Thoughts on Wales beating England to Rugby World Cup knockout stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

Wales beat Fiji to reach Rugby World Cup 2015 knock out stage

In the end, the Group of Death proved nothing of the sort for Wales’s Rugby World Cup dreams. I was privileged to watch the victories over Uruguay and Fiji at the Millennium Stadium – but the real glory was our magnificent victory over England at Twickenham last weekend.

I still expected England to beat Australia – they have a good record against the Wallabies – but the hosts were woeful, going down to their worst ever defeat at HQ to Australia. Stuart Lancaster’s obsessive tinkering crashed England’s world cup chariot after just 16 days.

I’m thrilled that Wales are through. It’s extraordinary that a team so decimated with injuries should have the power to overcome tough opponents in England and Fiji. It speaks volumes for team spirit and their extraordinary coach, Warren Gatland, who has now plotted three wins at Twickenham in eight seasons. Australia will be tougher opponents, but that’s no longer a must-win match.

I’m also sorry that England are out. They didn’t deserve to progress, but the tournament is diminished by the host’s departure from their own party. And millions of England fans including many friends are feeling the intense pain of a premature exit. Blame the crazy decision to make the draw almost three years before the opening ceremony. Back in 2012, Wales slipped down the world rankings because we lost an extra autumn international to the Wallabies. As a result, the authorities placed four of the nations ranked in the top 10 on the eve of the tournament – Wales, Australia, England and Fiji – in the same group. Let’s hope they learn the lesson.

Meanwhile, the Welsh party continues!

Cymru am byth!

Cymru am byth!

The best Palace to Palace bike ride yet

We made it: at the Palace to Palace finish, Windsor

We made it: at the Palace to Palace finish, Windsor

Today, I joined colleagues from PayPal UK and thousands of others to cycle from Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle (Palace to Palace) to raise money for The Prince’s Trust. It was a brilliant day that will have raised a huge amount of money for this very important charity, which gives a fresh start to disadvantaged young people.

This was my third Palace to Palace. It was definitely the best yet. Part of that was down to me – I’ve cycled hundreds of miles this summer, which helped me keep up with colleagues 20 years younger than me, and finish at an average speed of 15.9mph compared with 11.9mph last year. I’ve also got a wonderful road bike – a Specialized Roubaix. But it also reflects great work by the organisers. We were back on the faster traditional route via Fulham after last year’s slog through Wandsworth, caused by the summer 2014 closure of Putney Bridge. And they seemed to be managing the flow of departures better – while it took ages to get to the start line, we didn’t find anything like as much cycle congestion in London compared with the previous two years. We got to Richmond Park, 10 miles out, in just over 40 minutes.

Thanks to my new found fitness, I enjoyed a novel experience – being in a peloton. About seven of us from PayPal rode in formation, taking it in turns to lead the train. I was leading the way as we passed the M25, and again as we climbed towards the M3. That effort took a lot out of me, and I rode solo for a few miles before rejoining the train at the last water station at 35 miles. I braced myself for the hill I dreaded in previous years after Englefield Green. Suddenly the road plunged – and I realised I had already climbed the hill without noticing it. It was a delicious moment.

Windsor is a wonderful destination – whether you’re on a bike or arriving by car or train. This year we had the added bonus of cycling up the Long Walk towards Windsor Castle, which offers a wonderful view of the largest castle in Europe. Soon after, we arrived at Windsor Racecourse for a much needed drink and sandwich. (You can even grab a free massage in the End Village.)

Thanks to everyone who sponsored me – and all the other cyclists. If you’d like to add to the money raised, please visit my JustGiving page.

Here’s to next year!

PS: best wishes to the female cyclist who had an accident near Hampton. I hope she is OK.

Our longest reigning monarch: Queen Elizabeth II

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The class of 1926: Queen Elizabeth II and Bob Skinner

The Queen reached a landmark this week: she is now Britain’s longest reigning monarch. On Wednesday she overtook Queen Victoria’s record of 63 years and 216 days on the throne.

For most of us, she has always been there – a constant presence. The photograph at the start of this post shows the Queen with my father Bob Skinner earlier this year, at an event to mark the 50th anniversary of Winston Churchill’s death and the creation of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust as the great man’s memorial. Dad was an early beneficiary of this noble trust, which offers British citizens the chance to travel overseas to learn a new perspective on their personal or professional lives. Bob spent time in Japan studying how that country’s great cities communicated with the people – a fascinating perspective given that London and Tokyo were similarly sized world cities in 1971. Dad found that Japanese mayors were far keener to engage with their public. His boss quickly dismissed the idea of holding public surgeries. How things change..

In 2015, a monarch wouldn’t be anyone’s obvious choice of head of state. How could you possibly decide that a family chosen by fate centuries ago should lead you country? Yet we’ve never found the idea of President Blair or Thatcher more attractive or compelling. We recognise that the monarch holds no power. So why change? Overwhelmingly we admire the Queen’s 63 years of service to the nation and the Commonwealth. (It’s striking that Australia, Canada and New Zealand have been no more enthusiastic about ditching the Queen, despite being confident independent nations.) Time will tell if that changes under Charles III.

