Away Days – NE England

Having been working (and cycling) away since I came home from my Fijian adventure, I was keen to get away for a while. A change of scene was needed and just about anywhere would do. I had thought about going abroad, but decided to leave that until the end of the month instead – I’ll write about where I went soon!

No instead I decided to stay in the sunny UK, taking my long suffering Dad along with me. He did the driving so he actually kind of took me with him.

Anyway we ended up deciding to go to Northumberland for no good reason whatsoever, apart from having never really been there before. Maybe that is a good reason for going somewhere.

Early on a Tuesday morning we set of on our perilous voyage down the East Coast of Scotland to Englandshire, stopping first just across the border in Berwick-upon-Tweed. I had only ever viewed this town from the window of a London bound train so it was nice to explore the old town walls which had protected the town from the English, the Scots, the English, and then… I could go on. Basically for a period in Berwick’s history it was difficult to figure out which nation the town belonged to.

Picking up a cycle map, I studied some of the local routes, looking for one which would be suitable for me to test my legs on, as we headed towards our campsite for the next two nights. We camped on the outskirts of a small town called Wooler, 13 miles south-west of Berwick.

Taken aback by how quiet the roads seemed, I hopped on my bike as soon as we had set up camp. I soon found myself heading north up traffic free, dusty roads, meeting nothing but the odd combine.

If you know me at all you’ll have realised riding a bike is something I already find immensely fun (mostly!). However, there is something about riding on new unknown roads which adds to this sense of enjoyment. Using my phone as a map I flew down small country lanes and soon realised I was heading back towards the mother nation.

With around an hour’s riding done I decided to make crossing the border into Scotland by bike today’s target, only slightly concerned about the dark clouds forming to the west. Several miles and much (phone) map reading later, I came across a pedestrianised bridge with a plaque reading “ENGLAND” stuck to one of the archways. I had found the border!

On the other side of this picturesque bridge (picture below) across the River Tweed, I was welcomed to Scotland. For some reason it felt more special to be riding across the border which holds much less importance than it once did many years ago.

Changing direction once I was in Scotland, I headed towards Kelso, before swinging south across the border again towards Wooler, using my phone to navigate the peaceful country lanes. Although there were no particularly long climbs, the roads were undualting, with fun to be had on the steep short climbs and the technical descents which followed.

That evening I compared notes with Dad about the local roads. He had gone for a shorter cycle, something which was encouraging as health issues had often meant he couldn’t enjoy exercise as much as he sometimes wanted to. And the next day we dicided to cycle across the causeway to the Holy Island, an island only accessible by roads for 12 hours a day. Spinning across the slippery seaweed soaken tarmac was a somewhat surreal experience as small lakes of water surrounded us.

After crossing we didn’t stay around for too long. A hot drink and a short look around and we set of across the causeway and back to the car. It was a cold day and the clouds looked full of rain. Yesterday I had managed to stay dry but today the heavens opened after we had returned to the campsite.

Sitting in the car I suggested we go to Newcastle or “N,Castle” as locals like to call it. The city seemed a sensible idea when the weather was this vile. Again I had only ever passed through this city on the train and was impressed but what I saw. During a break in the weather we wandered down to the river, where there was bridges galore.

Having enjoyed my first “Nandos” ever (shock horror) and many a “geordie” voice in Newcastle we overheard many more broad accents in the pub that night back in Wooler. That night my mattress deflated so I got up at first light. First priority was water followed by getting my lycra on and hopping on my bike again. It being 6 am the roads were empty, though it was very cold.

It quickly warmed though and I did a similar route to the one two days previous, adding some miles to make it a 50 mile effort. Not a bad mornings work. With the sun on my back and my legs taking me were I needed to go I felt lucky to be alive. Sometimes getting up so early can be of significant benefit and I felt set up for the rest of the day.

It may have been a short trip but it was definetly an enjoyable one and worth it to explore a new place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Nations 2018 Preview

Including hopes as a massive Scotland fan, the form of the other nations and predictions for results and the final standings.

A bit of history

With the annual showdown between the six best teams in the Northern Hemisphere rolling around next Saturday there is a spring in my step as a rugby fan. As a Scottish rugby fan there is a slightly more positive feeling going into this year’s round of matches, coming of an arguably successful 2017 which included the first Six Nations since 2006 in which the men in blue won three matches….

