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Posts Tagged ‘Chatham’


One of the iconic images of the great British seaside holiday of the fifties and sixties is of happy families playing beach cricket.  Everyone joined in, playing with children’s bats, balls and stumps that reduced fathers who fancied themselves as Dexter or Sobers to the same level of competence as their seven year old sons, non-sporting wives and even the family dog (when they were still allowed on the beach between May and September). Truly, we had “never had it so good”.

Sadly, the advent of the foreign package holiday, breakdown in traditional family structures and expansion of alternative leisure pursuits, all contrived to render such a scene virtually obsolete.  Over the past weekend, therefore, I embarked upon a one man (at least for now) campaign to revive this venerable but floundering tradition, pitching up on Ramsgate Main Sands with my wife at 2pm on Sunday for an impromptu game.

I say impromptu because my planning had left something to be desired – a brief glance at the tide times beforehand would have revealed that this was the worst time of the day to start.  Nevertheless, after twenty minutes inspecting the fast diminishing slither of sand along the bay, I found a strip that was marginally more playable than the Rose Bowl.  It quickly became clear, however, that if the game was to be remotely watchable, or attract other participants, it was pointless bowling anything other than full tosses because once the ball had pitched, it was firmly plugged into the sand.

“Sticky dog” wicket aside, it proved a batsman’s paradise as the leg side boundary shortened sharply with the onrushing scum brown tide, ensuring that the merest of flicks resulted in a boundary.  That said, the smacking of  my extra cover drives against the sea wall was more satisfying.  Frank Keating once wrote that Ian Botham played a net “as if he is on Weston-super-Mare beach and the tide is coming in fast”.  I’d like to think that if you substituted Broadstairs for Weston, that might accurately describe my batting on this day.

Public interest was negligible, evidenced by a succession of families, oblivious of the sacred nature of my work, plodding across the wicket at regular intervals.  It reminded me of my primary school football pitch which had a concrete public footpath running diagonally across it, constantly trodden by young mothers with prams during vital matches against our bitter rivals from the adjoining parishes of Luton, Delce and Arden.  Understandably, dribbling was a skill particularly valued at Glencoe Road.

But back to the summer game.

Human indifference was not mirrored in the reaction of the indigenous bird population. An improbable infield of gulls occupyied short square leg, silly mid on and extra cover loitered, more, I suspect, in anticipation of the next tasty titbit thrown up by the thrashing waves than hovering in hope of a bat pad.  Their noisy sledging would have done justice to any Australian test team in history. Eventually, with the wicket completely submerged, the players were forced to dash from the square to the nearest ice cream van.

Undaunted, I resumed my missionary work two days later with a game on the much larger and more suitable Viking Bay beach in Broadstairs.  Low tide was scheduled for 2.04pm but, conscious that the tide came in a lot quicker than it went out, I decided that play should get underway an hour earlier.

An early inspection of prospective wickets revealed not only a soft, dune-like sand texture inconducive to a meaningful contest, but also an unmanageable abundance of people, deckchairs, windbreaks and bouncy castles, along with the ubiquitous volleyball court, populated by hordes of young Latino youths, led me to cancel plans to play there.  However, we rounded the bend at the end of the beach to enter Louisa Bay which, a full hour before the scheduled start of play,  sported a vast expanse of dark, compacted sand. Only sporadic handfuls of spectators scattered around what would serve as the boundary.

My excitement was heightened by the sight of  TWO sets of wickets already pitched further along the beach.  This was promising.  Our game got underway and soon acted as a magnet for every bored child on the beach.  Questions such as “can I play?” and “can my brother / sister join in?” (only the absence of the suffix “mister” reminded me I had not been transported back to 1960) were music to my ears as I suddenly found I was setting fields for TEN kids of assorted ages and having to remember in what order they all batted and bowled to avert tantrums.

The majority displayed more willing than competence, all wanting to field at mid wicket for some unaccountable reason (maybe the proximity of the tea hut and toilets had something to do with that), but uncomplainingly hared after every ball, regardless of how far and in what direction it had been despatched.  Falling into a rock pool or getting entangled in the profusion of seaweed were no barriers to their enthusiasm.

