting we are a nation happy to watch football on TV, but we daren’t let our kids play it near our house.  And all this was within 20 metres of a football stadium, where they also wouldn’t be allowed to play without a rather middle-class appointment.  Can I use the word irony for this state of affairs, or will the QI team tell me off?


Rovers won a really good game with four excellent goals and we were treated to the truly bizarre sight of an ancient bi-plane* flying over the ground as if Baron van Richthofen or René Fonck were still alive.

This ‘football by footpath’ route is only a stunted walk (maybe 12-15 minutes the short route, and 15-20 the longer method), but the stroll could be extended if you started your journey in the Hampton Park area of North Salisbury and utilised the full length of Green Lane.

Notices by the airfield announce that a massive new planning application is going into Wiltshire Council with an aim to redevelop the whole area, including the building of 480 new houses, so god knows what the area may look like in years to come.  So, get your ‘football by footpath’ mini-adventure in quick before Mr Wimpey does. 


* - a kind reader has since suggested that it was a 1933 Tiger Moth.  Excellent story here

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Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar.  In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy.  Having been exiled for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 67 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and he recently edited and published an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Forest Green Rovers - Another Way to Arrive

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive…“ 
- Robert Louis Stevenson


Forest Green Rovers F.C. vs. Bristol Rovers F.C.


The New Lawn, Another Way (oh ha. yes ha ha. I get it.  ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.  ok, enough now…), Nailsworth, Gloucestershire, GL6 0FG 

Conference Play-Off Semi-Final, 1st leg.                                  29th April 2015
 
Given that Nailsworth really is a small Cotswold market town (pop: 5,794 - I almost expected that to be written in red paint on an old piece of wood like a scene from 'High Plains Drifter') and that football fans always complain about (a) the congestion and limited parking around the top of the hill, and (b) the walk up the said hill, I decided to take the advice of Dale Vince’s brilliant punning and find ‘another way’ to arrive.  I am actually really fond of Mr. Vince (unconventional owner of Ecotricity and FGR), and it is a credit to him that this was the first ‘football by footpath’ I’d bothered to really think about and start writing up properly.


I’d never been to the ground before, having been in London on the August Bank Holiday in 2014 when we played our first ever match there and packed out two sides of the ground with 1,886 Gasheads (precisely 49.9% of the total crowd, and I bet a few who sneaked into the seats or hospitality unofficially pushed it over the 50% mark).

There are quite literally no pubs near the ground, with the nearest being down at the bottom of the hill, in the town itself.  Or are there…?  A brief reconnoitre down some steep side roads on the way back from my trip to utterly, totally, unashamedly blag the right to buy some tickets for the virtually empty ‘home’ terrace (the whole story is far too long to write down - 10 minutes of slightly unproductive duplicity hinged purely on two little words I threw into the mix) confirmed that there was a great parking spot and little old pub not that far from the ground, and certainly within a woodland walk that would suit ‘football by footpath‘.

But surely everyone else had also stopped whinging about pubs and parking by now and done a tad of searching on the internet as well?  Hadn’t they?  Obviously not, as our arrival there was greeted with the type of stares that suggested they had no idea a football ground has been within a 10-15 minute walk of them for the past 89 years.

The George Inn, Nailsworth - Circa 1997

The George Inn on the Newmarket Road (GL6 0RF / Tel - 01453 833228  / Map reference ST8411499653 apparently) is an amazing pub though, especially if you like history, good beer, and out of the way locations, with pleasant views across the Miry Brook towards Shortwood thrown in for free.  If you look carefully you can even see the new Wicker Man they are building over there.  I personally don’t mind the sight of an old one; it’s the new ones I worry about.  The three separate chimneys suggest the Inn was presumably three cottages knocked into one.  It apparently became a pub in 1820 and was renamed in 1910 to honour the incoming George V.  

View from the Inn

Considering its location up a dead end road it’s hardly surprising it seems a lot like a locals pub. Tough.  As long as the beer is ok I don’t really care that much.  They had two real ales on pump from the local Uley Brewery, plus one from the even closer Stroud Brewery, and Timothy Taylor’s classic ‘Landlord‘ from ‘up north‘.  I believe that they have Uley beers most of the time and most probably Stroud ones as well.



The gents toilet is in a separate old building in front of the pub.  We genuinely didn’t realise it was there when already ensconced inside the pub, and as the barman totally blanked me when I tried to ask (a point off for that matey!) I decided to use the Ladies which was clearly signposted next to where we were sitting.  It is upstairs though and presumably is also the bathroom for B&B guests or live-in staff as it contained shaving materials, shower gel, and everything you would need for a bath and ablutions.  Or maybe they shave the locals here, or even worse, the outsiders.  My friends (a Canary and a Bluebird) remarked about a quirk in the bath itself, which drained from an exit in the middle of the tub.  Well, they do do things a bit funny like in Gloucestershire.  BTW - I am legally allowed to make such jokes by the West Country Bumpkin Act of 1752 as I was born within 800 metres of the Gloucestershire / Somersetshire / Wiltshire ’Three Shires’ border crossing, near Colerne, and have had an identity crisis ever since. 

