From Meanwood to the Dales

I was asked the other day why I thought the Meanwood Valley was so special. As I’ve spent much of 2016 trying to help protect one particularly valuable corner of the Valley, I thought this was a pretty timely question.

I ended up thinking about my first impressions of Meanwood Valley, which I got to know pretty well shortly after I moved to the area in 2005 (I’d never lived in Leeds before then). These days when people move to a new area, I guess they do some web searches and find out as much as they can about it online. But back then, and as a Rambler at heart, my first thoughts turned to the good old Ordnance Survey map.

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And glancing at the map, the appeal of the Meanwood Valley to me was immediately obvious. Here was a green corridor extending almost from Leeds city centre, continuing for several miles north through the suburbs and out into the open countryside. Not only that, a clear public footpath ran all the way up the valley and beyond. Looking more closely revealed the words “Dales Way link” – thus Meanwood was a route by which you could walk from Leeds to the Yorkshire Dales and beyond.

Nowhere else in Leeds is this characteristic so marked. I suppose I was spoilt by having lived in Sheffield for many years where a number of green, accessible-on-foot valleys link the inner city with the Peak District to the west. So from the outset, I rather cherished the idea of one day walking out of my new house in Meanwood and (apart from the first 10 minutes of suburbia) all the way through countryside up the Valley and into the Dales.

But for one reason or another, for the next 8 years it never happened. And if it was easy to point to having young children to bring up as why, then this became the reason why it eventually did happen. Young child 1 had grown to become a restless 9 year-old with another long summer day to kill. “Why don’t we go for a walk or something Dad?” “OK, would you walk to Bramhope?” “Where’s Bramhope?” “Don’t worry, just follow me”.

We walked the 5 miles to Bramhope up the Valley, past Eccup Reservoir and into the village by some ridiculously-sized mansions. Then we got the bus back. 9 year-old had got the bug. Over the rest of that summer and autumn, we did a sequence of walks, each time driving to where the previous leg had finished, walking a few more miles, then getting the bus or train back. Bramhope to Menston, Menston to Ilkley, Ilkley to Bolton Abbey, Bolton Abbey to Grassington and, finally, Grassington to Buckden. We’d gone from Meanwood to the top of Wharfedale in 6 steps – 40 miles or so in total. For 9 year-old (now 12) it was quite an achievement.

Buckden is the bus terminus, so our journey was forced to stop there. But still there was something magical about the adventure, about having had the chance to escape from the city and into the National Park on foot. I’d like to think that future newcomers to Leeds would have the same chance.

 

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Otley Chevin from Burley Moor

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Approaching Bolton Abbey

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Burnsall bridge

 

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Crossing the Wharfe near Hebden

 

 

“Great is the rivalry, even greater the friendship”

Review of “Today we Die a Little – The Rise and Fall of Emil Zatopek, Olympic Legend” by Richard Askwith

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This excellent biography uses one of the famous quotes attributed to its subject as its title. But I’ve entitled this blog with a quote that struck me even more. It doesn’t feel very likely that an Olympic champion would say this about their fellow competitors these days. But the theme running through this book is that the Czech Emil Zatopek deserves the status of sporting hero as much for his generous spirit as his incredible achievements in athletics.

Before reading the book I had heard the name Zatopek as a famous athlete of the black and white era, but other than that knew nothing about him – exactly when he ran, what distances, what he won etc. But while I was approaching the subject fresh, I had read one of the author’s previous books about running – the mini-classic “Feet in the Clouds” – so I had high expectations. They were not disappointed.

Askwith has a breezy, eminently readable style that draws you in effortlessly to his subject. And Zatopek’s story is worth telling. A moderately talented athlete, he became the best primarily through sheer hard work – a maniacal training regime totally unusual for the time. This initially brought him a gold and silver in the 10,000m and 5,000m at the 1948 Olympics, as well as a number of records. But I knew so little about him I was even unaware of the achievement for which he is most famous – an unbelievable triple gold at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics of 5,000m, 10,000m and marathon. And I thought Mo Farah’s “double double” of 5,000m/10,000m golds at 2012 and 2016 was the greatest Olympic achievement in long distance running!

