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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Canal and River Life: (2) The Waterfowl

These last three months of walking along the River Brent/ Grand Union canal and the Thames have allowed me to follow the development of the natural world from day to day. And the birds that inhabit these spaces have been a fundamental part of that experience. Swans, ducks, herons, moorhens mainly. A few geese too. You catch glimpses of bright green parakeets in the trees, and they make a lot of noise, but they are elusive. Seagulls venture in occasionally, squawking aggressively. I saw a rabbit basking in the sun by the canal one day, but I knew any attempt to take a picture would scare it off. As for the rats… invisible by day, but you know in London you are never far from one. Try cycling the Thames towpath at sunset. It’s a rat extravaganza. And there was an unusually upbeat report on the BBC London news last night showing the seals at Richmond climbing up on people’s kayaks. But we will stick with the birds who live on the water in this blog. They are the main feature.

The Brentford Swans

There’s a family of swans who seem to live by the barges in the approach to the marina and waterside apartments just north of Brentford High Street. Back in May I took these shots.

Last Sunday, I was walking by and saw the same family. The young ones are a lot bigger now.

And on Tuesday, they ventured up-river – the River Brent that is.

Adult  swans tend to be in couples. So the young, when ready, must go somewhere else. The Thames? These photos from Isleworth, near the London Apprentice pub in July would suggest so.

Further up the canal, near Elthorne meadows, from a different family. Classic elegance.

The Moorhens

Perhaps the most humble inhabitants of the canal, being the smallest. But they can be feisty – with each other at least. I’ve seen a few battles for territory over the past months. Lots of aggressive posturing and even some dive bombing. Meanwhile the mallards glide by, taking not a bit of notice. All happens quickly and I never managed a decent photo. The ones below are a bit more serene.

Gathering food for the babies.

The youngsters try a bit of fishing.

Growing fast.

Ripples.

This mother sat on the nest in the next picture for at least a couple of weeks, seemingly unperturbed by all the passers-by on the bridge which passed over this junction between river offshoot and canal. By this time the chicks had hatched. Occasionally when the mother readjusted her position you could see the little heads. I took these shots with the zoom – I wasn’t that close.

An early hatcher from the brood. This lot were were very late though – July. Perhaps a second round?

Setting to work.

The heron of the weir

There are herons scattered around the canal and the Thames. They seem to be solo. This one lingered by a weir on the canal/river for a few days in June, then disappeared. Maybe it got fed up with having its photo taken.

It’s not in this one!

I’m assuming it has its neck wound in because it’s relaxed. Otherwise, maybe it’s a stork!

Ducks

They are everywhere, and perhaps we take them for granted. But they are good citizens, just getting on with their own thing. And the couples are very loyal to each other. These shots are from May.

This is the same area that was used later by the moorhens in the earlier shot. After the moorhens had left the nest, a mallard took over again for a while. Community use?

Have they had a tiff?

Probably not.

Seagulls and geese

The seagulls come and go, but they like this spot near the M4 bridge. This was from Sunday.

The geese prefer the Thames. This was near Richmond Lock in July.

I count my blessings that I’ve had all of this within walking distance over the past few months.

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Canal and River life: (1) Reflections of…

For the last couple of months I’ve spent a lot of time walking along the nearby Grand Union Canal and from time to time along the River Thames too. I’ve been absorbing the beauty of the natural world – the steady flow of the canal, the faster rush of the tidal river; the vibrant greens of the vegetation, the striking pinks and purples and yellows of the flowers; the daily life of the swans and ducks and moorhens, as they bring new generations into the world. I’ve taken a lot of photos, and thought I’d share a few with you. Starting with a place where nature meets art: reflections.

When the sun shines, the surface of the water responds, mirroring the objects and scenes above and alongside. And as it ripples and flows it distorts those images. And if you zoom in with your camera you find images that could be straight out of an abstract or impressionist painting. The place that really brought that home to me in late May was where a brief offshoot of the canal rejoins the main body of water. It’s overgrown and is home to an array of wildlife. And once the camera does its tricks, it’s a work of art…

 

A couple more from May.

Into June.

This one’s here because it sets the scene for the next three.

Again, the scene setter. From where the canal runs by the Glaxo SmithKline complex.

Moving into July, and starting with an excursion along the Thames, from Kew Bridge to Twickenham Bridge. Photos are from the riverside just beyond Kew Gardens.

Alien slime.

