Saturday, 20 April 2013

Ben Junior

I am not supposed to write about work. But I cannot help myself with this one heartwarming story.

Besides this story is one that involves a little guy who has grown up to be a big boy.

For this little story I will try and leave out as many work details as possible and concentrate on the heart warming tale at the epicenter.

One day in late 2010 or early 2011 (I am getting old and can't remember) we received a call at the fire station saying that a horse was stuck in a ditch down in Tilbury.

We got there and a mare had given birth during the night. While she had given birth the hooves of the foal when coming out had unfortunately cut and ripped the mare open. As she gave birth she also prolapsed and had an incredible amount of insides on the outside.

Sadly she had to be put down by the vet. Who was called out after our attempts to get her out of the ditch which she had rolled into in agony failed.

On the opposite bank the whole while sat a little foal. Barely a day old and when he got up was jittery on his legs.

This adorable little fella needed to be caught for his own safety. So off I went and managed to catch him and calm him down. The rest of the afternoon was spent with this lovely little foal suckling on my fingers and dozing on my lap.

I grew quite attached to him and as he looked up into my eyes I knew I would see this little scamp again.

Luckily I got the good end of the stick and looked after this little wonder horse who had survived the night with his mother in the ditch. The others; well they had to deal with his now deceased mother.

I got chatting to the vet and she asked me what my name was. I replied and she suggested the foal be called Ben junior. It was a real honour and the name stuck.

Ben junior was an orphan now; where would he go and what would become of him?

Fantastically Ben junior was taken to a sanctuary called Red Wings based in Hapton, Norfolk. This for me was brilliant news as coincidentally Hapton is where my cousins live.

Time passed and Ben junior grew. Red Wings every so often sent me an email or two on his progress. At first they thought he would die as he wasn't eating. Then they put him in permanently with another horse who had sadly lost an eye and he started to get better and eat.

Before long he was massive and running around the paddock in Norfolk.

I promised to visit and that day came when I went up to see one of my cousin's new baby.

Popping into Red Wings I was taken over to see him. The scrawny little foal I once picked up in my arms was no more. There was a young horse trotting around the paddock with his one eyed friend. His friend whose name escapes me licked the inside of his  empty skin covered eye socket scratched!

I wondered if Ben as he was know known would remember me; that question was answered when he trotted straight over to me and I didn't even have any food.

It was lovely to see him again and it is not every day you get a horse named after you.

Next time when he is bigger they want me to try and ride him!

Friday, 19 April 2013

Old enought to know better - Young enough to still misbehave

The years go past and I get older; grey hairs have started to speckle my head and lines that were once smooth skins appears around my eyes.

Growing older can be done the British way, steadily and dignified with decorum.

Or you could break the mold like I do and cling to your twenties even when you turned 30 and everyone repeatedly reminds you about it.

Passing out on my 30th birthday was one of the particular highlights that my friends like to mention to me. Over and over again and nominate me for silly awards because of it.

There I was dressed as  Boer war soldier resplendent in red coat and white pith helmet when I am forced to drink a yard of shots.

The rest of the evening I was a drunken mess and was found giggling in the corner to myself.

It is not everyday that someone dressed as King Leonidas and someone else dressed as St. George have to carry you home while your trousers are round your ankles due to falling over at the toilet.

Memories are made of things like this eh?

Oh, and they also waxed off my eyebrow!

Well to be honest even though I missed a massive chunk of my birthday I still had a great time.

As I get older I find changes in myself. The moving from Guinness to ale and not liking clubs so much. But I also cling to youthful obsessions and try and out run and out silly all at my rugby club.

Getting older affects us all but it is how we handle it that really matters.

I like to be silly everyday, go on adventures and do things that make people ask why.

Bull running in Spain, weird festivals and rugby are just a small example of how to remain young.

The more things you do and the more fun you actively seek out the younger you become in your heart.

Doing something on a spur of the moment; something random, fun and exciting. It can be anything as long as it puts a smile on your face.

I will never grow old, I will always be a Peter Pan character and I know my friends wouldn't expect anything less.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Similarities between travel and fancy dress

Something happens to people when you travel; inhibitions are gone and confidence grows. You chat to people you would not normally do so and you become more outwards.

This is just one of the brilliant traits that travel teaches people.

In my experience there is one other situation that creates the same outward going persona and lack of inhibitions in people who were complete strangers.

When you travel you bump into so many people who were one not known to you; then after chatting to them everything is accelerated. Friendships blossom and so do relationships. People meet and after two days knowing each other can travel for 6 months together.

