Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Royal Scotsman – what an experience!

Photographs from the top: the observation car; the dining car; a table set for dinner; and one of the luxurious cabins.

"One thing about trains: it doesn't matter where they're going; what matters is deciding to get on." Tom Hanks, The Polar Express

When I was a child and my dad didn't have a car, we used to go everywhere by train. Visits to my nan in Wandsworth meant a train from Carshalton, change at Balham and alight at Wandsworth Common for a shortish walk down Burntwood Lane to Fieldview where my dad spent his childhood during the Second World War. The house is still there, but somebody has ruined my grandfather's prize-winning front garden by concreting it over. What a travesty. My dad says he can't pass by anymore because it looks such a mess.

That's another story. This one is all about a train. A luxury train. I loved trains when I was a kid, still do, but I was never a trainspotter. It's something about gazing out of the window at passing landscapes from the warmth of a train carriage. I always get slightly miffed when I hear people moaning about the trains because I use them a lot and I reckon I could count on just one hand the number of times I've been inconvenienced by signal failures or other problems. Most of the time, the train is there and is rarely late.

I'm a writer and journalist. In the mid-nineties I was editor of Pub Food magazine. The job took me all over the UK where I interviewed many pub chefs. It was a great job and I went to some seriously remote parts of the UK, all by train. And you know what? Even in the remotest part of the country, there was always a railway station that was never more than half an hour away from my final destination – a decent British pub serving top quality, homemade, locally produced food. I moved on to become editor of Hotel & Restaurant magazine and spent a further four years travelling the UK (and the world) writing about fine dining, top chefs and quality hotels. Again, I reached most places in the UK by train and rarely had a problem.

But this isn't a story about the punctuality or otherwise of the train network. This is a story about The Royal Scotsman, a train that is a cut above average. A train that will make you weep when you have to get off and go home, on a scheduled service, back to your mundane life.

The Royal Scotsman is a mode of transport that is not only romantic in the extreme but a time machine that will take you back, way back, to when movies were filmed in black and white and Margaret Rutherford was Miss Marple. You will find yourself in a spy movie, looking tensely at your watch as you make your way along the varnished corridors towards the dining car. Putting it bluntly, you will have the time of your life.

I mentioned earlier that I was a writer and journalist. Well, my chance to ride the Royal Scotsman – for free – came about when I decided to write about moving hotels: hotels with wheels or keels; and that was when I stumbled across what turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life, which I still think about today and that I continue to rave about whenever the opportunity arises.

I often find myself involved in conversations about what to do for special occasions, fortieth birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing, and I always suggest a trip on the Royal Scotsman. It's not cheap. In fact, its damned expensive, but I would argue that all good experiences come at a cost unless, like me, you're a journalist writing about hotels and restaurants for a living.

Anyway, let's cut to the chase. I was up early and waiting for Rob Wilkinson, my photographer, at King's Cross. We travelled on the East Coast line using a normal scheduled service: any train that isn't the Royal Scotsman is a normal train in my book. When we reached Edinburgh Waverley we made our way to the Royal Scotsman and were piped aboard by a man in a kilt, a real Scottish piper no less!

Once on the train, we were shown to our cabins, but not ordinary cabins. These were the height of luxury with polished wood-panelled walls and ornate period furniture. As soon as I stepped aboard I went back in time to England in the 1930s. Suddenly I was a character in Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, I expected to bump into Peter Ustinov or David Niven at any moment.

The train jolted and was on its way north towards the Scottish Highlands, first stop Glamis Castle, but we were so taken aback by the train that we stayed aboard. There were plenty of other excursions away from the Royal Scotsman to come and besides, Rob and I had the train to ourselves. We wandered the corridors to the empty observation car with its sumptious furniture and exposed rear end where passengers could watch the tracks behind them disappear or could simply sit and enjoy the ride with a drink of their choice brought to them by one of the train's waiting staff.

Dinner was a high point of every day on board the Royal Scotsman. It was a chance to mix with the other passengers on board: a Harley Street dentist, a Florida car dealer and former baseball player, an Italian millionaire and his new wife on their honeymoon, a printer from Birmingham, a fairly ordinary couple from Cheam and, of course, us. The best conversation took place in the observation car after dinner when people were at their most animated after a decent meal and some fine wine.

