BRITISH Waterways and rugby league.
What do they have in common?
Quite a lot actually, given that a big part of Britain’s canal system runs through rugby league heartland, the industrial North.
When I covered the 1982 and ’86 Kangaroo tours for the Brisbane ‘Telegraph’ newspaper, I stayed at the Dragonara Hotel in Leeds for the majority of the trip. This was the hotel where the team was based.
In ’82 my room looked over the front of the hotel, towards the River Aire. In ’86, my room was on the other side of the hotel, and looked over the start of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal.
In ’82 I hadn’t even realised the canal existed.
On ‘discovering’ it in ’86, I used the tow path when I wanted to walk or run. Much better than pounding the foot-paths of Leeds. And it gave me a whole new perspective on life in the region.
Australian Rugby League chairman, Ken Arthurson also was staying at the Dragonara. ‘Arko’ is a fitness fanatic, and, when I told him about the tow path, he used it every day, and was grateful for not having to breath exhaust fumes.
Anyway, in 1991 I read an article in ‘The (English) Weekly Telegraph about a new 140 miles walk having been opened, following the Grand Union Canal from London to Birmingham.
Two years later, I did the walk, over a 10 day period, although the very first stage was followed by a period in which I caught up with friends in Kent, and then covered the Great Britain v New Zealand Rugby League Test at Wembley.
I began the walk from ‘Little Venice’ in London, passing scores of fishermen, who were contesting a post office event. They were such an unfriendly lot. They would not have given you the time of day, even if they had an arm full of watches.
And this proved to be the case for the entire walk.
The weather was cool, and the skies threatening, so I was wearing my Aussie Driza-bone. I must have looked like an American Cowboy. It’s the only explanation I can give for a mob of drunks singing ‘Black Hills of Dakota’ as I walked by.
Sheet lightning forced me to take shelter at the Grand Junction pub, where I was served by Kiwi bar manager, Shane, from Auckland, who was going home, for good, shortly. He had had enough.
Shane told me the pub would be used for the filming of an episode of ‘Minder’ the following night. One of my favorite shows.
Photo 1: The Grand Union Canal
I caught a double deck bus back to Central London. The friendly driver was of West Indian origin, and so, it seemed, were all the passengers. And there were only two or three empty seats. I sat next to a young bloke, and said ‘G’day’. He immediately moved. Some of the other passengers looked disapprovingly at this young man – for being so rude, I imagine. If it was the other way round, I would have been branded a racist.
That night I booked in the Grosvenor Hotel, near Victoria Station, accommodation which came courtesy of Travelworld. You see, another purpose of the trip was to organise aspects of my planned 1994 Kangaroos’ supporters tour.
So the trip had four purposes, and was partly funded by Travelworld and partly by The Courier-Mail. I also had the help of British Waterways, given I was going to write a travel article about the canal walk.
My 1993 journey had begun on a positive note, with an upgrade to Business Class on the Qantas’ ‘City of Parramatta’. I enjoyed the company of cattle salesman, Robert (no Business Class private pods in those days), although his smoking was an unexpected nuisance. Yes. SMOKING.
In Singapore, I enjoyed the hospitality of the Captain’s Lounge, with Fred and Beryl Tipping from Rochedale in England, who were returning from a holiday (notice, I will always say holiday, not vacation), at Woombye in the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Another English couple – from Stoke – were on their way to Cooroy, also in the Sunshine Coast hinterland.
In London, my first ale was Director’s Bitter at the Zetland Arms, South Kensington, a pub my 1990 tour group made their own. The manager (in 1993) came from Cessnock, in Australia’s Hunter Valley.
Nb: There will be more yarns on the 1993 canal walk, at a later date.
FOOTNOTE: In 1982 a number of players from the Kangaroo touring squad bought old cars. At least one of these old bangers finished up in the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, when it had passed its usefulness. The local constabulary were not amused, and it cost 150 pounds to have it lifted out, with that money coming from the players’ bonuses. Prop forward, Don McKinnon got the blame, even though there were a few players involved. Many years later McKinnon revealed the reason he was singled out: “You’re a copper – you should have known better,” coach, Frank Stanton said to him.
Photo 2: Leeds-Liverpool Canal at Skipton, Yorkshire. That’s the Good Shepherd Pub in the background.