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September 30, 2012

Wiltshire wonders

You don't always have to travel far to find some wondrous places, as we found today, visiting two without ever leaving the county of Wiltshire. One of them you have definitely heard of, and the other you probably haven't.

Down near Amesbury is a pile of stones called Stonehenge, which I am embarrassed to say I hadn't properly visited before today, despite having lived my entire life less than 35 miles from this World Heritage Site. Indeed, we wouldn't have gone there today if it hadn't been so convenient to our other destination and if admission for us hadn't been 'free', as we are now members of both the National Trust and English Heritage, and both memberships give you free admission.

I did get close enough to the stones to take some pictures of it in, I think, 1989, but this time we actually got as close as the public is now able to get for most of the year, which is about 20m away, at the closest part of the path that loops around it.

Two things surprised me: firstly how small an area the actual stones cover in 'real life' - much smaller than it seems through a camera lens - and secondly how popular an attraction it is, even though, at the end of the day, it is just a load of old stones and a gift shop.

When we arrived at about 11am, the car park was nearly full and we had trouble parking even our little car. There were about six coaches dropping off Japanese, Italians and what looked suspiciously like Americans.

The advantage of paying to go in is you get a bit closer and also better pictures than the cheapskates hanging over the perimeter fence and poking their lenses through the holes, but the real level of pleasure probably mostly depends on what time of day it is and how dramatic the sky is as a backdrop - and today wasn't anything special.

Still, it is a unique place, even if you take it for granted that you have a place on your doorstep where hundreds of people, from all over the world, stop off, every day, just to look at.

Probably more interesting, though, is the modern phenomenon of Imber, the 'ghost village' or 'lost village' of Salisbury Plain, about ten miles north of Stonehenge. It was one of the first things I ever wrote about when I became a journalist, but another place I never got round to going to until today.

But then opportunities to visit Imber are limited. That's because, back in 1943, the 135 inhabitants of the village were turfed out so it could be used to train soldiers - mainly Americans - before D-Day. Although the villagers expected to go back after the war, they were never allowed, and neither is anybody else, in fact, apart from the two or three days a year when the two roads through it are open to allcomers.

The September open day is the traditional time for opening St Giles Church for services and, in the case of today, bell ringing too. The church is the only completely preserved building from Imber's former life, along with a few original other buildings that survive as shells. The majority of the other buildings are also shells, built in more recent times, including a whole little estate of mock homes, which look like they were probably put up to train soldiers for urban warfare during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Before we arrived we were getting frustrated that there were no signposts to guide us to the village, but it added to the mystery of what had been a pretty remote place, even before the villagers left. It was useless trying to navigate with the iPad because there is no satellite coverage and, anyway, Imber has literally been wiped off most maps.

Meanwhile, it seemed as if half a dozen decaying tanks on the roadside and endless signs, telling you not to stray from the carriageway because of unexploded 'military debris', had been placed mainly for dramatic effect. Sure enough, when you finally get there it has a strange feel about it, made more weird by the bell-ringing, which was some kind of record attempt, so was nearly constant.

Signs on the church make it clear that because the 13th/14th century building is officially protected, it is out of bounds to the Army, while the rest of the village is the opposite, and out of bounds to the public. It wasn't clear whether we were allowed to stray into the mock-homes or not, but it was irresistible, even though nobody wanted to go far into the fields in case they encountered something unexploded.

This is no idle threat. Next to what used to be part of Seagrams Farm (which had an 1880 date stone), I spotted (and photographed) a singed tree with what looked like the remains of a grenade or some kind of flare stuck in it, and on the ground was something similar that hadn't gone off.

Even so, we also had a close look at (or got as close as possible to) an unidentified large building (now just number 21), probably a farm; Imber Court, the old manor house (now building number 35); the Bell Inn (now building number 43, but with a surviving datestone of 1769); and then a range of the modern mock-houses.

Imber is definitely worth a visit, but as far as the civilian population is concerned, it officially doesn't exist until probably next Easter.

September 26, 2012

RIP Mary

You would have seen me wearing a tie for a while today, which these days is a sure sign that I am either at a wedding or a funeral. My life has reached a stage where no other reason for a tie exists, or probably ever will again.

Sadly, it was a black tie as me and Julie had to attend the funeral of our nextdoor neighbour-but-one, Mary, who was only 71.

She died fairly suddenly and unexpectedly, although strangely we had not seen much of her this year, nor heard her laughing in her garden, which had led us to wonder whether she had been ill, when in fact she hadn't.

I am not a great believer in the benefit of funerals, but at least they bring people together, and Mary would have been delighted that it led to a few people in our street - us and her two nextdoor neighbours - having a long overdue chat.

We are lucky to have neighbours we get on with, even if busy lives and modern lifestyles mean we don't get to talk to them that often. Indeed, I'm regretting that while Julie stopped for a chat with Mary when we last saw her, last month, I had to rush off to somewhere or other, so only waved.

Only one elderly neighbour now remains from those who were here when we moved in, 22 years ago, so Mary's passing is not only sad, but also another sign that we are becoming the older generation.

But the saddest thing about today was the thought, while chatting with the other neighbours, that nobody would have enjoyed our conversation more than Mary.