The food was a serious cut above anything found on scheduled services in the UK, or, indeed, anywhere else. It was cooked to order by an accomplished chef and served with some amazing wines – while we were aboard the highlight was Francis Ford Coppola Merlot.

I was always reluctant to leave the train, but decided to take advantage of the excursions to wonderful places like the Falls of Bruar and to Gleneagles on our final evening where we were all invited to take part in a traditional Kayleigh before returning to the train.

The traditional dancing at Gleneagles prefaced our last night aboard the Royal Scotsman. In the minibus back to the train after the dance, there was silence: everybody knew that tomorrow they would have to wave goodbye to the train and the staff and the good times had by all. Nobody wanted to talk about going home so everybody remained silent.

The last time I felt remotely unhappy about going home was when I was a kid on holiday on the South Coast. Now, in my forties, married with two children, that feeling had come racing back to me and I was genuinely depressed about the prospect of having to disembark from this wonderful train.

Feeling pleasantly sozzled, as we all were most nights, it was time for us all to wind our way back to our respective cabins for the last time and that pleasant sensation of being rocked asleep by the motion of the train. Oddly, while on the train, I felt as if I had gone back in time. The only way to break the spell was to peer out of the window at the wrong moment, only to spy, say, a parked Somerfield lorry or something equally mundane from the 21st century.

By the next morning there were only minutes to go before the train arrived at Waverley and we would all go our separate ways, back to our normal lives in the new millennium. For Rob and I, reality meant a scheduled service to King's Cross, tea from a paper cup and sitting in Standard Class next to somebody eating fast food. You get the picture.

The trip has remained with us both and I think it always will.

If you would like to experience the Royal Scotsman, log on to or if you want to see more of Robert Wilkinson's photography, go to

Mum and Dad's back garden

Here's a few shots of my parent's back garden. It was always a nice-looking garden, even when we, as kids, once dug up the back lawn and turned it into a 'golf course'. Actually, it was mum who did it, probably to get some peace and quiet. Dad wasn't too happy that night when he returned from work.

The garden has gone through many transformations over the years and these photographs represent its current state, although that big, round conifer is not there anymore, it had to be cut down.

The garden used to be mainly lawn with paving slabs lining the sides, top and bottom. Before that, I remember an apple and a pear tree in the centre of the lawn; in those days it was very shady. Both trees had to come down and I remember the months leading up to their demise when Dad painted their trunks with a black, gooey mixture of some kind. Then there were two tree stumps standing about 2ft high and surrounded by concrete until such time as the stumps and the concrete were dug up and covered with grass.

Mum and Dad have always been keen gardeners. They love it and that's why the garden is always so pleasant – no weeds in those beds, I can assure you.

Monday, 20 July 2009

A Samsung Omnia morning

Last month I blogged about my Samsung Omnia phone and how diabolical it is; well, now I'm ranting about it again because it really is the sort of phone you don't want around you in any kind of emergency.

If, God forbid, I was involved in an air crash and was, for whatever reason, the sole survivor, clinging to the tailplane as it is gently washed ashore on a desert island, I would, no doubt, be overwhelmed with joy to discover that I still had my mobile phone on my person. I would be elated if I then discovered that I had a signal and more elated still if there was power left in the battery.

On wading ashore and finding a shaded spot under a palm tree, I would reach for my mobile, dial home or the office, tell them what had happened and get them to organise a rescue party.

"Hello? Yes, it's me. I've been involved in an air disaster, looks like I'm the sole survivor and I'll be late home tonight. Actually, I won't be home at all unless you can organise some kind of rescue party as I'm stuck on a desert island, just me and the tailplane."

Well, yes, if I had a Nokia or a Sony Ericsson, maybe, but not if my phone just happened to be a Samsung Omnia. In fact, the realisation that I was a Samsung Omnia owner would, quite literally, induce suicidal tendencies I didn't know I had as I realised I would be stuck on the island for all eternity and would have to resort to remembering what Bear Grylls had taught me from his programme, Born Survivor.

Touch wood, I haven't been involved in an air crash or any other kind of disaster. All that happened to me this morning was that I discovered I didn't have my debit card in my wallet when I went to buy a ticket. This, of course, is worrying as I started to wonder whether I had lost it, dropped it or just left it in another pair of trousers or the breast pocket of yesterday's shirt.

