The day Boris Johnson had his lockdown party…

Millions of words have been written about Boris Johnson’s illegal lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street. A nation has expressed its outrage, which will not be assuaged until Johnson resigns as prime minister.

The stories about the May 2020 party, to which over 100 people were invited to bring booze and enjoy the lovely weather, have brought back vivid memories of that extraordinary lockdown spring.

Like almost everyone in Britain, but unlike Johnson and his team, we obeyed the rules. We knew how important this was to keep safe, minimise the spread of the virus and protect the NHS. On my daily exercise, I kept local and was more careful than normal when cycling down steep hills – the last thing I wanted was to put pressure on A&A by crashing.

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2021: my biggest cycling year

It has become a tradition on New Year’s Eve for me to reflect on my year’s cycling, and look ahead to my cycling ambitions for the year ahead. This time, I’m feeling chuffed having cycled over 6,000 miles – 2,000 more than my previous record of 4.255 in 2019.

I have been amazingly consistent in 2021, cycling over 500 miles every month. That became a mission by the middle of the year – I couldn’t fall below 500 miles a month. The early winter months set the pattern of 500 plus mile months, thanks to my Wattbike Atom smart trainer. It was rare for me to record over 200 miles a month in winter before 2021, but the Atom made regular cycling far more enjoyable than cold, wet, icy rides outdoors. (I became far more familiar with the BBC iPlayer and Netflix as a result.)

The toughest months, ironically, were those in high summer: July and August. Summer holidays in Wales and Cornwall reduced the number of cycling days, and I confess that it was a slog to rack up the miles as the months ended. By contrast, November was the biggest month of all, with 586 miles recorded on Strava.

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Remembering the Penlee lifeboat tragedy, 40 years on

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The bravest of the brave

It was the ultimate sacrifice. Forty years ago today, the eight man crew of the RNLI Penlee lifeboat in Cornwall died trying to save the lives of the crew and passengers on a stricken cargo ship.

December 1981 was bitterly cold and the night of 19 December brought high seas and hurricane force winds. It took the crew of the lifeboat 30 minutes to come alongside the MV Union Star. They valiantly succeeded in getting four of the eight people on the ship onto the lifeboat. The coastguard assumed the Solomon Browne would then head for shore, but the crew were determined to save everyone. Tragically, the lifeboat foundered in the attempt.

I remember the shock of the news. As Joanne Payne, the daughter of crewman Charles Greenhaugh told the BBC, the village couldn’t believe the news. She recalled that everyone thought: “It’s not true, it can’t be true. The lifeboat always comes home.”

The Penlee tragedy was the last time the RNLI lost an entire crew. Today’s lifeboats are far better designed for the dangers of the sea: they will right themselves if capsized in heavy seas.

Father and son Nigel and Neil Brockman were both members of the Penlee lifeboat crew, but Coxswain Trevelyan Richards chose father Nigel over his 17 year old son because of his greater experience. As Lamorna Ash recounts in her book Dark, Salt, Clear about life in nearby Newlyn, the coxswain had a policy of not allowing two members of the same family on the same dangerous rescue mission. An echo of Saving Private Ryan. Neil later became coxswain of the replacement lifeboat. We should also remember the other eight victims of the tragedy: those on board the Union Star cargo ship.

Christmas mourning

Christmas 1981 was the saddest imaginable for the grieving village of Mousehole. Lamorna Ash says that even today its people resent the way the media descended on them over that tragic Christmas, not allowing them to mourn in private.

It is striking how many tragedies happen on the eve of Christmas: Penlee; Lockerbie; the Clapham Junction rail disaster. Or is it just that we are more conscious of tragedy at what it meant to be a happy time of year? Closer to home, both my grandfathers died just before Christmas, in 1942 and 1966.

Supporting the RNLI: a family tradition

Owen at Penarth RNLI, 2013

My family has supported the RNLI for many years. My late mother, Rosemary Skinner, volunteered at the RNLI shop in her hometown of Penarth, Wales until her failing eyesight made this impossible. The photo above shows Owen, aged 5, at an open day there during the Penarth festival in 2013.

RNLI lifeguards in action, Mawgan Porth, 2015

We saw a further side of the RNLI’s vital work during holidays in Mawgan Porth, Cornwall. The beach has a reputation for dangerous rip currents (three surfers were killed there in 2014) so during the summer season RNLI lifeguards patrol the beach. We have heard the guards regularly calling to surfers and paddleboarders to move away from areas of danger through loud-hailers. On our first visit in 2011 I signed up on the beach to make monthly donations, which continue to this day.

It is not be as heroic as crewing a lifeboat in dangerous seas, but our donations do help the RNLI and its brave volunteers. Few were as valiant as the eight men who departed the Cornish shore on 19 December 1981, never to return.

Gate: it’s a scandal

First there was Watergate. The scandal that eventually brought down American president Richard Nixon was named after the Watergate office building in Washington DC, the site of a burglary in 1972 linked to Nixon’s reelection campaign.