This is because travel has that magical quality of altering a person while they are embarking on it.

I believe there is one other situation that possesses this magic too.

This is of course being in fancy dress!

Yes I know this may sound far fetched and rather silly but read on and I will try and win your confidence back by explaining.

Imagine you have been invited to a fancy dress party; you turn up with a friend or two all in costume and are greeted by others all in the same boat.

Therefore each and every one of you at this party has something in common; the costumes.

Travel is the same where each and every one of you has travel in common. You can open conversations with the usual travel questions such as’ “where have you been, where are you going and how long for”.

Before you know it people at that fancy dress party are asking who people are, where did the costume come from and complimenting each other.

It becomes a bubble. Like travelling you become so immersed in travelling and seeing the sights that you talk to everyone.

In that party you will almost inevitably chat away and make new friends and acquaintances; especially if any costumes are scantily clad or well made.

This is of course taking into consideration only those people who love fancy dress.

I am a true believer that every party should be in fancy dress as there will also be those who come who do not know many of the other guests.

Therefore if they have that little something in common a barrier has been broken down already and the conversation can flow.

Or this could be me waffling just because I dressed as a Spartan the other day and chatted to everyone and everything!

You decide and try it yourself.

See how you interact in both situations and I bet you find my words true.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Everyone loves a cuddle with an aminal

Do you remember when you were a kid? 

Did you love playing with animals; rolling around on the floor with a puppy or teasing a cat with a piece of string.

Are you one of these people who have never truly grown out of that?
One of the people who may act mature until you see a cheeky looking dog and suddenly you become a soppy little sod and start using that bizarre 'animal chat' that we all seem to go into.

I have to admit I am one of those people and have always had a love of animals.

I think it stems from my Grandparents always having cats and dogs. When the dogs had puppies it was a massive event in my child hood and I was always over there on the kitchen floor tickling the puppies bellies and playing chase with them.

When they were all sold off I shed a tear as they had become my friends.

As I grew older I experienced more animals including horses when my father took me riding and I partook in gymkhanas and show jumping until I became bored with it and went back to sports.

Even though I left that world behind I still will always stroke a horse and am fascinated by them and can still ride if I was plonked on one.

Although my friend said I had no fear on a horse but a terrible technique!

Anyway as the years have passed that love of animals has never diminished. I may have got older but I am still a massive soppy git when I play with a puppy.

I truly believe David Attenborough is one of the reasons I love them. As a child I would be transfixed by what his programmes showed and the wonderful animal life on display.

However in my adult years while I have traveled and matured I have come into contact with some fantastic animals that you would not necessarily see in the UK apart from behind bars of a zoo.
When I visited the Serengeti a gigantic Bull elephant wandered into our campsite one day. This hulking beats looking for food took no notice of us and just stood in the sun pulling down branches with his trunk and shoving the foliage into his mouth.

I thought it would be a good idea to try and get closer for a photo. I managed to gingerly get to within probably 50 yards and had the photo. Then when I wandered back over a man in khaki with a gun sternly told me off.

Therefore after that experience I didn't approach another elephant. However one approached me. Or us I should say.

While travelling in Botswana a small family of elephant crossed the road in front of the truck I was travelling in. One calf suddenly became scared of the truck and darted in the opposite direction.

The elephant that tried to attack our truck

This rather large elephant that I didn't know if it was a he or a she took um-bridge to this and squared up to our truck.

 The ears came out and the trunk rose. The giant elephant slapped itself and shook its head violently sending a cloud of dust into the air.

It stepped forward and looked like it was about the charge. People in the truck were scrambling to get to the back when suddenly the driver gunned the engine and started to rev.

The elephant came forward again and every movement it made the driver revved harder and longer.
This stand off lasted probably only a minute but seemed an eternity.

Then all of a sudden one extra loud rev sent the elephant running off.

Of course not all animals experiences like those are dangerous  One of my favorites has to be just outside Nairobi at the giraffe sanctuary.

The African Fund for Endangered Wildlife can be found on the brilliantly named Simba Hill.
This centre offers the unique opportunity of feeding saved and hand reared giraffes from a highly erected platform.

Of course by feeding them they do not mean put the pellets in your mouth and get the giraffe to snog them off you. This of course is what I did.

At the time of visiting only me and my fiend Alistair were present, then the obligatory tour bus turned up. But by the time they had the giraffes were coming over and snogging me with long blue tongues like there was no tomorrow. This of course caused shrieks from the new tour bus but to me it just made me smile. 

