Fifty years on: converting to North Sea gas

From town gas to North Sea Gas

Back to the Seventies. That has been a theme of the past few weeks as a fuel crisis looms, with rocketing prices and supply problems in Britain.

Few people will remember, but the early 1970s also saw one of the biggest changes in British domestic and industrial history. The discovery of gas in the North Sea in 1965 led the nation to switch from town gas, which was produced by heating coal. As a result, around 40 million gas appliances in Britain had to be converted to burn natural rather than town gas. Britain used to have over a thousand local gas works, but North Sea gas made these manufacturing sites redundant, with gas now being stored rather than made locally.

Our family was very unusual as our gas cooker was converted not once but three times. We were living in Whitton, Twickenham when London converted from North Thames town gas to North Sea gas. But soon after, we moved back to Wales – which had not yet switched. So we had to convert the cooker back to run on town gas, before switching yet again when Cardiff converted. The change had another legacy: a huge banner advert for High Speed Gas across the front of Cardiff Central station, which hid the legend ‘Great Western Railway’. (On display again since 1985.)

It wasn’t our only big fuel switch. When we moved into our house in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside, in 1971, we inherited a coal burning central heating boiler. I remember a frightening drama soon after. The pressure gauge on the boiler was moving into the danger zone, and Mum and my sister were getting worried it was going to blow up. (Dad was in Japan at the time on a coveted Winston Churchill fellowship.) My uncle Bert came to the rescue, and I think they poured water over the furnace to put the boiler out and end the crisis. Soon after, we switched to gas central heating, and the coal shed became a storage room.

The Oval gasholder. Photo: JGUK via Wikimedia Commons

Gasholders like the famous one behind the Oval cricket ground in London were a familiar part of the urban landscape for years. Originally they were part of a town’s gas works, storing the gas produced there. For the past 50 years they have stored gas from the North Sea, but from the 1990s onwards they were condemned as unnecessary and few now survive. How ironic that Britain’s acute lack of gas storage capacity is such a feature of the growing fuel crisis. (The country has storage for just four or five days’ winter demand; Germany has 16 times as much.) The government’s decision allow the closure of the Rough storage facility in the North Sea in 2017 now looks like an act of self harm. Maybe we shouldn’t have pulled down all those iconic gasholders.

PS: I played a very minor part in the privatisation of British Gas in 1986. I was a management trainee for Nationwide in Newport, Wales, and gave a presentation to British Gas employees in Cardiff explaining the sharesave account used for the staff share purchase scheme.

PPS: we even had a gas fridge when I was very young, but got rid of it before gas conversion.

Pandemic! Dad’s Care Home Diary on Kindle

In March 2020, as coronavirus took hold in Britain, my father Bob Skinner started a blog to record his day to day experiences during the pandemic. We have now published the diary as a Kindle book.

Bob has a true reporter’s eye for the events of the year that changed our lives for ever, explaining how he recovered after three weeks in hospital with coronavirus. He also recalls his first reunion with his family, shown live on ITV’s Good Morning Britain. Moving and often amusing, Pandemic: My Care Home Diary gives a unique account of what life was like for Britain’s care home residents during the worst pandemic for over 100 years. It was a pleasure and a privilege to edit the blog and prepare it for publication. We think Bob’s book will be a lasting tribute to the carers who risked their own lives looking after their vulnerable residents.

Here are a few extracts from the book. You can buy it at the Kindle store here.

Sunday 22 March 2020

Silent bells

It’s Sunday. It’s chilly but the sun is shining, a rare, welcome sight after dark weeks of wind and rain. A normal Sunday in Cardiff? No, it is unique, historic. Looking out of my window in Cyncoed Road, the city is strangely quiet. Far fewer cars, no buses, just the occasional dog walker and young jogger. Not an elderly person in sight. 

Last week it was busy, with nonstop traffic, people going to work, children off to school. Last Sunday, the bells were calling people to worship. Today they are silent, and the church doors are firmly shut. Members are no doubt fervently praying at home for normal life to return soon. How many centuries ago was it, I wonder, when people were banned from leaving their home?

Friday 3 April

On Air

No trouble finding something to write about today. I made the news myself.