The 2006 tournament was really my first experience of watching rugby, and a remember as seven year old being enthralled in the five weekend’s of coverage as Scotland recorded victories over France, England and Italy finishing third. After this first experience of moderate success I thought this was the status quo and couldn’t wait for the 2007 championship. This excitement came to a crashing halt a year later after a drive to Murrayfield on misty, wet roads resulted in a 37-17 defeat the Italians. Conceding three tries in the opening ten minutes was not a great introduction to a sporting arena which had played host to many highs, just not in my lifetime.

From there it seemed to go down hill every year as a Scotland fan. Most years we would usually either struggle to beat the Italians or spring the occasional surprise on England (2008), Ireland (2010, 2013) while losing to Italy. This often meant we were awarded the dreaded ‘Wooden Spoon’, the award given to the bottom team after the Scots had only managed one victory or even finished without.

Every year we would turn our attention to the other nations, watching jealously as the likes of France, Wales, Ireland and England competed for the trophy. Thought this was still entertaining from the perspective of a rugby fan there is a growing desperation to play part in the top half of the tournament. With no memory of the Five Nations victory when I was all but several months it has been rare to experience much in the way of Scottish success.

Recent Scottish hope

However, following an encouraging (and perhaps unlucky – don’t worry I won’t o into detail) performance in the previous year’s World Cup, where our hopes were ended by Australia and referee Craig Joubert in the Quarter Finals, the Scots had a relatively strong campaign in 2016 ending a nine Six Nations game rot with  a convincing win in Italy before beating the French at home. The campaign also included close encounters with England and France before being outmuscled by Ireland after a plucky performance. Things looked to finally be on the up under the tuition of Vern Cotter and as mentioned the Scots went one better a year later.

After beating a tough Japanese side that Summer before victories over Argentina and Tonga were followed by a agnosing defeat by Australia, (this seems to have become bit of a grudge match) the men in blue recorded three victories in the 2017 championship winning every home game. These included impressive victories against Ireland and Wales either side of a disappointing defeat in Paris by a brutal French side. However, the only let down was a massive 61-21 defeat at Twickenham to the ‘Auld Enemy’, a loss which a comprehensive last round defeat of Italy couldn’t make up for. This loss was comprehended by a 4th place finish as our points difference took a battering after the England game.

As ‘Big Vern’ packed his bags and made his way to the French ‘Top 14’ and Montpeillier, there was a wide sense amongst Scottish fans that he had taken the national side a long way. There was confidence that the entrance of successful Glasgow and former Scottish international, Gregor Townsend, would result in the continuation of this progress. In the following months it became obvious that the SRU’s appointment hadn’t been based on false evidence as Scotland travelled to Australia and gained revenge for the two previous defeats after a convincing victory over Italy in Singapore.

A loss to Fiji down there was the forgotten after it rained tries at Murrayfield in a 44-38 victory over their Pacific neighbors, Samoa. This seemed to back up the Townsend mentality of playing chaotic rugby with a focus on scoring lots of tries even if it meant the opposition crossed the whitewash a lot too. This victory was followed by a narrow defeat by New Zealand in which some awesome defensive work by the class act which is Beuden Barret stopped Stuart Hogg meters from the line in the 80th minute. ‘Hoggy’ was spot on when he said it was “bloody close” post match. A 22-17 defeat in the end.

I don’t think anybody predicted what was going to happen next. After the frustration of not quite getting across that whitewash in the previous Hogg was ruled out in the warm up for the Australia game. He likely didn’t think he would watch the Scots score eight tries against the Wallabies in a scintillating display against the 14 man tourists. In an amazing display the Scots put down a marker for this year’s Six Nations and that just about brings us up to date.

Form and Expectations

Many armchair experts in the media seem to be putting the Scots up there with England and Ireland but I would be cautious, figuring that we don’t suit the tag of being semi-favorites very well. First of all England enter this tournament with one defeat in their last 24 games under the masterful leadership of Eddie Jones with only a game against New Zealand surely providing a benchmark of whether they are the best team in the world (they haven’t met in England’s last 24 games). Despite criticism off some areas of they’re performance, you can’t argue that they aren’t hugely clinical.

