A Thames Journey: (6) From Marlow to Hampton Court

In this leg of the journey we move from the picturesque countryside of Buckinghamshire and Berkshire to the suburban outskirts of London. It’s a walk of around 33 miles, which we did in four stretches – the last of which was two years after the first. No sequentialism round here! A couple of the walks were upstream, but as before, I’ll sequence the photos in a downstream direction. The headings likewise.

Marlow to Maidenhead, 3 April 2016

This was one of the upstream expeditions, Maidenhead to Marlow. Around 7 miles. It was the second walk in our journey, and for reasons I can’t now remember, Jon wasn’t able to come along. It was just me, Kath and Maggie. He completed it later, of course.

I wrote about the bridge at Marlow in part five of the journey, but not All Saints Church, which nestles by the river. From the towpath side you get a good view of the church. The current building is a Victorian construction, completed in 1835. The old church dated from the 11th century, but it was undermined by centuries of flooding. The spire collapsed in 1831!

Just out of Marlow, you come to Bourne End, where you cross a bridge to the other side. You are soon in Cookham, another Thames town with an ancient heritage. We didn’t linger on our journey, but there are two megaliths in the town, the Cookham Stone and the Tarry Stone. Peter Ackroyd ventures that the latter may have been a meteorite. That would have made it sacred. An abbey was established here by AD 716, and a Saxon parliament, the witenamgot was held at the site of the Tarry Stone. Cookham is perhaps best known these days for having been the residence of the artist Stanley Spencer. Many of his paintings depicted the town, sometimes in biblical settings.

At Cookham the Thames path veers off the river for a while, and ascends a hill. We approached from the opposite direction. I remember the path up that hill being the steepest we encountered on our Thames journey. There are some lovely views towards the Thames – and Lulle Brook in between – from the top.

Across the river is Cliveden House: these days a grand hotel (with its garden opened to the public) but a place with some interesting history. It was initially constructed in 1666, as a residence for George Villiers, the second Duke of Buckingham. It had various owners of the years, including the wealthy political family, the Astors. In the 19th and 20th centuries they entertained the great and good – and not so good – here. A riverside retreat on the Cliveden estate called Spring Cottage featured in the Profumo affair in 1963, when the Conservative war minister John Profumo was involved in a scandal involving the model Christine Keeler and an osteopath (really) called Stephen Ward, who had links with the Russians. You may have seen the 1989 film Scandal about the affair. Anyway, it wasn’t the first spy scandal of the era, and Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, undermined by the whole business, resigned later in 1963, citing ill health. This part of the Thames, easily accessible from London but nicely secluded, has featured in all sorts of dodgy goings-on over the years: remember the equally notorious Medmenham Abbey and the Hellfire Club in part five? A retreat for the rich; and where there’s money…

The last word on Cliveden House, though, is that it has a connection with that great TV series of the 1960s, Thunderbirds. My obsession as a young schoolboy. I was delighted to read in the Cicerone guide that Cliveden is the home of Lady Penelope!

And then Maidenhead. Today, its image is rather staid – it is the parliamentary constituency of ex-PM Theresa May after all. Peter Ackroyd suggests that the name derives from the head of a maiden saint, one of eleven thousand virgins martyred with St Ursula at Cologne around AD 383. An alternative suggestion is that it comes from maegden hyth – a landing place for maidens, which, in days of yore, meant an easy place to land. Cookham, in its orginal form, meant boat place. Not surprisingly, the main towns on the river were located where it was easy to come onshore and establish the necessary infrastructure for trade.

Not quite sure where the next two photos were taken, but not far from Maidenhead. The third is just upstream of the road bridge, which in turn is just upstream of the railway bridge.

Today, the thing that interests me about Maidenhead is that railway bridge. This was built by Brunel and was completed in 1839. It heralded the age of steam-powered trains. It was a daring piece of architecture – even today it has the longest and widest flat brick arches in the world. Sceptics predicted it would collapse as soon as trains ran over it. One person who was enthralled by this was the artist JMW Turner. One of his great later paintings, from 1844, is Rain, Steam and Speed, which depicts a train travelling over Maidenhead railway bridge.  At this time, many of his works had become more abstract in the way they dealt with colour, light, shade and objects. They were hugely ahead of their time, and many contemporaries hated them. Rain, Steam and Speed is a perfect example. The painting is part of the National Gallery collection, but has been lent to Tate Britain for its exhibition Turner’s Modern World. This opened just before we went back into lockdown. I managed to see it a couple of days before everything closed down again. It’s a brilliant exhibition. If you are in London or nearby, do try and catch it when we re-emerge into the light.

This photo is a shot of the reproduction of Rain, Steam and Speed that I have at home. On the left of the picture is an outline of the road bridge. The real Maidenhead is somewhat less dramatic!

Maidenhead to Windsor, 26 August 2018

This is another stretch that we walked upstream. It rained for almost the entirety of the walk, which was about 7 miles. We had all the requisite rain gear and it held out pretty well. But we were drenched on the outside. The abiding memory is going into a DIY store in Maidenhead to see if there was a café for a warm cup of tea, just after coming off the river. We stood inside the building with the water dripping off us, forming pools on the concrete floor. Needless to say, there wasn’t a café – not there or anywhere else on the way back to the station. We admitted defeat and took a train back to Ealing, damp and thirsty.

My diary tells me that there was some lovely countryside along the way, but it wasn’t a day that made you want to get the camera out of the bag. We stopped near Bray for our lunch – under the M4 bridge to be precise! It had the virtue of being dry. Something of a contrast in style to the nearby Waterside Inn, owned by the Roux family, which has three Michelin stars.

Bray is associated with its vicars in Tudor and Stuart times, who were known for their frequently changing religious affiliations, as England’s monarchs swung from Catholic to Protestant and back again. Being on the wrong side could mean burning at the stake. The civil war and Oliver Cromwell further complicated matters. One vicar, in the Tudor era, is said to have responded to accusations of being a turncoat, a changeling, with the riposte:

Not so, for I always kept my principle, which is this – to live and die the vicar of Bray.

Sounds like a good strategy to me.

Al fresco dining

Windsor to Chertsey, 17 April 2017

This was a longer stretch – 11 miles plus, downstream. We began from Windsor station, and were soon walking along the Home Park. Windsor Castle loomed in the background. The Queen’s residence, and an impressive sight. William the Conqueror built a castle on the knoll of chalk that rises here. Peter Ackroyd speculates that, being artificial, it may have prehistoric origins. William’s castle was rebuilt by King Edward III between 1360 and 1374. Hundreds of local men were “impressed” to do the building, against their will. Slave labour, basically.

Just upriver from the centre of town lies Windsor racecourse. There has been racing in the area since the time of Henry VIII, but the Royal Windsor racecourse began holding meetings in 1866. It has become best known for its summer evening meetings, typically on Mondays. You can get a train to Windsor Riverside station and then a boat from there to the racecourse. I used to go quite often in years gone by, when Kath’s law firm hosted an annual trip up there. We spent most of the time sipping champagne by the marquee, snatching glimpses of the racing on a TV screen. The live racing was quite hard to see, but you had a punt and experienced the roar of the crowd as the horses raced to the finish. Always a jolly evening out.

On the opposite side of the river lies Eton, home to England’s most famous public school. Which, for any overseas readers, means private school. The school that has given us David Cameron, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson in recent times. I’ll say no more.

Old Windsor lock

Just past Old Windsor we came to the place I was most looking forward to seeing on this walk: Runnymede. Famous as the site where King John, in 1215, met his barons and signed the Magna Carta. While a lot of the text is devoted to the detailed concerns of the day, there are also some timeless expressions of individual rights and justice which remain on our statute book today. Our current government would do well to remember them when they talk about passing legislation which would allow them to ignore the rule of law, international or otherwise. The site commemorating the Magna Carta is simple but inspiring. Nearby there is a memorial to John F Kennedy. Both remind us that there is better way of governing than that we have experienced in the UK and the USA over the past four years. Fingers crossed that political events in both countries over the past couple of weeks do portend some light at the end of the tunnel.

By Bell Weir lock, just down from Runnymede

Soon after, we were in Staines. Home of comic character Ali G (played by Sacha Baron Cohen of Borat fame) and indie band Hard Fi, whose 2005 album Stars of CCTV painted a grim picture of hand-to-mouth suburban life. And what else? We weren’t expecting much. In fact, the passage of the Thames through Staines lends a rather more affluent perspective; and there is, again, a rich history. The name comes, most likely, from stones, which may have been part of a megalithic monument, and later marked the boundary of Chertsey Abbey’s lands. As Peter Ackroyd drolly comments, “The site is now a roundabout beside Staines Bridge.” Nearby is another stone, the London Stone, which marked the limit of the City of London’s jurisdiction of the river between 1197 and 1857. The Lord Mayor of London used to visit Staines annually to touch the stone with a sword. Don’t ask me why.