Yesterday, I was having an after-dinner cup of tea in our bistro when Virgil, the deputy general manager, came over with a message from Sunrise headquarters. They had seen my coronavirus diary entries and asked if I would go on ITV to talk about our carers. I agreed.

So it was a new challenge. Was I too old, too rusty? I would see. Later in the evening came instructions on how the makeshift operation had to be done in lockdown. My living room became a studio. What a difference. No camera or sound equipment, just a laptop on my coffee table.

‘Are you ready, Bob?’ ‘Yes, fine,’ I replied. I was on air. It was all over in minutes. I remembered most of my key words, did not move, and think I made the tribute to carers that they deserve. A lot of phone calls and emails today. Fame at last – and it’s only taken 93 years. 

Sunday 12 July
Reunion with Robert

Yesterday was a special, memorable day. My first visitor after four months – my son Robert. He spent the day, five hours of driving, to have just an hour with me.

It was more than a happy reunion after those unreal months: proof that brighter days lie ahead. It was far from normal. We old people are being carefully looked after – guarded – and that made the difference. I had been looking forward for so long to today and was standing by the window watching for him to arrive, but I had to wait. 

He first had to be ‘made safe’ by being kitted out with apron, gloves and face mask by a carer. Then he was taken to the gazebo set up in front of the building. Inside were two seats, the regulation two metres apart. I was taken out to join him. No hug or handshake allowed. After a wave and a laugh we lost no time in getting down to chat, making up for lost time.

The unusual visit ended with us being filmed and briefly interviewed as part of a planned ITV Good Morning Britain broadcast on Monday morning for which my grand-daughter Ria has been invited to Sunrise.

Sunday 16 August
A forgotten army

The Welsh government’s advice to vulnerable people to shield to reduce the risk of coronavirus ends today. They can resume as normal a life as possible. Good news for them and their families after a debilitating five months of loneliness and worry.

But there is another, larger section of the community that is waiting for signs of release from lockdown – we care home residents. I am beginning to think that, like the men who fought in Burma, we are the forgotten army. Reacting, reasonably, but belatedly, the government clamped down on us. And we are still in a vice-like grip.

While the rest of the country starts to experience the pleasures of normal life, our freedom is still very limited, and, worse, there seems little prospect of change. 

And who is thinking of us, speaking up for us?

Saturday 26 September

I have coronavirus

This is one diary entry I did not expect to make but the Sunrise luck has run out. I was at the art class this morning when a few of us were asked to return to our rooms. That sounded ominous, and it was.

I was told that five residents had been tested positive. I had expected to find that I was one of them as I have not been feeling too well for a few days; a bad cold and a cough. A few hours later I was told that I had indeed tested positive for coronavirus.

So it’s all change. We are all confined to our rooms with a carer looking after us. 

Sunrise has almost shut down, the restaurant closed, activities suspended. What a shame. I feel sad after all the effort they have put in over the months, but there it is. We have to put up with it. I am feeling pretty good which I hope will continue and I will make the best of the temporary new life style. 

Being alone most of the time does not worry me as I still have plenty to keep me occupied. And it is no use worrying. Everything has been so uncertain for so long that a little more uncertainty will do no harm.

Monday 26 October

Recovering in hospital

Seven months ago, coronavirus cast a cloud of uncertainty and fear over the world, affecting the lives of billions of people. Despite all the efforts the cloud still hangs over us.

My life changed again when I was one of eight Sunrise residents tested positive and I obviously wondered what form it would take.

For the first week or so, it wasn’t so serious. It was like having a bad cold. But then I started feeling much worse, with nausea, swings from being too cold and too hot, sleeplessness and even delusions. A fall in the bathroom early one morning proved disastrous. I was rescued by two carers who got me back into bed via a hoist. My condition worsened and I was taken to hospital with a broken ankle as well as coronavirus.

After three weeks in hospital and some very difficult days the nursing and treatment is now working. Progress was slow until a few days ago when I was given some new tablets to stop the pain and enable me to sleep. There was an immediate effect. I asked for an increase and there was a remarkable effect. The pain is less than for months, I can get out of bed and am starting to walk again and manage to look after myself. What a difference from being helpless and reliant upon others.