Ireland, the only side to beat a Jones led England, should probably be seen as the joint or second favorites for the championship. After a disappointing campaign last time round, (defeats to Scotland and Wales rendered the victory over England as a consolation for not being in the running for lifting the trophy)  they should be following a successful Autumn with the hopes of treating the last game away against England as the decider this time round.

Moving onto Scotland’s other Celtic cousin, it has been well remarked in the media that Wales seem to be going through a transitional period. Their performances in the Autumn didn’t exactly set the rugby community alight, even if they were slightly more plucky against New Zealand and South Africa after a shocking display against Georgia at the Millennium. Though it must be said that a poor Autumn often doesn’t mean a poor Six Nations for the Welsh. Last year’s championship was mixed for them as well. Impressive wins over Ireland and Italy along with a perhaps unlucky defeat to England, went hand in hand with defeat to Scotland and France in a farcical 100 minute game in Paris.

It is my opinion that as we head towards the North Sea there unfortunately isn’t anything to get to excited about this year. The French who for long periods of time have dominated who gets their hands on the trophy, have been out of sorts for at least the last five years, winning it last in 2010 and rarely finishing in the top half of the table since. The cliché of them being massively unpredictable seems to have been altered to them either being very poor or pretty mediocre in their performances, a missed conversion saving their blushes in a 23-23 draw against Japan in the Autumn. Incredulously though, it is the French and I am therefore not willing to quite write them off yet.

Last but not least there is Italy, the long term minnows of the tournament who will be hoping to improve this year. Although I think an improved Italy would be good for the championship I don’t want to seem them beat Scotland like they managed to in on multiple occasions in previous years. There is a hope that former Harlequins coach, Connor O’Shea can work some magic after improvements in the Pro 14 and Europe by Treviso and Zebre. Can they avoid the Wooden Spoon? We shall wait and see.

The Predictions

With the bonus point system of last year in place this adds slight complication but I will try my best and look forward to seeing how wrong I am.

Round 1

Wales Vs. Scotland –  Hardest one to predict, but I think Scotland will break their duck of losses in Cardiff in a close match where Wales will get a losing bonus point.

France Vs. Ireland – Ireland started slowly last year and I think the same will happen in Paris with the exception that they will win in a game likely dominated by penalty goals. Victory by ten points or so for the visitors.

Italy Vs. England – The hosts will put up a fight for the first half but England will pull away for a convincing BP win after an hour at the most.

Round 2

Ireland Vs. Italy – Not unlike last year, Ireland likely to win this one convincingly with a BP.

England Vs. Wales – Won’t be as close as last time round but plucky Welsh performance will earn them a losing BP.

Scotland Vs. France – France will want to make amends for Irish loss but will be beaten in close high scoring encounter by Scots. Losing BP for French.

Round 3

France Vs. Italy – This may be the game the Italians target the most and I predict a close affair in Marseille. Losing BP for Italy.

Ireland Vs. Wales – Wales have often acted as Ireland’s bogey with last year being no exception. This year however I think Ireland will win by 15 points or more.

Scotland Vs. England – Hopefully closer than last year’s demolition. England to win tense encounter at Murrayfield. Scotland get losing BP.

Round 4

Ireland Vs. Scotland – Huge prediction but reckon Ireland will come unstuck in lively affair in Dublin. Irish to gain losing BP though.

France Vs. England – England to win in unconvincing style in a poor game. France to get losing BP.

Wales Vs. Italy – Welsh to blow off steam after plucky first half performance by Italians to get BP win.

Round 5

Italy Vs. Scotland – With championship hopes on the line Scotland to win by narrow margin in Rome. Italian losing BP.

England Vs. Ireland – Ireland beat English at Twickenham narrowly to take championship on points difference on dramatic last day. Losing BP for England.

Wales Vs. France – Wales to finish disappointing campaign with narrow victory over flat French side. Losing BP to French.

Final Standings

  1. Ireland – 18 points (4 wins)
  2. England – 18 points (4 wins)
  3. Scotland – 17 points (4 wins)
  4. Wales – 11 points (2 wins)
  5. France – 7 points (1 win)
  6. Italy – 2 points