Back to the canal.

Just in case you are wondering, these photos are exactly as I took them. No enhancements. The weirdness comes from zooming in. Or maybe not weirdness – just the beauty and art of nature.

 

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My new novel: “Hope Rising”

I’ve just published my new novel “Hope Rising” on Amazon and Kindle. It’s the follow up to “The Decision” which came out in 2018. Like “The Decision” it is set in 2027, and it continues the story of the eco-socialist movement HOPE, its leader Charlie Mowbray and his friends and family, who become even more entangled in his struggle. On one level it’s a struggle against The Authority, which governs Britain (minus Scotland), on another it’s his internal struggle. Is he fit to lead the movement; and who does he love?

“The Decision” revolved around a kidnap at Wembley stadium before a big football final – the build up and the aftermath. It ended in Ireland – I’ll say no more. “Hope Rising” begins with Charlie still in Ireland, but looking to return to England, where he will have to face trial. Can HOPE rise to power from that inauspicious beginning? What part will Charlie and his fiancee Fran play? And his siblings, Will and Susan, for that matter? Read “Hope Rising” to find out!

“Hope Rising” is a sequel, so it’s worth reading “The Decision” first, if you haven’t. And there will be another volume, to complete the Hope Trilogy. I’m working on the plot right now…

 

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50 Latitude moments, from 2012 to 2019

Yesterday we would have been crawling up the A12 to Henham Park in Suffolk, for the start of the latest Latitude festival. It would have been my ninth and Jon G’s tenth. But like so many things, it had to be cancelled this year. Maybe not so important in the grand scheme of things, but I will miss it over this weekend. It was one of the highlights of the year, not just for the great live music and other arts, but for the whole vibe. Everyone doing their own thing, but coming together too, in shared celebration. From 16 to 60, and all ages in between (and beyond).  It has always felt like a community.

I won’t have a festival to report on this year, so I thought I’d look back over the past eight years and pick out some highlights. I’ve focused on the live music, though some of the most memorable moments have been in the early hours, after the music has stopped on the main stages. The reggae sets from Don Letts and David Rodigan in the Woods – his show in 2016 was one of the greatest moments of all – the pumping beats in the Sunrise Arena and the Woods, the Guilty Pleasures disco, the Lake Stage sound system banging out indie, pop and dance classics whatever the weather. And, in recent years, the impromptu discos in the “Danish Bar”. And then, if the weather is OK, getting back to the tent with a bottle of white wine from the Co-op (where people dance to disco classics as they shop) and reviewing the day’s events with whoever is still up. Love every minute of it!

So, here goes: 50 Latitude memories, in slightly fuzzy focus. Flashing lights, lots of heads in front of me and pictures taken with a small digital camera or my iPhone are my excuses!

2012

Bon Iver, Obelisk Stage (the main stage), Friday. You might have expected Justin Vernon to be more comfortable in the i-Arena, strumming an acoustic guitar and singing his heartfelt songs, but he and his band put on a big stage show. For my 17 year old son Kieran it was the highlight of the weekend.

I was very excited by the Staves’ wonderful harmonies in 2012. They are sisters. Their first album, Dead & Born & Grown was just out. They were singing a song called Wisely & Slow in this photo. i-Arena, Saturday.

The Horrors‘ goth rock tour de force was probably the best show of the weekend. Moving Further Away was truly epic.  Word Arena (the main tent), Saturday.

Ben Howard went down a storm with the youngsters on the Obelisk, Sunday. I loved his dextrous, percussive guitar playing.

Honourable mentions to War on Drugs, Kurt Vile, Wooden Shjips, Django Django, Daughter, We Are Augustines and Paul Weller, who treated us to a few Jam classics at the end of his show. We Are Augustines played what I thought was one of the greatest rock’n’roll shows I’d ever seen; but getting a decent picture was impossible. They were back in 2014 as Augustines…

It was a bit muddy in 2012. It’s never been quite like that since.

2013

Benjamin Francis Leftwick was new to me, but I liked his wistful folk sound. Lake Stage, Friday.

Japandroids headlined the i-Arena on Friday. A two piece – drums and guitar – they rocked incredibly. An exhilarating show.

Trans Europe Express! Kraftwerk were amazing on the Obelisk, Saturday. 3D images erupted through the evening sky.

James Blake’s soulful, disjointed electronica is the definition of night music. And yet it captivated a huge crowd at the Obelisk on a sunny Sunday afternoon.