Thursday 12 November

Watch out Lewis Hamilton

After giving up driving a car after more than 70 years, I thought I would miss being behind the wheel. But I have found the answer – my shiny blue and silver electric scooter. With its headlights, direction indicators and even a horn, it is ready for the road, top speed 8mph, or 4mph on the pavement.

This week it became my lifeline. With my heavily strapped broken ankle making movement painful and difficult, the scooter came to the rescue. Now I am driving again all day, indoors. It’s my mini Monte Carlo circuit. Top speed indoors is about 1mph across the 30 foot living room with detours into my bathroom and bedroom – watch that chair! 

Tired after a day ‘on the road’, it’s time for bed. My last journey. Into the dark bedroom, driving straight for the bed. Headlights blazing, I tumble in. Hard work driving, but exciting.

Watch out, Mr Hamilton.

Monday 21 December

The shortest, saddest day

Today is the shortest day of the year, the darkest of the winter. This day, 21 December, in 1942 was one of the saddest days of my life. It was wartime and we were facing a stark Christmas. The war news was grim, there was rationing and shortages. It was the day my father, Frank died.

At sixteen I had just started work as the Penarth Times reporter and was in Penarth police court when called home. My father was seriously ill. I knew before I got there that he had died. It was from a heart attack. He was 52.

Like this year, it was an unusual Christmas with families separated, celebrations muted. I remember very little of those few days, and have no recollection of Dad’s funeral. I did go out one evening, to join our church’s young people’s group carol singing. Mum thought it would do me good to get out of the house for an hour.

Looking back, the saddest part was that I had so little time to get to know Dad. Two days before war was declared our family separated, never to be all together again.

Christmas Day 2020

A Christmas like no other

Christmas Day. A day so different this year from any other. A strange day, with most of us missing the usual family gathering, and millions with no family, unable even to give their elderly parents a hug. A day to remember, and to forget.

My day started with Christmas greetings by Zoom from Robert, Karen and Owen (plus dog Rufus), all three resplendent in Christmas jumpers, Owen’s a spectacular Welsh one. Nadolig Llawen!

I was sporting my first ever Christmas bow tie. After trying to tie it for nearly an hour last night one of the carers managed it in a minute this morning. Then it was downstairs for the get together and to receive our gifts from Sunrise. I was patient, opening my presents under my Christmas tree mid-morning. 

The festively dressed carers and Sunrise team were as cheerful as ever, making it another happy day although I would love to see those masks and visors removed. 

But thank you, everyone, you made it a special day, again.

Friday 22 January 2021

Vaccination Day

It’s vaccination day at Sunrise. A day of relief, and celebration. Mass vaccination.

As usual, the care home got it right. Organised to the minute. Calm and relaxed, just right for us old people. And, a happy touch, flags and balloons to cheer us – a bright idea. Having a jab is never fun but today it was relished, welcomed with open arms.

The troops were on parade, with our sticks, walking aids, wheelchairs, ready and willing. The long wait was over. When the call came we went into the temporary surgery, rolled up our sleeves. It was over in a flash. I did not feel a thing. Then into a lounge for a rest and a glass of orange juice. To mark the historic day we had our pictures taken and then it was time for lunch, happy that a milestone in the long, arduous pandemic road pointed the pathway to safety.

Well done, Sunrise, and the NHS!

Wednesday 10 March

Freedom in sight

Sitting looking out of my window onto the sunlit street below, the world looks inviting. Normal. Not exciting. People driving cars and vans, riding bicycles, pushing prams, jogging, walking. Across the road a man is working in his garden. Beyond, I see the lighting towers of the university training ground.

A typical suburban scene on a typical afternoon, but it is deceptive. Almost a mirage. I cannot go out to join it. Like countless millions throughout the world, I am a prisoner in my own home. Trapped. For a year, because of the plague stalking our planet, creating a living horror story.

The world has seen many fanatical leaders, dictators and despots who have held their subjects in thrall, but this is Britain in the 21st century, beacon of democracy. Over 60 million of us can no longer call our lives our own. Leaders have changed the rules and laws. Unlike heroes of the past, we have not rebelled, risen up in anger to break the chains. We have agreed with our leaders, followed their dictats and changed our whole way of life – voluntarily.

But freedom is nigh. Human ingenuity, courage and patience are winning the battle. Apprehension and danger receding, we hope we face only a few more months of isolation before we will be free to resume normal lives.