Fortunately, I was still able to buy a ticket because I had my trusty credit card with me, but I thought I'd better call my wife and let her know the situation before she put yesterday's clothes in the wash. Not a problem, I would simply whip out the mobile, press the speed dial button and hey presto! My wife would answer the phone. All would be well with the world.

But no. I'm a Samsung Omnia owner, which means that life is anything but simple. Get this: my phone is on, it had been on all through the night and there was still enough of a charge on the phone to be able to make calls. I hadn't received the usual warnings about power being low and please charge your phone. Everything was fine. When I depressed the keys they made a noise, the home page was before me, I could access my stored numbers. There was nothing to suggest that anything was wrong, so I pressed speed dial, found 'home' and pressed the button.

Hold on a minute! What's that? The phone is switched off? Eh? How? If it's switched off, how can it tell me it's switched off? If the phone is not on, how come I can dial the number, how come I can see the ****ing home page, how come? Ah! Of course, the Samsung Omnia does a really good impressions of being on, when it's off! I should have known!

A speech bubble has appeared. It says that the phone is switched off and would I like to switch it on? Just press the yes or no button. Well, that's easier said than done. I press Yes. Or rather I try to press yes using the Samsung's pen. Nothing happens. I know, I'll press the No button as the Omnia is like that, you press the key NEXT to the key you want and you might get the key you want. Good idea. But it doesn't work. The phone is on but it is telling me that it is off and would I like to turn it on. I press the yes button but it doesn't work. I press the no button and it still doesn't work.

I know! Take the battery out of the phone and effectively re-boot it, like pulling the plug on a frozen computer. That'll work! So I dismantle the phone and take out the battery. Now the phone is DEFINITELY off as there's no power. Phew! That was easy, I think to myself. Now, put the battery back in, turn the phone on in the normal manner and all will be well with the world.

I switch the phone on, the words Samsung Omnia appear followed by the dainty oriental sounding greeting tone as if a Geisha girl is standing in front of me, bowing politely, and handing me a working phone. Within about 15 seconds I'm back at the home page, I press the speed dial button and then I press 'home' and guess what? "This phone is switched off. Would you like to turn it on?" Off course I want to ****ing well turn it on. I want to call my wife to tell her to have a look around for my debit card before some bastard tries to use it and nick all our money!

I dismantle the phone half a dozen times but the same thing happens. The phone is switched off, despite the fact that it is clearly very much on. By now I'm getting flustered. I look for and find a pay phone, which doesn't work, and then I get on the train and fret about the situation. There's nothing I can do. I am completely powerless. I can't do anything until I reach Richmond station and then I can use a call box on the platform. This is what I do and then things are fine, but no thanks at all to the Samsung bloody Omnia.

Over the years I have had many different gadgets: mobile phones, Walkmans, radios, hifi systems, Tama-fucking-Gotchis, you name it, and none of them, none of them at all, even the Tamagotchi (my son's) that often woke me up in the middle of the night because it needed a shit, even that was not as infuriating as the Samsung Omnia. I'm so annoyed with it that I'm now going to write to Samsung in the UK, tell them what a useless lump of plastic their Omnia is and well, that's not the end of it. I might even direct Nokia and Sony to this blog and tell them that their phones are a million, trillion times better.


I had an idea! The phone was getting a little low on juice. Perhaps it needed to be charged. I plugged it in to the mains. Surely then it won't insist that its off when its on? Well, yes it does still insist its off. There's nothing else for it, I'll have to dust off the old Sony Ericsson and insert my simcard into it.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Excerpt from an unfinished story...

Part Three, Chapter Two

‘You can be a murderer. You can be a serial murderer, but the lowest dawg on the street is a snitch.’

The ghost train hurtled through the darkness. Willard found himself gripping hard to the safety rail as the small engine picked up speed and swung him and the helicopter pilot from side to side. The train jolted violently at every kink in the track. It had followed a steep, downwards path away from the fun and frolics of the traditional fairground ride which had characterised the earlier part of the ride. Willard and his companion had smiled at the unconvincing ghouls and the luminous green severed heads made of papier maché. Now there was only darkness and a frightening sense of speed. Willard could smell the dampness in the cold air as it blew his hair away from his forehead, numbing his skin. Neither man spoke. 