I’ll end on a personal note. All my grandparents were Victorians, born in the reign of that extraordinary monarch. Nan, Dad’s mother, turned 10 the year Victoria died, yet lived through 42 years of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign to the amazing age of 102. Continuity is a huge factor in British history, and that applies to any family.

Why I’m cycling Palace to Palace for The Prince’s Trust

Ready for Palace to Palace 2013 - on three wheels

Ready for Palace to Palace 2013 – on three wheels

Almost 40 years ago, the Prince of Wales had a brilliant idea: to give disadvantaged and vulnerable young people a fresh start in life. So began The Prince’s Trust. On Sunday, I’ll be joining thousands of others cycling from London to Windsor to raise money for this excellent cause.

It’s my third Palace to Palace, riding with friends from PayPal UK. My first in 2013 was on my trike – as I blogged at the time. This time I’ll be on a faster road bike, my Specialized Roubaix, which has been a constant companion this summer. It’s a lovely ride from Buckingham Palace to Windsor, especially once you’ve got to Richmond Park and can start to build up speed. (If you think cars cause congestion, imagine thousands of cyclists negotiating London’s traffic lights!)

If you’d like to sponsor me – and more importantly help The Prince’s Trust and young people – please visit my JustGiving page. Thank you!

Please, no more Aylan tragedies

Please let Aylan be the last victim

Please let Aylan be the last victim. Photo: Reuters

This tragic image shook Europe into action. It shook an unthinking and uncaring continent into thinking about the tragedies unfolding every day, and rethinking its prejudices. Aylan Kurdi, we will honour your memory and make sure your short life has a historic legacy.

At last, the likes of Britain’s Daily Mail realised that the people fleeing to Europe were refugees desperate to escape death and persecution in the Middle East and North Africa, rather than opportunists seeking European welfare. I applaud Germany and Austria for their warm-hearted welcome for thousands of refugees. How I wish that David Cameron’s government could have shown a fraction of that humanity. How petty and uncaring these millionaire politicians appear as they turn their backs on the tragic flow of desperate people who simply want a safe future for their families. And how shocking it is that the London Standard newspaper thought Eurostar disruption was the story, rather than the plight of desperate refugees.

Over 40 years ago, a very different Conservative government welcomed to Britain some 30,000 Ugandan Asians who had been expelled by murderous dictator Idi Amin. The new arrivals made a significant contribution to the life and economy of Britain.

It has been hugely encouraging to see the positive response on social media to a more human approach to the crisis. That most intelligent commentator, Mathew Parris, said: “What kind of primitives have we become that we need to see a drowned person before we acknowledge to ourselves that people are drowning? Did we not know, had we not read, that migrant children drowned?” So true, yet sometimes one stark, appalling image transforms opinions. The best solution is surely to make the refugees’ homelands safe for them to stay or return – but over a decade of Western military interventions in the region has corroded our reputation.

How sad that the summer of tragedy on Europe’s beaches saw the death of Sir Nicholas Winton, ‘Britain’s Schindler’. Then as now, Britain was slow to help people desperate to flee death and persecution. Then as now, bureaucracy was a killer. Yet the wonderful Winton secured safe passage in 1939 for over 600 children from Czechoslovakia. The story has an echo in Mr Gruber in the wonderful film Paddington, with its echoes of the Kindertransport. How apt and poignant that German and Austria have been quicker than Britain to welcome the 2015 counterparts of the families of 1939.

Blame Blair and Brown for Corbynmania

Why no-one is listening to Blair: Chris Riddell in The Observer

Why no-one is listening to Blair: Chris Riddell in The Observer

The battle for the Labour Party’s soul is raging. The man who led the party to victory in an unprecedented three general elections has issued apocalyptic warnings of the consequences of electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Tony Blair says that under Corbyn Labour would be routed, and possibly annihilated.

I’m no Corbyn supporter or Labour party member, but I find it breathtaking that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown have the cheek to lecture people on whom to vote for. While they created an election winning machine and made voting Labour fashionable – for which they deserve great praise – their deadly feud threw away the huge opportunity that Labour had to transform Britain after May 1997. Brown was the worst culprit, obsessed by a corrosive sense of betrayal at Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994. He took every opportunity to undermine Blair, while Blair always shrank away from moving Brown from the Treasury, for fear of the consequences. Yet Labour and Britain paid a heavy price for this tragically dysfunctional government.

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Cycling Cornwall’s hills

Pointing to the Cornish hills

Pointing to the Cornish hills

Some people’s idea of a holiday is lying on a beach.  Or nursing a beer or Barolo savouring a lovely meal. I like all those things. But this year, I added 4,380 feet of cycling up Cornish hills to my holiday mix.

Last week, we returned to one of our favourite places: Mawgan Porth, on Cornwall’s Atlantic Coast. It’s a wonderful spot, with a stunning beach bisected by the river Menalhyl. We stayed at The Park holiday resort (I blogged about this special place on our last visit in 2012), which is an easy 10 minute walk to that beautiful beach.