Even though my face was covered in slimy spit.

Of course not all animals that I have had the pleasure of meeting were on the large scale. You see all the big beasts while on safari but its the little ones who seem to have the most character.

I am very lucky to have a friend who works for a company that provides animals for TV and film; and even luckier to have gone there on several occasions.

Impeyan the zoo that comes to you also do children's parties and I would highly recommend them.
The skunk makes a break for it

Recently I went there with a friend and his wife and there two little naughty, cheeky and adorable little kids.

There their faces lit up as they held snakes, skunks, tortoises, bats, Cayman crocodiles and what excited them the most was the meerkats.

For me the skunk who had been de-sented was a real treat. He was like a playful dog. He was cuddly, soft, fidgety and would chew on your fingers without menace.

They were large like a small dog but more agile and could climb up your arm and before you know it be on your back. 

While the meerkats were cheeky little buggers who would put their snout up your nostril, get on your head or try and open your mouth a climb in!

Visiting the animals with the kids made me think how we never really grow out of it. They were in their element and so were their parents.

To be honest if you loved animals as a child you will always have a soft spot for them in your heart. 
All you need to do is rekindle it by playing with one again.

Alternatively you could just dress as one and run the Great Gorilla Run and get to be on TV and harass Bill Oddie.

Meeting a Barbary macaque in Gibraltar. The only place in mainland Europe you will find wild apes.

Feeding a lion cub in a zoo. Not as special as seeing them on safari walk up to your land cruiser, but a great experience.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

As close to the pole as I may ever get


Britain has created a vast ream of heroes over the years. In days gone by a hero was an explorer, a soldier or sportsman.

Where have all the heroes gone?

The heroes that I admire are all explorers. We now however live in an era where exploration has almost all been done and dusted. Every inch of the planet has been discovered, almost.

The days of the explorer are numbered. We still have people such as the great Sir Ranulph Fiennes who I had the pleasure to attend a talk of his in Cambridge. But he is now an adventurer rather than an explorer.

The age of the great explorers has past.

They are a thing of the past that has become legend.

One however will always in my eyes be the greatest of British explorers and possibly the greatest of all time.
This man perished over a hundred years ago in the cold of Antarctica and as the ice slowly moves this Naval man will one day get a sea burial.

I am of course talking about Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Scott of the Antarctic.

History remembers him for being the second man to reach the South Pole in the great race with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.

In truth it was never a race and Scott was there not only to get to the pole but to undertake one of the biggest scientific expeditions ever undertaken.
In the past I have hoovered up Scott literature, reading about the man who became a legend and his two Antarctic expeditions. The last of which resulted in his tragic death along with Lawrence Oates, Edward Wilson, Henry Bowers and Edgar Evans.

There are hundreds of books about Scott and especially the Terra Nova expedition where he met his untimely death on the Ross Ice Shelf.

Many of which portray him as heroic while others are less flattering and make harder reading.

The Queen's Gallery in Buckingham Palace hosted an exhibition called The Heart of the Great Alone.

In which it showed wonderful Antarctic photography from Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen expeditions to Antarctica.

I went along one summer’s day to see the exhibition for myself and eagerly walked through Green Park with the trees rustling.

I entered with my audio guide and spent a good hour or so looking at the fantastic photography taken of the coldest place on Earth.

I walked around staring at pictures of ships stuck fast in the crushing ice, mesmerised at the human endurance on show here and the hardships that each member of the expeditions would have endured.

Men of such courage and strength that the world will never again see they truly must have gone through a living icy hell all in the name of science and the furthering of human exploration.

As I walked through the gallery and neared the exit there was the most brilliant display I could ever see.

For me this eclipsed the Scott statue I saw in Christchurch, New Zealand of the great man.
For in front of me was something closer to Scott than any statue could ever be. This one item is the closest anyone can ever get to Robert Falcon Scott, my hero.

On the wall was the actual Union Flag that flew at the South Pole when Scott and his man hauling team arrived there on 17th January 1912. Sadly they discovered that Amundsen and his team had beaten them by five weeks.

The flag that flew at the pole and was later returned to England after the search party finally found the bodies of Scott and his men minus Captain Oates (I am going outside and may be some time) on 12th November 1912.

Scott is presumed to have died on the 29th March of that year and his last diary entry dated the same day reads "For God's sake look after our people".

To stand in front of that flag made me feel proud to be British, it made me feel honoured to stand there looking at something that has been to a place I probably never will.

It is more than a flag; it is an embodiment of human endurance in the face of adversity and a testament to lives given in the most inhospitable place on Earth.