Willard’s terror only began to subside when the small train showed signs of slowing down. The helicopter pilot remained silent, his hands still gripping the safety rail as the train followed the track along an incline steep enough to slow the train to virtually walking pace. Darkness surrounded them, but not for long; all of a sudden, the train burst through two wooden doors with a huge and unexpected bang.

Both men stared at the small, brightly-lit marshalling yard that now surrounded them. Here and there they could see empty trains, some without wheels, others missing their red upholstered seating. Some were intact but were lacking the bright colors and ornate paintwork one might associate with a ghost train. Instead, there was a coat of grey primer. The damp air was mixed with the synthetic smell of paint and sealant, and the higher reaches of the cavernous space was peppered with bare light bulbs, artificial stars which unevenly illuminated the area.

The train slowed and they prepared themselves for the imminent moment of impact against an old and rotting set of buffers which had once been painted red. Under his breath, Willard heard himself whispering ‘brace, brace...’ and strangely thanking God for the fact that he was not onboard an airliner but on solid ground.

At the point of impact, the buffers gave just a little bit, absorbing the energy of impact and propelling the small engine back along the tracks until it slowed to a halt. They sat motionless for what seemed like ages but was, in reality, only a few seconds. Willard came to his senses first and jumped out of the train and on to solid ground. The helicopter pilot followed and then they were both standing on opposite sides of the small car which looked remarkably unscathed after its ordeal.

They gazed around at their surroundings with astonishment. The artificial stars twinkled, or seemed to, and there was silence. The distant noises that had attracted them to this cold and dismal place had ceased and there was no telling in which direction they should travel to find the source of the racket. It was, however, certain in both men’s minds that the disturbance had something to do with the Minister for Population and Resources: of that they were certain.

“What now?” Willard said, surveying the tomb-like enclosure. “Can we get out the way we got in?”

“I’m not sure,” the helicopter pilot said, quietly. “I knew about the ghost train but not here, not this place,” he added matter-of-factly.

“I don’t see any of these trains making it up that incline,” said Willard, pointing back along the track. “Something tells me we’ve gotta walk.”

“But we must find the source of the noise. That is important,” the helicopter pilot advised.

“This place looks pretty empty to me and we’re some distance from the house. Those noises were much closer-by than this and I can’t see any secret passageways, it’s solid rock.”

“I say we take a look around, just to make sure,” said the helicopter pilot, wandering off and picking up train parts here and there, as if he might find the Minister under an old wheel. The silence was disturbed when he picked up and then threw down a sheet of colourful metal bearing the word ‘Daisy’; it was the name of one of the ghost trains.

At that moment, there rang out a drunken voice, singing. “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m have crazy over my love for you...”

They both looked around for the source and saw, high up, sitting on some kind of fairground throne, the Minister. He was wearing a disheveled-looking suit, a shirt, un-tucked and at places unbuttoned and his tie was pulled and twisted and hanging limply from his neck.

“Remember that one, Willard? Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy over my love for you. La la-lah, la-lah, la-lah-lah. Istanbul airport. How we all laughed. And the fog! Remember the fog?”

Willard and the helicopter fixed their gaze on what could have been some strange apparition; but there, as large as life, was the Minister, on a throne of sorts that must have risen from below the ground as it had not been there before.

“La, la, la, horse and carriage....and you’d look sweet, out on the street on a bicycle made for two...”, the Minister continued to sing in a drunken fashion while Willard and the Helicopter Pilot stood there, looking bemused and not really knowing what to do or say next.

“He’s out of it,” said Willard. “We’re not going to get much sense out of him.”

“But we must stop this, he will hurt himself if we don’t stop this,” said the Helicopter Pilot.

“If we make a move to stop him doing anything, he’ll press whatever button made him appear and vanish into the rocks, never to be seen again. I suggest we get the hell out of here...”

At that moment, the Minister piped up, “What’s that, Bill? You scheming again, are you? Think you’ve made a new friend out of my pilot, do you? Don’t forget you’re under house arrest...” He laughed. “House arrest! You get that? You’re under arrest. In MY house!” His laughter turned to coughing and spluttering and he gripped both arms of the throne. “You’re under house arrest, do you hear me?”

The Helicopter pilot looked at Willard. Willard returned his gaze. “What shall we do?” asked the pilot.

“There’s no point rushing him,” said Willard.