Honourable mentions: Chvrches were just emerging, with their debut album due soon after. They attracted a crowd that overwhelmed the i-Arena. No chance of photos, but you could tell they were going places. And Drenge rocked on the same stage on Saturday. Ed Blaney’s Ultimate Bowie tribute act at the Outdoor Theatre was pure joy. Disclosure and Foals were both good, but not as brilliant as I was expecting.

Weather report: complete contrast to 2012. Same path in this photo. Those shorts have since been ditched!

2014

The Acid, featuring Aussie Ry X, were astonishing at the i-Arena on Saturday. Woozy melodies backed by punching electronic beats. Starkly original.

Bombay Bicycle Club had the youth vote on the Obelisk, Saturday. Reminded me a little of a 70s American new wave band called The Feelies, as well as Vampire Weekend.

Nils Frahm, i-Arena Saturday. An absolute keyboard/ electronica genius. His music was a really exciting discovery. Have seen him a few times since. Always captivating.

And so to the best run of bands in my time at Latitude, on the Sunday. Parquet Courts – Eagulls – Fat White Family – Augustines – War on Drugs. Two venues, so you couldn’t catch the full show of each band. I did stay for the whole of Parquet Courts, at what was now the BBC 6 Music stage. New York new wave, updated. Loved their album Light Up Gold.  They were brilliant – and very arsey.

Didn’t see much of Eagulls, but caught the first few songs of Fat White Family at the i-Arena. They were wild. I’ve played around with this photo a bit, but not much.

Rushed back to the 6 Music stage for Augustines. Another magnificent show. An element of Springsteen and a lot of rock’n’roll. Singer Billy McCarthy lives for his music.

And then the War on Drugs, featuring their brilliant album Lost in a Dream. I was lost in a dream watching this. A very moving dream. One of the great Latitude concerts, maybe the best. Adam Granduciel, singer and lead guitarist, suffers, and it all came out in his magnificent guitar playing.

Honourable mentions: East India Youth, Cate le Bon, Bondax, Marika Hackman, The Bohicas (rock’n’roll!), Damon Albarn, headlining the Obelisk on Saturday amid an impressive lightning storm, Julia Holter, closing the i-Arena on Sunday with a haunting set.

2015

Gengahr had just become my favourite indie guitar band with their debut album “A Dream Outside”, and their set at the i-Arena on Friday showed why.

There was a new, one-off stage along the lake this year called Other Voices. This is the Kit’s beautiful, off-kilter folk was just perfect for the venue on Friday afternoon.

Jon Hopkins finished off proceedings in the BBC 6 Music tent on Friday with a sonic and visual assault on the senses that was truly exhilarating.

I’d never heard of Duke Garwood before, but after his brooding guitar masterclass at the i-Arena on Sunday, I had to hear more. JJ Cale meets Robin Trower.

Rat Boy at The Alcove on Sunday was a pure energy rush in that space where rap and punk collide. There was moshing!

Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds were pretty good, with some imaginative lighting; but things really took off when Noel pulled out the Oasis songbook. There was a magisterial Champagne Supernova and a truly anthemic Don’t Look Back in Anger to finish the show. Obelisk, Sunday.

Honourable mentions: Nadine Shah, Wolf Alice (brilliant in the 6 Music tent on Saturday – no chance of photos), Warpaint, James Blake, Jack Garratt (the new James Blake!), Thom Yorke’s late “secret” set, which was overwhelmed by the kids waiting for DJ EZ, Manic Street Preachers rather grudgingly working their way through their hits.

2016

Norwich teenagers Let’s Eat Grandma played an intriguing mix of prog, pop and dance as only their generation could. Sunrise Arena – changed name this year – Friday.

Aussie Courtney Barnett knows how to rock and writes intriguing lyrics that are both highly personal and amusing. She energised the Obelisk crowd on a sunny Friday.

Punk, thrash, hardcore and lots of shouting. How the two members of Slaves keep it going, I don’t know. This was primal rock’n’roll, an awesome experience – but not one to repeat too often! 6 Music tent, Friday.

One of the greatest Latitude moments for me. Chvrches, second on the bill at the Obelisk on Saturday. I went down near to the front – I wanted to experience this one properly. It was exhilarating. Hi-energy electro-pop and some rib-crushing basslines. Lauren Mayberry transformed from the rather tentative performer of 2013.