I felt honoured to have seen it and it made a profound affect one me as I stood gazing at it for what seemed an eternity.

It was dimly lit and that added a certain poignancy to it. The flag that flew at the Pole in 1912 and was brought back by Scott and his men and then recovered from their tent which became their final resting place.

This is the closest anyone can ever get to a truly great British hero, a man who inspired millions and continues to do so.

What they all must have gone through was certainly unimaginable unless you have been there and that sadly for the considerable future does not look likely for me.

No wonder they called it the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.

For each and every one of them are true heroes in the true sense of the word.

“To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”, was scribed on a cross erected in Antarctica and those words from Tennyson’s Ulysses are incredibly true.

All Britons should know Scott’s story and be immensely proud of a truly great man.


Monday, 8 April 2013

Meeting a travel hero

There are many people I admire from a far and many who have had influence over my life.

I have travelled to places because I once read about them in novels or participated in festivals because Hemingway's descriptions brought them to live for me and I had to go there.

There is one person who has influenced me a great deal, thought me to travel and see as much as I can but at the same time immerse myself and be kind, friendly and happy while I do so.

This person has been around my entire adult life and his programmes have always been on TV and repeated. His travel documentaries have travelled the world and see places far flung and inaccessible as the South Pole.

All the time he has been serious yet silly, informative and fun and always himself. I am talking none other than the legend that is Michael Palin.

One of the best Christmas presents I ever received was the Palin travels box set.

All his travel documentaries from 1988s Around the World in 80 days up until 2007s New Europe.
Every single one I have watched and lapped up. Many places I have visited myself and it has become the norm to watch a Plain episode where he visits a place I am due to travel to.

One day I discovered that the man himself would be in London at the brilliant Stanfords map and travel book shop. This was an opportunity too good to miss. I wanted to meet the person I grew up watching on TV and the man who taught me so much about the world.

Many people can probably say this but it is true. From a far Michael Palin CBE has taught me so much. His programmes are easily re-watchable and fun. You can have them on I n the background while you work away.

It was a cold day in London. The wind was biting as I stepped off the train at Tottencourt Road and walked down to Covent Garden.

In my mind I had many things I wanted to say to the great man. I wanted to be polite, informal and come across as someone is not a nutter.

It is not every day you get to meet someone who was in the greatest comedy film of all time, namely Life of Brian.

Basically I was going to a book signing. I had never been to one before as I thought they were a little odd, especially as people queue for hours. Luckily I got there in time purchased his new book on Brazil and also in my pocket had a copy of my personal favourite travel documentary accompanying book Palin’s Hemingway Adventure.

I stood in the queue and people were chatting to each other. It is a nice travel loving crowd who venture into Stanford’s on most days so today it was a travel loving Plain loving crowd.

Then I saw him, looking greyer and more wrinkly but still with that brilliant cheeky smile. Michael Plain wandered in shook a few hands and started to sign stuff.

People brought in books, posters and all sorts of Python memorabilia.

There were people dressed as the Gumby man and it became apparent that there were some serious autograph junkies in the queue.

I was here just because I thought it would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I even brought with me my camera.

Then it was my turn and low and behold we had a little chat. I asked him if he wouldn’t mind signing my dog-eared battered Hemingway’s Adventure and he was as pleased as punch that I had read it.

I wanted to say so much but instead I just warbled on about how Hemingway inspired me to go to Pamplona and participate in the Bull Run.

With that he raised his eyebrows and said you must be a little mad, I agreed and he reiterated that he was glad I enjoyed it.

Then it was time to move on.

A quick photograph later where he pulled a grin/gurn I was on my way.

Only a matter of a minute but I had met a travel hero of mine.

There is only one other man I would queue up to meet and that would be Sir David Attenborough.
I walked back out into the cold and looked into my newly scribbled in book.

The message saying Ben all the best, Michael Plain put a huge smile on my face as I walked into London and towards the nearest tube.

My other travel heroes and people I admire and have read extensively about are: Robert Falcon Scott, David Attenborough, Ranulph Fiennes, John Blashford-Snell, Wilfried Thesiger, T.E. Lawrence, Ernest Shackleton, David Livingstone, Henry Morton Stanley and Lawrence Oates.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

The pain and bitter taste of losing a cup final

No one likes losing and no one likes it especially when you have just lost a cup final.

The bitter taste stays in your mouth for ages and no matter how much post match drink is consumed the taste remains.

My beloved Ongar Rugby club punched above our weight and finished as runners up in the league.