Staines is located at the confluence of the River Colne with the Thames. It is thought to have had a river crossing before Roman times. There was a Roman town here, called Ad Pontes (by the bridges). The current bridge opened in 1832, a little upstream of its predecessors. It was designed by John Rennie. Staines used to be the limit of the tidal Thames, which is presumably why the London Stone was located here. The locks downstream, notably Teddington, which we shall see in the next instalment, have changed that.

Staines Bridge

The Swan, by the bridge. Stopped for a drink here

Church of St Peter, by the river

Modern living, bungalow ranch style…

We ended the walk at Chertsey. It was quite a long walk from the bridge to the station. We were blissfully unaware that Chertsey was the site of the Benedictine abbey of St Peter, from the 7th century AD – or I was, anyway. Ackroyd writes that it was “ravaged” by the Danes and rebuilt by King Edgar in 964. It, and Chertsey, thrived until Henry VIII’s reformation did its worst. Some of the stone was taken down to Hampton Court and used for the palace there. The present bridge dates from 1785. The first was constructed in 1410 and was maintained by the abbey.

So much of the history along the Thames centred on the great abbeys and their religious orders, as we have seen. Henry VIII destroyed it all.

Chertsey Bridge

Chertsey to Hampton Court, 2 April 2018

Quite often, before we finished our journey with three walks between Inglesham and Farmoor (see part two of this journey) we reminded each other, we haven’t done Chertsey to Hampton Court yet. I can’t say that I recall being excited by the prospect, but it had to be done. It was a good bit of exercise, and the Thames always has its compensations. It was another dull grey day when we completed this stretch. There had been a lot of rain, and there was a bit of flooding. Peter Ackroyd says that Chertsey has the last of the Thames’ “water meadows”. So it was a fairly unremarkable walk, but the destination was splendid, even if it didn’t stand out on the day.

Looking downstream from Chertsey bridge

Walton Bridge, opened in 2013. It had five predecessors.

I think this is West Molesey – it’s all a suburban blur

The area around Hampton Court bridge is rather lovely. Just recently I met my friend Dave for a walk downstream. He lives in East Molesey on what we might loosely call the south side of the river. The photos below of Hampton Court bridge are from that day. On the day of the walk I’d given up taking photos, on account of the damp greyness of everything.

A glimpse of the palace, through a fence. The grounds were shut.

Hampton Court Palace is, of course, the focal point of the area. It is a magnificent building, with some lovely gardens, all beautifully maintained. It was the home of the ogre Henry VIII, and I have no wish to dwell on that. Instead, I want to celebrate one of its present uses, at least before the pandemic, which is to host concerts in the summer. They take place in one of the large quads, and it is a wonderful setting – as long as it is not raining! We have had some great moments there over the years: Roxy Music, Bryan Ferry solo (twice), Lisa Stansfield, Ringo Starr, and best of all… Kylie! That was in June 2019, and it was an amazing evening. There are a few photos below, but for a longer account of a fantastic evening, have a read of the blog I wrote about it at the time.

So, we are at the end of this leg of the journey. But before I finish, I’d like to mention a French restaurant in East Molesey, on Bridge Road, called Le Petit Nantais. I have had many an awesome meal there, especially the seafood spread, which I, with my good pals Dave, Jon and Tony, enjoy before heading for our annual summer trip to Sandown races. Washed down with the finest of white wines. The host, JP, is a true Frenchman, passionate about rugby, as well as food and wine. Highly recommended if you are ever in the area – when we are allowed to indulge in such pleasures again. In the meantime, there is a good delivery service, Dave tells me.

June 2016 version

Next time, in part seven, we head down to Kew, moving inexorably towards the heart of London.

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A Thames Journey: (5) From Cholsey to Marlow

This, the fifth of my Thames Journey series, covers a 36 mile stretch of the river, which we covered in three walks in 2016 and 2017. It’s a part of the journey where the river does a 180 degree turn, heading south then east, then north, before turning east again. Bending and twisting all the while. The Chiltern Hills lie to the north and as the land rises we have some of the most spectacular scenery along the river. There is some of the most spectacular wealth too.

Cholsey to Tilehurst, 30 May 2016

We picked Cholsey to start this leg because it had a railway station. We finished at Tilehurst, just before Reading, for the same reason. I’m not sure quite how long the walk was, as the Cicerone Walking the Thames path guide divides up this stretch of the river differently, but I’d say around 13 miles, give or take a mile. It felt long! Partly because we walked past Tilehurst towards Reading, then changed our minds and doubled back. Can’t quite remember why now. I think it was a pretty featureless stretch and we decided Reading station was a bit too far.

We made our way down from Cholsey station to the river and headed downstream. The first landmark was the Beetle and Wedge pub in Moulsford. I’d been there for dinner many years ago after a trip up to Oxfordshire for the annual reunion I have with some of my friends from university. The food was pretty good, as I recall. We just stopped outside for a tea break this time.

Looking upstream from the Beetle and Wedge

The lone tree

The walk along the river towards Goring was pleasant: meadows and clusters of trees. The village of Goring, twinned with Streatley on the opposite side of the river, dates back to ancient times. The church is from the 13th century. The Icknield Way and Ridgeway cross the Thames at this point. We stopped for lunch at a pub, which I think was the John Barleycorn. I recall having a rather nice pie and a couple of pints, which took me a while to walk off! 

Cool house!

This is Gatehampton railway bridge, just downstream of Goring. 

About half way between Goring and another pair of villages, Whitchurch and Pangbourne, you divert off the river path and head uphill. There were some lovely views.

We descended into Whitchurch. The iron bridge there, painted white, was opened in 1902, and is one of two remaining toll bridges on the Thames. The other is Swinford Bridge, which featured in part three of this journey. Pedestrians have been able to cross the bridge for free since decimalisation in 1971; for vehicles the cost is 20p! We crossed over into Pangbourne, named after the River Pang, which joins the Thames at this point. Pangbourne is today best known for being the home of Kenneth Grahame, author of The Wind in the Willows, for the last eight years of his life (he died in 1932). The adventures are inspired the river in this part of the world.  A little further downriver, Mapledurham House is thought to be the model for Toad Hall. I knew nothing about this when we walked this stretch, so all I have is a photo of Mapledurham Lock!

Whitchurch

The toll bridge at Whitchurch.

More lovely scenes as we headed out of Pangbourne towards Mapledurham. With thanks to Jon for the photo of the goose patrol.

Mapledurham Lock

Tilehurst to Henley, 1 May 2017

Eleven months later we returned to Tilehurst to walk the next stretch of the river, to Henley. This was one of the most picturesque of the journey – once we had got past Reading! In fairness, once we had left Tilehurst, where we were walking along a fairly narrow path enclosed by a high railway embankment, the Thames Side promenade was quite pleasant. Caversham was opposite, recently connected by a footbridge called the Christchurch Bridge, after the meadows on the Caversham side.  It opened in 2016. There was a competition to name it in which one of the popular choices was De Montfort bridge. That’s a name I tend to associate with Leicester, but nearby Fry Island is known for being the site of a duel in 1163 between Robert de Montfort and King Henry II’s standard bearer, Henry of Essex. The latter was accused by the former of dropping the royal standard in a battle with the Welsh. A duel ensued, in which De Montfort triumphed. Henry of Essex was taken to Reading Abbey where he recovered from his wounds. Thereafter he became a monk!  

 

Evidence of Reading as a town dates back to the 8th century. Peter Ackroyd offers three possible sources of the name: the settlement of Reada, a Saxon leader who invaded the area; the word rhea, which means river; or redin, which is fern. My money’s on the Saxon leader. It was an important trading and ecclesiastical centre in the Middle Ages, with the Abbey at its centre. It suffered in the Civil War and was the scene of the only significant battle on English soil during the 1688 Glorious Revolution. The iron and brewing industries grew in the 18th century, and later it became well known for biscuits! Today it has become a major centre for high tech industries, taking advantage of its good transport links and proximity to London. And, of course, there is the Reading Festival, the biggest music festival after Glastonbury, and teamed now with a parallel event in Leeds. It has gained a reputation in recent years for being a post-GCSE gathering for all the 16 year olds; but it started as the National Jazz Festival in Richmond, London in 1961. It settled in Reading, next to the river, in 1971. By the mid-70s it was the main rock festival in the UK. I recall putting Reading fourth in my university choices for the sole reason that it was the home of the festival! But I have never been, having only started going to festivals in my 50s. I think I’ll stick with Latitude, End of the Road and Green Man now. Here’s hoping they’ll be back in 2021, but it may be a close call.