But there’s a lot more to this book than athletics. Equal weight is placed on exploring Zatopek’s personality – his cheerful demeanour, his time for fans and people generally, including the touching relationship with his wife. But in particular, the graciousness of his dealings with fellow athletes. Competing for Zatopek ultimately appears to have been a vehicle for making friends. He even gifted one of his Olympic medals to another athlete who had missed out through bad luck.

The book’s title mentions the “Rise and Fall” and, not unusually in sporting biography, we find that our hero’s life after retiring from their sport was not so spectacularly successful as their earlier career. Zatopek spoke out against the repression that followed the liberating “Prague Spring” of 1968 and was gradually frozen out of society as a result. He was dismissed from the Czech army and ended up working in a drilling gang in remote areas, living in a caravan.

It’s a real additional strength of the book that it acts as an effective history of Czechoslovakia, as well as of Zatopek. Ironically, Zatopek’s life (1922-2000) almost exactly dovetails that of the country. Much of that time it was a totalitarian state, and we are drawn into the difficulties and dilemmas of being that state’s most famous international figure (at times the book reads like some real life parallel of 1984 or a spy-thriller!). I was reminded of the best book I have read about the recent history of Northern Ireland – Johnny Rogan’s biography of Van Morrison. A good biography can do that.

Recommended. Put it on your Christmas list. It made me want to go out running.

 

The appeal of grassroots sport

There’s an emerging theme elsewhere on this site about my growing disenchantment with elite sport. While this stems from an ongoing planning battle in Leeds where Green Belt may be sacrificed for the purposes of redeveloping Headingley Stadium, it’s actually a general trend I’ve noticed. Footballers can certainly conjure up great matches, but we’re all aware of the ridiculous salaries. What substances are OK for the endurance athletes – runners, cyclists etc – to take or not to take? And while I understand that the golf at last week’s Ryder Cup was of an exceptional standard, I didn’t see it – the ugly, vulgar crowds put me right off from the start.

This is all particularly the case in Leeds where the City Council appears to have been dazzled by hosting the 2014 Tour de France Grand Depart and now can’t get enough of elite sport. Tour de Yorkshire, Olympic Parade, ITU Triathlon etc. Without fully appreciating that it may come at a cost. For the Triathlon earlier in the summer, we were boxed in our cul-de-sac for half a day so that 30 or so elite men and women could cycle down the main road once – 4 hours of road closure for 4 minutes of action. And now we might not be able to jog around our bit of the Meanwood Valley because they want it to redevelop Headingley – it’s just the latest in a long line…..

Meanwhile, I’ve been very happy to be dipping my toe back into a grassroots sport that I was taking pretty seriously 10 years or so ago – fellrunning. The appeal of this admittedly slightly eccentric sport has already been brilliantly described at length in Richard Askwith’s book “Feet in the Clouds”, which I fully recommend to all. A general theme to take from the book is that there is potentially as much appeal and interest in a local, down-to-earth scene like fellrunning as there is in the self-important and commercialised world of elite sport, which we all pay vast sums to Sky, BT etc to watch.

I was reminded of this the other week, lining up for my first fellrace for several years at Burnsall, in the Yorkshire Dales. Just a quick look round the field of 100 or so, I recognised a few faces, not because I knew them personally but because they are the “stars” of the sport. By stars I mean just very competent at what they do, well known on the circuit, with great results and records behind them. But their reasons for being there are just the same as mine – not for any money or glory, it’s just great fun to do. With the greatest respect to Mo Farah (whom I admire), I’m not likely to ever actually rub shoulders with him on a startline anywhere.