Since then, every scandal – or, in truth, concocted controversy – has had ‘gate’ as a suffix. Partygate – the scandal of illegal parties held at 10 Downing Street during lockdowns – is just the latest.

I’ve always found this a tiresome, lazy journalistic practice. So I was pleased today to see The Times agreeing with me. Rose Wild in her feedback column agreed with a reader, David Simpson, who pleaded with the paper to “stop writers putting ‘gate’ at the end of any scandal”.

Rose responded that The Times style guide discourages the practice as tired and lazy.

The only time I applauded the usage was when the Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell was forced to resign after allegedly abusing police officers at the Downing Street gates in 2012. Gategate was a witty description – but the more common description was plebgate, after Mitchell was accused of calling the police plebs.

I hope Rose’s verdict holds, But I fear lazy journalists will still be calling scandals gates a century after Nixon resigned.

A real winter: memories of 1981/82 in Cardiff

40 years ago today…

It was 40 years ago today that the snow came. It wasn’t unexpected: in my teenage years, winters featured regular heavy snowfalls. In 1978 rugby fans were stranded by a blizzard returning from an international in Cardiff. The winter of discontent, 1978/79 was characterised by blizzards as well as strikes. But 1981/82 was different: the snowiest winter since the great winter of 1962/63.

Little did I know, when I pleased myself by marking the date in snow on our greenhouse, that the winter of my A level year would be so special. My first diary noted that there had been a rail crash claiming four lives at Seer Green (Sear Green, as I spelt it) in Buckinghamshire. I had no idea that I’d commute from that village station for several years 20 years later.

The Seer Green rail crash, 11 December 1981
The accident report

We had further snow over the Christmas holidays. The photo below, taken on Boxing Day 1981, shows brother-in-law Julio, Siân, aged 14 months, sister Boo, Mum and me.

The serious snow arrived in the new year. It snowed continually for 36 hours. It’s hard now to imagine that kind of snowquake. Urban landscapes were transformed. The photo above of Heath Junction in Cardiff tells a story. No trains were running on the Coryton line, so you’d never know it was a junction were it not for the old GWR signal box and signals.

Heath Low Level station

The photo above shows the snow at Heath Low Level station untouched by trains or people as British Railways didn’t attempt to run any services on the Coryton line while the snow persisted.

I eventually cleared a path to the garage and drive as seen below. The 1960s Hillman Imp was Mum’s car.

I eventually helped clear a path to the garage – as seen above and below.

The sheer weight of snow changed the landscape for ever. The old Sophia Gardens pavilion, which was a venue for the 1958 British Empire & Commonwealth Games, collapsed under its weight, as did the bowling club in Rhydypenau.

Near Cardiff Castle

One day, I walked into town, past the scene near Cardiff Castle seen above. It was a great adventure.

Days later, we were due to go to London on a school trip for a series of history lectures, five months before our A levels. One of the star lecturers was GR Elton, who featured heavily in our A level Tudor history course, and was well known for his clash of theories about Henry VIII with rival historian JJ Scarisbrick. We were due to travel by train, but bizarrely the trains were blocked while the M4 to England was still open.

Dad, off to Majorca

Dad, Bob Skinner, was working flat out during the blizzards of early 1982. As public relations officer for South Glamorgan county council, he was the spokesman for the Welsh capital’s council as it kept people informed about how its services were affected by the great freeze. By early January, he was desperate for a break, and planned a rare holiday in Palma, Majorca. He was picked up by a Land Rover to get him on a train to Birmingham to get a flight to Spain. Dad recalls the delight of sinking into his seat on the plane.

Our house in the snow

You can see in this shot how high the drifts reached – over the wall between our front garden and the pavement.

Paths for Spot the cat

I was concerned that our eight year old cat, Spot, would be adrift. So I built paths (above) and a tunnel (below) for her. It’s fair to say she needed a bit of encouragement to use them!

Eventually, the snow melted and life got back to normal. We’ve never had a winter like 1981/82 in the intervening 40 years. Will the snow ever return in such a magical way?

January 11 and January 20, 1982

The path seemed clear to A levels. But none of us could have know that Britain would be at war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands during those exams…

95 year old leaves care home for his own flat

Bob leaves Sunrise

My father is amazing. After two wonderful years at his Sunrise, Cardiff, care home, he left today after buying a flat in Penarth, near Cardiff.

Everyone at Sunrise has been so kind to Dad since he moved in just over two years ago: former general manager Sara, new boss Virgil, Francesca, Diane and so many others. They guided him through the pandemic, and we will always be so grateful. His book, Pandemic: my Care Home Diary, is his tribute. His time at Sunrise rebuilt his health, and has let him spread his wings once again.

Dad is very happy with his own company (he enjoys blogging and writing) but also loves the companionship of others. As I carried more stuff up to his new flat, I came across a group of women enjoying a bottle or two of wine. I explained Dad’s Penarth heritage dating back to his joining the Penarth Times as a reporter in 1942 – an astonishing 79 years ago! – and said he’d be happy to join them, and the men, for a glass of wine or a coffee.

