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Archive for March, 2012


Although the county championship season does not start for another fortnight (sic), and the squad may still not be quite finalised, the commencement of domestic cricket at Beckenham tomorrow with a one day friendly against Middlesex might seem an opportune moment to speculate how well prepared Kent County Cricket Club are for the coming season.

The Close Season

Much has happened since that last grubby pink ball was despatched to the extra cover boundary at an eerie and chilly St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury at 8 o’clock in the middle of September.

Firstly, former coach, Paul Fabrace, paid the price for the team’s pitiful 2011 LV County Championship campaign, when they were only spared the wooden spoon by Leicestershire, and had one of their worst seasons since the days when Queen Victoria was looking forward to her Diamond Jubilee. In one of “life’s little ironies” as Thomas Hardy referred to them, Kent’s first competitive game of the season is a trip to Headingley on Maundy Thursday to face his new employers.

Farbrace has been replaced as “Head Coach” (rather than “Director of Cricket”, the title he held), by former West Indians batsman and captain, Jimmy Adams, an appointment that has been met with cautious optimism amongst the county’s followers and considerable enthusiasm in the dressing room.

Two of the club’s most experienced batsmen, Joe Denly and Martin van Jaarsveld, also departed for newly promoted Middlesex and South Africa respectively, the former to play Division One cricket and further his stalled England ambitions, and the latter to play out the rest of his career in his home country, where he hoped to recapture the form that had largely deserted him in his final season at Canterbury.  Recent reports indicate that the move is proving a success.

In addition, the county released infuriating and injury prone quick bowler, Robbie Joseph and former England U-19 batsman, James Goodman, left first class cricket altogether to attend university before pursuing a business career.

 

Overseas player(s)

Australian born West Indian test player, Brendan Nash, will be the overseas player for the entire season. The 34 year old will certainly add some steel and dependability to the middle order in the championship side, and is already in form with a double century for Jamaica against Guyana just four weeks ago, but it is difficult to envisage him strengthening the batting in the T20 competition, having played just one game in that format in his career and not even making it to the crease (though he did execute a run out!). 

Adams has expressed hope that there is still room for at least one other, more dynamic, player for the T20 campaign in the budget, although the Club’s management appear to be less enthusiastic. That said, that was the thinking at this time last year when the Club insisted that they would manage without an overseas player in that competition, and then proceeded to make what some felt were panic signings in Wahab Riaz and Charl Langeveldt.

Given that there are less T20 group matches this year, with the consequent loss of revenue, it is crucial that the Club strives to secure the services of a “name” player (or two), not only to encourage spectators through the turnstiles, but also to increase the chances of the side progressing past the group stage, a goal that would, at present, seem challenging.

 

Batting

Following Denly and van Jaarsveld’s departures, Chairman George Kennedy, promised that the savings accrued would be reinvested in “established international batsmen”. Whilst with 21 tests under his belt, Nash may fit that bill, supporters have been rather underwhelmed by the signings of Glamorgan veteran, Mike Powell, and 32 year old left handed opener, Scott Newman, the former on a permanent contract and the latter initially on a two month loan, ironically determined to use the experience to regain his place at the top of the Middlesex order usurped by Denly. Both men have indicated that they have a point to prove to the “former” employers, which, it is hoped, will work to Kent’s advantage.

Ben Harmison, younger brother of Ashes winning fast bowler, Steve, has also moved from Durham where he had become surplus to requirements. After a century on his first class debut in 2006, he has largely underachieved and it is hoped that the move will resurrect, or rather kick start, his career. In fact, it is unclear at this stage whether he is a genuine all-rounder, a bowler who bats a bit or a batsmen who bowls a bit. It will be interesting to watch how he adapts to his new county. By all accounts, Adams was impressed with him on the trip to Antigua, which augurs well, but this is a big season for him.