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Burnsall was a great race to start again with. An idyllic scene, a race history that goes back to the 19th Century, and a great fellrunning challenge. Basically, you start on the village green, run through a gate and then go up through steep fields to the open fell. At this point the route narrows to a thin track up through the heather to the cairn, 800 feet above the village. When you go for a walk up a hill, one of the things that gets you to the top is the thought of a well-earned rest, a snack and a drink, taking in the view etc. Not with fellrunning. All that effort and within a split second you’re hurtling back down where you’ve come. This is particularly true of Burnsall, where the first half of the descent is so steep you have to put the brakes on to stay on your feet. You then jump a dry-stone wall (which is 6ft high as you approach it, but 9ft down on the other side!) and into the fields. The gradient here is slightly less steep and you can really fly down it, which accounts for the buzz of endorphins that sustain you over the finish line and for long after. Absolutely bloody exhausting, but so worth it.

Elite sport likes its stats but you can get into the stats of fellrunning too. The men’s record at Burnsall is 12.48, set over 30 years ago. Why hasn’t it been broken in all that time? In fact, if you look at the recent winners’ times they’ve actually been getting slower. Could it be that there is a competing event that attracts the top athletes? Is the heather longer now than it used to be? (it can really slow you down, particularly on the descent). Tantalisingly, the race programme reveals that the record ascent time is 8.22, and the record descent is 3.40, meaning that theoretically a 12 minute time is possible!

For me though, I took twice as long. Who cares though? It was just good to be back.

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Home composting in a small garden

Back at the end of May I was meant to be comfortably sitting down at home, watching my team on the telly in the play-offs, their biggest match for 20 years…..

But I could tell things weren’t quite right. Various sounds of complaint could be heard each time another member of the family went into the kitchen. Eventually, it was “Dad, I know the game’s important but you have to come and sort this out”. So I dragged myself away from the box…. to find the kitchen infested with fruit flies. Absolutely everywhere – in the air, on the walls, on the surfaces, in the bin and, most tellingly, in the compost box where we keep our food scraps.

My pride was hurt. Many years ago, I was one of a select number of people in the country to hold down a paid job advising householders on the best ways of making compost. But, as they say, plumbers’ taps leak. I went back to the telly to see my team lose 1-0. The poor fruit flies felt the full brunt of my disappointment that night, as I subjected the kitchen to a deep spray (it really was that bad) and clean. And it was clearly time to go back to basics and remind myself of the magical process that turns your food waste into black gold for the garden (without inconveniencing anyone).

So, here goes, with the help of some photos of our domestic arrangements at home:

 

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We keep a large tupperware box by the sink in the kitchen. Into this goes all the veg scraps, fruit peel and tea bags. The vital lesson we’ve learnt from the fruit fly debacle is that absolutely everything that goes in the box is now wrapped up in either newspaper or kitchen towel. While this might sound excessive, it actually provides the necessary ingredients for a good compost, because all the relatively wet peelings/tea bags etc need to be balanced out by some dryer stuff (you can put in some ripped up card like cereal boxes/the insides of loo rolls too). It also has two other advantages. It helps keep the box clean (although we do run it through the washing up/dishwasher every day anyway). And crucially, it means you don’t get a face full of fruit flies every time you take the lid off a compost bin in the summer months.

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Speaking of which, when the tupperware box is full it’s time to chuck the contents into one of these compost bins in the garden. Compost bins – usually available from Councils for a bit of a discount – are ideal for containing fresh scraps (just chucking scraps on an open heap can attract unwanted visitors to the garden). Compost bins should always be located on soil and dug in at least 6 inches. I don’t have them too close to the house, but close enough to the path so you can still quickly pop out in the dark or rain.

I always have at least 2 bins on the go. When the first one’s full, I start filling up the second one, and when that one’s full, it’s time to empty the first. I can do things this way as we’ve got a small garden with a bit of hedge and other trimmings, so I keep an old-fashioned heap of this garden waste next to the bins.

When it’s time to empty a bin, I pull it up and out of the ground, move the heap of garden waste to one side, shovel the contents of the now-revealed bin into the space, then chuck the garden waste back on top. The half-rotted former contents of the bin are now buried sufficiently not to attract vermin (well, I’ve never seen any while using this method).