“Then what?

“I wish I knew. I say let’s get out of here,” said Willard, looking around for vacant train.

“Going so soon, Bill? You don’t want a chat about the tunnels, the Malthus Project or, well, I don’t know, a chat about anything or nothing in particular....?”

Willard stopped surveying his surroundings for a minute or two. “There’s no point in talking to you, Minister. You’re drunk. What good would it do? Talking? You know what needs to be done. You’ve got to stop the madness before it stops you...”

“Me? Stop the madness? And how do you expect me to do that? I can’t just stop the madness. Madness has a life of its own, you know, it’s not something that can be stopped. Not by me at any rate. Perhaps it’s a job for you. Perhaps it’s a job for Superman, but it’s not a job for me!”

“Stop being a bell-end, Minister, it doesn’t become you.” Willard was in no mood for a meaningless conversation, even though that was what he was getting.

“You’re the bell-end, Bill, and don’t you forget it. Did you really think you could get away with setting up your own terrorist organisation? You didn’t think we’d get on to you?”

“I was perfectly placed to run the show. I had access. Access to secret files. I was the perfect choice and if I must say so, I think I do a good job,” Willard said with a sense of pride.

The Helicopter Pilot rummaged around amongst the stationary ghost trains, trying to find one they could use to make an escape. The train they had arrived on was too heavy to turnaround and there was no sign of any kind of turntable on which to change the engine’s direction of travel. He had to find one that was already pointing in the opposite direction.

“Mandy will do you,” shouted the Minister, pointing in the direction of a train, with one hand fumbling on the ground. He picked up a quarter-full bottle of Jim Beam, unscrewed the top and threw it towards Willard. It bounced a few times on the uneven, rocky surface of the cave and fell into one of the many mossy crevices never to be seen again.

The Helicopter pilot acknowledged the Minister and strode towards the waiting engine that, as the Minister had said, had the name Mandy written in ornate fairground lettering on it sides. But how, he wondered, would they gather together enough momentum to take them back up the steep incline to Longwood’s living room? These engines relied entirely upon push power and a minor electric current; there was no way that the power at their disposable was going to help.

“I know what you’re thinking,” said the Minister, taking another swig from his whisky bottle and looking around for the top before realising he had thrown it away. “You’re thinking how the hell do we get out of here, aren’t you?”

The helicopter pilot shrugged.

“You don’t have to go back the way you came,” the Minister said, pointing toward a distance set of double wooden doors up to which a solitary track, the track on which Mandy was resting, disappeared underneath.

“It’s thatta way!”

Willard turned around and looked at the Helicopter Pilot whose expression seemed to say ‘what are we waiting for?’

“Let’s go,” said Willard. “There’s nothing more we can do here.” He made to walk away from the Minister who still sat on his throne, the bottle of Jim Beam in hand, his head gently lolling from side to side.

“Nothing more to do, Bill? Even a drunken fool like me knows that there’s plenty for you to do. Haven’t you got to figure out a way of calling a halt to the Malthus Project? That’s your job, isn’t it, Bill?”

Willard stopped dead in his tracks and turned around to face the Minister.

“If you won’t help me, what hope in hell’s chance do I stand of ridding the world of the Malthus Project? You’re the only one who can help and you know it, but you prefer to wallow in your own self-pity rather than do something meaningful.”

“You mean my legacy, don’t you, Bill? My legacy! Well, this is my legacy, this bottle of bourbon and this,” he said, placing the whisky in his lap and reaching down and retrieving a large bowl of white powder. “Cocaine, Bill. Fancy a line? It’s a bad habit, but one I can’t seem to put aside. The papers were right. I am a disaster. I should never have considered politics as a career; it doesn’t suit me. It doesn’t suit my way of life, the life I have chosen for myself.”

“You’re the only one who can help,” said Willard. “You must know everything there is to know about the Malthus Project, where the hub of the operation is based, which buttons to press to stop and destroy it, but you’re not going to say a word, are you, Minister? You’re going to die, down here in this murky old dungeon, you’re going to be found with a bottle of whisky in one hand and a line of coke up your nose and they’re all gonna think that they were right about you, that you’re nothing more than a skunk, the man responsible for nothing but misery. And you know what? The weird thing is you could change things, you could talk now and let us sort out the mess,” Willard said.

