Football League: Welcome to Wrexham!

It was a true Hollywood ending. Wrexham AFC are returning to the Football League after a 15 year exile. Their star owners Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney were there to see the club they bought in 2021 crowned champions of the National League.

Season two of Welcome to Wrexham will prove even more compelling viewing than the debut one.

Super Paul Mullin at Maidenhead United, 4 March 2022

I can honestly say that I saw Wrexham in its historic promotion-winning season. I took my 14 year old son Owen to see the team play Maidenhead United last month. It was a gripping encounter that ended with the Berkshire team snatching a last-gasp draw. It showed how Hollywood money was no guarantee of success – Maidenhead battled all the way, and Wrexham lost two vital points.

We were standing right by the touchline, and had an amazing view, especially when Maidenhead’s number 7 Sam Barrett took a throw late on. I wonder if we will feature in Welcome to Wrexham?

Four Welsh Football League clubs again

When I was growing up, there were four Welsh clubs in the English football league: my club, Cardiff City, Swansea City, Newport County and Wrexham. Newport were always on the brink of extinction – in the 1970s, Manchester United played a combined South Wales team to raise money to save County – and succumbed in the late 1980s. Wrexham joined them in the National League in 2008, leaving just the big city clubs left in the EFL. A decade ago, Newport beat Wrexham in the National League playoff final to become a league club again. As I pointed out at the time, this was surely the only time a playoff to enter the Football League had been contested by two former quarter finalists from a European competition. (Wrexham and Newport competed in European Cup Winners Cup quarter finals in the 1970s and 1980s)

The greatest game I’ve ever attended?

Football fans tend to be tribal. Cardiff City and Swansea City fans have a brutal rivalry, for example. I’ve always been different. I cheered Wrexham and Newport on their European odysseys, and was delighted when Swansea briefly led the old First Division in 1981/82.

I spent most Saturdays in the 1970s at Ninian Park, and was thrilled by City’s promotion to the Second Division in 1976. The following season Cardiff knocked First Division Tottenham Hotspur out of the FA Cup, and faced Wrexham in the next round.

That game showed how sport could prove the greatest theatre on the planet. City were cruising to an easy 2-0 win when Wrexham snatched two late goals to level the tie. Just as it looked like we were heading for a replay John Buchanan scored a stunning winner. (We narrowly lost to First Division Everton in the next round.)

I still revel in those childhood memories. Anyone who was at the Racecourse this weekend witnessing Wrexham ending 15 years of exile will similarly replay the experience for the rest of their lives – including Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney. Ryan was pitch-perfect in his comments after the game, praising Boreham Wood, and hoping that magnificent rivals Notts County join Wrexham in League Two next season. They deserve no less after a season that followed Hollywood’s script.

Farewell to Howells of Cardiff

James Howells in its prime. Photo: Wales Online

Yet another Cardiff landmark has passed into history with the closure of the city’s Howells department store after 150 years.

The news brought back memories of tranquil moments in one of the store’s cafes when Owen was a toddler. In October 2010 I described lunch there as an oasis of calm.

The Bethany chapel within Howells

Howells must be the only department store in the country with a chapel. When the store took over the site, rather than demolishing the old Bethany baptist chapel the owners incorporated it in the shop.

In truth, we were a David Morgan family. Howells seemed rather posh to us, and so we would head to Morgan’s nearby store for a coffee, Santa’s grotto – or in the case of my parents, to order new carpets. For years they kept a carrier bag commemorating Morgan’s centenary in 1979. Back then no one would have suspected that the store would be gone within 30 years. As a small child I was impressed by the Oak Room restaurant although we never had anything to eat or drink there. (In the 1970s it was disfigured by garish panels, as if the store management were embarrassed by the retro look.)

Both stores sprawled endearingly. Howells once included a bridge over Wharton Street linking its two buildings. (Waterstones now occupies the old Howells annexe.) Morgan’s was bisected by the Morgan Arcade, which still contains quirky independent shops and cafes.