One snowy day in March we played in terrible conditions and battled to victory in a place in the cup final.

Ever since that day I have thought about it through every waking hour.

The need to win was all consuming and the need to play even greater.

I had to move heaven and Earth to try and get my work covered for me to make the game. It meant that much to me and still does.

The sun was out and the April weather had forgotten about snow and cold and rain for one day. The sun shone down on Ongar rugby club and we certainly looked the part as we trotted out onto the pitch.

Today was the biggest day in our little clubs recent history. We were all immensely proud of our achievements and even more proud of the fact that we were here standing shoulder to shoulder today not only as a team but a group of friends.

Sadly the match didn’t end up like the fairy-tale ending we all hoped for.

We lost in the match but not in our hearts that still pumped pride around our veins.

We celebrated in style and took Ongar’s pubs by storm. An eventful night full of antics, banter, shenanigans and silliness followed us wherever we went. We were like a dinking swarm all in Ongar T shirts and fun was our currency!

The match against a bigger team is a great learning curb for our predominantly young side; next year we will come back stronger, harder and faster and hit the ground running.

Ongar rugby club is not just any old club; it is a way of life and will forever be etched in my heart.

Long live Spongar!

ORFC website match report

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Silliness on a bike

Who would ever have thought that a group of lads on bikes heading into the countryside could be so much fun?

Twice every year a group of men with ages from 18 to late 60s all meet at a house have a tot of whiskey and then spend the rest of the day cycling from pub to pub.

Sounds innocent enough doesn't it. But you would be surprised.

This small scale bike ride organised by the old boys from Ongar Rugby Club can become the most drunken and ridiculous ride ever.

We all gather and muster at a house in High Ongar where we are fortified by a whiskey and a sausage sandwich.

Once we are sure that all comers have arrived we set off.

Normally we do a good ten miles of serious cycling before we 'arrive' muddied at a pub. Massive rounds follow and everything goes downhill from there.

One year we became lost in the woods and eventually stumbled out onto the road near a pub called the Viper. Luckily enough we popped in for liquid refreshment and some drinking games.

Several hours later I wobbly mounted my bike and then crashed as someone had loosened the handlebars.

Pranks like this are common. One year a youngster from rugby wanted to throw our Captains’ bike in the river. He asked which one it was. We pointed out a random bike in the group and in the water it went.

Later on and several pints and shots later we all collected our bikes. Including our Captain who sat on his.
The youngster looked perplexed as to where his bike was and then realised that in his haste he had thrown his own bike in the river.

Watching him wade in while we splashed him with the cold stagnant water was a treat.
We have lost people en route. One man who was 40 had to phone his Dad to come and find him after he tried and failed to take a short cut through the woods.

This may all sound rather silly, stupid and idiotic. It is, but there are some rules.

Everyone must have a helmet and everyone has to have a reflective jacket or vest a working lights. Also all bikes are checked over for their suitability as once we had to abandon one at a country pub and give a backie to one of our drunken players who had snapped the frame.

Over the years the bike ride has grown in size and become bigger, better and more ambitious.

We used to ride to a cup called the Cuckoo and spend a long time there before departing and heading back towards town. Since that pub closed we have ventured out into areas 20 or 30 miles from home.
It is a great way to see the countryside and an even better way to discover pubs.

The old boys who run it treat it like a military manoeuvre. They cycle out the day before and check the route and check to see what pubs can offer lunch. Therefore it has the intentions of being a mature country cycle. I think it is just us, the players who descend into drunken bike madness and drag the entire group with us.

One year we played a drinking game where we had to repeat after the drinking master and then double, triple and quadruple each work and action. I am terrible at this and once out of the pub I came off my bike and somehow ripped my trousers completely. In the next pub I was gaffa taped together to avoid my modesty!

One year it was very cold and we were at a pub in Toot Hill. The next pub the Mole trap was about 2 miles away and we were told to behave as it was one of the riders locals.

Therefore we let them set off and followed at a discreet pace.

A discreet pace in nothing but our pants.

The look on the local’s faces when we cycled in in just our undies was priceless. The look on the locals face was worth every moment of penis shrinking cold!

Every year they get longer and sillier.

Long may they reign!

Friday, 5 April 2013

Any one for some Chiddingstone?

The bank holiday arrived and with that plans to visit somewhere different. Somewhere that I had never been to before.

I wanted to see a place renowned for antiquities and a collection of items from all over the world.