The 'Three Shires' Stones

When you come out of The George head to your right, up the main road.  Ignore any roads to your left and right, until you come to a clear fork in the narrow road.  Stay right (the appropriately entitled Wood End Lane), carry on until the road finishes and you‘ll find a little footpath that leads you onto the dirt path that heads up through High Wood and to the back of the ground.  If for any reason you accidentally veered left at the fork, you will simply reach the end of that particular road, and after a few minutes will join up with the same public footpaths that lead up the hill.  Basically all paths lead up the steep hill (a 65 metre elevation from the pub), and straight to the ground.  You can’t really go that wrong.  Honestly.  It may seem disconcerting to the average football fan, but trust me, I am a ticket blagging liar who will pretend my father was an FGR fan from Coaley in order to get tickets.  Just keep on going up and up!

At this point I am reminded of the ‘turtle‘ story.  Its origin dates back to at least the mid 19th Century, and although versions now wildly vary about who tells the story, all versions go along the same lines.   After a talk on cosmology and the structure of the solar system by a clever academic, a little old lady in the hall approaches the learned lecturer and informs him that his theory of the solar order is completely wrong, and that the Earth in fact rests on the back of a huge turtle.  ‘But, my dear lady‘, the Professor asks, as politely as possible, ‘what holds up the turtle?’.  ‘Ah‘, she replies, ‘that's easy to answer. He is standing on the back of another turtle‘. ‘Oh, I see‘, said the Professor, trying to bite his tongue, ‘But would you be so good as to tell me what holds up the second turtle?’. ‘It's no use, Professor‘, said the old lady, realising he was trying to lead her into a logical trap, ‘It's turtles all the way down!’


With FGR it is hills and hills all the way up. 

The scramble up through High Wood was charming, through swathes of wild garlic, although the slide back down in the pitch black was strangely more difficult.  A practical man in our party had said he would bring a torch, but he clearly wasn’t that practical as he failed to do so and was also still in his slick soled office flippers.  He might as well have worn shoes stolen from a Ten Pin Bowling alley, or blocks of pure pig lard on his feet (Gloucester Old Spot anyone?).  I bet Ray Mears doesn’t have this problem, but then again Ray has no friends.  Nor would you if you ate snake poo for breakfast.  I rescued the day with a bright mobile phone light and Tour de France cries of ‘Allez, Allez‘. 

Once at the top of the ascent the back of the home terrace can be spotted through a fence (this was the Trevor Horsley stand at the old Lawn before being dragged 400 metres and re-erected at the new stadium).  After climbing through a broken section and emerging like three urchins from a Victorian chimney an old boy stewarding in the car park jokingly asked us, ‘where have you lot come from?’.  Well I assumed he was joking - it was certainly not your average way to emerge into the confines of a new-ish football ground for an important play-off match.

If you prefer to avoid an ungainly scramble through a broken fence, you can play safe and follow the fence around the west side of the ground (this also is a public footpath).  This leads you up and over the famous hill where you can see part of the pitch for free, and then around to the main road and the front of the stadium.

Well Dale, thanks for giving my quirky challenge a bit of a push.  In equal measures I do and I don’t look forward to a return trip.  If such an occasion arises just make sure it’s in the Football League yeah?


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Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar.  In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy.  Having been exiled for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 67 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and he recently edited and published an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk

Monday, 4 May 2015

please come on in...

My name is M.R.Bull, and this is 'football by footpath', my occasional blog to chart away day travels to British football grounds that use any slightly quirky method of arrival.

This will usually involve a smidgin of research, a public footpath or a canal towpath, shanks' pony, a pub and preferably decent weather.  Falling down hills and getting lost is also distinctly possible, but it's hardly an extreme sport, so handglider geeks and parachutists need not apply.

Why bother to arrive at the back entrance via an overgrown field full of cow pats?  

Well, not only am I a contrary so-and-so at times, but I also like thinking outside the box; or even just ripping the whole box up and starting again.  And as much as I love a packed football terrace INSIDE the ground, outside of it don't you sometimes prefer to avoid the modern day madding crowd and not be herded along some crap route for away fans? 

There is also the bonus of being in the great British countryside, free parking or a less than obvious train station, an easier getaway, and hopefully a country pub that isn't full of sweaty Ipswich Town fans.   

It's also about being green... well, a little greener than average, especially compared to having the engine running whilst queuing to get out of that god awful car park and soul destroying retail park at Oxford United.


This is very much the infancy stage, but I hope to add in a few memories of previous trips that just about qualify (e.g. Derby County and Reading by river / canal paths), some ideas for future meanderings, and maybe even some adventures from readers (email me - hello  [at] awaythegas.org.uk).

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Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar.  In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy.  Having been exiled for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 67 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and editing and publishing an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', about them - www.awaythegas.org.uk