Howells and David Morgan are two of a long list of vanished Cardiff department stores: Debenhams, Evan Roberts, Allders (Mackross), Seccombes and Marments to name just the ones I remember.

But the store I miss the most is Lears. This wonderful bookshop was a treasure trove, and I doubt my love of reading would have been so deep today were it not for hours spent in Lears as a child. At first I was hooked on the usual Enid Blyton bestsellers but I also fell under the spell of Jackdaws: a fascinating series of folders that illustrated historical topics with facsimiles of related documents. For example, the Battle of Britain one included an identity card and a copy of a 1940 Daily Mirror. I added my grandfather’s wartime identity card to that one.

Would we mourn the demise of Amazon in the same way? I doubt it!

Mylo’s tribute to his great grandfather Bob Skinner

On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute that Mylo, Bob’s oldest great grandchild, gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.

Mylo and Bob at Glamorgan county cricket ground Cardiff, 2017

I will miss Bob dearly; he was such an amazing great grandfather.  

I fondly remember my visits to Owy and Bob’s. We would always go for a walk along the pier, normally followed by an ice cream. On reflection, I now fully appreciate and am grateful for how he would always make the time and effort to play football with me in parks and gardens, despite being in his 80s. He was such a caring, impressive and giving person.  

Bob had so much time for everyone which I often got to witness first hand with my little sisters. During visits, he would constantly talk to and play with them despite them being very loud and energetic. Whenever we would visit Bob at his flat in Penarth he would cook an amazing roast dinner which tasted as though he had been perfecting over the last 80 years. This was one of the highlights of visiting him considering I have vegetarian parents. 

Bob with his new teeth, January 2023

As a child I always enjoyed writing stories which I think was influenced by Bob, he would frequently ask me to read them to him and would enquire about when I’d be starting my next one, interested in the topic or draft storyline. As I grew up, I gained a greater understanding of Bob and his career as a successful journalist. I’m certain this has contributed to me choosing to study journalism at university. I was very recently given an assignment to write a story about something “untold” in my local area. Thankfully when Robert came to visit us, he suggested I write about Bob’s teeth saga. I emailed Bob and despite him being in a hospital bed he still managed to reply and help me gather additional information about his unfortunate situation. I really appreciated his interest and input – I am so grateful that he had the time to help me, it really emphasises how much cared for and valued his family. I emailed him back the final version, I so hope that he got a chance to read it. I’m sure he would have enjoyed seeing his great grandson take footsteps on a similar path to the ones he took (albeit without a Fresher’s week).  

It was a real shock to hear of his passing, and desperately sad. When my Mum and I visited him in hospital he seemed to be getting so much better, he was certain that he was going home to be able to live independently. That was something that I really admire about Bob, how he was so determined and positive, even in his 90’s. Bob was someone who I really looked up to and someone I will continue to look up to. I hope that as a great grandson I have made him proud.

This is one of three tributes to Bob from his funeral service. Read the others below:

Rob Skinner, Bob’s son

Owen Skinner, Bob’s youngest grandchild.

Owen’s tribute to his grandfather, Bob Skinner

On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute that my son, Bob’s youngest grandson Owen, gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.

Bob Skinner 1926 – 2023

Growing up, I have always felt close to Bob. Despite living two and a half hours away from him and Owy, I still saw them enough to develop a deep and loving relationship with them as my Grandparents. I would always look forward to those precious visits to Wales; some of my favourite memories at Windsor Court, their old flat, are of us watching ‘Happy Feet’ in front of their TV, learning how to use their stair lift, and playing the game ‘Shut the Box’ in their living room.

Christmas Day Zoom call with Bob, 2021

As all of us here will have experienced, COVID disrupted all of our lives when it arrived, but it never stopped Bob. At the age of 93 he was able to crack the great enigma that had been troubling the older generations for years: How to use Zoom. Instead of losing precious time with Bob, we were able to see each other twice a week through a screen, and he was able to watch our dog, Rufus, join the family. In late 2020, Bob was struck down by the virus, and we thought it may be the end. Nevertheless, Bob never gave in, and was able to relentlessly fight the disease whilst still being able to deliver regular Zoom calls to us. If Bob is known for anything, it is his fighting spirit.