Soon after the Christchurch Bridge we came to the point where the River Kennet joins the Thames. That brings back memories for me and Jon. In the summer of 2013, in blazing heat, we cycled from Reading to Bath along the river and the Kennet-Avon canal, stopping overnight in Hungerford and then Devizes. It was a great adventure, quite arduous in places, but with some wonderful scenery and some interesting encounters. I wrote a piece about it at the time, which still gets quite a few hits to this day. See the link above.  

We passed by Sonning and Shiplake as we made our way to Henley. Sonning is another Saxon settlement – Sunna’s people – though there is a history of earlier settlements too. Shiplake means the stretch of water where sheep are washed. Tennyson married there and Orwell lived there as a boy. There is a college on the banks of the river, a private school. We didn’t know this as we approached. There was no-one around and it seemed possible to walk through some of the grounds. So we had a little look. Maybe it was half term. 

Sonning Lock

Led Zep alert!

Shiplake College

Close to Henley we came upon Marsh Lock and weir. It is an impressive construction, and the surrounding houses are equally striking.

The view of Henley as you approach is rather beautiful. The church tower looms over the town. The bridge is much admired  – compared in the past with those of Florence. The church itself seems to date from the early 13th century; the tower was built around 1550. Henley means high wood or old place. Today it is best known for its regatta. That began in earnest in 1839; but before that Henley was the location for the early boat races between Oxford and Cambridge universities. The first was in 1829, starting from Hambledon Lock, downstream of Henley. Soon after the race began the boats collided, and it had to be re-started. Oxford won.

We arrived in Henley and felt like some refreshments. We came across the Chocolate Café, on Thameside, upstream of the bridge. Highly recommended if you are ever in Henley and want to stop for a tea or coffee. The cakes – chocolate and otherwise – are sumptuous!

Henley to Marlow, 8 October 2017

This was another attractive stretch of the river. Just out of Henley we came upon Temple Island, which is the starting point for races in the Regatta. The Temple was originally a fishing lodge for nearby Fawley Court, an historic house, and was designed by architect James Wyatt in 1771. Today it is owned by the Henley Regatta and is both a place for grand functions and a nature reserve. Presumably the nature reserve has the upper hand at the moment.

Further downstream there was a brief diversion from the river bank, slightly uphill. From that vantage point we could see the distinctive white buildings that were originally part of Medmenham Abbey, a Cistercian abbey founded in 1201 under the ownership of Woburn Abbey. It was closed in Henry VIII’s purges, but not destroyed. It took on a number of lives after that, most notoriously when it became the venue for the Hellfire Club in the mid 18th century, a group of establishment figures who met to indulge in activities frowned upon by polite society, including “obscene parodies of religious rites.” Today the place is in more discreet private ownership. I didn’t know any of this at the time – it looked to me like it was probably a conference centre. This part of the world is conference centre land – easily reached from London, but a world apart.

Nearby Danesfield House, up on the hill in the next photo, is now a hotel. Way back, the site may have been a hill fort, occupied by the Danes. In the 20th century it was owned for a while by the RAF and was an intelligence centre during the Second World War.

Marlow means low and marshy ground. It has suffered from floods – the worst in recent times was in 2014. The approach from upstream is quite similar to that of Henley – the bridge and the church tower standing out. The bridge is relatively recent by local standards – opened in 1832. It was wooden before that. The architect, William Tierney Clark, modelled it on Hammersmith Bridge, a place dear to my heart, as a later episode will expound upon! He went on to design the bridge that connects Buda and Pest in Hungary. Now, that is something special.

Compare and contrast…

Hammersmith

Budapest – way back in 2006

That’s it for this part of the journey. In the next episode, we will creep towards the outskirts of London, where the Thames grows mighty and tidal.

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The Last Track

I was listening to Mary Anne Hobbs’ show on BBC 6 Music the other day. She was about to play an Autechre track, which will be the last piece on the forthcoming album. She said she often listens to the last track on an album first. Various listeners responded on social media to say they did that too. It made me think, why would you do that? Or more precisely, what is it about the final tracks on albums that makes them so interesting?

Before I ponder further on this vitally important question – in the midst of covid, Brexit and the US presidential election – I need to acknowledge that this may be a generational thing. Listening to an album the whole way through, in sequence, may not be standard practice anymore. Or maybe generational is the wrong word. It’s the technology – it just tempts you to listen to standout tracks, the ones you’ve read about, or had recommended, or heard on the radio. It’s so easy. Stick them on a playlist and move on. Listen to a whole album? Too much hard work.

But it pays dividends when you do, because even now, the musicians making albums are putting their hearts and souls into these constructions: telling a story, their story. And the end of a story is always an important moment. With a book or a film or a play that is just stating the obvious. So why not an album too?

So, the last track on an album is always significant – let’s agree that and ask in what ways. I think there are a few possibilities. First, there are sometimes songs so epic they have to come last – anything following would be diminished, a trivial afterthought. Second, there might be a song that is just very different to the tone of the rest of the album. It might be experimental, a pointer to the band’s future direction. Or something that the artist just wanted to say, even if it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Third, it may be something that has real personal or political resonance for the artist, which, in turn, is transmitted to the listener.  Fourth, it might be a comedown song, a respite after the frenetic activity that went before. And fifth, it might just be the end point of a narrative, a story. In past days we might have called it the last act of a concept album.

All these things overlap, of course, but let’s look at a few examples in each category.

The epics

When I thought about this a whole load of classics came quickly to mind: “Jungleland” by Bruce Springsteen, “Freebird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” by Bob Dylan (which took up the whole of side four of “Blonde on Blonde”), “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen (ignoring the brief national anthem), “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles, “Purple Rain” by Prince, “Champagne Supernova” by Oasis, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin… but wait a minute, “Stairway” was only the final track on side one of Led Zep 4. Since the age of the CD that just makes it track four of the album. How wasn’t it the last song? That honour went to “When the Levee Breaks”, which is pretty epic in its own right. These are all totemic songs, the artists at the height of their powers. The songs crank up and just keep going. They blow your mind when you first hear them, and most other times too. How could anything else follow?

Sometimes things do though.  Think of Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” on “OK Computer”, which I used to think of as their “Bohemian Rhapsody” when it first came out. It’s track two on the album. Typical perverse Radiohead! Another one is “Marquee Moon” from the album of the same name by Television. One of the greatest songs of all time in my view. The guitar playing remains hypnotic to this day. It’s another one like “Stairway to Heaven” – the closer on side one of the vinyl. And continuing to disprove my theory, Bowie’s epic “Heroes” nestles in the middle of what was side one of the album. Maybe if he’d known it would be the anthem that signalled the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989…

 The odd ones out – or maybe not

 Initially I was thinking this category was about songs that presaged new directions for a band. But then, thinking about examples I couldn’t come up with many. One might be “Essex Dogs” by Blur, off their eponymous album, which marked a change in direction by the band in any case. “Essex Dogs” was the weirdest thing on the album, and confirmed that Britpop Blur was no more. Perhaps a better description is the odd one out.  An interesting example from last year is “Dublin City Sky” by Fontaines DC, on their debut album “Dogrel”. A great album, full of three minute rushes of poetic punk pop, evoking their home city of Dublin. But nothing evokes it like “Dublin City Sky”, in which the afterburners come off, the acoustic guitars come out and singer Grian Chatten sounds like Shane MacGowan of the Pogues. It’s a song from the heart which somehow sums up all that has gone before, but in a very different style. Another Irish band, U2, took things a step further with the last track on their brilliant album “Zooropa”, which I regard as one of their finest. It’s their most Bowie in Berlin-sounding album, their most electronic. But then they go and stick a Johnny Cash collaboration called “The Wanderer” on the end. I can’t think why. Because they could, I guess. I just hope Mary Anne didn’t listen to that one first!

Another striking example in this category is Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”, which is the final track on one of his later albums, “Uprising”. It’s notable for its resonant lyrics, but also because it is just an acoustic strum. There is no reggae beat, from the king of reggae. And yet it has become one of Bob Marley’s most celebrated songs. Because of the political and spiritual resonance of the message.

One more in this category, courtesy of Louis Grantham, son of my friend Jon, and fellow festival-goer. The three of us have had a lockdown game going where we take turns in choosing a theme and then each of us comes up with a song that fits. Yesterday I suggested best last track. Louis selected “Take It or Leave It” from The Strokes’ 2001 debut “Is This It?, the album that heralded an indie revival. A suitable message for the last track of such an assertive album. But he also mentioned “Love, Love, Love”, the final word on the Murder Capital’s “When I Have Fears”, which was my album of the year in 2019. It’s a dark and dynamic album; and the title of that last track, and to some extent the music, seems out of synch with the rest of the album. But as Louis says, on one level it provides a possible answer to the angst of the rest of the album – though a somewhat ambiguous one – but on another it makes you asks questions about what went before. And as a result, it leaves you wanting more.