And I will happily ride my scooter out onto Cyncoed Road and rejoin the real world out there.

My coronavirus first: driving to another country

On Saturday, I clocked up a series of firsts. My first drive over 10 miles since March. My first motorway journey and trip to another country – Wales – since lockdown.

I was on my way to see my father, Bob Skinner, for the first time since his care home closed to visitors in March. (I have blogged about that unforgettable visit here.)

I loved the drive – I treasured the time listening to music and Jack Thurston’s Bike Show podcasts. All things I used to enjoy on my daily commute. Working from home has been enjoyable but I have missed these audio moments.

Crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales, the motorway signs proclaimed: WELSH COVID RULES APPLY. It was a graphic reminder that Wales has, sensibly, taken a more careful approach to relaxing lockdown rules. The only reason I was able to make the journey to Cardiff was the scrapping of the Welsh ban on travelling more than five miles, allowing Dad’s Sunrise of Cardiff care home to allow visiting. It was nice seeing the familiar Welsh road signs: gwasanaethau (services), Caerdydd (Cardiff) and canol y ddinas (city centre).

I was very happy to drive the 300 mile round trip to see Dad for an hour (the maximum visit) but thought it would be nice to see something of my hometown after saying goodbye to Bob. So I hopped on my Brompton folding bike, and headed along Cyncoed Road and down Pen-y-lan hill towards the centre of town – canol y ddinas…

The roads were quiet, and I made up my route as I went along, threading through the streets of Cathays and emerging by the National Museum in Cathays Park. Cardiff has closed the roads around the castle to cars, and it was a pleasure to arrive at the imposing gates of the castle.

Entry to the grounds is currently free, so I wheeled my bike in, and enjoyed a few tranquil moments, reflecting on my visit to Dad.

I made my way back to Cyncoed via childhood spots such as Roath Park Lake, and past my childhood home in Winnipeg Drive, Lakeside. My Brompton is the electric version, so it made the climb back towards Cyncoed Road very easy.

I’m looking forward to a longer Welsh bike ride when we’re in Tenby in August.

Roath Park Lake and the Captain Scott memorial

I popped the Brompton back in the car, and enjoyed another easy drive (no queueing past the Brynglas tunnels at Newport). A memorable and enjoyable day.

ITV’s Good Morning Britain features my reunion with Dad

None of us will ever forget living through the coronavirus pandemic. But for me the sweetest memory will be visiting my 93 year old father, Bob Skinner, in his care home, Sunrise of Cardiff, on Saturday. This was our first meeting since February – I was due to visit on 20 March, but Sunrise closed to visitors the day before. (Dad and I had already agreed a visit was not wise given the fast escalating COVID-19 crisis.)

Screenshot 2020-07-12 at 20.18.39

We meet again!

Mine was one of countless family reunions happening around the country as lockdown restrictions eased. But, unusually, ours was featured on television. After Bob so eloquently praised care home workers on ITV’s Good Morning Britain in April, the programme asked to film him meeting his first visitors since March. Virgil from the Sunrise team in Cardiff filmed my visit for ITV. Then Bob’s granddaughter Ria visited live on Monday’s show. You can see it here.

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Dad and I reunited – as seen on TV!

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All smiles: Bob meets Ria

Ria and I both loved the experience of seeing Bob face to face (two metres apart) after months of Zoom calls, phone chats and emails. I noticed how well he looked – the Sunrise care has done him a power of good! Viewers to the show will have been struck by his energy, enthusiasm and eloquence. (Kate Garraway referred to how positive Dad had been throughout.) He started a blog – Bob the Blogger– about his coronavirus experience back in March, and blogs almost every day. You can read his post about his latest TV appearance here.

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 09.39.18

I couldn’t give Bob a hug – that was tough, but I gave myself a gentle hug as Dad came towards me as a symbol of affection. Good Morning Britain presenters Ben Shephard and Kate Garraway spotted that and commented that we can’t give the hugs we want to. Dad said how much better it was to see family face to face. It is the start of better times.

Kate recalled Dad comparing the coronavirus crisis with the Second World War during his earlier GMB interview. Bob explained the key difference today is we are fighting a totally unknown, deadly enemy, and don’t know how to deal with it. He discussed this contrast in more detail in a blog post yesterday.

