Friday, 26 June 2015

Toronto, St. Catharines and Niagara Falls, NY

The other week I hopped on a plane over to Canada to see one of my closest friends and her family after a two year gap. I spent a fair chunk of the trip on my own due to Nicole working which, whilst not ideal when you've travelled a long way to see someone, at least gave me the chance to put my own plan together and get out and see and do things I normally wouldn't get the chance to.

I landed in Toronto mid afternoon and faced the usual friendly welcome from Canadian customs. Considering all the stereotypes, mainly true, of how polite they all are, you think border control would be less menacing. "What are you doing when here? How do you know these friends? What do you do for a living?" Still, I got through without the need for rubber gloves, picked my gear up and got an expensive taxi to the hotel. At least I'll be able to get a train next time...

After setting myself up in a swanky 4 star gaff and failing to get a conversation going with two young ladies I went out for a wander. Maple Leaf Gardens, former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs, was just around the corner. There's a university athletics centre in the roof and the rest is now a supermarket with recognition of the building's past around the place. Including centre ice marked in aisle 25. Canned goods, if you're making notes.

Maple Leaf Gardens

Maple Leaf Gardens

After that I had a mooch down to the Eaton Centre, grabbed a quick drink before I passed out and thought about buying something in the Blue Jays store before I realised I hadn't brought anything more than change out with me. So with jet lag and the lack of food catching up with me I headed off back to hotel before jumping on a streetcar out of the city centre.

Eaton Centre

The area I found myself in found a mixture of Canadian natives of varying backgrounds as well as immigrants going about their daily lives, side by side, without a care in the world. I loved it. Felt like home. One belting curry at Alok's recommendation later and all felt right with the world. A trip home with the same cultural melting pot and an encounter with a local piss-artist (non threatening, I hasten to add) and I was back at the hotel armed with breakfast and ready to turn in.

The next day started off quite leisurely in anticipation of the potential runaround ahead. I got the subway to Union, wandered around Maple Leaf Gardens and the station before mooching to Harbourfront. It was nice to wander around at my own pace, do my own thing and see things you don't normally get taken to as a tourist. After all, you're on your holidays, surely you want to see "x, y and z" instead...

Union Station

Air Canada Centre

Harbourfront

But, from this moment on, I was playing tourist for a bit. Thanks to Nicole I'd got a cheap ticket for the Hockey Hall of Fame and a half price voucher for a "photo package" with the Stanley Cup. Why the hell not? I was second in line behind dad and two lads and, whilst they went straight to the immediate exhibits, I belted straight for the Great Hall. Previous experience counting in my favour...

 Stanley Cup

I had a good ten minutes on my own in there with the Cup, having a good look at it and the other stuff in the hall, including the original bowl. Once the kids piled in and it got a bit noisy I headed back to the rest of the museum. It was a bit of a quick race around, I could come in and out all day and had other things to fit in before the evening train. So I headed on over to Roundhouse Park, by the CN Tower.

Toronto Railway Museum

The two things to see here were Steam Whistle Brewing and the Toronto Railway Museum. After a good look at the old engines, station buildings and carriages outside on the park, I headed into the brewery for the half 11 tour.

It was a corker. I was trumped on distance travelled by a young couple from New Zealand and there were people from across the States, too. After an interesting hour and a couple of free beers it was back down to the bar, another freeman's, chatting with locals and a few more drinks before deciding being half cut at 1 (I hadn't eaten since breakfast) was a bad idea. So I headed out and into the museum next door. I'd recommend the tour to anyone, well worth it.

Steam Whistle Brewing


The railway museum building itself was small, but there are plans to expand after a long battle for being recognised as a legitimate organisation. Plenty of interesting stuff, the chance to drive a simulated train and the stuff outside meant the $5 was well worth it to help keep the place going. The history and heritage of the human race should be celebrated and preserved. Just a shame the miniature railway wasn't running. I had a good natter with the woman in there and then headed over towards the CN Tower and Rogers Centre (or Skydome, if you prefer) wondering what to do next.