The personal and the political

Immediately, in this category, I thought of songs like “Sarah”, Bob Dylan’s paean to his ex-wife which closes “Desire”, one of his mid-70s classics; and “My Hometown” by Bruce Springsteen, which brings the intensity and anger and celebration of “Born in the USA” to a reflective end. But I want to focus on songs of Stina Tweeddale that bring the three Honeyblood albums to an end. In each case they are unlike any of the songs that came before, so they could have featured in the previous category. Musically they are fairly simple, lyrically they are heartfelt and self-questioning. There is an internal dialogue taking place in Stina’s head which finds its way into the music. The closer to Honeyblood’s debut album of the same name is “Braid Burn Valley”, which is a park in South Edinburgh near Oxgangs, where Stina grew up. I’m not sure whether this song is autobiographical, but it feels like it. She is losing herself in the wilds of the park, pondering a love lost, and possibly a violent ending to the relationship. The song begins wistfully, picks up brutally as she sings of another f****** bruise and goes silent. Then a simple piano refrain emerges as she sings of a shooting stars and happier times. You are left wondering about the pain. She returns to Oxgangs for the final song of the magnificent second album “Babes Never Die”, called “Gangs”. Don’t let your fear keep you here, Stina intones. Self-explanatory you think, but is she addressing herself or someone else? She left for Glasgow, where Honeyblood is based, but does your hometown ever leave you? Not in Bruce Springsteen’s case – see above. Honeyblood’s third album is “In Plain Sight”. Musically, it is more varied and less guitar-based, and perhaps lacks the raw emotion of its predecessors. Until the last track, “Harmless”. With its simple piano motif, it resembles the last part of “Braid Burn Valley”, but for the feeling it emits it could have been called “Helpless” rather than “Harmless”. Stina is baring her soul and it doesn’t sound like she is in a great place. If you like the final song to leave you asking questions, in the way Louis describes earlier, Stina definitely obliges.

Straddling the personal and political, and in a rather self-reverential way, are the Clash in their first two albums. 1977 debut album “The Clash” is, for me, the greatest of all punk albums, an impassioned call to arms. It had everything an 18 year old armchair rebel could have asked for! Written mostly in the third person, the band turn to themselves in the last outburst. We’re garage band, we come from Garageland!  Raise those fists! They are less triumphal on second album, “Give ’Em Enough Rope”, having experienced the ups and downs of fame and the music business. “All the Young Punks (New Boots and Contracts)” is addressed to their followers and the messages are mixed. The music business isn’t great, but it’s better than working in the factory.

Two other favourites from the late 70s got darker and more political in their closing statements. One was The Jam, with “Down in the Tube Station at Midnight”, which closes their third album, “All Mod Cons”. The album was already getting pretty edgy with “’A’ Bomb in Wardour Street; “Down in the Tube Station” really finishes you off!  It reeks with paranoia and right wing violence. Not a nice place to be. This was Jon’s choice for a closer, and he’s right to say how often you thought about this song when you were travelling back on the tube late at night. Note the past tense in these upended times. Equally dark, though not quite so direct, was Elvis Costello when he ended his tour de force “This Year’s Model” with the sinister “Night Rally”. After the personal disgust that threaded its way through the album, Elvis turned outward and political for the denouement, and left a nasty taste in your mouth. Great song though.

The comedown

After the party, the comedown. You look back at what went on and survey the wreckage. And hold on to the good memories. One of the best examples of this that I know is “New Year’s Day” by Taylor Swift, the last song on 2017’s “Reputation”. It’s a brash, even bombastic album, where Taylor really went for the R&B/dance sound. It worked brilliantly and was sensational live. But all good things come to end and “New Year’s Day” really did sum up that after-party feel. It’s a lovely, rather touching song, and gave us a pointer, though no-one could have expected it, to the beautiful lockdown symphony that is “Folklore”. More of that another time.

One of my favourite bands of the last ten years are Glasgow’s electro-indie-pop champions, Chvrches. Their second album, “Every Open Eye” signalled a move to a more pop-orientated sound (and look) after their brilliant debut, “The Bones of What You Believe”. It was mostly bangers until they reached the conclusion. “Afterglow” has you dreaming as Lauren Mayberry’s beautiful voice wafts around you. It was no surprise that the band lit the roof of the Albert Hall with a starry night sky when they played “Afterglow” there in 2016.

I have to mention another Bruce song here. It’s “New York City Serenade”, the final piece on his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle”. A true masterpiece – album and song. The album has a variety of moods, but the penultimate song is the rousing “Rosalita”. A celebration of love, hope and rock’n’roll, and still a staple of Bruce’s live shows. After that where do you go? Well, as I said under Epics, that might be where you end. But Bruce had other ideas. He played his ode to New York, to midnight in Manhattan, to all the losers and the chancers and the dreamers. Starting jazzily, with some lovely acoustic strumming and then a mellow wall of sound, Bruce extemporising, before it all falls away again. One of my favourite Bruce songs, and the one I chose as my final song in our challenge.

Radiohead rarely do anything conventional, but they do have a penchant for the comedown song at the end. And they are all tunes of real beauty. From the ethereal “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” on “The Bends” to “True Love Waits” on most recent album “A Moon Shaped Pool”. And on the journey, “The Tourist” soothed the soul at the end of “OK Computer” while “Videotape” was weirdly mournful on “In Rainbows”. Things got weirder on “Kid A” with “Untitled” and woozily jazzy on “Life in a Glasshouse” from “Amnesiac”. Every Radiohead album takes you on a ride you weren’t expecting – they give you some time to reflect at the end.

The last act

Some albums tell a story. It may be from beginning to end, it may just occupy part of the album. But there is a distinctive narrative. It’s something that David Bowie was attracted to, especially in the first half of the 70s as he went through various personas. Ziggy Stardust was one and the Ziggy album ended with great melodrama as Bowie sang “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” It wasn’t long before Ziggy was left behind. “Diamond Dogs” was even more of a concept album. The dystopian city with rats as big as cats. With overtones of Orwell’s “1984”: we love you big brother. And it ended with the disturbing but insanely catchy “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”. What could it all mean? It wasn’t wholesome.

Two of the great soul artists had stories to tell that ended with songs that have resonated through the years. Marvin Gaye’s iconic album “What’s Going On?, a cry of anguish and bewilderment at America at the beginning of the 70s, began with the beguiling lament of the title track, drifted through meditations on the times, sought solace in God, but ended with the most powerful protest on the album: “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. What an incredible song – and what a groove.  Stevie Wonder’s story was about love. Lost love, despair, self-realisation, recovery and then hope. All in three songs: “Blame it on the Sun” – but my heart blames it on me – “Looking for Another Pure Love” and the uplift at the end, “I Believe (When I Fall in Love It Will Be Forever)”. Anyone going through a break up should listen to these songs and take solace from the final message.

So where does the story end? Where else but “The End”? The last song on that amazing suite of songs that occupied side two of the last album the Beatles recorded (though not the last they released). “Abbey Road”. That stretch of music from “Because” to “The End”. The Beatles’ parting shot.

And in the end, the love you take, is equal to the love you make

Yeah, man!

Except there was a hidden track.

Her majesty’s a pretty nice girl, but she doesn’t have a lot to say

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lovelondonscenes 171 – From Putney Bridge to Kew Bridge

It was a pleasant day yesterday – the last for a while if the forecasts are right – so I took the opportunity to have a stroll along the river. I took a train from Brentford to Putney and walked home.  All in all I walked ten miles, mostly along the river.

I hadn’t intended to take photos, but there was something about the vastness of the river and the sky as I crossed Putney Bridge that tempted me. All the way back that combination was enchanting; it was enhanced later on by the reflections of the sinking sun on the water.

All iPhone 8 shots, no enhancements.

To begin, that view from Putney Bridge.

A couple in Fulham, after you’ve passed Bishop’s Park and walked around Fulham’s Craven Cottage stadium.

From Fulham Reach, not far from Hammersmith Bridge, which is sadly not open to the public for the foreseeable future while repairs are carried out. Initially cyclists and pedestrians were still allowed to cross. I’m not sure what added to the caution. It’s a right pain though!

A favourite spot, scene of many past photos, by Chiswick Mall.

Under Barnes Bridge. I crossed over from the Chiswick side here and intended to walk to Kew Bridge on this side; but at Chiswick Bridge the towpath was closed for repairs, so it was back over to the Chiswick side and suburban Hartington Road until I reached Strand on the Green.

To finish, three shots from Strand on the Green: a lovely stretch, lined with pubs – not quite as vibrant as normal at the moment. Kew Bridge looming in the background, from whence I trudged past Brentford’s new football ground, up the west side of Gunnersury Park and on to Northfields, slightly footsore and ready for a can of Beavertown Gamma Ray!