That phrase – “this is a big season for” – could, in fact, be applied to several Kent players, none more so than 22 year old Sam Northeast, the schoolboy prodigy who had a mediocre 2011, largely batting at number 3 in the LVCC, though he did show some aptitude as the “enforcer” in the one day side. At the end of the season, perhaps surprisingly, he only signed a one year contract, indicating that he wanted evidence of Kent’s ambition before committing himself to something more long term. This irritated some supporters who felt that it was not only putting himself under more pressure than necessary, but, should he have a stellar 2012, would be enabling him to secure a longer term contract at a more fashionable county at the end of the season.

Another of the home-grown players who needs to start converting his undoubted talent into big runs is 23 year old Alex Blake. His century at Headingley on what proved to be the penultimate day of the 2010 season as Kent were relegated from the LVCC Division One, appeared to herald great things in the future. However, apart from an impressive 96 at The Oval, when he was run out by number 11, Ashley Shaw, a combination of injury and injudicious shots early in his innings, blighted his season in 2011. Now he has completed his studies at Bradford University, and is available for the full season, the powerful left hander has the opportunity to cement his place in the top / middle order. If he succeeds, his “stand and deliver” style will be highly entertaining to watch. 

With Geraint Jones’s batting suffering a (hopefully temporary) decline in 2011, there were calls for Sam Billings, who had impressed in the one day game, not least for his brilliant boundary fielding (ironic given that he is the second choice wicketkeeper), to be blooded in the LVCC side. Jones’s natural desire to play every game, and Rob Key’s wrist injury calling for an opener as replacement, the slot went to exciting England U-19 opener Daniel Bell-Drummond. Billings will be at Loughborough University, where he is captain, until July, but his time will surely come.  Bell-Drummond is more likely to be a regular in the one day side this season and 20 year old Chris Piesley, whose appearances in the LVCC side in 2011 were traumatic, may need to wait this chance, as will Fabian Cowdrey.

Darren Stevens also had a modest time with the bat in the four day game in 2011 and, in fact, displayed his match winning talents more often as a deadly medium pace bowler. It may only be speculation that that had a detrimental effect on his ability to occupy the crease for a long time, but it might still be better not to over rely on him as a stock bowler in 2012.

Despite being expected to concentrate on one day cricket, veteran Pakistani, Azhar Mahmood headed both the county’s first class batting and bowling averages. The decision to finally give him his head and allow him to bat at first wicket down in the T20 competition, proved inspirational as he was a revelation, carrying that form into his late season LVCC innings further down the order. It is not fanciful to think that, as the amount of bowling he is able to do inevitably diminishes, he could hold down a place as a front line batsman. 

The lynchpin of the batting, as it has been for the past dozen years, should be the captain, Rob Key, who displayed, before his wrist injury terminated his 2011 season prematurely, signs of high class, most dramatically in his almost match winning innings at The Oval. If he can remain injury free and resist the lure of a full time media career, he can make a lot of runs for Kent for many years yet.

If Stevens and Jones can recreate their form of previous seasons, Northeast showcase his talent on a more consistent basis, both Powell and Nash provide solidity in the middle order, and the captain bat like he did in the period leading up to his injury in 2011, the lineup could deliver big runs. But that is no guarantee. Last season, the county boasted arguably the most experienced top six on the circuit, yet persistently underachieved.    

 

Seam bowling

The spearhead of the four day attack in 2011, Hampshire loanee, David Balcombe has returned to his parent county, leaving the pace bowling department looking particularly threadbare. The paucity of experienced medium fast bowlers even led Kent to re-sign veteran Simon Cook when, for most of the late summer and autumn, it had looked that his Kent career was over.

That “big season” tag could also apply to 21 year old Matt Coles. An enthusiastic trier, he looked genuinely quick at times last season and earned himself a call-up to the Potential England Performance Programme in India, from whence he joined the England Lions tour as of Sri Lanka as replacement for Stuart Meaker. He is also a powerful left-handed batsmen and could yet become a genuine all-rounder.