Top of the bill the same night, The National. Their songs are about introspection, but they have become anthemic. The light show and backdrops enhance the experience. AND Matt Berninger sang a duet with Lauren Mayberry on “I Need my Girl” – what else?

Pumarosa were my discovery of the festival this year. A big sound that had shades of PJ Harvey and Patti Smith, as well as Wolf Alice. Honey, with its searing guitar and environmental angst, soon became one of my favourite tunes of recent years. Sunrise Arena, Sunday.

Roots Manuva woke everyone up on Sunday afternoon in the 6 Music tent. Reggae, rap, dance, the London streets – it’s all in there. And some thumping bass lines. You cannot keep your feet still to this music. Altogether now, witness for fitness

Honourable mentions: Lonely the Brave, Mura Masa, Kieran Leonard, Lambert (Nils Frahm in disguise?), New Order – when they launched into the hits. And not forgetting David Rodigan’s reggae odyssey in the early hours of Sunday morning – a wonderful communal experience, the best of Latitude.

2017

A year of new favourites for me, starting with Julia Jacklin from Australia, whose debut album Don’t Let the Kids Win was a wonderful combination of folk, Americana and heartfelt pop. A live show honed to perfection by months of touring. BBC Music stage, Friday.

Catherine McGrath, a young country singer from Northern Ireland,  played The Alcove on Friday afternoon and was delighted that anyone had turned up! Her music was Taylor Swift as much as Kacey Musgraves and she had a very engaging between-song patter. I’ve seen her play live in London many times since.

I wasn’t too familiar with The 1975, but my lot were, so I went along to the Obelisk on Friday for their headline show. I liked the Prince-style sheen to their songs, and singer Matt Healey had a bit of style – as did the stage set. Good modern indie-dance-pop.

My favourite new favourite band, Honeyblood played the Sunrise on Saturday. The set was pared down to the rock’n’rollers from their brilliant two albums, Honeyblood and Babes Never Die, and got a good sized crowd rocking. I was proud of them!

If you want brutal rock’n’roll, Idles are your band. This was their first appearance at Latitude, on the Lake Stage, Saturday. It was pretty wild – this is an early shot when they still had all their clothes on. It all ended with the band leading a posse of teenagers in a conga over the bridge and into the Woods!

More new favourites: Goat Girl, from South London. They have a scuzzy, loping sound with bursts of punk riffing, and no-nonsense lyrics about the state of the world. PJ Harvey, Sonic Youth and Fat White Family are all in there. This was a big gig for them and they responded magnificently.

Honourable mentions: Japanese House, Shame (it was them or Idles for a photo), BEAK>, Slotface, Cabbage, Declan McKenna, Twin Peaks (fantastic straight ahead punk/rock’n’roll), Jack Garratt (stepping up to the BBC Music tent), Tom Grennan, Ward Thomas (more UK country-pop), Girl Ray (another new favourite), The Magic Gang. Disappointments: Mumford & Sons (expected); Fatboy Slim (unexpected).

2018

Palace Winter are an Aussie/Danish band with strong melodies, swirls of electronica and pounding beats. Two albums in, they played a powerful set taken from both at the Sunrise on Friday.

Durand Jones and the Indications played some great 60s and 70s-style R&B, soul and funk. They were slick, they were tight, they were rousing. They hail from Indiana. Joyous, uplifting music.

Black Midi were still a riddle wrapped inside an enigma when they played the Sunrise in 2018 (on Friday). Their music is very distinctive, melding prog, jazz rock, punk and psychedelia. Or something. Best of all is the incredible drumming of Morgan Simpson – a whirlwind of beats.  We came away from this one thinking, wow, what was that?

I used to think Alvvays were from Sweden, such was their way with melody. They are in fact Canadian. You could call their sound power pop.  They’ve written some genuine anthems, like Archie, Marry Me and Dreams Tonite. They played a triumphant gig at the Roundhouse earlier in the year. This one was great, but slightly marred by a preponderance of Liam Gallagher fans in the crowd, waiting for their hero’s “secret” show. BBC Music tent, Saturday.

Holly Cook played a lovely set of old school reggae in the Music and Film arena late on Saturday night, heavy with the sounds of dub. Verily music to chill to, after a hard day’s gigging.

