Days Of Future Past

WATCHING The Tour De France on the telly, I can’t help but be proud of Coventry’s part in the race.

In fact, my city was always at the forefront of innovation, change and welcoming to people from elsewhere.

None of the quartet of James Starley, John Kemp Starley, George Singer or Henry John Lawson were born in the city, but all made their names, if not fortunes, there.

And without them, the Tour would not be a feature of the sporting calendar.

It was Starley, born in West Sussex, but forming the Coventry Sewing Machine Company, who came up with the idea of an all-metal bike and metal spokes on the wheel, making bicycles much lighter and capable of higher speeds.

The big jump forward came when Starley, acknowledged as the Father of the Bicycle Industry, came up with the idea of a differential gear on the rear wheel.

George Singer, from Dorset, worked for Starley in the renamed Coventry Machinists Company before launching his own firm and coming up with the idea of curved forks to allow for better streamlining.

London-born Lawson, whose efforts in the cycle and motor car industry, brought ignominy and shame, is credited with the first design of the safety bicycle, although John Kemp Starley, nephew of James, and a newcomer from London, produced the first safety bike, the Rover, in 1885. This was a rear wheel drive, chain-driven machine with two similarly sized wheels – the first modern bike, in fact.

Coventry had the skill sets to attract entrepreneurs. The watch-making industry gave way to, first, sewing machines, then bikes, motorbikes and cars. Aircraft and armaments were to follow, cementing the city’s reputation as a place of employment opportunity.

But city folk and those from Warwickshire were quick to seize on the bicycle not only as a means of fortune, but of sport.

The velodrome at The Butts, where Coventry Rugby now play, was built in the 1870s, when cycle racing was a fearsome prospect. Bone shakers, Penny Farthings and the like were pitted against each other on the track, which has recently reappeared at Butts Park Arena thanks to the heatwave.

It was one of the earliest velodromes, Coventry again leading the way, although maybe it wasn’t just in the name of sport, but as a test track for the numerous cycle manufacturers that sprang up.

I like the little degrees of separation of Coventry’s history. In the 1850s, a cricket pitch was created on these very fields – the Old Bull Fields – and in 1874, a certain Coventry RFC was formed there, with matches played next to the velodrome.

The cricket club later moved to Stoke, behind the Old Bull pub, and remains the city’s premier club, Coventry and North Warwickshire. Coventry RFC moved to Coundon Road in 1921, and then back to The Butts in 2004. Meanwhile, a football team formed at Singer’s works in 1883 was to become Coventry City FC.

Singer’s home was at Coundon Court, now site of a comprehensive school, when it was still part of Warwickshire, yet to be swallowed up by the city which he helped grow.

One irony of Coventry Rugby’s tenure at ‘Coundon Road’, scene of many a famous victory, was that the ‘road’ it was on was Barkers Butts Lane. In medieval times, when the city’s men were required to do military service, two ‘butts’ were set up where they could hone their archery skills for battle – The Butts and Barker’s Butts.

Coundon Road stretched from the city to the railway station, itself misnamed as Counden Road until 1894, and beyond was a country track leading to the hamlet of Coundon. It was the redevelopment of the fields after the second world war that saw the rugby club established there and housing and shops built all around.

That expansion came on the back of the war work the factories won, based on the skills of the workers in building bicycles, motor-bikes and cars.

Coventry shaped the bicycle, the bicycle shaped Coventry. It may have hosted the Milk Race a few times from the 1960s throught to 1990, but the city’s bicycle heritage has shaped the cycling world.

Pride And Joy

TODAY I came close to tears.

I would say I’m not easily moved, generally skilled in masking emotion and being ‘professional’.

Even though I’m just a stay at home dad these days. Nothing professional about that. Amateur rings true, though.

So being moved? Not really. No.

Unless I hear the old regimental quick march, or stuff like the RAF March Past, which is forever embraced by wonderful memories of my grandad.

The past.

So what of the present? Or even the future?

And a song I’ve never heard from a movie I’ve never seen?

Because that was enough.

Sung by the year six cohort at St Ives Junior School in Cornwall to say ‘goodbye’. For those 11 and 12 year olds are being swept up in change, are on the cusp of adulthood and ‘big school’ come September.

Including my son.

Henry is the leopard who changed his spots.  He is the Horrid Henry who became Happy Henry.

I can’t recall a transformation so marked in life.

This is real life. With all it’s hard knocks. Not romantic literature or Hollywood’s saccharine celluloid.

Henry’s had it tough, but he’s dished it out, too. Those of us who have known Henry best have suffered the tantrums.

Today the angry young boy of old was replaced by a handsome, charming young man who sang with passion, smiled and swam in the spirit of the occasion, of his achievement and that of his peers.