On a more serious note, it was heartening to learn that you could still play an innocent game in public with a group of children that you had never met before, without being accused of wanting to take salacious photographs of or, worse still, interfere with, them.  In fact, the parents seemed content to allow them to play, even the mother who was called upon to console her ten year old when he retired hurt after being struck on the left thigh by one of my rising eighty mile per hour inswingers.

The most poignant moment arose when one small boy advised me, with evident pride, and in hushed tones, that the reason his brother was scoring so freely with quasi-classical strokeplay and bowling off a run up that appeared to start just to the left of the Goodwin Sands, was because “he PLAYS cricket”.

The game lasted nearly three hours, interrupted only by obligatory lunch and tea intervals, dictated more by my need for regular rest than by the tyranny of the clock.  Each succeeding resumption of play appeared to draw even more players until the relentless waves washed the wicket away completely.

So beach cricket is alive and flourishing in the cradle of the game, not quite the High Weald, but still in God’s own county.  It can be no coincidence that shortly after this pilgrimage, I moved to Folkestone which boasts one of the firmest wickets on the coast at Sunny Sands.

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I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.

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My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.

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My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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Within five minutes of the aforementioned photoshoot on the staircase at Magretta and Chuck’s Forget-Me-Knot bed and breakfast in St. Louis, Missouri, we were back on the road in a light drizzle that evolved quickly into driving rain. With a cool, strong breeze blowing too, it was undeniable that we weren’t in Louisiana anymore.

The dramatic temperature change even prompted us to ditch the car’s air conditioning for the heating!

We were both a little weary and lethargic this morning, a not uncommon feeling at this three-quarter point in a month long vacation. But spending a few days with our San Francisco friends and their two sons, who were joining us in Chicago, would no doubt re-energise us.

It was still the tail end of the rush hour, so driving was more challenging than it had been for the southern leg of the trip.

Another phenomenon that we had not experienced before – roadworks – slowed us down still further on I-55 (also Route 66), though we never reached the type of standstill that is a daily occurrence on the major motorways of the U.K.

At Litchfield we filled up on gas, the penultimate time we would need to do this before returning the car at Midway Airport in Chicago tomorrow.

Endless fields of corn and barns dominated the landscape.

I had remarked in a previous chapter that, even when the scenery might be bland for hundreds of miles, the directional and promotional signs that dot the highways of the United States are always a good read.

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Our history professor at the breakfast table earlier had self-disparagingly claimed his home state had little to commend it other than its connection to Abraham Lincoln.

And we were reminded of that on a number of occasions on the roadside.

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We had set out with the intention of visiting the Lincoln Museum in Springfield, but the dismal weather, and relatively slow progress, prompted us to decide to drive on to our destination, with only a brief stop near Chatham where we had McMuffins (for the last time) and coffee for the ludicrously low price of $7.49.

Arriving a little earlier in Peoria would also enable us to rearrange the suitcases as it would be the last opportunity to do so before our next flight (from Chicago to New York).

And for me to catch up on the blog!

We arrived at our Motel 6 (the cheapest accommodation of the whole trip at only $60 (£46) for the night), as the rain finally relented.

It was located in a typically American roadside complex of gas stations, a variety of stores and a handful of modest eating places, one of which, amidst the fast food outlets, was the fantastic Biaggi’s.

We had been disappointed on our last evening in St. Louis that we could not have the classy Italian we had craved, so to discover such an elegant establishment in such an unexpected place was a delight.

Our only reservation was having to endure the barman ‘s pretentious descriptions  of the dozens of exotic craft beers he was willing to dispense. It almost made me pine for  the days when all you could get was a Bud or Coors!

Tomorrow would be the last day on the road.

And, as if to complete the set of different types of accommodation we had stayed at, we would have a whole three bedroomed house at our disposal!

Folkestone meets San Francisco in Chicago!

 

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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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