 

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“Everybody Hurts” – Two songs that resonated on a June day this year

I was looking through notes I’d made on my phone earlier today. I came across this piece I’d written on 16 June with the intention of posting it with some photos I’d taken of central London by the river on my first visit for three months, as lockdown eased a little. I posted those photos, but didn’t use the piece at the time. And then I forgot about it. But looking at it today, I thought it reflected well how I was feeling in June, three months after lockdown, and three months ago. Music and podcasts have been a lifeline for me in these last six months. They both feature in this piece. Click here if you’d like to see all the pictures I published before.

I went up to town today. Quite a big deal after three months. I went to Brentford for a train around 1.45. I wore a mask for the first time, which I found quite disconcerting at first. I felt like I couldn’t breathe properly and my glasses steamed up. But I got used to it and started to be judgmental about the one third of passengers (not many in actual numbers) who weren’t obeying the rules. Of course I didn’t say anything.

I got out at Waterloo and headed up to the river – the lifeblood of London. I walked up to the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge, stopping along the way to take photos of familiar scenes. But it felt important to capture them again on this special day. Before I did that I spotted that people were sitting around near the National Theatre drinking beers. I fancied one myself and went up to the bar, which was part of the British Film Institute. A man behind a screen and wearing a mask and gloves poured me my pint of Camden Hells. Six pounds! But I was ok with that. It was so good to be inching back to normal life. I stood by the river, looking out towards the City and watching the occasional boat go by. I was listening to a podcast in the History of Ideas series by David Runciman, a Cambridge academic, about Benjamin Constant, a French liberal thinker from the 18th/19th century. It’s a 12 part series about the philosophy of what we might call the modern world. His first talk was about Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and this formed the base upon which many of the other talks were constructed.  I listened to three today as I walked a loop around my London by the river. Constant, De Tocqueville on America and democracy and Marx/Engel’s Communist Manifesto. Every one utterly relevant to our day.

As I walked and listened and took photos, I was engrossed, but not sentimental. It was great to be back, but not as emotional as I’d anticipated. I walked back to Vauxhall and got a train back to Brentford from there. As ever, I loved the sight of the river as we crossed Barnes Bridge. It was only later that I started to feel the true sense of today, as I was clearing up after our evening meal. I had a playlist playing which I made recently, called 40 from 2020. It should have been 20 from 2020 really, but as ever I couldn’t bear to edit myself that much – there have been so many good songs this year. I got a decent number of views when I blogged about the playlist. And I was listening to it tonight. There was this song by Alice Boman, called Everybody Hurts. She’s a Swedish singer and released an album this year called Dream On. It’s a beautiful album and Everybody Hurts is a beautiful track. But it is also the same title as another song that signified my love of London in 2005. I, my wife Kath, and friends Jon and Maggie were going to see REM in Hyde Park on 9 July. But there were terrorist bombs on the tube and a bus two days before. An awful, shocking time. The concert was postponed for a week – remarkable it was so soon afterwards. I suspect these days it would be a lot longer. But REM played a week later and we were there. And they played Everybody Hurts from their Automatic for the People album and it was incredible. So moving, so resonant. We felt our love for London in waves around Hyde Park.

And today I felt my love for London again as I wandered along the river. And when Alice Boman came on my playlist later I was reminded of that love for my city, of the moment when REM sang their song of the same title. And I loved Alice’s sentiment too, which was different but also the same. Everybody hurts, some time. A lot of times. Especially now. But music gives us the strength to come through these times. As ever it expresses what we can’t quite manage with our own words.

So, in a quite disconnected way, but a real way, Alice Boman’s Everybody Hurts summed up how I felt as I returned today to the place I love, just as REM did at Hyde Park in 2005.

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A Thames Journey: (4) From Oxford to Cholsey

Clifton Hampden bridge

This stretch of the river is about 26 miles long. Taking into account various diversions, we probably made it up to 30 at least, over three walks. As with previous walks in this series we completed them at different times, though not quite as initially planned. The first stretch, from Oxford to Abingdon followed the walk from Farmoor to Oxford, at the end of 2017. We did Oxford to Abingdon on 29 December. The plan was to walk from Abingdon to Dorchester on the 30th. However, after the flooding we encountered on the 29th we figured that it might be best to leave the walk to Dorchester to the summer. So we reconvened in August 2018, with the temperature in the 30s on both days: Abingdon to Dorchester on the 4th and Dorchester to Cholsey via Wallingford on the 5th.

While checking the Cicerone Thames Path guide and Peter Ackroyd’s Thames, Sacred River for interesting historical nuggets I was reminded that one story that brings together a number of the locations along this stretch of the river is that of St Frideswide (aka Frithuswith) a 7th century Saxon princess, who became a patron saint of Oxford. Legend has it that as a young woman she was being pursued by a Mercian prince called Algar, although was sworn to celibacy. With her sisters she fled to the sanctuary of the Thames near Oxford, where they met a youth who rowed them down river to Abingdon. Here she performed a miracle (as you do) before moving upstream to Binsey, where she constructed a chapel and established a healing well. She settled in Oxford where she established a monastery which, centuries later, became the foundation of Christ Church College. Her shrine remains in the cathedral of Christ Church to this day.

Oxford to Abingdon, 29 December 2017

The walk from Oxford to Abingdon was a little damp and, in parts, very muddy. At one point, just beyond Sandford, we encountered a stretch of path that was completely flooded – too much for the walking boots. We had no choice but to crawl through a barbed wire fence and make our way onto a nearby track. As we walked along a woman on horseback approached. This is trouble, I thought – we were obviously on private land. In fact she was very friendly and helpful and gave us directions for getting back to the river where it was passable. She finished by saying she hoped we didn’t bump into the farmer as he didn’t take kindly to people being on his land. A familiar tale. As it happened we saw no-one else and her instructions took us to where we needed to be, which was close to the Radley College boathouse.

Leaving Oxford

Iffley Lock

This is where we concluded a diversion was needed.

Back to the river here, at Radley.

Abingdon has deep roots. There was an abbey there from the 7th century, which lasted until Henry VIII did his worst. The town’s name means Aebba’s Hill, Aebba being an Abbess in the early days of the monastery. The most celebrated historian of early England, Geoffrey of Monmouth (1095-1151), was based at the abbey for a while. He is perhaps best known for his tales of King Arthur and Merlin, which have resonated through the ages. Ackroyd tells a story of how, after the monks rerouted the Thames so that it would flow past the foundation walls of the abbey, all passing barges containing herring were obliged to donate 100 of them to the monastery cooks!

We walked through the abbey grounds towards the centre of town. It was pretty gloomy and I didn’t feel inclined to take the camera out, having put it away as we clambered along muddy paths on the approach to Abingdon. There’s an attractive market square, dominated at one end by the rather grand (though compact) County Hall, which was built in the 17th century by Christopher Kemper, who was one of Wren’s masons at St Paul’s in London. We sat in a café and stared out at the rain, if I recall.  It wasn’t really a moment for soaking in the history – there had been enough soaking that day.

We stayed a little out of the centre at a Premier Inn in the evening, but found a nice pub called the Brewery Tap which did very good food. Both were on Ock Street, so named after the nearby river which flows into the Thames at Abingdon. The Brewery Tap was a Tap House for the local Morland brewery, which was founded in 1711. Ah, Morlands! Or should that be aaaaagh!? Morlands was our house ale in University College beer cellar and it wasn’t very well-kept. But it was cheap – and sometimes even free, depending on who was running the bar. Many an hour of my youth was whiled away, you might say wasted, in those dingy surrounds, drinking that dodgy beer.

Abingdon to Dorchester, 4 August 2018

We got the weather right this time: if anything the worry was about it being too hot to walk for 8 or 9 miles each day. We stayed in Dorchester, at the White Hart Hotel. On this first day of the trip, having parked the car in Dorchester we took a taxi to Abingdon, and then walked back along the river to Dorchester. A peaceful walk, with pleasant scenery, though quite exposed under the sun.

Abingdon in the sunshine

We took a diversion to visit the church at Sutton Courtenay, named after the de Courtenay family, who were granted the land during Norman times – a familiar tale along the river. All Saints parish church has some illustrious characters buried in its grounds, including the newspaper magnate David Astor, Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and the man we know as George Orwell.

The first of two cow shots in this blog! You could imagine Constable painting this scene. It was fascinating to watch them jostle for position – and let the little ones through.

Two perspectives of the bridge at Clifton Hampden. There’s another at the top of this blog.

Didcot power station looms.

Cows 2

This, I think, is taken from Little Wittenham bridge, near Dorchester. I have to do quite a bit of piecing together for these blogs! The Cicerone guide maps are invaluable.

We had Constable earlier, so how about Monet?

