Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The World Rowing Cup at Eton Dorney, June 23, 2013

The calendar said June but it felt more like October. Numb fingers are an occupational hazard of the football spectator but you don't expect them when the terns are fishing and the swifts are soaring above Eton Dorney's flower-lined 2km lake.

It was bad enough for the wind-lashed punters huddled in our layers, sipping hot tea and cowering under our blankets. It was even worse for the best rowers in the world having to negotiate conditions that at times looked more like a choppy North Sea than a lake in leafy Buckinghamshire.

The Chinese women double scullers were the most high-profile victims. They were neck and neck with the British pair in a dramatic race to the finish. The jumbo screen showed them edging closer and closer in the last few metres when disaster struck. One of them seemed to get a blade stuck in a wave. The boat stopped dead. The British pair of Frances Houghton and Victoria Meyer-Laker streaked ahead to claim gold. They may well have won anyway but the China crisis didn't do them any harm.

Gold for the British double scullers
It's part of the regatta experience that at times it feels like you've gone a long way to sit outside in front a giant TV. The boats whizz past in a flash - five or six minutes from start to finish. Sitting around the 500m mark you can pick out the start of the race with a good pair of binoculars then get a idea of who's in front as they draw near. You then rely on the commentators following the race in a car on the other side of the lake and the side-on shots of the finish to know who's won. If it's a British medal, the Dorney roar soon follows. There was a panicky moment on Sunday when the screen failed. It was like being at a football match in the fog and listening to the radio commentary.

Inbetween races the younger spectators kept warm by challenging each other on the indoor ergo rowing machines. The best efforts were rewarded with an essential Samsung-branded blanket. Others thawed out on the bouncy slide or by ducking under the merchandise tents to browse t-shirts and car stickers.

The mobile caterers were doing a roaring trade. The queues were constant for wood-fired pizzas, spicy wraps, donuts with chocolate sauce and luke warm tea for £2.20. The highlight was an outstanding breakfast muffin from the unfailingly cheerful team at the Original Fryup Material van (@OFMLondon) - £6 got you a sausage patty, fried egg and tangy sauce on a freshly baked pastry. The half-hour queueing time was well worth it.

The cheerful banter in the queues and among the crowd summed up the spirit of the event. The rowing community is a joyful place. Medal winners smiled and waved as they did a mini row of honour after their presentation ceremony and the elite athletes happily signed autographs as they mingled with the crowd. The lightweight men's pair debut gold medal winner Mark Aldred was even joshed by his pals for signing his first ever autograph for one young fan.

By the time we'd got back to our plastic chairs normal TV service was resumed in good time for the regatta finale. The Men's Eight delivered a pulsating battle between GB and Poland. it was nip and tuck right from the start, the lead seeming to change with each stroke. But the British ramped up the stroke rate in the final few metres to send the frozen crowd scurrying into the traffic jam for the M4 with frozen fingers, full-on heaters and cheery hearts.

Here's a link to a proper sports writer's summary of the event in The Guardian.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Best 10km Running Route in London

No doubt about it, if there was an award for the best 10k river route in Britain this would win it.

Start at Hammersmith Bridge. Plenty of bike stands next to the houseboats near The Rutland Arms if you need to cycle there.

Furnivall Gardens and Hammersmith Bridge
Run west with the river on your left, past rose-dappled Furnivall Gardens on your right then down the little passageway in front of the tiny and tempting Dove pub, the legendary birthplace of Rule Britannia. Emerge past William Morris's wisteria-dappled old house and Latymer Prep School and jog on towards the tiny crow's nest where I'm going to have my imaginary 50th birthday party.

That's Linden House, home to the London Corinthians boat club, on the right, there. It hosted BBC Breakfast News parties in the past, in the carefree days before they sent everyone packing to Salford. Salford!

Your route winds under a building outcrop then past the Old Ship pub on your right, home of Young's bitters, guest ales, pleasant Sunday lunches and occasional meetings of the ex-BBC hacks refreshments club.

Soon enough you cut a few yards inland to run past the front of a terrace of riverside cottages on your left. A couple of blue plaques reveal that a humourist you've never heard of used to live in one of them.

Ponder that as you jog west past some of the finest riverfront houses in London. This time of year House Martins light up the sky on their way to and from their nests under the eaves. Imagine how much you'd have to earn to buy one of these mansions, complete with a private Thames-side garden across the road, and run away from the thought as you head left back to the river and Chiswick Pier.

There's a lifeboat station just ahead in case you find yourself in the Thames after mulling over those house prices, and a pizza restaurant with a fabulous conservatory that I've often run past but never gone in. One day.

A few metres later the houses run out and you're jogging on a leafy footpath with Chiswick Bandstand looming. Never seen a band on it. A good Boat Race landmark, though. And your next landmark is a boathouse with its sloping launch strip. Careful, here - those eight-man boats emerge head-high on your right from nowhere.