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Paying tribute to my father, Bob Skinner

On Friday 24 March, we said farewell to my wonderful father, Bob Skinner. Here is the tribute I gave at the lovely funeral service at Penarth Methodist Church, conducted by Rev Catherine Lewis.

This is the day I never thought would arrive. Bob was the great survivor, the last of his generation in our family. His mother Gwen lived to 102. He even once used the word Everlasting in a password!

But Bob slipped the surly bonds of Earth on 21 February, after a life well lived. He had written the last chapter of a thrilling story, and today is a celebration of that remarkable life. I’d like to say a heartfelt thank you for being here, for your kind and comforting messages over the past month – and for your support during Bob’s twilight months. Diolch yn fawr iawn i chi i gyd.

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Empire of Light and Cardiff cinema memories

Above: the cinema in Empire of Light

Sam Mendes’ Empire of Light was not the film I was expecting. I was looking forward to a moving story about a neglected seaside cinema lovingly brought back to life. (Think Cinema Paradiso, Margate-style.) Instead, it was a far starker and more complicated tale of early Eighties Britain, with racism, mental illness and misogyny centre-stage.

I’ll share my thoughts on Empire of Light later. But this post is an unashamed exercise in nostalgia. The film revived long-dormant memories of childhood trips to the cinema in 1970s Cardiff. Going to the pictures (as parents, aunts and uncles described a trip to the cinema) was a very different experience 50 years ago, and Empire of Light brilliantly captures the mood of the time.

The first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on its release in 1968 when I was five. We also saw Earthquake, a 1974 disaster movie, in Elephant & Castle when we were staying in London for a weekend. (It featured sound effects designed to simulate an earthquake.) But most of my childhood big screen outings were in my hometown, Cardiff, Wales.

One Christmas, my father Bob Skinner took me to the old Globe cinema in Roath to see A Christmas Carol, which I now realise would have been the version that came out when Dad was 12 in 1938. (Dad’s favourite film.) The photos above capture the venue exactly as I remember it, with a bush growing out of the roof, and a shabby auditorium. (The moniker ‘flea-pit’ could have been inspired by the 1970s Globe.) In those days, films were often played on a loop, which gave rise to the expression ‘this is where I came in’. Sure enough, we stayed long enough to see the film starting again! Dad tells me that the cinema was run by a Welsh rugby international, whose wife worked in the box office. It was one of the first venues to show foreign films. The Globe closed in the 1980s, not long after my friend Anthony and I watched Return of the Jedi there – the only early Star Wars film I watched in a cinema.

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Captain Boycott, Coventry and the origins of cancel culture

Captain Boycott by Spy, Vanity Fair 1881

Cancel culture is a hot topic in today’s world. It’s seen as a product of our aggressive, confrontational online society, with its culture wars.

But cancel culture is likely to have been a feature of life since early humans started living in communities. This thought only struck me when my son Owen was researching for a school talk on cancel culture. My mind went back to a class room at Cardiff High School, Wales, in 1979, and a lesson on British and Irish history with our wonderful O level teacher, Dr Davies. Back then, the name ‘Boycott’ was associated with cricket: the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was in his pomp, having completed his 100th first-class century two years before. Dr Davies told us of another Boycott, who gave his name to the English language after he was ‘boycotted’ by a community in the west of Ireland in the 1880s. In other words, he was cancelled.

Charles Boycott was the agent of Lord Erne, a hated landowner in County Mayo in the west of Ireland. After Erne refused to accept the tenants’ plea for more affordable rents, Boycott tried to evict them. The community was outraged, and pressured people working for Boycott and local shops to refuse to deal with him. Boycott wrote a letter to The Times in London, which created sensational news stories around the world. Boycott left Ireland in disgrace soon after.