Dorchester is another Thames town with a bit of history, dating back to Roman times, when it was a garrison town. Its name means the city on the water. Peter Ackroyd describes it as one of the holiest places on the Thames, being the burial place of St Birinus, who founded a Saxon cathedral here. He is said to be the patron saint of the Thames. The Saxon church became the site for the abbey, which was established in the 12th century. Dorchester is situated at the confluence of the Thame and the Thames. In the debate about the relationship between Isis and the Thames, some think it is simply that the Thames is the Isis until it meets the Thame. Ackroyd dismisses this notion, but given that the Thames is called the Isis in Oxford, it has a certain logic for me.

Dorchester to Cholsey, 5 August 2018

The highlight of this walk was Jon going for a swim! I declined the opportunity and amused myself taking close-ups of thistles instead. Each to their own…

 

By Shillingford bridge

The swimmer

My alternative to swimming.

 

This is near Benson, I think. The following photo is at the lock in Benson. There was a major battle here in 775, between the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex. Mercia, led by Offa – he of the dyke – was victorious.

Wallingford then came into view.

The spire of St Peter’s church in background

We didn’t linger in Wallingford, which was near the end of the walk, but it is another town with a rich and ancient history. Its name reflects the fact that it was on the main road from a foreign land – Wales – to London. As a settlement it is as ancient as London.  I think it’s also one of the places we moored for the evening on our infamous barge trip while at uni – see previous blog. Into the town for a few beers. Food too? Can’t remember. I don’t think we created quite as much mayhem as Cromwell did in 1646, when he crushed Royalist resistance and destroyed the castle after a long siege. It had survived multiple sieges in the past, but this time it fell. The soldiers who had defended the castle were decapitated and thrown in the river on Cromwell’s orders: “Let the river have them before they corrupt the land as the King corrupted England…”

The cleansing, healing power of the Thames… we began with the story of St Frideswide at Abingdon and Binsey; St Birinus baptised Saxon kings and princes in the waters at Dorchester and had a spring where sick cattle could be treated; Cromwell purged his enemies. Many powers have been attributed to the river over the centuries.

For me, serenity is one.

Cholsey is just beyond Wallingford. The town is not on the river, but a bit of a walk inland. We went up to the station to get a taxi back to Dorchester. As we waited we debated why we hadn’t asked the taxi to come down to the river – there was a road. We’d walked another mile or more for no good reason. Blame it on the heat!

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Sportsthoughts (167) – Premier League predictions for 2020-21

Hot on the heels of my assessment of the season 2019-20, here come the predictions for 2020-21! Who knows what this season will be like with the pandemic far from over and with every chance of a resurgence of cases in the winter. But, for now, it’s all-systems-go, with one glaring exception – there still won’t be any crowds. At least not at the start – there is talk of some limited admissions in the near future; but in some ways that will be even weirder than empty stadiums. The people’s game – by invitation only.

Anyway, straight down to business, here are my placings for 2020-21.

1 – Man City

2 – Man United

3 – Chelsea

4 – Tottenham

5 – Liverpool

6 – Arsenal

7 – Everton

8 – Leicester

9 – Wolves

10 – Sheffield Utd

11 – Leeds

12 – West Ham

13 – Southampton

14 – Burnley

15 – Newcastle

16 – Brighton

17 – Fulham

18 – Crystal Palace

19 – Aston Villa

20 – West Brom

OK, the thing that stands out is Liverpool’s slide to fifth. Highly-unlikely-to-impossible, I hear you mutter (or splutter). You are probably right, but I had to do something to stir things up. I was going to put them second; but City and Liverpool the top two again – that is soooo boring!

So, let’s construct the argument about how it might happen. First, I think City, after a disappointing last season by their standards, are set to win the title again. I was impressed by the way they cut most teams to pieces in the post-suspension part of the season, including Liverpool. By then Liverpool had won the title and had relaxed a bit, but City absolutely shredded them.  David Silva has moved on, but Foden/ Bernardo Silva/ Mahrez aren’t bad replacements. The defence has been strengthened by the arrival of Nathan Aké (admittedly from Bournemouth, whose defence was decidedly leaky) and they are after Koulibaly from Napoli. And, you never know, Messi might still turn up…

After that, I think Man Utd and Chelsea both have a case for finishing second or third. In both instances, it rests mainly on their attacking riches. United with their exciting young front three of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood, augmented by the likes of Fernandes, Pogba and maybe Jadon Sancho; and Chelsea with the results of their recent shopping spree – Ziyech, Werner and Havertz – as well as the players that took them to fourth last season, including English youngsters Mount and Abraham, and the American Christian Pulisic. Both teams had wobbly moments in defence last season – only Liverpool, of the top teams, had a really solid rearguard. United have strengthened their defensive midfield with van de Beek from Ajax, and have the option of playing Dean Henderson –  who had two great seasons on loan at Sheff Utd – in goal if De Gea falters again. Chelsea have brought in Thiago Silva from PSG to provide some experience and leadership in the back four. He’s getting on a bit, but may be a good temporary solution. They haven’t sorted out the goalkeeping position yet, but no doubt they will. I still fear, too, that they might come after West Ham’s Declan Rice from West Ham. He would be perfect for them, either in defensive midfield, or as a centre back.

But that would only push Liverpool to fourth. Why Tottenham ahead of them? In two words: Jose Mourinho. This will be his team now, and that should mean they will be miserly in defence and break forward fast, before Harry Kane finishes it off. I’m assuming both Kane and Son will be back to their best. I also think the purchase of Docherty from Wolves is a good move – an excellent right back (or wing back) who is good going forward and chips in with the odd goal. He’s in my fantasy team for sure.

So, Liverpool fifth… Yes, I know it’s unlikely, but my reasoning is as follows. The club, the city, were so desperate to win the league again, after thirty years. They’ve done it now; attention may turn more this season to the Champions’ League. Also, other teams may have worked them out to a greater degree. They are a relentless pressing team and it takes great reserves of energy and purpose to keep on doing that. Furthermore, the midfield, by top standards, is fairly prosaic – they have relied on getting it quickly to their lethal front three, Salah, Firminho and Mané. There has been a brilliant supply of crosses, too, from Alexander-Arnold and Robertson. So teams will look to block those supply routes. And do Liverpool really have a Plan B? Their bench is solid, but not terribly exciting. The club has also been quiet on the transfer front (so far). And let us not forget that these last two seasons have been exceptional. In the previous six seasons Liverpool’s positions were: 7th, 2nd, 6th, 8th, 4th and 4th. I rest my rather flimsy case…

Mention of flimsy brings us nicely to Arsenal. I usually predict third place, more in hope than expectation. There is always a batch of promising youngsters, a couple of interesting purchases. That’s no different this year, and there is the promise of Mikel Arteta as a manager too. But it’s hard to see which of the five ahead of them they could displace. Tottenham are the most likely candidates I guess, but that Mourinho effect, if it is still there, is going to make them steelier rivals. No, I think sixth is the best Arsenal can hope for this season. I hope I’m’wrong – maybe they’ll come third this year!

And then there was West Ham… a perennial tale of hopes dashed by reality, usually after two or three games. And this season the fixture programme has dealt the team a very difficult opening hand. The first game of the season, home to Newcastle, is an absolute must-win fixture, as the next six games are Arsenal, Wolves, Leicester, Tottenham, Man City and Liverpool! We’ll spring a couple of surprises along the way, but that is tough. Bottom by November is a real possibility. Having said that, the season ended pretty well, with Antonio discovering his shooting boots and Soucek and Bowen proving excellent additions to the team. Soucek has now signed a long term contract – he was on loan from Slavia Prague before. There is enough talent in the squad to secure a mid-table place, particularly if the likes of Lanzini and Anderson rediscover their mojos (assuming the club doesn’t find buyers for them). Maybe Haller will prove his worth – all £45m of it – too. Maybe. He has combined well at times with Antonio. I’d like to see a bit more strike power brought in – maybe someone like Ollie Watkins from Brentford. And the defence still needs strengthening. But I don’t think there’s much money available. They just got £17-18m from West Brom for Grady Diangana, a promising youngster who was on loan to the Baggies last season. I don’t think manager David Moyes wanted to sell him; and club captain Mark Noble spoke out against it on Twitter – an unusual move. That suggests all is not well at the club – a worrying sign a week before the season starts. Still, I do think the quality of the squad is mid-table level, and I’m going to plump for 12th place – my lowest for a few seasons. Just don’t sell Declan Rice!

