Our Travel blog
21 October - Leek
Here we are. Ruddy faced after walking back from the football (more about that anon) and settling in to an evening that could feature hot running water, a lavatory that flushes, central heating and a cat. Apart from that last one, which is a mixed blessing, it’s all quite cosy and a step up from a summer spent living in our motorhome, Mavis. Not that adapting to life in a house has been tension free. The first evening we tried cooking together, a luxury that we simply didn’t have room for in Mavis. Yet somehow in a kitchen with plenty of work surfaces, umpteen cupboards, a full sized oven and hob and enough floor space to stage a production of Waiting for Godot, so long as the audience don’t mind sitting on the stairs, we managed to get in each-others way. At one point I had a hot roasting tin melting my oven glove and couldn’t find a suitable resting place, despite a selection of trivets being available when I took it out of the oven 3 seconds earlier. There followed a tense exchange of guarded bewilderment, exactly the type of exchange we had when we first moved into Mavis and realised that the kitchen wasn’t suitable for more than 1 person at a time, and that was stretching it. It was soon remedied and we enjoyed the novelty of a meal cooked in an oven.
So we’ve adapted, spent some time getting to know the house and community and Mull seems a long time ago. I’ve written about the impression that Scotland and its people made on us before and about Mull as we went along so I don’t want to repeat myself here; suffice to say it was a wonderful experience that we have every intention of repeating next year. The people of Mull are a hardy bunch, disparate characters from around the UK and further afield. I’ve read somewhere that about 1/3 of the resident population are from outside Scotland and even among the Scots many were not born and bred on Mull. There’s a sense that the settlers have been drawn to a place of sanctuary, of community and isolation in equal measure; outsiders by choice and design like the travellers and people living on the fringes of mainstream society we met on the festival circuit last year. People who see a way of life that appeals and have the courage and fortitude to pursue it. I’m sure that is a gross generalisation but whatever folks’ motivations we found everyone, friends, colleagues, neighbours and strangers, welcoming and accommodating.
Mull has a rich history, steeped in legend. Tales of warfare, clearances and ship wrecks; pilgrims, clans and castles; elegant houses and lairds are in the souls of locals and seep into the bones of settlers and visitors alike. Anecdotes of bygone times are seldom far from lips at the bar or at the till of the shop. Usually when I’m in a rush but there you go, that’s Mull. It is an unhurried world, where traffic is mostly restricted to single file and island time generally means ‘sometime soon…ish…maybe… if the ferry’s running…unless Morag calls in for a cuppa of course.’ People stop to give lifts to hitch hikers, they offer to pick up provisions for friends and strangers alike on visits to the mainland and lend anything and everything in the knowledge that it’ll be them needing help next time. Although it is only a hairs breadth from mainland Scotland it’s still very much an island. The main ferry takes 50 minutes from Oban, services and provisions are limited at times, especially in the depths of winter when the ferries might not run for a few days at a time. Petrol, Calor gas and medications can run short and you can still tell the season by the vegetables you are served. Walking around you see the signs of make do and mend. Gates propped up, old doors made into chicken coops, half-finished improvements and homemade deer fences and in amongst it all, at the root of every love affair with Mull, is the scenery.
We’ve seen spectacular sunsets, views that left us breathless, mountains reflected in mirror-like lochs, waterfalls tumbling from cliffs, waves breaking against hidden rocks. We’ve picnicked on deserted sandy beaches under cloudless skies and seen more rainbows than a Pride parade. We’ve seen deer, mink, otter, hare, dolphins, golden and sea eagles, adders, a pole cat carrying its prey, buzzards ad infinitum and have wandered through herds of highland cows and flocks of sheep with new-born lambs. We’ve heard the stags roar, eagles call, owls twit-twoo and cuckoos – well, cuckoo.
We got to work in a castle too, a real life 13th century castle. Like most tourist attractions it has a guide book to accompany your visit (only £3:00, excellent value) so to replicate that with lots of facts and figures here would be 1) unnecessary and 2) boring. So instead I’ve prepared a few unusual snaps from my phone that I took during the season in quieter moments. (Blog continues after pics)
We spent out last evening on Mull parked next to the castle. It was a wild night, the rain lashed down upon us in the fashion favoured on Mull, horizontally. It helped that we were fortified by a few drinks with friends and a sobering walk back to Mavis in wet and windy darkness. The next morning we left with mixed emotions…well, mostly sadness but a tingle of excitement for the journey ahead and a prickle of expectation at seeing family, friends and of course our house. On the ferry we held ourselves together until we passed the castle and friends and colleagues were out flying flags for us on our departure.
Back in Leek we’ve been ingratiating ourselves gently into the community; the people are very friendly once you get past the part of the introduction where they express surprise that we’ve chosen to live in their town. It appears to have more barbers, hairdressers and pubs per capita than anywhere else we’ve ever been. I’m long past needing a barber shop but Alison’s hairdresser reads this blog so I’d like to take this opportunity to assure her that Alison hasn’t so much as glanced in the direction of any salons and although many of the pubs look tempting we have found one that we are quite fond of. In an effort to familiarise ourselves with the area one of the first things we did once we’d moved in was go to the football.