Toronto Railway Museum


After wandering into the base of the Tower and deciding against paying the asking price to head up, I stumbled on the ground tour for the Rogers Centre. Surprisingly, considering there was a game on that night, they were still doing tours. I booked myself on the next one, grabbed a hot dog, nosied around the shop and then headed back for the tour.

It was very enjoyable, seeing bits of the ground that were normally blocked off. The guide was a touch eccentric, but very knowledgeable and had family from the north of England. He knew the value of HP Sauce well!

Rogers Centre

From there I went back to the Hall of Fame for a final wander around before retrieving my bags from the hotel. Which turned into a harder slog than intended due to the ensuing thunderstorm that rattled the city. Eventually, piss wet through, I got into Real Sports Bar & Grill for food and a pint. After that it was onto the GO Train and off to Burlington.

There I met Nicole and Tony and we headed off to St. Catharines. It's always good to see her and even though it's usually only every couple of years or so, it's as though we've never been apart. A good couple of days followed, including a family barbeque which ended drunkenly in the early hours of the morning.

Of course, itchy feet got the better of me on Sunday, as well as the urge to groundhop. Which is why I found myself hopping on a bus then hiking through Niagara Falls to get to Niagara United and watch a bit of the Niagara Cup Classic tournament that was going on. Only it turns out it is a youth tournament and I was sat on the main pitch watching an under 15s girls' final. Still, it was football at a new ground and it was good to tick it off. It was also a walk through familiar territory. Some old haunts greeted me on the way down.

Niagara United Soccer Club

Monday saw me with a day to myself so, after negotiating an annoyingly late coach to Niagara Falls, I finally walked over Rainbow Bridge and crossed into the United States of America for the first time. Country number 16. This really did turn into a box ticking exercise, but it was good to do and I'll be heading back over again in the future. Niagara Falls State Park is lovely and it's nice that they've done their best to keep it more natural and scenic. Even the border guards were friendly and human. Take note, Canada!

International Border Line

After getting stuck behind a couple changing $US3,000 worth of cash, I eventually got some US Dollars of my own and wandered off into the park.

After a mooch around Goat Island and Terrapin Point, I headed down to the Cave of the Winds for a good old drenching. Back up onto the surface and it was now chucking it down, although it didn't take long to pass and I ended up relatively dry. A wander onto the observation deck later and, after just a few hours, I was ready to head back over.

Observation Deck


Canadian Customs were at it again. When I said I was over visiting friends, after the questioning on how I knew them, I got a pearler.

"And did she not fancy walking out with you today?"
"Well, she would have loved to, but she's in work."
"Oh..."

Pedestrians to Canada

After all that I had a brief wander around the Canadian side of the Falls for old time's sake and then went for the coach back.

The next day was fairly lazy, which I needed. A lie in, finally working out the local transit buses and meeting Nicole at work for dinner were followed by a gentle walk around St. Catharines. And, having been introduced to the musical delights of The Trews by Nic, I had to go and have a mooch around Montebello Park.

Montebello Park


The next day was a bit more adventurous. A long walk through St. Catharines, off the beaten track once more (not that there is a beaten track around there, they don't expect tourists to get to S.C.) taking in the railway station (nerd alert!) and Club Roma, where a dilapidated ground marked the home for St. Catharines Roma Wolves. Once of the Canadian Soccer League, they now just operate junior sides. Politics. It's a long story.

St. Catharines Railway Station

Club Roma Stadium

After a look at a baseball field next door it was off back into downtown St. Catharines, getting into a bar just before the rain came down. Not quite on the levels of the Toronto storm, but it was a good downpour.

After a nosebag and a couple of pints, it was back to meet Nic and later on we were off out for more food and drink in the familiar Celtic Club. Well, I say familiar, some parts of my last visit are a bit hazy to say the least. No such shenanigans this time and it was a pleasant last full evening in the company of good friends.