Supporters will hope that Balcombe’s exploits will be replicated this year by 6 feet 7 inches Cornishman, Charlie Shreck, who signed after nine solid years at Nottinghamshire. Whilst Cook might be a bit part player, rather than the reliable “go to” bowler of previous years, much is expected of England U-19 captain, Adam Ball, whose left arm seamers impressed in 2011, especially in the T20 competition. He also looks a compact, orthodox batsman, but can clear the boundary when the occasion demands. 

Although he can no longer be expected to bowl long spells, there remain few more canny seamers in the game than Azhar Mahmood, particularly “at the death” in one day games. It is likely, and probably prudent, that the burden upon him be lessened, if for no other reason than that it will allow him to build on his resurgent batting. Twenty year old left armer Ashley Shaw has produced some high class spells of swing bowling, but his persistent shin splints problem threatens to hamper his progress. Young quicks, Ivan Thomas and Ben Kemp will probably have to bide their time this season.  

Thirty one year old Mark Davies, released by Durham after a spate of injuries, joined the squad on its recent ten day training trip to Antigua, and apparently impressed. A fit, hungry Davies would certainly bolster the seam attack.     

 

Spin bowling

James Tredwell will, as he has done for the past half dozen years, spearhead the spin bowling department, though his return to the England fold for the current Sri Lanka tour has given him renewed hope that his international career is not over yet. This may give off spinner, Adam Riley, twenty tomorrow, more first team chances, though he is still at Loughborough University. He showed some real promise last season, particularly early on, though injury and university limited his opportunities. He is still very young in spin bowling terms, but looks a potentially sound long term replacement for Tredwell. It should not be forgotten that the departures of Denly and van Jaarsveld will limit the part time slow bowling options, which might be a real issue in the one day game.

 

Prediction 

The signings of Powell, Shreck, Harmison, Newman and, potentially, Davies, have raised the average age of the first team squad dramatically. Having looked at the end of last year that the club was going to rely upon the emerging and, in many cases, still unproven, youngsters, the first team is now a much more experienced one. Time will tell whether the additional number of bodies has the required quality to challenge for honours in either the four or one day game.

Indeed, it is difficult to predict where Kent will finish in each competition. After a disastrous 2011, becoming competitive, particularly in the four day format, will be an improvement. That said, pre-season optimism dictates that a genuine challenge for promotion back to Division One of the LVCC, and reaching the knock-out phases of both the T20 and CB40 competitions, might not be beyond this squad, provided that the new recruits and established members deliver, and the youngsters make good progress.

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Last night I did something I can’t recall having done before in my near sixty years – I ate out alone in a restaurant. I don’t know what that says about me, particularly as I dine out as often – and probably more – than I can afford. Perhaps I am such sparkling company that I am always fending off a queue of admirers willing to share, and be seen to be sharing, a meal in public with me? Yes, of course ………… not. It’s more a case of my being too self-conscious to be seen unaccompanied. 

Until last night.

Having passed a dozen restaurants in Covent Garden, all full, catering for the demands of theatregoers, I spied a spare table at Pizza Express, opposite Charing Cross railway station, and, as boldly as I could in the circumstances, went where I had not gone before, and entered.

I felt some trepidation about the experience, expecting everyone to stare at me and either poke fun because I had nobody to share my meal with or, perhaps worse still, cast pitying glances in my direction. This may be pathetic and irrational, not least in these days when an increasing number of people live alone, but it was, nonetheless, real.

I was met with a beaming smile by Yamina, a delightful and attentive waitress whom, I would hazard, was of middle eastern extraction, and escorted to my table. She removed the “spare” set of cutlery, thereby indicating to my fellow diners that I was truly on my own, and not just waiting for my “date”.