Dad talked about how happy he has been at Sunrise. It was a blessing that he moved from his home in Penarth six months before the COVID-19 lockdown began. It would have been a huge worry had he still been living alone, although his former neighbours in Penarth such as Therese and Brian would have been wonderfully supportive. As Dad said, he has had no worries and has been happy from the moment he moved in.

Later in the interview, Ria stepped onto the ‘stage’ to say good morning to Bob and to the presenters. It was a wonderful moment, live on national TV. As Ria said, it was rather overwhelming seeing Bob for the first time for many months. “It’s marvellous to see you!” Bob exclaimed with a broad smile to Ria.

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You can watch the Good Morning Britain segment with Dad, Ria and me here:

Monday’s edition of Good Morning Britain was an emotional one for other reasons. Writer Michael Rosen spoke with huge affection about the care he received as he recovered from an almost fatal encounter with COVID-19. Talking about the NHS staff who saved his life, he explained: “Just massive and incredible, they saved my life several times.”

Screenshot 2020-07-15 at 10.05.01Interviewing Michael was an emotional experience for presenter Kate Garraway. This was her first day back after a four month break while husband Derek Draper was in intensive care and came close to death from COVID-19. Movingly, Michael said he hoped his experience gave Kate hope. Welcome back, Kate, and heartfelt best wishes to Derek and Michael.

When Hereford United FC were watched by 35,000

Today’s sad news that Hereford United FC has been wound up in the High Court brought back childhood memories. In April 1976, I was one of 35,000 people who watched the team play Cardiff City at Ninian Park in Cardiff. Hereford were leading the old third division and City were placed second. Cardiff won 2-0 that unforgettable evening.

It was one of my favourite Ninian Park memories. I still have the match programme, signed by members of Cardiff City’s promotion team.

I hope Hereford one day rise from the ashes, like former Welsh Cup rival Newport County.

Cardiff Bay before regeneration

Cardiff Bay before regeneration

Atlantic Wharf, Cardiff, January 1986

(This post was inspired by www.wearecardiff.co.uk)

Cardiff has changed dramatically over the past 30 years. It’s hard to imagine how different the old Tiger Bay docklands looked before the Cardiff Bay redevelopment and Cardiff Bay barrage was announced by Margaret Thatcher’s Welsh Secretary Nicholas Edwards in 1986.

Dad and I visited the docks regularly and took these photos on a bitterly cold day at the start of 1986. We liked the look of the imposing warehouse on the right (east) bank of the Bute East Dock.

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Cardiff City’s surrender to relegation

In the end, it was a relief. Cardiff City surrendered their Premier League status today with another heavy defeat, away to Newcastle United. Owner Vincent Tan’s sacking of manager Malky Mackay in December destroyed the Bluebirds’ hope of securing a second season in the top flight.

Tan thought that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s Manchester United pedigree would save the day. The opposite has been true: Solskjaer’s team has conceded an alarming number of goals without unduly threatening the opposition. By contrast, Mackay achieved some famous results, including defeating title contenders Manchester City, drawing with Manchester United and beating arch rivals Swansea.

At least we don’t have to worry about second season syndrome…

David Moyes, Frank O’Farrell and Cardiff City

David Moyes was fired as Manchester United manager today. The only surprise was that he lasted as long as he did. What are the chances that he follows in Frank O’Farrell’s footsteps and becomes Cardiff City manager?

Frank O’Farrell, like Moyes, took on mission impossible by following a legend as Man United boss – Matt Busby. He lasted longer than Moyes at Old Trafford, but also inherited a team that was in rapid decline from days of glory. He has described how Busby’s presence at United utterly overshadowed his unhappy time as manager. Moyes found Sir Alex Ferguson far more supportive, but Fergie’s extraordinary legacy of success would have been a formidable burden for anyone who took his place.

O’Farrell went on to become Cardiff City manager the season after losing his job at United. It was a big step down, as the Bluebirds were struggling at the foot of the old second division. He got the job at City days after Jimmy Scoular was fired after Cardiff lost the very first game I ever went to see: at home to West Bromwich Albion on 3 November 1973. (That grim game was the perfect introduction to life as a Cardiff City fan in the 1970s and 80s. My Latin teacher said there was an easy way to remember what nihil meant: it was the number of goals City was likely to score.)