Not a lot to report after that. I had a final wander around St. Catharines, finally got into Preston Pies, did a spot of people watching in Montebello Park and had a look at the cathedral and armoury. Then it was spend a bit more time with everyone before the airbus whisked me away to YYZ. My usual routine at terminal 3 ruined by the ongoing building works. Still, time was killed easy enough and a smooth flight brought me back to the North West.

Cathedral of Saint Catherine of Alexandria

It's never good leaving close friends behind, especially when they're such a long way away, but there's something comforting about the familiarity of home. And knowing you're leaving them behind settled and happy helps as well. Here's to the next one.

Flickr set of photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHske918Ba

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Glasgow Groundhopping

The other weekend I decided to hop up to Glasgow on an early train to watch Queen's Park at home to Annan Athletic in Scottish League 2. The main reason being, of course, that Queen's Park own and play at Hampden Park, which is a ground I've always wanted to go to and this seemed a good way of doing it. I always wanted to have a nosey at Lesser Hampden next door and the site of the two original Hampdens, including the rather wonderful Cathkin Park.

When the first Hampden was knocked down (which I'll touch on later), a second site was bought and developed by Queen's Park and opened in 1884. In 1903, Queen's Park had moved to their third site, which is the ground currently known as Hampden Park. Third Lanark A.C. took the ground over and renamed it Cathkin Park. They played there until 1967, when the club went under. Over the years, the decaying body of the ground was removed, however a large part of the terracing still remains in what has now been made into a public park. The pitch itself is still in use, a reformed amateur Third Lanark side used the pitch for a couple of seasons but seemed to have disappeared and a side called Hampden AFC play some home games in the Glasgow Colleges FA League there.

Cathkin Park

It's also become home for the Jimmy Johnstone Academy, who have use of a clubhouse on site. It was one of their teams who were playing when I headed up the steps and onto the back of the terracing around the ground.

Cathkin Park

It was a surreal experience wandering around the place, looking around at the old terraces and being able to perch on a crash barrier with all the trees and wildlife around you. It was strange to think that you were once surrounded by large stands and structures that were no longer in place.

Cathkin Park

Cathkin Park

Once the game going on had finished, I wandered down onto the pitch to have a walk across and take in the view pitch-side. The large empty gap along one side where the main stand used to be added to the strangeness of the view. It was a bit spooky wandering around, but also a great thrill to see such a huge piece of football history still in place. Even bits of the track around the edge of the pitch were still visible underneath your feet.

Cathkin Park

Whilst I was wandering around the terracing, I was beckoned by one of the fellas who'd been organising the game. Both sides had vacated the clubhouse and dressing rooms, so, noticing that I was wandering around looking at the history of the place, he took me into the clubhouse to have a look around. There was another bloke from the academy in there as well and the two of them took the time to show me various things and have a chat about the club and football in general.

Jimmy Johnstone Academy

Once that was done, it was a quick hop up the road to the site of the first Hampden Park. Queen's Park vacated the ground in 1883 as the Glasgow City Corporation decided that the new Cathcart railway line should pass through the site. What is left of the site is marked by Hampden Bowling Club, which is handily placed for you to nosey at from the bridge over the railway line.

Lesser Hampden

Lesser Hampden

Once I'd been there I headed for the next stop, Lesser Hampden, a small ground in the shadow of Hampden Park. Recently done up for the Commonwealth Games, the ground is used by Queen's Park for training and youth/academy games. Their clubhouse (branded a bistro...) is in there overlooking the pitch, so I wandered up there, had a pint and watched two of their youth teams playing Dundee FC on the pitch.

DSC00519

Lesser Hampden

Lesser Hampden

Once that was done, I walked over for the main game of the day - Queen's Park v Annan Athletic at Hampden Park in Scottish League 2.

Hampden Park

It's strange to think that Queen's Park themselves own the ground and lease it out to the Scottish FA for Finals and Internationals, as well as leasing office space and so on. It was the first time I'd been to the ground and it was hard to imagine the chaos there may be on large match days when there's less than a thousand people knocking around.