Recently I had become aware of a place called Chiddingstone Castle in Kent, not far from Tunbridge Wells; or Royal Tunbridge Wells as I should call it.

This ‘castle’ is really not a castle at all but a large stately home that has been added to over the centuries from its inception in the early 16th century.

I had heard stories about a vast collection of antiquities collected by a rather bizarre man over the years.
Because the architectural design and style was not any of that to rival many other stately homes the fact that the ‘castle’ housed a ‘great collection’ was the factor that drew it to me.

Two of us set off down the M25 on a biting cold April Bank Holiday Monday. The wind battered the car and you could feel it trying to swerve on the motorway as we crossed the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and left glorious Essex and entered the Garden of England, otherwise known as Kent.

Leaving the motorway and the A roads behind we entered a beautiful picture postcard area of rural Kent. Thatched roofs shot by the windows and driving was down to twenty miles an hour as we passed old hop farms with oast houses littered the lanes and the fields.

The roads narrowed and we were now truly in an area that could claim the Garden of England as its name.
We pulled into the gravel driveway to Chiddingstone Castle and the tyres on the stones made that familiar and lovely crunching sound as we drove down to the car park.

In front of us stood the castle; disabled parking in the front and a large welcoming door. Large gardens surrounded the house and a man-made lake which at the time of digging was all the rage with those who lived in manor houses.

We entered and the large door swung open with a creek; stepping out of the cold into the hallway we were greeted by a grey haired women and an entry price of £8 each. A price that I now feel was very steep for what was actually housed there.

A couple followed us in and the grey haired lady started to recite a potted history about the house and then pointed our attention to a large canvas with a picture of the collector of antiquities himself a Mr Denys Bower. More on him later.

Her accent was muddled, almost upper-class but with hint of South African in it. Almost as if she had been here in rural Kent for a long time.

While she went on about the collections housed in different rooms I tried and failed to suppress a fart. It popped out making a creaking noise where immediately I looked at the ground shuffled my feet and made out as if it was a creaking floorboard. The person who I was with tried and failed to stifle a giggle but apart from that I think I may have got away with it.
Anyway after that we shot into the first room that housed the ‘Japanese collection’. I use the term collection loosely as inside was a central case containing Samurai swords and surrounding it a few cases with old samurai armour and face masks in it.

Next was the Egyptian room where I was greeted with a large empty cabinet saying that everything was on loan in America . What was left didn’t really impress, especially if you had been to Egypt.

Moving on to the Buddhist room I was pleased to see a framed and signed picture of the Dalai Lama and many golden Buddha statues situated in cases around the room.

We walked up the creaking stairs and discovered that half the house was shut off. There were old bathrooms and bedrooms and a brilliantly antiquated study with a fantastic old set of suitcases on the floor.

This room was dedicated to the late owner Denys Bower who became infamous for ‘accidently’ shooting his lover and then turning the gun on himself. Being a terrible shot he woke in hospital and was charged with attempted murder. His lover survived and he ended up in jail.

He bought the ‘castle’ with a loan from the bank and wanted to open it to the public for a fee as a way of paying back the loan; this and also a place to keep his collections.

Bower died in 1977 and in the gift shop they are flogging his biography along with jams, lamps and other random objects.

We left the castle having seen something new, explored a new place but apart from learning about Denys Bower and his lust for a women 30 years younger that led to his incarceration I had not learnt much.

What I had learnt though; was that even if sometimes places you visit are mundane, if you are silly the day can still be fun!

Especially if you visit the ‘activity room’ and take part in dressing up like a mummy! I will never grow up.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Mud, sweat and cut shins

Sport has always been a massive part of my life. Sometimes it can become an obsessive compulsion where it dominates my working week where I plan my time around sport, gym, fitness, going running and such the like.
I have always liked to do races and way back in 2003 ran the London Marathon for charity. The moment after that race when I stopped running my legs burnt like they were on fire. No matter how much I trained my body hated marathons. Half marathons on the other hand are brilliant and I am fine the next day and not going down the stairs on my arse.

So anything similar or under the distance of a half marathon and I am up for it. 
Then I discovered the wonderful runs that combine skill, agility, strength and speed.
Adventure runs had entered my life; since then I have travelled around Britain hoovering them up.
I remember that very first run one cold November morning where I splashed through streams, climbed hills and hurdled hay bales; since that day I have looked for the bigger and better runs.
One of the first large scale and mass marketed adventure runs I did was the Men's Health Survival of the Fittest . 
Running through the City Ground
When I first did one of these back in 2009 the closest one to me was in Nottingham so along with my mate JP we drove up and ran the ten k through mud, freezing rivers and even the City Ground.
I loved the obstacles, the randomness of it and the excitement. Not only was it a race and a run but you really could push yourself over obstacles and go for it.