“The shopkeepers have been warned to stop all supplies to my house, and I have just received a message from the postmistress to say that the telegraph messenger was stopped and threatened on the road when bringing out a message to me and that she does not think it safe to send any telegrams which may come for me in the future for fear they should be abstracted and the messenger injured. My farm is public property; the people wander over it with impunity. My crops are trampled upon, carried away in quantities, and destroyed wholesale.

extract From charles boycott’s letter to the times, 14 october 1880

Essay in Irish history: my O level mock history paper, Cardiff High School, 1979

The treatment of Boycott gave a huge boost to the campaign for justice for Ireland’s rural tenants. Ireland was then part of the United Kingdom, and prime minister William Gladstone recognised that solving the land question was critical if he was to achieve his mission of ‘pacifying Ireland’. Parliament passed an Irish land act within months, in 1881, meeting the demand for the ‘three Fs’: fixed tenure, fair rents, and free sale of leases. A long-ago example of how cancel culture can force dramatic, historic reform.

Sent to … Coventry. Photo: BBC

As I reflected on that Irish boycott, I remembered another phrase that proves cancel culture’s long history. When I was growing up, it wasn’t unusual to hear of people being ‘sent to Coventry’ when they were being ostracised or given the cold shoulder. Some say that the expression dates back over 470 years to the English civil war, when Royalist prisoners would be taken to Coventry, where they would be shunned by the locals.

I will know better next time someone claims cancel culture is a uniquely 21st century issue!

Note: Charles Boycott was not an army captain. It seems he was given the title of captain by the local community, who did not intend it as a compliment.

Remembering Pelé, the world’s greatest footballer

Brazil, and the world, is mourning a legend. The greatest ever footballer, Pelé, has died aged 82.

Meeting a legend: Rob and Pele, London, June 2016

I was privileged to meet Pelé in 2016. He was the star speaker at an event organised by Shell, speaking movingly about his charity work encouraging deprived young people in the favelas of Brazil’s cities.

We met the day before the Wales men’s football team played in the quarter-final of Euro 2016. I commented to Pelé that the last time Wales appeared in a quarter-final he had scored the goal that knocked us out of the 1956 FIFA world cup finals. It was a magical moment: Pelé’s face transformed into a dazzling smile as he remembered the game and tournament that made his reputation.

I will never forget the moment I shared with the true gentleman who was the world’s greatest footballer.

PS: the BBC invited me to talk about my memories of Pelé on the World Service OS programme this evening. I enjoyed hearing of the experiences of the other guests, especially one taking part from India who saw Pelé play in Brazil in 1972 when his ship docked there.

Memories of Christmas past

Christmas is such a precious time, even for those of us who aren’t religious. It is a time for reflection, yet we often invest such unrealistic expectations of the festival that we risk feeling disappointed. Happily I have almost universally happy memories of Christmas past.

This year is a poignant one for our family, as my father Bob Skinner is in hospital, marking his unhappiest Christmas since 1942, days after his father died. We had planned for Dad to spend Christmas with us. I have been blessed with countless happy Christmas years, so I should not feel downhearted. Instead, I have been looking back on Christmas memories – especially during my childhood years.


Grove Place, Penarth: venue for the first Christmas I can remember

Christmas 1967 is the first Christmas I can remember. Unusually we were staying with my maternal grandmother, perhaps out of sympathy after she was widowed when my grandfather died suddenly just before Christmas the previous year. 15 Grove Place was a cold house, without central heating. It had fireplaces in every bedroom, although I can only remember a fire in the living room. Dad was ill with flu and spent the whole time in bed, which was the warmest place to be.