More than 18 months have elapsed since he came to live with his step-mum and I. We’ve watched him grow.  He’s not perfect, find me someone who is, but he’s a brilliant lad. Today’s performance was to show how far the children have come.

For me, I sat there in awe and wonder at that boy and how far he’s come. I’d seen him at the school sports day last week, when he was so ready with congratulations for and support for his classmates, win or lose. A boy loving the spirit of sport, rather than the spoilt brat who used to stamp his feet when things didn’t go his way.

But this was another notch up. The performance was about The Greatest Year, leaning heavily on the hit Hugh Jackman movie, The Greatest Showman.

They launched with The Greatest Show and brought the house down with a reprise that had the parents up off their feet in standing ovation.

I’m normally skeptical and cynical, but found myself being swept along by the occasion and the sheer majesty of enthusiasm from all the children. My son chief among them.

He’s done well at his key stage two tests, despite most of his education up to St Ives being in a Turkish language school with a very different approach to learning.

But as I have said to his class teacher and head teacher in recent days, I was never too bothered about Henry’s attainment. I was looking for a different set of criteria. That included my boy being happy, being confident and self-assured, who would take on any challenge no matter how hard and give it his best.

My dream has come true.

I know the real hard yards are ahead, but I’m buoyed by how far Henry has come and, largely, how willingly. My wife and I have put in the effort, boy, have we. But the school has played a huge part.

As has Henry.

And today he put on his own greatest show.

It was enough to bring me close to tears.

Truth be known, there might have been one that escaped.

Pride and joy.





Long Train Runnin’

I WELL remember the day I wore sunglasses to work, back in the days when I was writing for the Coventry Evening Telegraph.

I’d fought back to fitness after a nasty car accident which had badly damaged by right knee and had just played in my first rugby match in 18 months.

A third team fixture for Newbold against Broadstreet.

We got hammered by 70 points, but showed our mettle by scoring the last try of the game. We never gave up trying. That was and remains the spirit of Newbold.

Me? I’d played at full back and tackled my heart, legs, arms and back out.

There’d been the stereotypical good natured dust up and I had panda eyes, my back had stripes on it as if Zorro had visited me during the night and the bruising on my arms and legs looked like the Bayeux Tapestry.

I limped stiffly to my desk, sunglasses on to hide the black eyes – not that it worked. You never got any sympathy – in the army they said you’d find that in the dictionary between shit and syphillis.

In fact, there were howls of laughter when it was realised I couldn’t move my neck very well – and catcalls from left and right to put me through the wringer once more.

Hayley ‘Cuthbo’ Draper, you were the chief culprit!

I trained hard back in those days, without any fanfare. I remember jogging along the A45 from where I lived in Hillmorton to the CET offices in Corporation Street with an army bergen on. When I got there, Eddy Murray and Stewart Smith got more than they bargained for in the mickey take. Eddy tried to take the backpack off me and quickly dropped it to the ground.

‘What have you got in there?’ he exclaimed.

I took out two 10kg weights.

I’d shuffled along the A45 with that weight on my back for 18 hard miles. The remainder of the week I’d cycle. Then during my lunch break I’d go swimming. Weights or rugby training in the evening.

I was cycling an average of 250 miles a week, running 40 and swimming 20.

I wanted to be as fit as I could be. So I could get my head kicked in for 80 minutes on a rugby pitch.


Here I am in good days at the CET, fourth from left, second row

Since those days, I’ve had to claw myself back from the brink a few times. And I’m on the fitness trail again.

I almost weigh the same as I did back then, bar a couple of pounds. I was 14 stone eight, wearing 30in waist trousers – I’m now 14 stone 12 in 36in waist trousers. My bodyfat back then was about 12 per cent. It’s three times that at the moment. But heading in the right direction.

I enjoyed training, but found it a bit of a chore, a bit of a bore.

Last night I joined a gym again. And this time it was like Christmas. It was like the training fairy had sprinkled happy dust over me – I felt the muscles working like never before and the benefits were fulsome. Mind and body happy together.

This time I’m training for me. Not to play rugby or cricket, or look good in a suit (not that I ever did!), but to simply enjoy the process. To savour it, to marvel at how the body works.

The gym I joined is one of those hardcore gyms for bodybuilders and weightlifters, power lifters and people averse to spin classes, walls of cross trainers, treadmills and stationary bikes.

There’s not much evidence of lycra, although I never looked good in leotards myself.

It’s just a simple gym. Man against machine, mind against muscle. Dumbbells and barbells tempting and teasing, offering hope yet ready to crush dreams into the floor. I know it will accelerate my training, and I’m surprised it wasn’t bursting at the seams with people.

Because it feels so good to be back.