Man United legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has seemed totally out of his depth as a premier league manager since succeeding the popular Malky Mackay last December. Cardiff could do worse than to offer Moyes the chance to rebuild his reputation in Wales. For all their troubles this season, City are in better health than in November 1973 when O’Farrell was appointed. And Moyes remains a decent manager, as he showed at Everton.

Long distance cycling: Cardiff to Bucks

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Above: departing Penarth, Wales for England

As 2013 draws to a close, I’m reflecting on one of my most memorable experiences of the year: fulfilling an old ambition of cycling from Wales to Buckinghamshire. I set off on Monday 2 September from my parents’ flat on the seafront at Penarth, just outside Cardiff.

It was a real challenge. This was my first cycle tour carrying my own luggage since 1998. I’ve put on a few pounds since that tour of Normandy, so I wasn’t surprised to find myself struggling up the hills. This was also my first tour relying on digital rather than paper maps, which proved very frustrating. I couldn’t help looking back to my 325 mile cycle tour of the West Country in 1995, when I got lost just once while navigating the most obscure country lanes, thanks to a stack of Ordnance Survey maps. This time, I wasted a huge amount of time as my Garmin Edge 800 failed to alert me to my programmed turns. (I had a back up with the Bike Hub app, but it wasn’t the same as having a map on the handlebars.)

It was a wonderful ride, but I’ll be honest and say I enjoyed it more in retrospect than at the time, with some exceptions. It was wonderful bowling along at 18mph on the levels between Cardiff and Newport. I loved the 25mph race towards Tetbury, as the first day’s 73 mile ride came to an end and I looked forward to dinner with my sister and her family in Cirencester. The Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire was a delight. I relished my al fresco lunch at the Cherry Tree pub in at Kingston Blount, Oxon on day 3, in glorious sunshine, followed by tea and cake at the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre at Great Missenden on the final leg home.

My least favourite bit? The interminable attempt to escape from Swindon. My route past Purton was closed, so I had to navigate Swindon’s characterless sprawl. (I’d have been better off going straight through the town centre.) I was very relieved to reach open countryside – no wonder I enjoyed the Vale of the White Horse.

My biggest lesson: cycle touring rewards those who keep fit. But it’s still a peerless way to enjoy the countryside.

PS: my 16 year old Raleigh Randonneur proved a superb choice for the challenge, as did my Ortlieb front roller classic panniers and my old Camelbak classic hydration pack.

IMG_7583Above: into England, old Severn Bridge

IMG_7589Above: near Hawkesbury Upton, Glos

ImageAbove: Oxfordshire’s lovely Vale of the White Horse: Stanford in the Vale

ImageAbove: ploughman’s lunch at the Cherry Tree, Kingston Blount

Cardiff City, Premier League

Cardiff City are in the Premier League. Over 50 years since relegation from the old first division, we are once again in our neighbour’s football top flight. It’s also 86 years almost to the week since City became the only club from outside England to win the FA Cup.

Almost a year ago, I blogged my criticism for Cardiff City’s Malaysian owners’ decision to change the club red.  That reaction now seems churlish. Red looks like City’s lucky colour. And we should thank the Bluebirds’ Malaysian owners for helping the team make history.

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final

Dad, watching Cardiff City reach third FA Cup final, April 2008

Our family has spent many hours cheering on Cardiff City. My father, Bob Skinner, took me to my first City game almost 40 years ago. (Against West Brom, on 3 November 1973 – we lost 1-0.) He was born within a goal kick of West Ham’s ground, which meant I grew up with affection for both clubs. (By coincidence, West Ham adopted a City song, ‘I’m forever blowing bubbles’.) Family loyalties were stretched when we went to West Ham to see City in November 1979, but Cardiff lost 3-0. West Ham did well against the three Welsh teams in the old second division that autumn.

Five years ago, we watched City win an FA Cup semi final against Barnsley to reach a Wembley cup final for the first time since 1927. Another breakthrough in City’s renaissance. We should pay tribute to then manager Dave Jones for that revival.

Cardiff join Swansea in the Premier League. It’s the first time Wales has had two clubs in the top flight. A special moment.