Men's Health really knew how to organise an event. They had goody bags, superb obstacles which were individually sponsored and endless ideas and enthusiasm. To top that off they organised it with zeal where groups with colored wristbands set off at different times to avoid congestion.

The next time I did that race was in 2011 during the rugby world cup. I remember vividly watching as England crashed out and swore loudly at the TV.
Luckily I could drown my sorrows in the River Trent as we waded through and then attempted monkey bars with frozen fingers.

As soon as I paid up to do this run they opened one in London. Therefore I think Nottingham has run its course for me and the next time I frequent a survival of the fittest I will be closer to home.

Talking of closer to home recently one has popped up only a couple of miles from my front door.

The Lactic Rush and Fallout by Essex Adventure races is situated in the land by the 'Secret Nuclear Bunker' in Kelvedon Hatch. So secret that giant brown signs.

The best thing about the Bunker is the sign pointing to it and stating that it is 'secret'. That never fails to make me smile when I drive past.
Very secret!

The Lactic races are great fun, run on a budget but they make the most of their surroundings.Muddy, cold, slimey and using natural obstacles to their advantage.

One Sunday morning I was due to run the Lactic Fallout which is their winter race. I left work at 9am and picked up my friend Sam. Then as we arrived at the car park it started and I had to play catch up. I came 37th in the end and wish I had pushed myself further and finished higher up the field.

Muddy Races, The Whole Hog, Tough MudderRat Races the list goes on and on. There are so many events popping up around the country. Some on a large scale and others smaller, more quaint. All though can be hard, tough and exhilarating.

On the larger scale of the spectrum is the American company Spartan Races. These large scale runs from 3 miles up to marathon distance are utterly brilliant. Thousands take part and they host them in the best locations.
Last year I did the 12 mile Spartan Beast which was at Brands Hatch race circuit  You ran around the track following a truck belching out smoke and then disappeared into the woods only to emerge later on cut to ribbons by the brambles. You climbed under barbed wire and navigated slippery poles, climbed trees and ran with ammunition boxes full of sand. Every turn there was a new obstacle and to finish this race was a great achievement.

Not only are they a superb day out but this race gives you the best looking finishers medal of them all.

I am due to run the Spartan Sprint in Cambridge soon and recently did the Brentwood Half Marathon. We are coming into adventure run season where the weather gets a little warmer and I cannot wait. It is the best cure for when the rugby season finishes. You get to keep fit, have fun and get covered in filth. Juts like rugby really.

I advise anyone to take part in one. Run as a group and encourage each other on, there is no better feeling.

Bring on the next one!

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

The wonders of the cup final

A feeling of euphoria overcomes you; you start to cheer and jump up and down and are overwhelmed with emotion.

That is the jubilation you feel when you win a semi-final.

This is exactly what I along with my team mates were feeling when one very snowy and incredibly cold Saturday.
The mighty Ongar rugby club, my beloved team ran out onto the pitch as the snow fell. The lines became hidden and had to be swept clear and the biting cold numbed fingers and made toes scream for warmth.

Playing in a semi-final is a highly charged affair but watching as spectators huddle together against the cold and shiver makes it feel extra special. The fact that they have not retreated into the warmth and comfort of the club house shows just how much this game means to them.

We ran out winning 14-0 against a spirited Runwell Wyverns team to reach the final of the Essex Merit table division 5 cup. Not the most prestigious of trophies but for us it has the same feel as appearing at Twickenham for England.

The final will be on the 6th April and I have had to move heaven and Earth to try and get ot off work. After phone calls, texts and basically begging I have managed to get someone to come in and cover at the fire station for me for a few hours. So it looks like I will be playing the second half. I do hope it all goes well as I scored in the semi-final and my try tally for the season stands at an all-time high for me ay 17 (16 for Ongar 1 for the Fire service team).

The worst feeling in the world would be sitting at work knowing that the game is going ahead without me.
The league in all their wisdom changed the kick off time on Tuesday night and then to add insult to injury said that the game would be two 30 minute halve. Obviously they have over filled the pitches capacity as there are 16 matches happening that day. The words well done and good organisation come out of my mouth very sarcastically.

The most important thing for me will be to play in the final.

It will mean the world to me and to win would cap an incredible season for Ongar who finished second in the league.

Fingers crossed all goes well.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Books, books everywhere........