Hampden Park

The match itself wasn't the best, with Queen's Park 2-0 up at halftime the game was over as a contest and the second half was a tad pedestrian. The crowd was 462, spread across 5 blocks, 4 of which were open, one of them separated from the rest by the unused press area in the centre of the main stand. A few people were in a directors' section at the back, but most were out in the open, leaving three quarters of a 52,000 seater stadium completely unused. Some of the taping off of blocks seemed a bit draconian,but then again it was G4S providing the security, which seemed very OTT for me, but I suppose it's a drawback to playing in a ground such as Hampden.

Hampden Park

Hampden Park

Hampden Park

Hampden Park

Queen's Park are completely amateur and staffed, in the main at least, by volunteers. A small club shop on the concourse did a decent trade and the home supporters were a decent, knowledgeable lot who did quite a bit to encourage the team in front of them. Annan didn't bring that many with them, but there was a group of meddlesome kids at the back acting like you'd expect young teenagers on an away trip to act. Pity about the drum, mind, lads.

By the time the final whistle came around I'd retreated to the back of the stand to avoid the rain and wind that was blowing into the front of the stand. A quick dart to the nearby Mount Florida railway station and I was soon back at Glasgow Central and jumping on a train back home. It was a good day out and I'm glad I did it. I'd be tempted to go back to Hampden for a big game, just to be able to fully compare the two. I'll also be eyeing up another League 2 fixture to compare and contrast the difference. And I'll certainly have another wander around Cathkin Park if I get the chance, something which I'd highly recommend to anyone who finds themselves around there with time on their hands.

Full set of photos can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8580799@N06/sets/72157651869063136/

Thursday, 23 April 2015

FC United of Manchester - Northern Premier League Champions 2014/2015

On Tuesday night FC United beat Stourbridge Town FC 1-0 at the Tameside Stadium, earning the points needed to seal the league title and promotion to the Conference after seven years in the division.

Three playoff final defeats in a row. A playoff semi-final defeat immediately following them. Each one followed with an increased sense of doom and gloom. Now, finally, all of that can be forgotten as we start next season in a new ground and a new league.

It's been a hell of a ten years. We've had our detractors and we still do. From "it won't last until Christmas" to "you're just a bunch of Judas bastards" we've heard it all. But we're still here and proving that there is a better way for football.

FC United of Manchester, Northern Premier League Champions 2014/2015.

FC United of Manchester, Northern Premier League Champions 2014/2015.

FC United of Manchester, Northern Premier League Champions 2014/2015.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