“Sort out the mess? So it’s all about your legacy, is it Bill? How you’re going to be remembered.,” said the Minister, making up a fresh line and snorting it down.

“You think this is all about image and saving face? How misguided can you get?” said Willard, watching the Minister’s facial expressions contort as the drugs and drink continued to work their magic. “I suppose you feel better now, more able to cope with what you’ve created?,” he said, looking round to check on the Helicopter Pilot who had now organised Mandy and was ready for departure.

The Minister had put down his bowl of cocaine but still balanced the bottle of Jim Beam in his lap. Now, he reached down for something else. Willard waited to see what else was concealed behind the throne and was shocked when the Minister produced a revolver.

“Minister, no......”

“Time to go. Bye bye, Bill....”

The world went into slow motion as the Minister placed the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, splattering his brains and fragments of his skull on the back of the throne.

Willard, powerless to do anything, simply closed his eyes. From behind him, a voice.

“We must go too,” said the Helicopter Pilot, seemingly unperturbed by the atrocious spectacle.

Willard opened his eyes and turned around. The Helicopter Pilot was standing by Mandy. “It is time to go,” he said, sombrely.

Willard walked towards Mandy and took his seat, the noise of the gun still ringing in his ears and the smell of cordite reaching his nose.

“We need both to push,” said the Helicopter Pilot, preferring to say nothing about the Minister’s suicide.

Willard, realising his mistake, apologised. “Sorry, I, of course,” he said, jumping from the car and grabbing the chromium safety rail which ran across the cockpit. “Let’s go,” he added, and started to push Mandy along the short track towards the awaiting double doors.

Both men jumped aboard Mandy as she rolled towards the wooden doors; the whole thing reminded Willard of bob sleigh teams running and then jumping aboard the small sleigh and then experiencing the exhilaration of the ride. Remembering the hair-raising nature of the journey to the cave, both men held tight to the safety rail as the train crashed into the darkness and the bizarre spectacle of another spooky fairground attraction. Neither spoke. They sat in silence as ghouls rose up and screamed and moaned before retreating into the darkness.

Mandy shuddered and jolted from left to right. Both men waited for her to slow down and begin the grueling uphill journey, but it never came. The train seemed to be running along a level railway track that neither inclined nor declined. After a about 100 yards, the ghouls and the screams stopped and there was nothing but the dark breeze and the clickety-clack of the train on the tracks.

Their way was poorly illuminated by low Wattage clear light bulbs that had been rigged up on either side of the track. Blown bulbs lent a melancholy gloom to their surroundings. The relative silence and the hypnotic sound of train on the tracks caused both men to lose themselves in their own thoughts. They were thinking about the Minister and his final moments. If there were an after-life, thought Willard, he would know by now.

“This is all pretty flat,” Willard eventually commented. “It must be taking a different route.”

“I wish I knew,” said the Helicopter Pilot. “The Minister didn’t tell me everything.”

“I think we’re going away from Longwood,” said Willard, as Mandy pushed on in the dark. He was feeling nauseous after witnessing the Minister’s suicide, even though he had seen worse during his time in the tunnels.

“Look! Ahead. A door,” the Helicopter Pilot said, taking a hand off the safety rail and pointing.

His excitement made Willard jump, but the outburst proved truthful, not that he had any reason to doubt the integrity of the Helicopter Pilot. So far, despite the fact that he was effectively Willard and the girl’s captor, he had been nothing but civil: just what Willard needed. He planned to broach the subject of his freedom later and try to assess the Helicopter Pilot’s allegiances in respect of the Malthus Project.

There was indeed another set of double doors but there didn’t appear to be any sign of light or life on the other side. Both men braced themselves for the impact and soon they felt the night air on their faces. Darkness still reigned but they were out in the open air. Looking around, Willard saw light from between the trees. “Look, that must be the house,” he said. The Helicopter Pilot turned around. “Yes, that is Longwood,” he confirmed. “We must stop the train.”

“Hold on, it’s making a turn. It’s heading back towards the house,” said Willard as he noticed the train pulling hard to the right. Both men ducked to avoid the branches of un-pruned trees and shrubs in a small wood. As the train emerged into open fields, they could see the Minister’s country retreat in all its illuminated glory. Electricity bills and green issues obviously meant nothing to the wayward politician.