Relegation candidates are many – including West Ham – but I think we’ll see West Brom, of the promoted clubs, head back down. There’s not much in their squad, as far as I can tell. I like their manager, Slaven Bilic (once of West Ham as a manager and a player) but I don’t think he has a strong hand. A lot of people to have Fulham to go down, but I thought the wily way that they performed in the Championship play-off final augured well for this season. They have recent Premier League experience, a proven goal-scorer in Mitrovic, and Scott Parker is shaping up as a good manager. A future West Ham boss? I think the fans would love to have him back at the club. My other two to go down are Aston Villa, who were very poor last season and lucky to stay up; and Crystal Palace, who don’t really have much about them other than a well-organised defence. They’ll have even less penetration up front if Wilfried Zaha finally leaves, although the purchase of Eberechi Eze from QPR was a smart move (they pipped a number of other clubs, including West Ham).

Surprise team of the season? Leeds seem a popular choice. They won the Championship comfortably, have a top manager in Marco Bielsa, and have made some interesting buys, notably Argentinian international midfielder Rodrigo de Paul, from Udinese. And, of course, Leeds is (or was) a big club, brought down by some terrible owners over the years. It’s good to have them back in the Premier League (he says through gritted teeth). So, not really a surprise if they do well, though top eight would be pushing it, with battle-hardened teams like Wolves, Burnley, Leicester and now, Sheffield United, all competing in that same space. Leicester really blew that top four place right at the end of last season – I wonder what impact that will have on them. And how long can they keep only relying on Jamie Vardy to bang in twenty-plus goals a season? I see a slight decline for them this season, with Everton, under Carlo Ancelotti, overtaking them. They have bought ambitiously. It will be fascinating to see if James Rodriguez has it in him to light up the Premier League. If he does, Everton could be the real surprise team and break into that much coveted top six.

So there we have it. The anticipation is always a lot of fun, the reality not always quite so much. It all kicks off next Saturday, 12 September. West Ham 3 Newcastle 0 would start things off nicely. Pleeeeze!

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Sportsthoughts (166) – The Premier League 2019-20 season (and my predictions)

It’s a month now since the 2019-20 Premier League season finally ended, after a hiatus of three months between 13 March and 17 June as a result of the pandemic. And it’s little more than two weeks before the 2020-21 season begins, notwithstanding the fact that the Champions League final was only last weekend. After the drought, the flood.

Time, I think, to reflect on the season just gone and to dig out those predictions to see how I did.

During lockdown I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts, amongst them the BBC’s Football Daily. When there was no actual football to talk about the podcasts were a mixture of nostalgia and a lot of agonising about whether the season should resume at some point. The debate around that subject focused at first on the moral position, with every comment prefaced with football’s essential triviality in such troubled times. Some of that was lip service, I think, given the participants’ passion for the game; but I think it was also wrong to dismiss football in that way. Of course it is only a game when all is said and done; but it is also something that unites and divides, brings joy and despair and, at times, a sense of wonder. It is an endless source of debate and conversation; and, for many people, provides an anchor – and meaning – in their lives. It’s a passion play where you never know the ending. The anticipation can be as good, if not better, than the actual games – I give you England’s World Cup exploits over the years as an example of that.

As talk grew of a resumption to the season, the discussion on Football Daily moved from morality to money. Of course it did – at the top level it may not be all about money, but it sometimes feels like it. The clubs were being criticised for wanting to resume because of the money. In the Premier League, and to a lesser extent the Championship, that was about the TV money – if there were no games, Sky and BT and all the others would want their money back. The clubs were characterised as venal; but wait a minute, why shouldn’t clubs, with huge expenses, hundreds of employees, want to resume their business? Just like any other business, given the chance. Without that TV money some clubs would have been in very serious trouble indeed. So, it seemed to me that it was entirely reasonable that they should want to get back to playing, if it could be done safely and without causing undue pressure on the health and emergency services.

Safety – testing the players, maintaining social distancing, availability of medical staff, police, and so on – rightly became the focus of the discussions once a date was set for resumption. This is where the financial divide between the top two leagues and the rest of the sport was brutal: the lower leagues simply could not afford the costs of regular testing and all the other precautions. Amid much acrimony, the rest of football was terminated, apart from a few promotion play-offs. Other countries had taken earlier decisions to cancel all football – France and the Netherlands, for example. The Scots did too. But the four biggest leagues – those in England, Spain, Italy and Germany – all re-started. The financial stakes were too high not to, when there was a choice.

Germany, which had coped with the virus better than most, was in the vanguard, resuming in mid-May. The other leagues could watch and learn. I watched the first game live, Borussia Dortmund v Schalke 04 – the Ruhr derby. It took a little time to get into the swing of it, but it was a good game and I soon found myself engrossed in it. Dortmund won 4-0, with some excellent finishes. While I didn’t watch much of the Bundesliga after that, the appetite was whetted. Football did have a part to play in the gradual emergence from lockdown.

And so the Premier League circus resumed, on 17 June, with two fixtures that hadn’t been played because of the League Cup final: Aston Villa v Sheffield United and Manchester City v Arsenal. That point I made earlier about anticipation versus the actual kicked in right away though: I’d really been looking forward to the resumption and the glut of games, but I didn’t watch either of the openers. I had better things to do. My lockdown routine hadn’t involved football. It couldn’t just barge its way in. Of course I’ve watched a few live games since, but mostly I’ve relied on the Match of the Day roundups. Just like normal.

The games haven’t exactly been normal given the absence of fans; but I’ve found that if the game is good enough, or you have a stake in it – watching West Ham in my case – you don’t really notice the lack of atmosphere. Or you quickly get used to it. The sound effects used by the TV companies have helped. They’ve been good at modulating the sounds in response to incidents and getting a few chants going – perhaps not the ruder ones! I know some people prefer to watch without the effects, so they can hear the players’ shouts and managers’ instructions. I get that; but I find the background noise helps me focus on the game rather than being distracted by the empty stands.

The other impact of resumption for me was that Football Daily became less interesting, now that it was again about the football! Post-match interviews, VAR controversies and so on were no match for the more philosophical discussions that went on when there was no football. Those discussions were exploring and testing the essence of the game; now we were back to reacting to events. Entertaining enough, but without the same depth.

But what of those predictions for 2019-20 that I made back in August 2019?

Could do better would sum it up.

I picked five of the top six correctly, but that’s not really very hard. I didn’t have Leicester, though in my commentary I did say I thought they had a good chance of a top six placing, under Brendan Rodgers’ management.  The one I got wrong was inevitably Arsenal. I put them third, as I usually do. They came eighth, their worst performance since 1994-95, when they came 12th. My son, who is an Arsenal fan, puts the blame entirely on manager Unai Emery, who was sacked in late November. Mikel Arteta, who was appointed just before Christmas, is deemed the saviour. He hasn’t exactly turned the results around. But they did have a decent post-lockdown run and won the FA Cup. So anticipation is high for the new seasons, as it always is. I’m not sure I’ll be putting them third this time though.

I correctly called Chelsea and Tottenham in fourth and sixth respectively, though I would never have imagined that Spurs would sack Mauricio Pochettino in November and bring Jose Mourinho in as his replacement. Jose did seem like damaged goods as far as the top echelon of the Premier League was concerned, but you can’t keep a good man down. Sixth place wasn’t bad when the team were 14th when Pochettino was sacked, but the jury is still out. Mourinho’s defensive philosophy doesn’t seem a fit with Spurs, but maybe he and the club will adapt to each other and win some much-coveted silverware. Frank Lampard had a good start at Chelsea and gave youngsters like Mount, Abraham, Tomori and James a chance. They were a bit soft in defence, which will have to be put right. They’ve made some exciting purchases just recently, which I’ll cover when I do my predictions for next season. I must mention though, that West Ham did the double over them. And I was there for the 1-0 victory at Stamford Bridge at the end of November! In classic West Ham style, it came after the team had lost five and drawn one of the previous six games. Even better, I’d put a couple of bets on which won me £120!

While I put Man Utd fifth, I did say they had potential to come second. So third was a good compromise. They rediscovered a bit of their joie de vivre, especially after Bruno Fernandes joined the club in the Christmas transfer window. He brings an art and unpredictability to the midfield that has been lacking for some time. The youthful forward line of Rashford, Martial and Greenwood has also stirred the United faithful’s imagination, although they ran out of steam a bit towards the end of the season, and found themselves in a head-to-head battle for a top four slot with Leicester in the last game. They won the game, and Leicester ended a successful season with a sour taste, dropping out of the top four at the last, having been there for much of the season. Not enough depth in the squad; and a bit too reliant on Vardy for goals.