You now have an empty compost bin knocking around which you need to get back in the ground so you can keep on composting. To do so, put it where you want it and mark around the base with a spade. Move the bin to one side and, using your mark as a guide, dig a hole at least 6 inches deep. Put the bin in the hole, backfill it with soil and tread it down so it’s secure (you need your work boots on for this bit!).

And finally, harvesting the compost. Eventually your open heap of mixed garden/compost bin material will have rotted down to an untidy black-ish jumble. (Mixing some grass cuttings into the pile in the summer months can speed things along). At this point, I place an old metal grid across a wheelbarrow. I chuck the untidy jumble on top and give it a bit of a shake. What’s left on top goes straight back on the heap. What falls through we can safely call “home compost” and normally goes on our herb beds, which gave us a plentiful supply of mint, sage, thyme, rosemary and lavender this year.

Hope that’s useful and I’d be really interested to hear anyone’s comments or tips. By the way, as yet the fruit flies have not returned!

 

 

 

Falling out of love with the game

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The sound of leather on willow. The immaculate whites on the green turf. The next men in outside the whitewashed pavilion, and the clink of the changing scoreboard. The rustic backdrop of trees and cottages. The faded athleticism of the players, dying for a fag or a pint. What more perfect a picture of rural charm can you imagine?

A quick perusal of the Meanwood Rambler’s Twitter feed will reveal that historically he’s been a bit of a cricket fan. I’ve followed the game most of my life and have been to Headingley often enough, watching all forms of the game – 20-20, 1-day, county and Test. Indeed it wasn’t so long ago that you’d hear me saying that one of the great things about living where I do is that it’s only 40 minutes walk to the ground.

Not any more, I’m afraid. There’s another place around here that I like even better. A place where, like the cricket ground, you go to momentarily escape from the pressures of city life and take in a different scene. Except here you can go whenever you want, it doesn’t cost anything and they don’t kick you out at the end of the day. A special place indeed – a place of true natural beauty. There’s nowhere in inner city Leeds quite like it.

One of the bitter and cruel ironies of the planning application to build on Tetley Field is that its apparent justification is for the sake of the game of cricket, to secure Headingley’s Test Match status. Cricket – the sport we most closely associate with bucolic images of the English countryside – seeking to rob us of the most precious piece of English countryside we have in inner city Leeds, just where it’s needed most.

So little wonder then that I’ve gradually lost interest in the game during 2016. I’m vaguely aware that Yorkshire narrowly failed in all 3 domestic competitions this season, but I’ve been indifferent to it. I know I’m not alone in this sense of alienation from the Club – many of the Objectors to the application have stated they are members or fans of YCCC and are disgusted by the proposal. What a way to treat your own fans!

There’s a deeper issue that underlies all this – the perilous state of YCCC’s finances. It feels like a bit of an elephant in the room but let’s get it said – the current structure of domestic cricket just doesn’t stack up economically. The majority of days cricket at Headingley are still played in front of crowds of no more than 1000, in a ground with a capacity of around 17000. No wonder they are so desparate to retain Test status – it’s their only reliable source of income!

So we are left with the situation where there is only 1 way to fund the redevelopment of the stadium – from the general public. Leeds City Council has already agreed to gift £4m of taxpayers’ money to YCCC for the stadium project. Another £4m of public money is proposed from the Local Economic Partnership. And of course we have the 2 Green Belt planning applications and the risk of the loss of significant public amenity.

So the whole stadium redevelopment project is proposed to be funded not just by people who follow cricket but by everyone. The public propping up a failing business; residents’ day to day needs sacrificed for elite sport and civic status.

I mentioned earlier that a number of cricket fans have objected to the planning application. Well, the majority of people aren’t cricket fans, and they’re not going to get any benefit at all from losing the Field for the sake of the stadium. The way it’s going, I’m not going to be a cricket fan for much longer either.