With the shrubs and trees behind them and open ground on either side, both men relaxed their grip on the safety rail. It was like that moment in an airliner when the plane touches down and the passengers release their seat belts as the aircraft weaved it way towards the terminal building.

The train veered left and ran parallel to a gravel driveway before disappearing behind a high mossy brick wall. Willard caught a brief glimpse of the helicopter that had brought him and the girl to Longwood and he began to wonder what the hell to do next. Another set of wooden double doors appeared ahead of them. They had reached the end of the line. Once through the doors, they found themselves back in the living room from whence they had departed. Mandy slowed and stopped and for a second or two they both men just sat there, gathering their thoughts and wondering what to do next.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Check out other blogs by Matthew Moggridge... is all about sports and social clubs in the UK. They all sell very cheap beer and some go out of their way to offer a wide selection of real ales. Rick (above) is in charge of the ale at the Guiseley Factory Workers Club near Leeds. The club recently won the CAMRA Club of the Year. If you go there, you'll know why.

All the features on have already been published this year in Club Mirror magazine and all have been written by yours truly. Club Mirror is a national magazine that is all about sports and social clubs, private members' clubs, working men's clubs and political clubs.

Clubs in the UK are viewed as places where old men go to get drunk. Not true. Clubs are the focal point for many local communities in the UK and while some of them are performing well, even in recession, others are closing. I know of clubs that are turning over £1 million per year, mainly through bar sales. I also know of clubs that are so badly managed they have no right to survive.

The problem is that a lot of clubs are run by volunteers or people who work in other jobs during the day and don't really have the time run the place properly. Many clubs lack marketing know-how and that is why most people have no idea about the clubs in their locality.

It wasn't until I took on the editorship of the magazine that I started to notice clubs in my own locality. They are normally anonymous-looking and not particularly attractive buildings, but once across the threshold, it's a completely different kettle of fish. In fact, most clubs are huge and boast enormous concert halls and bars that nobody can see from the road. A lot of club managers talk about the 'Tardis effect' and the fact that while they look small and unassuming on the outside, inside they are anything but.

Clubs offer live entertainment and a variety of sports. You will normally find at least one full-size snooker table in a club and more often than not there will be more, plus pool and darts and dominoes. In the South West of England a lot of clubs offer skittles alleys.

In short, a club offers its members a great night out in a safe environment – only members are allowed in and most clubs won't let any old Tom, Dick or Harry join. In other words, no nutters, which means you can enjoy a drink with family or friends without the threat of violence. The best thing, of course, is the cheap ale. Okay, it's not as cheap as the supermarkets, but who in their right mind wants to sit in front of the telly at home drinking beer. Once in a while, maybe, but there's nothing better than going out and being part of your local community down at the club.

As for that old man image, well, yes, it's there, but most clubs are trying their level best to attract younger members. They have to in order to survive. To this end, many clubs – the clubs with money in the bank – are refurbishing their bars and their concert halls and are offering the beer and lager brands of the moment. Drinks prices are cheaper than pubs. I went to a club recently where a pint of beer was only £1.40!

Cask ale is big in some clubs too. Take the Guiseley Factory Workers Club near Leeds or the Egham United Services Club in Surrey or, for that matter, the King's Heath Cricket & Sports Club in Birmingham. In addition to offering a range of lagers and keg ales (like Tetley Smooth or John Smith's) these clubs (and many others) are offering some weird and wonderful brews from the UK's growing number of microbreweries.

Remember, cask ale is only available in the on-trade, not the off-trade. The nearest you'll get to a pint of cask ale in the supermarket is bottled-conditioned beers, of which there are plenty, but again, there's nothing better than a good real ale on draught and clubs should be taking advantage of the UK's growing micro brewery culture.

I could warble on about clubs all day and all night, but let me just say that they're great places to be and we should all get out more and pay a visit to our local club. Next time you go out, look around and see if you can find a club. If you do, go through the doors, enquire about membership and join up. You won't believe how cheap it is to join and you'll be amazed at the price of a pint of beer.

Check out other blogs by Matthew Moggridge... is, as its title suggests, all about teashops and caffs.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Purple Haze...

Carshalton in Surrey used to have many acres of lavender fields, but now, to the best of my knowledge, this is the only one. What a tremendous sight – and an amazing aroma too. For further details, visit