She promptly took my drink order of a large glass of Pinot Grigio. I declined the offer of water, not least because the prospect of having two glasses, and perhaps a bottle too, on the small table before me (and this was before any food had arrived), might prove too much of a temptation for me to spill the contents and expose me still further as a sad hick.

On returning with my drink – which comprised a wine glass AND a carafe (anxiety level spirals) – I ordered dough balls “Pizza Express”, followed by “Padana Leggera”, a thin crust pizza topped with goats cheese, spinach, caramelised red onion and garlic oil, with a veritable forest of rocket engulfing it. Yamina declared that I had chosen the “best” pizza on the menu, with which judgement, despite the absence of at least four varieties of cheeses bubbling in it, I concurred.

The food was good if not outstanding, but then, the last time I looked, Pizza Express was still awaiting its first Michelin star. It is, however, reliable, tasty and relatively inexpensive.  And, having been one of the first pizza chains in the UK, opening its first branch near the British Museum, over 40 years ago, it has maintained its position in the market in the intervening years in the face of growing competition.

Last night, the dough balls were a little dry, although the garlic butter helped to alleviate that issue. Goats cheese and caramelised red onion are a delicious combination, though the profusion of rocket atop it just took the edge off the heat a little more than I would have liked.

The service throughout was excellent. Aside from the ever-smiling Yamina, both the young man who delivered my main course and the woman – whom I presumed to be the maître dit who collected my empty plate – were equally charming and attentive. 

Now, when you have somebody opposite you at the dinner table, you are obliged to engage them in witty, intelligent conversation or, failing that, check your e mails and Facebook accounts together on your mobile phones. When you are alone, however, your thoughts tend naturally to wander over the minutiae of your life. For me, the experience of being in a restaurant, on my own, monopolised my thinking.

One fantasy I harboured that might account for the superb service I received was that the staff might have mistaken me for a food critic. Fanciful idea I know, but my alternating between taking a bite of pizza and scribbling in my notebook, must have appeared odd. Nothing like drawing attention to yourself when you’re trying to be invisible. But, in a way, I was – this article is as much a modest restaurant review as it is an exploration of my psyche. 

Or perhaps their amiability was borne out of pity for my plight of solitude.

(There I go again – it’s no big deal, really. Thousands of people do it every day, and without making such a fuss. Get over yourself).

And besides I wasn’t really alone. I had the company of a six by four foot mirror disconcertingly close to my left cheek, reflecting back my profile. Thankfully, it displayed my better side, though that is not saying much. Inevitably, I cast the occasional glance in it, but for no other reason than to snoop on my fellow diners without staring directly at them. Oddly, they appeared to have no interest in me, my scribbling or my hangups (nothing worse than being spoken about………).

After forty five minutes I paid the bill, leaving Yamina a handsome tip, and strode out into a balmy, bustling Strand where the rush hour with its constant stream of taxis, buses and pedestrians remained in full swing. 

(There, that wasn’t so bad was it? Well, OK, but I think I’ll take my wife next time).

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It is 10am on a bright, brisk market day morning in March in a town in the south of England.  I order a decaffeinated skinny latté from an eager young man in the one cafe that does not reek of grease, and take a seat outside.

On his way out to me the trainee barista trips over a discarded beer can and spills the coffee over the pavement.  He apologises and returns to mop it up, but fails to offer me another cup, and then is visibly irritated when, wholly unreasonably, I request a fresh one. That said, he brings a prompt replacement, seasoned with a further apology.

From the doubtful comfort of my three and a half legged plastic chair I scan the establishments around me – “Nails Palace – Professional Nail Care for Ladies and Gentlemen”, “Cash Generator – the Buy, Sell and Loan Store”, “Tanning Heaven”, “Tattoo xxxxxx Ltd”, “Cheques Cashed”, “We buy Gold – any Condition”, “Residential lettings”, “Betfred” bookmakers and the “Community Store”, run by the Salvation Army and offering “Heart to God, Hand to Man”.