This year, I was determined to bring my bike, after rediscovering my love of cycling since the beginning of June. Back in 2002 nearby St Columb Major was the first night’s stop on my 16 day Land’s End to John O’Groat’s bike ride. Those first two days in the West Country 12 years ago almost brought me to my knees, with the constant, killer climbs out of the river valleys. This time, I was pleasantly surprised. I hardly noticed the climb out of Mawgan Porth along the Vale of Lanherne. My ride to St Columb Major and back via Newquay airport involved 900 feet of climbing in just over 10 miles. The reward? The glorious swoop down to Mawgan Porth from Trevarrian.

Racing down to Mawgan Porth

Cycling to Mawgan Porth, 36mph, July 2015

I loved those morning bike rides. As I cycled along the Vale of Lanherne on Tuesday, I met a woman walking a horse. She thanked me for stopping to let her pass, explaining that the horse had only ever seen one cyclist. I smiled to myself, knowing that I’d stopped for the two of them two days before. (I encountered them a third time on my return!) That same ride, I met overtook a young couple running – in both directions. I revelled in the (relative) fitness I had gained in all my June and July bike rides, including that fastest century. It made those hills so much easier.

Beach boy, Mawgan Porth, July 2015

Beach boy, Mawgan Porth, July 2015

Cycling was just one of the pleasures of our week in Mawgan Porth. As you can see from the shot above, Owen, 7, loved the fabulous beach. We splashed in the waves in our wetsuits and he enjoyed his bodyboard. I loved seeing the stream of people heading for surf school with King Surf. If I were younger, I’d be very tempted to join them next time…

My bike at The Park, waiting for our next adventure

My bike at The Park, waiting for our next adventure

Finally, here’s my video of my downhill rides into Mawgan Porth from west, east and south…

Apple Pay arrives in the UK

Apple Pay arrived in Britain today. The new service lets people pay for things in store and in apps on the latest Apple devices, including iPhone 6 and Apple Watch.

I’ve been talking to analysts and journalists about PayPal UK’s view of the new arrival. Most people assume that Apple Pay is a competitor. The reality is different, as I explained to techradar editor in chief Patrick Goss in a meeting in London today. While people focus on PayPal as Britain’s most trusted and widely used digital wallet, behind the scenes we also help countless businesses accept other ways to pay, including Apple Pay, through Braintree, our mobile payments arm. Patrick’s article explains why Apple Pay is good news for PayPal and the other big names in mobile payments.

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Gerrards Cross Tesco tunnel collapse, 10 years on

Collapse! Tesco tunnel after the disaster

Collapse! Tesco tunnel Gerrards Cross after the disaster

Ten years ago today, I had a lucky escape. I was on the last train through the ‘Tesco tunnel’ at Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, before it dramatically collapsed, closing the Chiltern main line for almost two months.

The tunnel was created to allow a Tesco store to be built over the railway cutting. The project was controversial, and many people in the village protested against it. It only went ahead after John Prescott overturned the council’s refusal to allow the store to be built.

I was on my way back from a work trip to Chester that evening, Thursday 30 June 2005. It was a lovely evening, and I had enjoyed the journey south. My train passed through the tunnel at around 7.15. It collapsed about 15 minutes later.

The scene three days later

The scene three days later

The weekend after, people flocked to the scene to see the damage.

Witnessing the aftermath

Witnessing the aftermath

Work resumed on the project two years later, and Tesco Gerrards Cross opened in November 2010, some 14 years after it was commissioned by the company. Despite the protests over the years, it’s proved popular with locals.

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

The Tesco tunnel, 29 June 2015

My fastest century bike ride

Climbing to a century: Marsworth, Bucks

Climbing to a century: Marsworth, Bucks

On the last day of 2014, I blogged that 2015 would see me riding 100 miles in a day: a cycling century. Yesterday was the day. I repeated my 2005 century route through Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, stopping at Buckingham for lunch.

The cycling guides give helpful and sensible advice on how to prepare for a century. They tell you to build up your stamina with regular long rides. I certainly did a lot of cycling in the three weeks before the big ride, making the most of the long June evenings to get on the bike. But none was more than ten miles…

That lack of long distance experience no doubt contributed to the fatigue I felt as I finished. It also explained my usual failure to eat before feeling hungry, the curse of the ill-prepared long distance cyclist. But I finished strongly, powering at 17mph or more along the A413 from Wendover to Amersham and beyond. (I love quiet roads, but after 85 miles I like to avoid unnecessary hills…)

When I got home, I was delighted to find that I’d completed the century at an average speed of 13.7mph. For me, that’s a miracle: my fastest century. On my first century in 1995, I was pleased to maintain 13mph for the first 75 miles. (I finished at around 12.75mph.) True, this time I had the benefit of a wonderful road bike, my eight month old Specialized Roubaix. In 2005, I was riding my trusty Dawes Super Galaxy with a pannier full of maps and an SLR camera. But I had just got back from a 315 mile cycle tour of the hilly west country.

Here are my reflections of my fourth century. Continue reading