Up a small flight of concrete steps then avoid Barnes Bridge and turn right to run parallel to the railway embankment on your left towards the extra-posh Chiswick Racquets Club on your right. I jogged past an expensively-dressed woman on her way to the tennis courts smoking a fag this morning. What's she thinking?

First on the left takes you onto a single carriageway under a railway bridge. You may have to dodge some impatient 4x4s here before returning to the verge heading towards the Thames Tradesman's boat club. Nip through their car park and you're back on the riverbank.

This is the nicest stretch of the whole route. It's like running through a country meadow with the river on your left and fragrant, waist-high wild flowers on your right. You'll wish the path never ends but it does, at another boat house at the foot of majestic Chiswick Bridge. This is the base of the elite Tideway Scullers. Current members include Alan Campbell, the Ulsterman who won the silver medal in the men's single sculls at the World Rowing Cup at Eton Dorney this weekend. Here he is on his row of honour:

Jog up the steps of the bridge and cross the river. Jog down again on you're on your way back. That's The Ship on your right, there, another good place for an al fresco Sunday lunch overlooking the swarms of afternoon rowers. And that's the big old Budweiser brewery next to the cobbles. Horrible beer but keeps a lot of people in work. Don't knock it.

More cobbles test the ankles and knees until you get to The White Hart. Yet another good place to sit under a parasol with a pint of Young's and watch the world go by. Not today, though. On you go along the muddy bit under Barnes Bridge and on to the pavement. Fabulously big views of the sweeping bend of the river, here. Look out for more House Martins gathering mud for their nests on the edge.

The Thames at Barnes
Before you know it you're back on the trail, the river hidden by the trees on your left, the air full of birdsong from the Leg of Mutton nature reserve on your right. Chiffchaff, Blackcap, Great Tit, Willow Warbler - they're all fighting to be heard but not seen. Enjoy the summer warblers while you dodge the puddles - it's nearly always a bit damp on this stretch.

The lush scenery stays the same until you reach Westminster School boat club on the right. The only other landmark is a balloon-strewn shrine to some poor soul who presumably didn't make it out of the river one day.

A couple of strides letter and the glorious green and gold Hammersmith Bridge looms large in front of you again. Jog over, being prepared to slow down for fellow runners and pedestrians on the narrow, rickety walkway, and you've nearly made it. Officially you need to jog past the Dove again to make it 10k. Or you could sack it off and pop in the Blue Anchor for one instead.

You've earned it.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Review of The Inca Babies at The Green Door Store, Brighton. June 14, 2013

They swaggered on to the compact stage built on the cobbles under Brighton railway station, The Inca Babies' brand of punky death rock perfect for the grimy Victorian archways that house mechanics in Coronation Streets all over Britain.

They've been doing this for thirty years now. Harry's urgent voice echoing dark narratives over his twanging, wah-wah-ing Cramps guitar. Vince the bespectacled bass player using his riff-rippling guitar like a conductor's baton, an ironic smile reminding us not to take it all too seriously. And big Rob thundering along on drums that sound like Hulme used to look in the Seventies before the bulldozers rolled in.

They're a band from the nightmarish crescents of Eighties Manchester that sound like they came from the garages of post-punk New York, a sound synonymous with John Peel sessions, rock lobsters, woodlouse-infested bedsits in Sheffield, big quiffs, Tuesday morning hangovers and thrashing around at gigs without ever being accused of dad dancing. It's the end of the summer, it's the end of the world.

Harry's still full of wide-eyed nervous energy, working up a jacket-off sweat with his edgy jerking: "The hits just keep on coming," he quipped, as the Babies ran through a 40-minute set centred around their marvellous new album, Deep Dark Blue. Stand-out track My Sick Suburb was a highlight on the night - a retro-riff around a retro teen-angst lyric delivered with a Mark E Smithish drawl and a trademark sardonic sense of humour.

There was even some gentle dancing by dads in black on the cobbles. The Babies have retained a loyal fan base in places as diverse as Kirkcaldy, Athens, Belgium and the Isle of Man. Wherever they play, people turn up to remember the Evil Hours, the post-C86 days when the NME was as essential as alcohol and punk was only just post.

It didn't matter that Harry's guitar went out of tune, or that his lyrics struggled to make themselves heard in the quicksand bikini sound mix. That's what headphones and Spotify are for. Tonight it was all about atmosphere, passion and Slick.

Maybe it was the couple of pints in the Evening Star before the show, or the couple of bottles of Landlord behind the atmospheric Green Door afterwards. Maybe it was meeting up with old friend Paul and comparing Manchester City notes. Maybe it was the warm glow of the Inca Babies' monologues of madness. Whatever it was, I slept soundly in my new tour t-shirt on the late train back to London. And snored contentedly through the night in my own sick suburb.