“Eel Pie Island”, which specialises in  all day breakfasts, announces itself in large, yellow lettering to be a “Caf’e” (I doubt the apostrophe police saw that one coming). Upstairs is a dental surgery which, somehow, seems appropriate.

The “Hot 4 U Pizza, Chicken and Kebab” shop is closed, victim of too much competition in the fast food field, proof that you can have too much of a good thing. Breakfast for those not crammed into McDonald’s consists of sausage and bacon rolls and fresh cream puffs. Obesity seems a badge of honour.

The traditional gentleman’s barber shop is missing his iconic red and white striped pole. Nothing for the weekend here.

The local pub is also boarded up. A ragged, handwritten paper sign flaps in the light breeze. Somebody has inserted an “i” between the words “to” and “let”.

The compensation culture is in full swing. The frontage of the “Claim Shop” is emblazoned with a huge sign proclaiming “have you been involved in an ACCIDENT or suffered an INJURY through no fault of your own!!!”.

A council street cleaner fights a losing battle with bottles, cans, and food packaging, strewn over benches and pavement.  On the opposite side of the road a modern day Steptoe proceeds in stiff but stately fashion along the pedestrianised street, peering professionally in all directions for unwanted morsels.

The air reverberates in a veritable Babel. English is spoken, or rather shouted, liberally infused with swear words, but it is no more heard than is Polish, Russian, Arabic, Turkish or Punjabi.

Young gap-toothed men wearing baseball caps or hoods and gripping cans of super strength, but astonishingly cheap, lager, swagger past, trailed by tattooed teenage mothers already carrying their next child, barking at their toddlers who are committing the heinous crime of  being  ……………….. children.

As the weather is uncommonly mild, plain white vests, accompanied by sometimes matching sweat pants, appear to be the dress code of choice, at least for the men. Whilst this might be an attractive look on a young man with taut muscles in the right places, it does not sit well with balding, unshaven, middle aged men, stomachs bursting from a diet of gassy beer and burgers. Bare arms are bedecked with body art depicting snakes, eagles and pseudo-oriental slogans.

Their Staffordshire bull terriers, acquired for menace, encircle each other, doing nothing more threatening than sniffing at each other’s private parts.

And yet, I am observed quizzically, even suspiciously, by passers-by with my fancy coffee, book for reading and, especially, notebook and pen desperately trying to capture the vivid images around me.

The young mums congregate outside Gregg’s and Iceland to share a cigarette, compare frilly pram and buggy decorations and show off the clothes they have just bought for Bailey and Madison in Primark. As the conversation turns to X Factor and piercings, their progeny become increasingly testy, provoking screeching admonitions to “shut up…… now”.

Shoppers seek bargains in the many charity shops, notably Scope, Cancer Research, Oxfam, British Heart Foundation and Demelza (for children in hospice care), but the upstart 97p conv£nience store has recently closed, sent packing by the more established and cavernous 99p emporium.

In the bustling market the stalls selling inexpensive imitation leather jackets, shell suits and sweatshirts are doing a good trade.  Following close behind are those offering household goods and toys, jewelry, watches, mobile phones, rugs and carpets, curtains, handbags, purses and luggage – the selling point in every category being cheapness.

Country crooners from the fifties dominate the airwaves from the two stalls specialising in CDs and DVDs. A local driving school and the RAC try to rein in passers by, but most people here do not drive. Surrounded by fast food outlets, the centrally positioned greengrocer is still highly popular, as is the plant stall.

The meat wagon man is not so successful despite his saucy entreaties to “come on girls, don’t be shy, give my lovely meat a try”. A further invitation to feel his pork loins goes similarly unheeded. Despite his impressive discounts, a middle aged couple try to barter with him to no avail – another sale lost.

An octogenarian sea dog (this is a naval town, after all), dressed in a tweed jacket and waistcoat that displays several medals, shuffles past pushing a shopping trolley. Woe betide anyone who gets in his way, for a wheezy verbal volley and a clip from his walking stick will befall them. He sports a flourishing white beard reminiscent of Uncle Albert’s in the TV sitcom, Only Fools and Horses.