I picked the top two, but in the wrong order: I thought Man City would do it again. But Liverpool were unstoppable this season. A juggernaut. The gloating from the fans – including all those pundits on the BBC and Sky – became pretty unbearable, but given that it was the first title win for 30 years, I guess the rest of us have to be understanding. They were so desperate to do it, and it would have been cruel indeed if this season’s competition had been terminated. Manager Jurgen Klopp made all the right noises about the title being nothing compared with the safety of people during the pandemic, but in the end I was pleased for them. They are an excellent team, playing good football. They deserve the victory. I have friends of a Man Utd and City persuasion who would disagree vehemently with that statement, but as a humble Hammer I am able to give credit where it is due. The team is interesting. It’s based on a strong defence, two outstanding attacking full backs, and a fluid, incisive front three, all of whom are capable of individual brilliance. The midfield is prosaic but effective in pressing the opposition and moving the ball into the right areas. I wonder if that structure will work so well again next season, but I’ll return to that when I do my predictions.

City weren’t exactly bad this season, but they lost something compared with 2018-19. It’s never easy to sustain the same level of performance each year, so maybe a bit of slippage was inevitable. I suspect the main focus was on the Champions League, but they blew that in the recent semi-final against Lyon – a real missed opportunity. The big weakness was at the back, with Laporte absent injured for much of the season. Losing Aguero for the Champions League was a major blow too. They’ll be back next season – they gave Liverpool notice, beating them 4-0 in July. While Liverpool had relaxed after winning the title, City really did slice them apart.

I was hopeless on the relegation front this season. I had Crystal Palace, Brighton and Sheff Utd to go down. They came 14th, 15th and 9th respectively. The first two I just thought had had their time in the Premier League and lacked the firepower to stay up. In the event a new manager, Graham Potter, enlivened Brighton and an old one, Roy Hodgson, made Palace hard to beat. Sheff Utd were another matter. I, like many others, thought they were nailed on to come last. But, under Chris Wilder, they played superbly and quite innovatively, using their defenders to attack a lot more than you would expect from a side coming up from the Championship. The break in proceedings did them no favours – they tailed off a bit. Otherwise a Europa League place might have been theirs, and Arsenal’s position would have been even worse. West Ham have a bit of history with Sheff Utd, over the Tevez affair – the fine West Ham received at Sheff Utd’s instigation nearly bankrupted the club. But again, credit where it is due. Chris Wilder is undoubtedly one of the managers of the season.

And that brings me on to West Ham. What a shambles! Some good performances after the break  – especially the 3-2 win over Chelsea – staved off relegation, but only just. Two good additions to the squad in the Christmas window – Jarrod Bowen from Hull and Tomas Soucek from Slavia Prague – helped a lot, as did Antonio’s burst of goal-scoring, including four against Norwich.  At the beginning of the season I thought the additions of Haller and Fornals to the squad would be positive and forecast seventh place. I knew I was being a little optimistic, when that meant having Leicester and Wolves below us. They came 5th and 7th; we came 16th! We started the season quite well, with Manuel Pellegrini still in charge. But it soon started to go wrong. No part of the team was working well, and the defence was especially poor. Haller was slow and stranded up front, apart from a couple of games when he and Antonio gelled. But Antonio was often injured. Felipe Anderson seemed to have lost the will, and Fornals struggled to make his mark. Wilshere and Lanzini were diminished by injuries. It was looking grim. Pellegrini was sacked on 28 December, after a home defeat to Leicester, the ninth loss in twelve games. David Moyes, who had saved West Ham from relegation before, was reappointed. He was let go in order to bring Pellegrini in. He must have enjoyed the moment when the club asked him to come back. In his first game, on New Year’s Day, we beat Bournemouth 4-0, and all looked well with the world. I watched the game in a pub in Lyme Regis, Dorset. We were staying there for the New Year. There was a rather fierce looking Bournemouth fan sitting opposite me. His fierceness turned to despondency by the end. His team were beginning to slip into a decline that eventually saw them relegated.

Under Moyes the defence improved and Fornals started to look stronger. Declan Rice remained the best player – quite imperious at times, even in a mediocre team. But relegation remained a serious threat and just before the suspension of the league, after an unlucky 1-0 defeat to Arsenal, we were 16th, and only out of the bottom three on goal difference. A tough start on resumption, with games against Wolves and Tottenham, left us on the verge of the relegation zone (luckily Bournemouth and Villa were just as bad) but then the recovery began with that unexpected 3-2 win against Chelsea. There was still a home defeat to Burnley to come, but otherwise the results were good. A 3-1 home win against Watford ensured safety and condemned them to relegation, unless they could beat Arsenal in their last game. They didn’t.

David Moyes deserves a lot of credit for turning the team around and must now be given the backing to get the team back into mid-table if nothing else. Small steps. Not exactly what you’d be hoping for from a team based in the magnificent London Stadium, but we are where we are. At least we are still in the Premier League – unlike Bournemouth, Watford and Norwich.

I didn’t predict any of those teams to go down. I had Watford in 15th and Norwich in 17th – so at risk, but surviving. The consensus about Norwich, who had won the Championship, was that they were a good footballing team. And they did play nice football. But they were hopeless in defence. Their manager, Daniel Farke, always seemed a bit bewildered in interviews. He didn’t have a plan B when Premier League forwards found his team out – and defences did the same to his forwards. Watford were a team I’d predicted for relegation before, but they seemed to have a capacity for survival, despite frequently changing managers. They were at it again this season, including, bizarrely, sacking Nigel Pearson with two games to go. They lost both and went down. No great loss to the Premier League. Bournemouth, on the other hand, were rather mourned. No-one had really expected their implosion. Manager Eddie Howe was much respected. West Ham were interested in him when they sacked Pellegrini. There had even been talk of him being a future Arsenal and even England manager. His teams played good football, which made up for a slightly wobbly defence. They seemed to be mid-table fixtures. But this season it started to fall apart. They were hit by a string of bad injuries; but some of their stars – Fraser, Wilson, King – also underperformed. Heads turned, perhaps, by transfer talk. Their decline became inexorable. They won their last game, away to Everton, but unfortunately for them, Aston Villa were playing a West Ham team who had done the job of staying up. Villa sneaked a 1-1 draw and that sent Bournemouth down. Eddie Howe – Mr Bournemouth for so many years – resigned shortly afterwards. Bournemouth were always a team punching above their weight in the Premier League, but they had lasted for five years (as had Watford). I think they will struggle to get back.

So, a most unusual, hopefully a unique season. The new one will still be playing behind closed doors for some time. But at least it is happening. It all kicks off on 12 September. Before then I shall attempt some predictions for this campaign. The only thing I can be sure of is that most of them will be wrong!

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Canal and River Life: (4) The canal from Brentford to Elthorne

At first during lockdown, I was walking circuits of nearby Blondin Park – each one about two-thirds of a mile. Three would cover about two miles and get you through a BBC Football Daily podcast. Four or five would cover a typical length of a political or cultural podcast. I grew quite attached to the routine, but welcomed the chance to go further afield once the rules were relaxed in May (I think it was May, but who knows? Time is something of a blur these days). The Grand Union Canal/River Brent is only a ten minute walk away and offers rather more variety. The stretch that runs from Brentford to Elthorne Meadows in Hanwell has become my staple walk now, though I’ll add a bit of the Thames from time to time. The photos in this series have been from those walks, focusing so far on particular aspects of canal and river life. This fourth piece takes a step back and views the bigger picture.

Starting urban, then going green.

May

The Brentford end

Glaxo SmithKline looms from many directions

Under the A4

Over to Boston Manor Park

Downstream from the footbridge

Upstream from the footbridge

Piccadilly Line

Scene of earlier reflections

The Elthorne end, looking downstrem

June

The weir, Elthorne end

July

M4 just behind the trees

August

Just a couple, taken into the evening sun recently with the iPhone.

Right, off for a canal walk now!

 

 

 

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Canal and River Life: (3) Close ups

This series is all about the wonders of nature. They are all around us; and having the canal and the Thames nearby simply improves the riches. The weather has helped too – for the most part during lockdown it has been benign and often glorious. This post goes in close, to reveal that beauty in small things which I have posted about before. Mostly from the banks of the canal, but with a couple of excursions to the Thames near Kew and Brentford.

I’m hampered in one regard – I hardly know the names of the plants and flowers I’ve photographed. A project in the making there, I think.

The photos below were taken from May to July. I’ve grouped them by month just to break things up a bit. Otherwise it’s full-on foliage!

May

All from the Grand Union Canal/ River Brent.

Slight focus issue with these foxgloves. I went back a couple of days later to see if I could get a better shot, but they had gone. Someone must have cut them and taken them home. Very selfish.

June

Canal/River Brent again. Starting, like May, at the Brentford end.

July

Starting with the Thames, on the Kew side.

Onto the Isleworth side.

Towards the end of the month I wandered down to Kew Bridge and the shoreline on the Brentford side. After the One over the Ait pub, there’s an alleyway with housing on one side and house boats on the other. That’s where I found a row of fuschia bushes. I think I like fuschias not just because of their extravagant colour and shape, but because they remind me of the West of Ireland, where they grow wild along the coast.

Back to the canal for the last few.

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