Rob and his sister Beverley with their grandfather, Penarth, 1966

I have warm memories of my grandfather, Grampy, even though I had only just turned three when he died. I recall him shelling peas in the living room, perhaps on the day captured in the rare photo of my early childhood seen above. A decade ago my late mother told how my grandfather felt his way home along the wall that lined the back lane in an air raid. My grandmother was under the hairdryer in the hair salon in Penarth when the air raid siren wailed out over the town. The hairdressers raced to the bomb shelter and only later remembered that grandma was under the dryer, oblivious to the drama. I bet she never forgave them!

That house was a time capsule. The front room followed the Edwardian tradition of being kept for special occasions – happy or sad. My grandmother had good taste, and the furniture, presumably dating from the 1920s, was elegant and well preserved. In the middle room was a selection of books, including David Lloyd George’s two volume war memoirs, still in their delivery package. After Grandma died in 1981 I found the 1969 calendar I had made her in my first term at school.


This Christmas, we stayed with my other grandmother, Nanny, who lived with my aunt Dorothy and uncle George. It was a much more hospitable venue – I loved my Nan so much, who was the perfect grandmother. (Dorothy and George were wonderful hosts.) It was a special family Christmas, with my cousins Valerie and Wendy also still living at home. Yet my most vivid memory, lying in bed on Christmas Eve, was seeing Father Christmas late that evening, placing a stocking with presents. Spoiler alert: I presume this was Dad or Uncle George, but I will never know for sure.


Christmas 1970, with Mum and sister Beverley

This is the first Christmas I remember at home. We had moved to England when I was two, and typically went home to Wales for Christmas and other holidays. For some reason this year we stayed at home in Whitton, Middlesex, and enjoyed the first white Christmas I can remember. I remember Dad making a sledge from a baker’s tray – yet in pancake-flat Whitton the expectation was more exciting than the reality. We went to friends on Boxing Day, and I thoroughly enjoyed this novel Christmas. The following year we moved back to Wales.


I shouldn’t have such happy memories of my pre-O levels Christmas. I’d sat my mock exams just before Christmas, and was already planning my expectation management after what I knew was a disastrous performance in Chemistry. (I didn’t manage expectations very well – my 22% still came as a shock to Mum and Dad…)

Dad found my maternal grandmother (mentioned in the 1967 Christmas note above) unconscious under her bed on Christmas morning. He called his cousin, the lovely Dr Donald Dymond, whose on-call colleague paid a house visit. She declared that my grandmother was not in any danger, and would revive with no ill effects, which indeed happened on Boxing Day. This provided great excitement to me as a 16 year old, especially as it spared me the usual ritual of going round to my sister’s in-laws for the ordeal of sitting at their Christmas dinner table for five hours. I much preferred our resulting unplanned festive dinner of cheese and biscuits.

My sister was 26 in 1979, 10 years older than me, and we were at our closest as I was better placed as a teenager to appreciate her adult sensibilities. On 27 December we all went into Cardiff and enjoyed a snack in the cafe in Howell’s department store, before I spent some Christmas money in my favourite shop: Lear’s booksellers. Later, we went for a family walk along disused railways near Creigiau, where the Barry Railway crossed the Taff Vale Railway. (I would love to retrace that long-ago family walk, 43 years on.) The following day, we came home from another shopping trip in Cardiff to find my grandmother sitting in our living room in the dark. We’d not realised we’d be home after dark…

Cardiff suffered severe flooding just after Christmas 1979, as the river Taff broke its banks, and we were very glad that we lived well above the city’s rivers and lakes.


At home, Cardiff, 27 December 1981
Our house, January 1982

1981 was not, strictly speaking, a white Christmas. The real winter began in the new year. But it was the snowiest winter of my lifetime, as I blogged here.

This was my first adult Christmas, graced by my one year old niece Siân. I was so fortunate to become an uncle at an early age as it gave me the chance to see Siân and later Ria (born 1982) develop when I was myself still growing up during my teenage and young adult years. I was also conscious that this was the last Christmas before A levels and university. A rite of passage.