A slowly warming sun glints through the trees as I drain my latté and head for The Works in the hope of picking up a bargain book to add to the already overstocked shelves at home.

Florence this is not. Nor is it Bath or Edinburgh. But it is a area of contrasts. Despite having some of the worst school exam results in the country it boasts four universities, and the local sports centre has been refurbished and rebranded as an Olympic training venue.

If the picture I have portrayed here only depicts one side of that, it is because that is what I see on this March Monday morning.

And, as someone infinitely more eloquent than I said “it’s alright ma – it’s life and life only”.

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Recently my wife and I did some house sitting for friends. It had been a welcome short break for us too – leaving our three bedroom terraced house in town for a spacious five bedroom detached cottage deep in the Kent countryside, with ten acres of land and nothing on the horizon but trees and the occasional oast house.

Our duties had not only been confined to the “country pile”, but a minor menagerie too. Firstly, we were asked to attend to the needs “on demand” of the family cat, a deaf, sixteen year old with the onset of dementia and the personality of an East End mobster. Then there was the cacophonous collection of ducks, moorhens and pheasants that hung out together around the pond, and the mass of birdlife, including woodpeckers, assorted tits and finches, wood pigeons, thrushes and others at their feeding station.

And finally, there were two shetland ponies, one palomino and the other chestnut, whom, for the first 24 hours, we were responsible for steering into their stables in the evening and out of them into the field the next morning.

Originally, we had been expected to look after the elderly black labrador dog too, but she had been unwell of late and travelled away with her owners. Disappointing though this development was, it did allow us to walk a lot further, which we took full advantage of.

But let’s return to the cat. We were told to feed him “when he whines”. That sounds easy – until you discover that he whines at least once an hour as he stands over a dish that, a short while ago, was gleaming with cat food, steamed with such delicacies as tuna, salmon and sardine. Periodic bowls of prawns completed his exotic, and clearly delicious, diet.

Once replete, his “demand” then extended to standing by the back door, insisting, in steadily increasing volume (remember, he is deaf), that, despite the fact that he could use the cat flap designed for the purpose is located in the front door, he be let out via that route (only to return by the cat flap, of course).

His life appears to be a constant cycle of eating and sleeping – which he did for hours on end, usually curled up by the side of the sitting room T.V.  Just occasionally, he would ordain that he be stroked for a few moments, but not for long enough to engender sentimentality or diminish his street credibility. And, after all, we needed to know our place.

Now, I know his alternately independent and needy manner is only his cat nature, but it was the way in which he articulated the latter that was particularly alarming, and not a little scary. Dependent, I presume, upon his level of dissatisfaction at being ignored when he “whines”, he has an extraordinary range of sounds, from the traditional miaow, to a cute, lamb-like bleat, a remarkably human conversational tone and, ultimately, a hair-raising growl – the last usually doing the trick (crikey, where’s his food?).

Despite repeated staring competitions, and raised voices on either side, I’d like to think that, by the end of the weekend, whilst not becoming great friends, we had at least arrived at a tenuous understanding, though which of us was David Cameron and which Boris Johnson, I would not presume to guess.

And then there were the ponies. As their stables had already been “mucked out”, and their food and water prepared, our duties on the first evening were merely to guide them from the field into their respective stables, with the reverse operation the following morning. Now I’ll confess that we were not a little anxious about this.

Would they – especially as were strangers – take this opportunity to make a run for it when that gate was opened at 5.30pm? Or would they attack us, annoyed that they had been obliged to wait so long for their evening meal (despite the fact that they had each eaten a ton of grass during the day)? Or, perhaps, even worse, and I acknowledge that this would have been the least likely scenario, would they refuse to budge at all?

So we prepared very carefully for the ordeal.