I loved The Orielles’ set on the Sunrise, Sunday. A young band from Halifax, they have updated the sounds of 80’s indie, with Esme Dee’s mellifluous vocals and pulsating bass lines and Henry’s crystalline guitar. The last song, Sugar Tastes Like Salt, gave him a chance to rock out – it was truly epic.

Wolf Alice absolutely bossed the Obelisk stage on Sunday. They were great back in 2015 and have just got better and better. They know how to rock and they know how to write a good tune. Their latest album, Visions of a Life, is a bit heavier than the first, My Love is Cool, but it came alive on the big stage.

Another year, another Jon Hopkins extravaganza in the big tent, to finish Sunday’s proceedings. As awesome as before, if not more so. Based this time on recent album Singularity. That is a masterpiece; this was mind-blowingly good.

Honourable mentions: Hinds, Lower Slaughter (very angry!), Lucia, Alfa Mist (cool jazz, out of grime and hip hop), Sorry, Wildwood Kin, Wandering Hearts, Confidence Man, She Street Band (all woman Springsteen tribute band – huge fun as part of the Guilty Pleasures night in the Comedy Arena), Pip Blom, Mogwai (finally got them), Idles (even more pummelling indoors), Jade Bird.

2019

I didn’t know Anna Calvi’s music too well. I always thought she was a fairly bland pop musician. Wrong! This show, early Friday on the Obelisk, was sensational. Her guitar-playing was visceral. I know her music now.

Crows were completely new to me. They made an awesome noise. Pile-driving riffs and ear-splitting distortion. Singer James Cox did a lot of crowd surfing, even though it was just the Sunrise on Friday afternoon.

Primal Scream played their hits, and what hits they are! The Screamadelica stuff, the rock’n’roll. Bobby Gillespie natty in pink suit. Absolutely joyous.

Honeyblood were first on the Obelisk on Saturday. They played with verve and had attracted a decent-sized crowd by the end. Third album In Plain Sight added to the catalogue, but you still need Ready for the Magic to finish!  Stina went on to play a solo set in the Danish bar in the afternoon. That was great too – though swelteringly hot under the perspex roof.

Quite possibly the greatest Latitude concert of all. Underworld came on after headliners Stereophonics on Saturday night and blew the place away. The beats, the lights in the night sky, and lager, lager, lager! 

Julia Jacklin was back, on the BBC Music stage, Sunday, and better than ever. Armed with her new album Crushing, and my favourite song of 2019, I Don’t Know How to Keep Loving You.  Fellow Aussie Stella Donnelly made a guest appearance.

Chvrches returned too – Sunday on the Obelisk. The emphasis was on their high tempo pop, especially from latest album Love is Dead. It was a party, with Lauren dressed for the occasion.

And finally, not for the last time in this festival season, the amazing The Comet is Coming, featuring the indefatigable Shabaka Hutchings on saxophone. In the darkness, on the Sunrise stage, it was an incredible end to an incredible festival.

Honourable mentions: so many! The Murder Capital (who were the very best at End of the Road later in the summer), Freya Riding (Lost Without You so moving!), Loyle Carner, Maisie Peters, Life, Ider, Pigs x7 (as loud and overwhelming as Crows), Palace, Working Men’s Club (a new band to watch), Pale Waves, Sons of Kemet, Celeste (who has made a real name for herself since, with the lovely ballad Strange), the Japanese House (rockier than before). I’ve sneaked in another photo below, from when Nadine Shah joined Life on the Lake Stage. Sums up the fun to be had at Latitude.

I have to pay tribute to the poet Luke Wright too. I’ve seen him plenty of times over the years at Latitude. He lives locally. He usually comperes some of the poetry as well as performing his own material. It’s quite brilliant – searing social observation, excoriating about politics, sometimes quite personal – he’s divorced with two children – and often crudely funny. He does these amazing pieces where only one vowel is allowed. In 2019 it was “U”.  It must be the rudest vowel! He is an astonishing performer – it’s poetry with beats and rhythms. Drum and bass made from words. As much at the heart of Latitude as all the music.

So, that’s my eight years of Latitude. Let’s hope I’ll be back to celebrating another brilliant festival in 2021.

I’m thinking of a place, and it feels so very real

A great War on Drugs song. Resonant today…

 

 

 

 

 

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A Thames Journey: (3) From Newbridge to Oxford

In this third part of the Thames journey we travel downstream from Newbridge to the river’s second city, Oxford – a place dear to my heart, having spent three years there, at university. This stretch of the river runs for 13 ½ miles, according to my Thames path guide. We covered it in two separate walks, nearly a year and a half apart.  My two diary entries for these walks suggest something more like 15 miles in all, but that may be accounted for by a diversion to a village called Stanton Harcourt – see below. The pivotal point was near another village, Farmoor.