She Makes War at The Wonder Inn, Manchester

I had intended to do a blog a month this year, so the second of April to do the first one since November is a bit of a failure. I'm intending to kick my arse into gear from here on in and also try to do a few smaller updates to plug the gaps...
Last Friday (27th March) I went to watch She Makes War (Laura Kidd) at the newly opened Wonder Inn in Shudehill, Manchester. I stumbled across Laura's music on Bandcamp last year and fallen in love with it straight away. This gig was the first chance I had to watch her perform live. I bought the ticket in advance as part of a pledge for her self-funded new album (http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/smwdot/). After finding my way into the venue (the door was at the back, rather than the front) and buying a bottle of ale, I got a spot by the front wall in readiness for the evening's entertainment.
Support came first from Forgery Lit, a three piece from Bristol, who started things off with a bang. A cracking set with some superb, rhythmic sounds driven by lead vocalist and drummer (yes, that's right) Ami. There was a good interaction between the band, both during and between songs, that just added nicely to their performance. Definitely a band to keep an eye on.
Next up was a spoken word set from Steph Pike, with a good old left-wing, equality for all theme that stuck a chord with everyone in there, including yours truly. Her poem about David Cameron had everyone laughing for probably both the right and wrong reasons - I'll not spoil the surprise and just say, if you get the chance, go and see her perform.
Then it was Louis Barabbas' turn. He usually performs with his band, Bedlam Six, but was on his own tonight, first performing songs that he'd written for a musical and then some of his older stuff, taking requests from the crowd. It's an energetic, manic performance full of leg twitching, stomping and leaps into the audience. The performance of The Tell Tale Hound at the end is superb, as Louis performs a song as three characters - including a dog. Impersonation included. It's a hell of a sight.
There was a further spoken word interlude, this time from Rebecca Audra Smith, in much the same vein as the previous one and equally well received. Again, well worth a listen if you get the chance and agree with angry, lefty, feminist type poetry. It certainly works for me!
Finally, it was Laura's turn and, unusually for her, she was joined by Ami from Forgery Lit on drums and a lad called Simon playing guitar and violin. This is unusual for SMW as she usually does everything herself using loop pedals and effects. As it was, this still worked well and she did do some songs on her own as well. It was a wonderful performance and her chattiness between songs, opening up about the influences of each song (boiled down, at one point, to "how shit my love life is") endeared her to everyone even more and added a much more personal touch to the songs and performance. Even a rather loud talker at the back of the room, banging on about his own self-importance and some piece of art or other, didn't affect her pleasantness as she dismissed it with a glib sarcastic comment. It went straight over his head, but the rest of us appreciated it.
Laura's live work is as much about the visual as the audio, something which came to life when she performed Delete, walking around the audience with a megaphone. It's a sight that brings an extra level to the performance and captivates everyone in the room.
The gig closes with an invite to hang around for a drink and a chat. As I had to bail for a train, I had a quick chat with Laura to thank her for the evening and got thanked back for coming out, before heading off home. She'll be playing again around September and I'll definitely be making the effort for it. Look up Laura's music and, if you get the chance, go and see her.
Finally, The Wonder Inn looks set to be a cracking little venue for Manchester and will be well worth supporting.
The Wonder in are on Facebook here and also on Twitter here.
Forgery Lit's Bandcamp can be found here.
Louis Barabbas' Bandcamp can be found here and his Bedlam Six stuff can be found here.
She Makes War's website can be found here and her Bandcamp can be found here.



Full set of photos here:- https://www.flickr.com/photos/8580799@N06/sets/72157651291041349/












Monday, 22 December 2014

Lisbon

For the last weekend in November, myself and Hursty decided to disappear to Lisbon. We had intended on going back to Berlin to see Babelsberg play again, but the flights were a bit more expensive than last time, so the plan changed to going somewhere new instead. At £60 for a return flight, Lisbon seemed too hard to turn down. It turned into an excellent decision. Still warm, friendly, easy to get around and the cheapest city I've been to in Western Europe. It was brilliant and I'd highly recommend going. Plenty to see and do and a short train ride gets you to some picturesque beach towns as well (we ended up in Estoril for a few hours). There were a couple of games of football thrown in (because why not?), Sporting on the Saturday night and Clube Oriental de Lisboa on the Sunday afternoon. The latter was bizarre. We'd been sat in the stand drinking at Sporting, then turned up to a second division game with segregation, police everywhere and no alcohol on sale... Still, that turned into the better game of football, so swings and roundabouts. Overall, a brilliant place to go and spend a few days. I'll be going back. Full set of photos can be found here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/8580799@N06/sets/72157649564861832/

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Brighton and Hove

A few weeks ago, I spent a few days in Brighton & Hove for Lancashire's last away game of the County Championship season. It was a crucial game which we needed to win to give ourselves a realistic chance of staying up. Of course, the script went as it had done all season and we were eventually relegated when Middlesex beat us at Old Trafford.

Still, it was a good few days away. I'd only ever been to Brighton twice, once to the old Withdean Stadium and didn't get to see the town, the other was to Hove where I didn't see a ball bowled and didn't see much of the town beyond a stretch of beach and a large number of pubs... So it was good to get there and be able to have a proper nosey around.

There was still the pub ticking to do. Food from a few recommended places and others that had been spotted when out and about. A good pint, a good curry and a good burger, always a nice addition to any trip! And a proper walk along the front and a gentle evening mooch along the pier. It was good to have the time to wander around and see a bit more of the place. Just a shame it'll be a couple of years, at least, before I get to go back. But the cricket itself is a whole other post...