Gate to outside world and freedom firmly closed?

Check.

Stable doors open to receive residents?

Check.

Route to compost heap cut off by strategically placed wheelbarrow (and male human of advancing years)?

Check.

Here goes – gate to field opened.

What happened there?

Within two seconds, and in a whirl of dried mud, hay and galloping hooves, they were ensconced in their respective stables, muzzles in their buckets of feed, hay and apples, oblivious to our concern as we picked ourselves up from the stony path.

For details of the following morning’s similar stampede, just read the foregoing account in reverse order.

Piece of cake then – or, perhaps, bowl of hay might be a more suitable metaphor.

The entertainment provided by the animals aside, it was a glorious weekend with warm spring sunshine throughout.

Fine weather helps of course, but these few days have confirmed that country life agrees with me. The only sounds were delightfully natural ones – the ducks greeting the dawn which, unfortunately, for some, appears to have broken at 2am, the diversity of birdsong, the calling of woodpeckers across the valley, and even the whinnying and kicking from the stables as the ponies became impatient to be released from their overnight custody.

As I finish this piece a pheasant scoots across the meadow in a hilarious audition for the role of the roadrunner in the re-creation of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. A squirrel clambers clumsily onto a bird feeder, only to be ganged up on by a crowd of coal tits. I will, however, gloss over the shenanigans in the vicinity of the pond where three male mallards chase and ultimately pin down a single female. Spring has undoubtedly sprung.

I would write more but I can hear the cat whining again.

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It was March 2002, a mere half year since that brilliant, terrible morning in New York City that changed our lives forever. The world, and especially the United States, remained in a state of anxiety and foreboding about the direction in which it was moving.

Security was tight, therefore, as we landed at San Francisco International Airport on a damp, dismal Tuesday afternoon.  With an eleven hour flight and early check-in, we had been travelling already for eighteen hours. We were already regretting the decision to drive the 180 miles direct to South Lake Tahoe that evening for our holiday in Heavenly ski resort.

After dragging our heavy luggage from the arrivals hall to the car hire centre at the far side of the airport, we were informed that a large storm was approaching Tahoe, and advised that we should seriously consider upgrading to a 4×4 vehicle.  Whilst subsequent experience has taught us that this is a regular ploy to extract a significant chunk out of our holiday spending budget before we have even left the terminal, this appeared a more plausible scenario on this occasion.  However, we declined the upgrade but collected our obligatory snow chains before searching for our car.

We drove away from the airport at around 4pm, the beginning of the evening commute, just as the rain that had been threatening since our arrival set in.  Experience had taught us that rain at this level meant snow at much higher elevations.  How would we be able to attach the snow chains to the car?  We had never done it before.  And when would we know it was the right time to do so? Fortunately, at a small price (this is America after all), these decisions were made for us later in the journey.

The run to the Bay Bridge was frenetic, and, as the rain got heavier, so did the traffic.  Our wipers were working overtime through the stretch of the I-80 from the Oakland end of the bridge past Emeryville, Albany, El Cerrito, Richmond, Vallejo, Bernicia, Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, Davis and all the way to Sacramento when we joined the US 50.  Between Folsom and Placerville the incessant rain turned to sleet and then full-blown snow, obscuring the intermittent views of the Sierra Nevada mountains that we would customarily enjoy.

The road narrowed from a relatively straight freeway to a constantly twisting single lane, and the tyres struggled to cope with the ever-thickening snow.  As quickly as they had created a groove it was covered over again, awaiting the next vehicle to attempt to carve through it.  We had only, in terms of distance, a sixth of our journey left, but we feared that this would be the most challenging and potentially frightening part of the journey.

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We passed a handful of “lookouts” with their signs warning of “snow removal equipment” and of snow chain installers at work. It was only, however, when we reached the distance marker denoting that South Lake Tahoe was twenty nine miles away, that we were brusquely hailed down by the abominable snowman who installed the chains efficiently if a little grumpily. We may have been another $20 light but a small measure of reassurance had been restored.