Mum, Dad, me and 5 month old Owen

My first Christmas as a father. Happily, Owen spent time with all four grandparents. My mother especially was boosted by the arrival of her bonus grandson 19 years after the birth of her previous grandchild, my sister’s son Ben. was lucky that I had changed jobs just after Owen was born. Our offices closed between Christmas and New Year and everyone had time off, which avoided any arguments about who should work between Christmas and New Year.

This has been just a small selection of my Christmas memories. Christmas remains a special time for me, offering a chance to reflect, relax and enjoy the company of family. I’m looking forward to many more festive memories in the years to come.

Memories of Penrhos junction, Caerphilly

Penrhos in its heyday. Photo: Briwnant, National Museum of Wales

It’s curious how certain places exert a disproportionate influence on our thoughts. More than 40 years ago I stood on a bridge and took a photo of a railway at Penrhos, near Caerphilly. I have no idea why – not a single train graced the lonely route up the big hill from Nantgarw towards Caerphilly.

My first view of Penrhos, circa 1981

Perhaps I sensed the pull of the ghosts of trains past. Penrhos was the site of a mighty battle. Three Welsh railways locked horns on that hillside. The Rhymney was the oldest, opened in 1858 to transport coal from its namesake valley to Cardiff. The later Pontypridd, Caerphilly and Newport hauled the black gold from the Taff and Rhondda valleys to Newport. But the star of the show was the Barry Railway, the parasite that drew trade from the incumbents to its own, new port of Barry. By 1914, Barry had overtaken Cardiff as the world’s greatest coal-exporting port.

At the start of the 20th century, the Barry Railway set off on an outrageous, audacious venture to steal traffic from its earlier rivals. It blew vast sums on a line that soared against the grain of the South Wales landscape. Its new line spanned spectacular viaducts across the Taff and Rhymney valleys to join the Brecon & Merthyr Railway opposite Llanbradach. The expensive line was closed by the Great Western Railway, which absorbed the Welsh railways exactly a century ago, and the great viaducts demolished in 1937, as my father recorded during his reporting career after the second world war. (The steel was recycled for Britain’s frantic rearmament on the eve of Hitler’s war.)

One of the Barry’s more modest bridges crossed the Rhymney and PC&N lines at Penrhos, just west of Caerphilly, seen in Briwnant’s image above. By the time I took my first photos here in the early 1980s just one double track line remained. Within a year even that route had closed.

Yet the pull of that lonely hillside still captured me. In the snows that followed Christmas 1993, Dad and I drove over Caerphilly Mountain to witness Penrhos, now bleak and rail-less. The pillars of the Barry’s overbridge provided the only evidence of a lost railway. I don’t remember mourning this monument to the loss of South Wales’s industrial might. But I feel it keenly now. Forty years ago, no one thought the loss of king coal was a victory for planet Earth. But let us cling to that consolation.

When the rails left Penrhos, the coal trains from the Rhymney valley were restricted to the later 1871 Rhymney Railway mainline through the tunnel to Llanishen and Cardiff. Lying in my bed in Lakeside, Cardiff, as night became Bible black, I took comfort in the throb of the class 37 diesels as they piloted their black gold cargoes down the embankment towards Cardiff. The diesel song occasionally joined in harmony with City Hall’s bells sounding the hour, and the foghorns of the capital’s still active docks.

The reign of king coal is over. The surviving South Wales rail lines are largely devoted to human not industrial traffic. Some of the lines closed by the malevolent Dr Beeching have reopened in the past 35 years, with more to follow. But Penrhos is unlikely to echo once more to the sound of trains. Any dreams of a resurgence will be confined to small scale models. North of the road bridge where Dad and I parked our cars the railway cutting has been filled in as a foundation for Caerphilly’s expansion.

I’ll end with an image of Penrhos in its twilight days. The photo above shows the Barry viaduct intact, but disused, as a GWR coal train steams up the hill from Taffs Well. Today, the hillsides echo to footsteps and barking dogs rather than panting trains. We can but dream of the days when Welsh steam coal fuelled the world.