Newbridge to Farmoor

We walked this stretch on 25 April 2019, the first of three days of walking, which were the last of the journey – see A Thames Journey 2 for the other two. We walked upstream from Farmoor to Newbridge, which wasn’t far from where we were staying, in Longworth. It’s not a spectacular part of the river, but the walk was pleasant enough. We did have to come off the towpath for a while, and slightly overshot the diversion so that we ended up in Stanton Harcourt. It’s an attractive Oxfordshire village, which takes its name from a 12th century owner, Robert de Harcourt. There’s an impressive church and a prehistoric stone circle – a henge – called the Devil’s Quoits. We didn’t see any of this, as we were focused on getting back to the river. To that end, we found ourselves in Bablock Hythe caravan park, where there was a social club that served as a pub for passers-by. It was one of the rare occasions when I lowered the average age when I went in to buy the drinks!

Beyond the trees, Harcourt House, built in C15 and 16

Newbridge is a small village which is notable for having the second oldest bridge on the Thames – some say the oldest, as Radcot’s is not on the main river. It dates from 1250 and was built by Benedictine monks from St Denis in Paris, who were living in nearby Northmoor. It has pubs on both sides of the river by the bridge: the Rose Revived on the towpath side and the Maybush on the other. We stopped at the Rose Revived and sat outside – it was rather cold, so we didn’t hang around. I’d been there once before, during one of my recent annual reunions with Uni friends – we’ve been staying in a house in a place called Ducklington, near Whitney and the River Windrush, which joins the Thames at Newbridge. An evocative name – the famous ship was named after this humble river and then gave its name to a generation of West Indian immigrants to the UK in the post-war decades. I should say re-named – it was originally a German passenger ship and did service for Germany during the Second World War. It was captured by the British at Kiel in May 1945, and became one of the “Empire” ships which were all named after English rivers.

A few photos of this stretch – as if we were walking backwards!

The bridge at Newbridge

View from the Rose Revived

Babysitting

Pinkhill Lock

Approach to the jetty at Farmoor

Farmoor to Oxford

We did this one on 28 December 2017. It was meant to be the first of three walks, taking us down to Dorchester. We abandoned day three as the towpath was waterlogged – more of that in blog 4.

This was a really lovely walk: big skies over a flat surrounding landscape that had succumbed to the rains and was flooded in many areas. That included where we started, which really felt in the middle of nowhere, though it is close to Farmoor village and the large reservoir.

Farmoor from the other side

We came upon Swinford Bridge. This has an interesting history. It was and still is a toll bridge. It was constructed in 1769. There had previously been a ferry in the same location. That was bought out by the Earl of Abingdon in 1765, and the Swinford Bridge Act was passed by Parliament in 1767 which allowed the Earl to collect a toll of 5d (old pennies = 2.5p) free of tax. The earl must have had friends in high places. Plus ca change – the mates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings have recently been awarded a massive contract to conduct public opinion research on covid 19 with no formal competition. Anyway, the toll was doubled to 5p in 1994 – outrageous! – and is, I believe, still being collected, leading to delays that must really annoy the local people. I guess the Act would have to be repealed for things to change. The same Act says that if the bridge falls down, the ferry has to be restored. That’s helpful.

That toll bridge

We passed Godstow – the place of God – and the ruins of the abbey, as well as the Trout Inn, a place I’ve visited many times in the past. Very popular, especially in the summer. And then it was along the river by Port Meadow, a vast expanse to the west of Oxford. Apparently it’s an area of 342 acres and was given to the city by William the Conqueror. It has never been ploughed or built on. Parts of it flood in winter – and it was winter! It’s a haven for wildlife too. I found it serenely beautiful, although this was a time when I didn’t have a pair of proper walking boots, and my feet got very wet!

This part of the world also brings to mind Philip Pullman’s brilliant trilogy His Dark Materials, and in particular the first book, Northern Lights. It’s where Lyra plays and does childish battle with local children, including the Gyptians who spend time on the nearby Oxford canal each year. They, of course, become her allies in the fight against the evil daemon-paring Gobblers. It’s an engrossing story and was superbly serialised by the BBC last year. Can’t wait for the next instalment, which will be based on The Subtle Knife.