After all, it was “only” twenty nine miles wasn’t it?  How bad could it be?

We’d negotiated steep mountain passes in the Alps before, hadn’t we? Of course we had, piece of cake then.

Oh, but hold on a minute, we’d been sat on a coach whilst an experienced native of the region took the wheel. Not so simple then.

Yes, but, once this was over, we had a hot meal and a stiff drink awaiting us on our arrival in South Lake Tahoe. And just think how exciting it will be to ski on all this fresh powder tomorrow morning.

British stiff upper lips notwithstanding, we both silently fought our fears.

The snow was now pounding against the windscreen, at least that is what we assumed was accounting for the only sound assaulting the silence high in the mountains. The intermittent cracks in the white darkness, were the headlights of oncoming trucks hurtling past in the opposite direction. The drivers had seen it all before.
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Although we could hardly have been moving more slowly, no other vehicle passed us on the entire journey. There had been seven others at the lookout when our snow chains had been installed. Where could they have gone? There was no other road to take. Perhaps they had given up for the night – something we had not for one second contemplated, however bad it got, because that would have been even more dangerous.  We had to press on – we may have been doing barely ten miles an hour at this point, but every rotation of those snow chained gripping tyres got us a little closer.

We may not have been able either to rationalise or articulate it in such terms at the time, but we had both adopted an, at least outwardly, calm, practical demeanour – Janet maintaining a steady, straight course, building fresh, deep grooves in the snow whilst I, as much by intuition than calculation, assessed our proximity to the side of the road, instructing her to make slight adjustments to the car’s position as necessary. Hearts skipped a beat every time I recommended a small movement to the middle of the narrow road just as a truck sped past, or what seemed, directly at, us!

The alternative was worse. The slightest twitch to the right would have had us plunging into the Eldorado National Forest. The sporadic fencing would not only have failed to prevent our fall, but also it was not visible as a guide to our proximity to the edge.

Height markers were barely decipherable on the hairpin bends, though we managed to make out Strawberry at 5,800 and Camp Sacramento at 6,500 feet respectively, providing comfort that we were closing in on the highest point of Echo Summit at 7,377 feet.

But our journey was not over. The snow chains had done their job so far, but now we were beginning our steep descent towards South Lake Tahoe.  Would the brakes work?  Would the chains grip the road sufficiently to prevent us running away?  Again, these thoughts went simultaneously through our minds, though nothing was spoken other than the now customary “steer slightly towards the middle” and “keep straight” admonitions from the passenger seat.

Our unease was unwarranted.  The chains performed impeccably as we descended smoothly towards our destination, braking at regular intervals.  The final challenge was to negotiate the steep, twisting hill that drops down to the lake basin. Relief, even euphoria took hold as the “Y”, the intersection between South Lake Tahoe Boulevard and the continuation of I-50 up the western side of the lake came into view.  Never had we been so grateful to see the welcoming neon of McDonald’s and Starbucks.

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During the descent the snowfall had relented, and the home straight into Stateline was just wet.  That final twenty nine miles had taken four hours to negotiate which meant that, by the time we had checked into the Embassy Suites resort, there was no hot food available.  But after 25 hours travelling we were too weary to venture out, so decided to just have a drink before retiring.

Over a glass or two we spoke for the first time of our ordeal, and how composed and worried at the same time we had been. We resolved that we would make tomorrow our non-skiing day.  As it happened, that decision was academic as the four feet of snow and high winds closed the resort anyway, allowing us to spend the day recovering and re-acclimatising ourselves to the area.

This was not to be the only harrowing experience of this particular holiday, though the week’s skiing went relatively smoothly after that. We have made the same drive six times since that night, but, sensibly, only during the day after a night’s rest in San Francisco.  And the weather has, ironically, been fine on each occasion.

But there’s always the next time.

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