Everyone loves a good book. Whether you are settling down into a comfy chair and becoming lost in the words.

Sitting on a beach soaking up the sun or commuting on a train into London eyes averting everyone else’s staring into the pages.

Books are our friends and fantastic opportunities for escapism and creating smile on our faces.
For as long as I can remember I have adored books. I love the feel in my hands and as my finger tips turn the page and love the escapism they offer.
I love gettting lost inside the words and pages and sitting ina  place undisturbed reading away only to discover that you have lost hours of time in a worls of your own.

Books can transport you to places and give you insight, knowledge and of course immense fun. Therefore I can honestly say that I am a self confessed bibliophile, a true lover of books.

But if a book was a person where would they live?

There is one place in the UK that I had the pleasure of visiting on raining summers day that is known as the 'town of books'. Surely if a book where a person they would live in the town of Hay-on-Wye.

Situated almost bang on the Welsh/English border this small quaint little Welsh town is unlike any other in the country.

From the moment you walk from the car park into the main street you are greeted by books, books and more books.

Hay-on-Wye has become a book lovers Mecca. Shelves in the streets, in gardens and of course in shops sell books for everyone.

In the streets out in the open there are covered book cases where the drizzle splashes off corrugated plastic roofs above. Under these roofs rows upon rows of books can be perused and bought by putting a few coins in the honesty boxes situated around the place.

The town of books cannot but put a smile on your face as you wander down the cobbled streets among the other bibliophiles popping in and out of bookshops.

Quaint tea rooms offer sandwiches and pots of tea where you can escape the summer rain and dry off.

In one such shop we sat down and took out the books which we had bought for pennies. I found an old but loved early 1970s copy of Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser.

Sipping a cup of tea  I looked through the shops windows and down the street. People were scurrying across the road in macs and umbrellas open and all were here because they shared a love of books.

Thirty odd bookshops are dotted around the town among other shops that you usually find in a town. Many sell second hand books and some are quite specialist.

The rain abated and out we ventured into the town. Not far from our little tea shop was the Castle and Mansion. A wooden staircase led up and as I entered the first thing I noticed was that this also had been turned into a book shop.

Every step you made leading up to the castle surrounded you in books. Boxes, trestle tables and shelves in the elements offered books for you to search through.
You would take a turn and there would be more books; they somehow created a feeling and a vibe. A nice vibe that cannot really be explained.

Old men and women would slowly bend down to leaf through a box of books under a table. They would put on spectacles and slowly scan shelves muttering to themselves ever so often.

I found it rather satisfying scanning the shelves for books that would tickle my fancy. Every now and then your eyes would hit a title and you would stop and reach out for it.

Inside the castle I learnt a few things about the town and the recent history is a rather charming little story.

In 1977 Richard Booth a bibliophile declared Hay-on-Wye independent from the United Kingdom. Basically a publicity stunt but in doing so created a tourist industry in the town centred around books. The castle bookshop sells his autobiography where on the front his face is superimposed onto the body of Henry VIII's, because when he declared Hay-on-Wye independent he styled himself as King Richard king of Hay! He since has been awarded an MBE for services to the town where a yearly literary festival is held which brings in half a million visitors.

However the thing that made me smile the most about Richard Booth declaring Hay independent was that he made his horse Prime Minister; brilliant, utterly brilliant and totally bonkers.

I was tempted to buy it and have a read but thought better of it as I had amassed about seven books from the street stalls.

Wandering down the high street was a pleasure. Normally you walk down any high street in the UK and they are almost clones of each other. Weatherspoons, bookmakers and shop chains and clothing brands. Hay on the other hand was different. Independently run shops and quaint looking shops selling nick nacks and of course books.

I would recommend any one who loves books to visit. The town itself is a gem and wandering around discovering it for yourself without any research beforehand is the best thing to do. I knew about the town a little before we visited but didn’t realise how book infested it would be.

For me the high light was walking into a small courtyard and just spending time staring at bookshelves in the light drizzle.

The more you looked however the more you wanted, I don’t know why but I felt obliged to buy every book that made my head turn. By now I had a carrier bag full of old well-thumbed novels.

Finally the light was fading and it was time to go. Walking back up the street I turned one last time to gaze at the castle and the land of books. I was very happy to have visited and know that this place will survive on the second hand book trade for many years to come.

Just as we were driving out of the car park Hay-on-Wye offered me one last brilliant surprise.

The town is twinned with Timbuktu in Mali. That made me drive away grinning from ear to ear.