Karen and I are in a unique time of life. We have a very special 13 year old son who is finding his wings as a teenager. And we have a father/father-in-law who is also retrieving his own wings, setting up home once again, some 70 years after creating his first home with Mum in Caerphilly. It’s like keeping an eye over 13 year old and 95 year old teenagers! Long may they flourish. We love them both so much.

Royal Mail: rewarding shareholders, failing customers

What a surprise. Royal Mail is handing £400 million to shareholders after a rise in postal deliveries during the pandemic. It’s bitter news for its hapless customers.

I finally received a birthday card two weeks after blowing out my candles. I’m still waiting for last week’s New Statesman – and the previous edition, published 11 days ago.

This isn’t a new failing. Twice I have had to chase The Times because I haven’t received my subscriber’s tokens for the print edition of the Sunday Times. Businesses like The Times and New Statesman are suffering customer complaints through no fault of their own.

When will Royal Mail reward its customers rather than its shareholders, and provide the service we have paid for?

HS2: broken Tory promises

What a surprise. After countless promises to build a high speed rail line to Yorkshire, Boris Johnson confirmed that the Tory government was cancelling the eastern leg of the HS2 line to Leeds and Bradford.

It just shows you can never trust UK governments – especially Tory ones – to invest outside South East England.

If there had been any justice, construction of HS2 would have started in the north rather than London. The English capital gets a staggering £864 per person in transport spending compared with a pittance of £349 in the north of England. But when the government wanted to save money, it was the north that paid the sacrifice. Not the ever-spoilt money pit of the south east.

HS2 works, Chalfont St Giles, 2020

Yes, many in the south protested against HS2. But rather than cancelling the project, the Conservatives blew extra billions on a tunnel for HS2 under the Chilterns, including our village of Chalfont St Giles.

Leeds and Bradford are rightly outraged. (Bradford has the worst rail services of any major English city.) But spare a thought for Wales. Despite HS2 being billed as Britain’s railway, it will go nowhere near Wales, or Scotland. A cynical Tory move led to HS2 being treated as an ‘England and Wales’ project. So no extra money will flow to Wales under the Barnett formula.

Work begins, Chalfont St Giles, August 2020

There’s a sensible debate to be had about how to invest in green transport for the 21st century. HS2 may not be the right, or only, answer. But why is Britain, the country that invented railways, the nation with the fewest miles of high speed railways in western Europe? As I blogged when HS2 was first proposed, Britain’s Victorian rail network is hopelessly ill-suited to high speed trains. British Railways conceived the tilting Advanced Passenger Train in the 1970s to overcome the limitations of the West Coast Mainline, built in the 1830s and 1840s. By contrast BR chose Brunel’s Great Western mainline for its InterCity 125 high speed services because it was so level and straight, unlike its rivals.

The moral of the saga of HS2’s cancelled easter leg is that London politicians – especially one as cynical as Boris Johnson – will always favour the south east. Talk of levelling up is all bullshit. They simply don’t care about the north, Wales or Scotland. But as long as English voters keep reelecting London-biased governments, nothing will change. The case for Welsh and Scottish independence just grew stronger. Perhaps a Yorkshire National Party will follow…

PS: I reported on the HS2 works in Chalfont St Giles in August 2020 here.

Blue sky November

It was a typically gloomy November day. We hadn’t seen the sun for days. But just before the end of my lunchtime bike ride the sun came out. The difference it made was stunning. Suddenly, the roads were bathed in sunlight. The autumn trees cast shadows where there had been none minutes earlier.

I looked up and was stunned to see the edge of a weather system. Half the sky was a glorious shade of blue. The other was a blanket of thick cloud. Later, I learned from the BBC weather bulletin that this weather front stretched from eastern England as far as Russia. A continent was covered by cloud. The lack of wind had anchored it over us for days.

It was an unforgettable sight. Here’s to sunshine in November.

COP26: the end of King Coal?

Penrhos Junction, 1920. Gwyn Briwnant Jones, Photo credit: Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

It was a symbol of Welsh industrial might: a locomotive hauling a coal train that seemed to go on for ever. A century ago Welsh steam coal powered the world. Yet Wales has become one of the first countries to join a global coalition of nations aiming to phase out fossil fuels: the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance. It’s comes as criticism grows of the weak response of the COP26 climate conference to the climate crisis.

I grew up in Cardiff on tales of King Coal. As I lay in bed I could hear the growl of locomotives hauling coal trains along the old Rhymney Railway line from Caerphilly. And I loved visiting the mock coal mine at the National Museum of Wales – appropriately located in the basement. The museum is in Cardiff’s magnificent civic centre, part of the impressive architectural legacy of the immense wealth created by the coal boom, along with elegant ship and coal owners’ mansions such as Insole Court, Llandaff.

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