We have always liked lower or non-league football. Real football as we call it. Real not so much as in the action on the pitch, although that does have a more robust and direct approach to the game than the preened athleticism of the Premier League, but more on the stands and terraces. It’s there from the moment you approach the ground; the fading sponsorship adds and peeling paintwork, the Day-Glo stewards who greet regulars and offer a polite nod to newcomers, the narrow turn-styles with their caged attendant with his or her stack of £1 coins to make change, carefully ticking off each entrant type on their clipboard. The banter in the queue, talk of ‘our Darren’ being selected for Thursday night training’, swapping stories of the last match – 9-0 away, ‘bloody marvellous it was, like the old days…’ ‘Aye, but they’ll need to be switched on today…can’t get complacent…’
Inside both sets of fans mingled, red and black scarves and discreet pin badges for the visiting team supporters, all the way from Kettering for a cup match. They wandered around looking for a suitable place to stand without upsetting any locals, heaven forbid that you should accidentally stand where Old Bob always stands with his pie and lukewarm tea. Hardened home fans stood behind their goalkeeper, the same at the other end with the away fans; quite a few travelled up, high spirits and friendly banter, a few nods and polite hellos to the home fans as they passed. Rivals on the pitch maybe but kindred spirits on the terraces, hardened by long drives, 0-0 draws on damp Tuesday nights, a hundred cups of instant coffee in a hundred different grounds, talk on the bus home of not bothering next season, but knowing that they will.
The coaching team shouted and cajoled from their dugouts, animated managers who kick every ball and feel every collision while they issue orders from the touchline. Holding their breath as a free kick is floated over; head in hands as a chance is missed, screaming instructions into the wind, just a red faced bellow away from a coronary. But the real experts are behind the hurriedly painted fencing of dried gloss and rust. These are the vocal supporters, squeezed into replica shirts and chomping on pies while they berate everyone on the pitch for not being fit enough. Every move that breaks down, each mistimed challenge or error attracts a flurry of derision. Every well timed interception, attempt on goal or good save draws encouragement and praise. These are of course reversed when yelling at the visiting team when every move is roundly derided. It’s nothing though compared to the abuse the referee gets. It truly is a thankless task because neither team nor their supporters are on their side. They can do no right even when they are demonstrably correct in their decision. The torrent of invective some fans directed at the match officials was just plain nasty, lacking any of the wit and imagination that often springs from the terraces.
At half time we queued for refreshments. The menu offered ‘pie’, no fillings specified, with a variety of accompaniments chosen it seems for their stomach lining properties, chips, gravy, peas (mushy of course), curry sauce or hot dogs for the culinary daring; fodder for cold winter nights under the icy glare of floodlights. A young lad stood with his father as they warmed their hands around cups of hot Bovril, their breath steaming together in the chilly air. Precious moments spent discussing tactics, remembering past encounters and debating the referee’s decisions. When it’s all over they’ll hunch up their shoulders, thrust hands deep into pockets and walk home together, darting across roads while analysing the game. It might be their only day of the week spent with each other. Maybe the father did this with his dad too, back when the home crowd was comfortably in four figures every Saturday. Side by side, their shadows split into four under the floodlights. For a moment all is still and quiet except for the echo of old chants and cheers, the lingering smells of tobacco and beer, the stains of drinks spilt when the team scores, tears when the last game of the season confirms relegation, or perhaps promotion; memories that haunt the ground as each generation adds another layer. Like the peeling barrier they are leaning upon, nostalgia and melancholy get tangled in a fleeting glimpse of a past etched into the soul of these crumbling grounds where the rituals get passed on from parent to child up and down the country.
The game itself was fun, passionate and occasionally enlivened by endearing incompetence; slips, headers going in the wrong direction, missed opportunities and occasionally outbreaks of the beautiful game. Somehow Leek won 3-2, a fact that was hotly contested by some of the away fans who let the match officials know their feelings in no uncertain terms. There was a post-match scuffle in the players’ tunnel, pulses quickened and testosterone sloshed about briefly before the teams were ushered off and the Kettering supporters resumed their roll call of injustices to closed doors and grinning stewards.
Overall though we were rather buoyed up by the experience, it felt good to be on the terraces. One of the official match day photos even has us in the background, a slightly glum couple watching the game from somewhere under 17 layers of warm clothing, who weren’t even certain which were the home team until 10 minutes into the game, but look closely and you’ll see a sly grin on our faces.
In fact we were so enamoured with it that we went back the following week to watch a cumbersome 2-2 draw. Route 1 football, that is kick it high and long and hope it lands near one of your team, is alive and well in the Northern Premier League Division One South. This week my attention was drawn to the sponsors. Povey’s oatcakes, a vaping shop with an instantly forgettable name, a local electrical store and best/worst of all, ground and kit sponsors Esterchem, whose logo must have taken whole seconds to dream up; ester and chem split by solid rectangles of green and black. It looks like someone has redacted the first and last part of their name for reasons I didn’t dwell on because my attention was drawn to their hoardings above both goal-end terraces. Here they have helpfully list some of their products to tempt you into the exciting adventures you could enjoy with Triacetin, Diacetin, Egda and other chemicals that I’m guessing aren’t on every supporters shopping list.
On the other hand without these sponsors who are unlikely to ever recoup what they spend, teams like Leek wouldn’t survive. So with that sobering thought I’m off to grab some Esterchem 1,3 BGDA before the shops close. In the meantime if you’d like a little ‘extra’ blog there’s a link here to a review I did of singer songwriter Adrian Nations new album, Anarchy and Love.
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