We came into Oxford on a route from the west that I don’t think I ever walked in my time as a student there. Still, there were lots of things I didn’t do when I was a student – like truly appreciate the beauty and history of the city. I’ve been slowly making up for it over the last forty years though.

Our walk for the day ended at Folly Bridge, where the Abingdon Road, heading south out of the city centre, crosses the river. It’s also the location for the Head of the River pub. Now, that’s part of Oxford I did know something about! This may be the original Oxen-ford. The current bridge dates from 1825-7; architect Ebenezer Perry. The first stone bridge dates from around 1085, erected by one Robert d’Oilli. There are still the remains of a wooden bridge in the river, from the time of Saxon King Ethelred of Wessex, Alfred the Great’s predecessor. Alfred is one of many people said to have founded the University (and possibly even my college). Others include the renowned Theobald of Etampes in the 11th century. We will never really know.

Folly Bridge

So, yes, Oxford. A place of many fond memories. I was at university there, at University College, from October 1977 to June 1980. The era of punk and new wave, and the slow collapse of Jim Callaghan’s Labour government. The 1979 general election, which gave us Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister, was my first as a voter. Suffice to say, her party didn’t get my vote. I studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics, mainly for the economics, but a practical, political economics, not the really theoretical stuff. I never thought of economics as a science – and my later professional experience vindicated that.

My college was on the High Street. Here are a couple of photos from a blog that I wrote way back in 2012.

University College

The main quad

The river didn’t play a huge part in my Oxford life. I drank quite often at the Head of the River, and, like many of my contemporaries, spent much of Eights Week – the summer boat race season – drinking pints of Pimms at the college boathouse. I did once trying rowing myself, in the second year. There was a competition called Rowing On, a prelude to Eights Week proper. It was a qualifying competition – a few of the eights got through to the main event – but for most of us it was just a bit of fun. Or more accurately, a bit of torture – it was the hardest physical exercise I think I’ve ever done. When you row, you use just about every muscle in your body. You also have to go flat out and have to get your feathering technique right – basically the angle at which the blade enters the water – otherwise you catch a crab, and bring the whole boat to a halt. It is the ultimate team sport – one person makes a mistake and the whole team is stuffed. There is no way back – not in Rowing On or Eights Week, where once the boat that starts behind you catches you and bumps you, you are out. Finished. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so desperate not to make a mistake as I rowed for the Football Eight in Rowing On. We knew we had no chance of qualifying for Eights Week, as we were novices; but we really wanted to beat our college rugby and hockey equivalents. And we did! The hockey team were just in front of us – and someone caught a crab. Bad luck guys!

Looking down toward the boathouses from Folly Bridge

Photo from the following day, looking upstream

The new Univ boathouse – bit of a monster

My other main encounter with the river as a student was on a barge. This was bizarre. Six of us hired a barge in Oxford just before the start of the third year. Actually one of our mates, Andy, organised it all then decided not to come. Good call! The man at the barge place gave us about five minutes of instructions and off we went. A load of 19 year olds in charge of a barge for a week: what could possibly go wrong? We went up river for a day then turned back, and over the course of the week went as far downstream as Henley – or was it Reading? We moored near towns and villages where we could go to a pub in the evening for a few beers. And it all went very well! No accidents, no crushing smaller craft in the locks (which was always a risk). The thing I remember best now is the pleasure of taking my turn steering the barge. It was very simple – there was an accelerator/ brake and a rudder. We weren’t going very fast. It was just so lovely, so peaceful, standing there, gentling guiding the vessel and taking in the scenery. That feeling of being on the water, at one with nature. Liberating.

A moment I always remember was when one of our number threw a fag packet into the river. Another of the crew rightly took exception and insisted that we reversed the barge and fished the packet out of the river, even if the offender had to go into the river to do it. I don’t think he did, but we did retrieve it. The person who insisted on fishing out the packet – another Andy – was a geographer and went on to work for the Environment Agency. Good for him!

And that’s my riverine Oxford. A couple of punting debacles on the Cherwell too, but the Thames – or Isis – was mainly just there, a brooding presence, the quiet essence of the city. I crossed it regularly – at Folly Bridge – as I walked down the Abingdon Road two or three times a week to our college sports ground to play football and, in the summer, the occasional game of cricket. But that’s another story…

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