It's a kind of magic

I got another call to go live on the radio (BBC Wiltshire) today, this time because of my local knowledge of Swindon's Magic Roundabout.

So I spoke for two or three minutes about how great it is, which, of course, it is. A work of genius, even.

Indeed, I wrote the piece for SwindonWeb that pointed out it is the 40th anniversary of Britain's greatest road junction, which you can read here, as well as this background piece, written a few years ago.

The interview was done live from the Magic Roundabout (actually the County Ground car park) and was most remarkable for how unfazed I am by this kind of thing. For somebody who sometimes suffers from terrible doubts and lack of confidence, especially walking into a roomful of people I don't know, it's notable that if I am just asked to waffle on about a subject I know a bit about, there is no stopping me.

September 17, 2012

On Broadway

I have a great idea for a musical: a poor girl from a little American town (probably in Kansas) goes to New York, hoping to find fame and fortune on Broadway, and along the way she meets a kindly millionaire and falls in love. There will also be orphans.

I know it's been done before, but that hasn't stopped it being done over and over again. And so it was with Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I was surprised to find had only been a film starring Julie Andrews until it was finally adapted for the stage in 2000.

And now it has turned up at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury, which we enjoy going to so much that we virtually say yes to every trip there that our friend Shanti organises, because even if you don't think you will like the show, it's such a lovely atmosphere and the productions of such high quality that you can't really go wrong. The only stuff that we really say no to there is anything written by Alan Ayckbourn (you have to draw the line somewhere).

But even I was thinking Thoroughly Modern Millie was stretching it a bit because of all the musicals you could see (such as Matilda, which we saw last week) Thoroughly Modern Millie is the most thoroughly old-fashioned you could choose, and has only one recognisable tune in it.

But it lived completely up to expectations, with a stupid plot - if you can even call it a plot - but energetically staged, with all the cast doubling as talented musicians. So everybody went home with smiles on their faces, which I suppose was the intention.

What really made the trip worth it, though, was Eleanor Brown, the actress who played Millie with a massive twinkle in her eye and a knowing look every time she had to deliver a silly line to keep the silly plot moving along to its sickeningly inevitable happily-ever-after conclusion.

September 16, 2012

'Ere Wiggo again (without Wiggo)

Big crowds, a great atmosphere, world class sport, British successes, great value for money, a memorable day out... London 2012 is back!

Not quite, but it was the next best thing as we (me, Sean and my drum teacher Paul Ashman) went to Surrey for the last day of the Tour of Britain cycle race.

The main attraction had been to see Bradley Wiggins in action, but he pulled out of the race earlier in the week through illness, and it was lucky we didn't pull out of our trip, because it was a great day out, even with no Wiggo.

There is a fundamental problem with watching cycling on the road, which is you get to see only a few seconds of action, even if you do what we did and chase around to see the race come past three different points. So you might think it isn't much of a spectator sport. But that doesn't take account of the atmosphere or that you are so close to the action - close enough to get killed if you stand in the wrong place - plus the opportunities there are to see 'behind the scenes' before, during and after the race.

In fact, a lot of the 'behind the scenes' stuff isn't out of sight, but conducted in full view of the crowd. In the case of the all-star Team Sky, for us that meant waiting outside a cordoned-off area for their manager, Dave Brailsford, and then their star riders to emerge from the team bus, the most notable of these being world champion Mark Cavendish.

For us this had the extra entertainment value of seeing Paul in action. When there are celebrities about, you can guarantee he will pop up to have his picture taken with them, beg souvenirs and autographs from the celebrities and give a masterclass in blagging freebies at the end. You can see him in one of the pictures I took of Dave Brailsford, below, pleased as punch to have just got his autograph.

Having really enjoyed Sky's stage-managed PR opportunity - they really know how to keep the fans happy - we left to find a good place to see the start on the streets of Reigate, but were side-tracked when British rider Jonathan Tiernan-Locke wandered past on his bike, wearing the leader's gold jersey.

Despite eventually winning the race, relatively little notice was being taken of him, compared with the Sky team. After Paul had tapped him on the shoulder and got a picture with him, we hung around for a few minutes, taking pictures and watching while, amazingly, he was talking about the route and team tactics with the team manager and the rest of the team. And this right in the car park.

Having seen the riders and the whole carnival whizz past us in Reigate town centre, we then headed for the top of one of the hill climbs, where we were able to park within feet of the line and, once again, see the actual workings of the race. Two judges stood either side of the line and, rather than use any kind of electronic device to decide who got the points for being first to the top of the hill, noted it down in a book with a pen.

Having photographed the four leaders and then the peloton, led by Cavendish, we rushed off to Guildford with hopes of seeing the finish.

The town was packed, but we managed to get just 20m from the finish line, which sounds like a prime spot, but you really needed to be above the huge crowds to see the uphill finish on cobblestones. All we really saw was Mark Cavendish live up to his nickname of the 'Manx Missile' by zipping by in about one second to win the stage, with the rest of the pack trying to catch him.

The crowds were too large for us to get anywhere near the podium for the presentations, but we eventually got to mingle with all the team crews as they were packing up, while Paul begged more freebies. Then Mark Cavendish walked right past me as he made his way through the crowds with his family (whom we had earlier spotted in a window opposite our vantage point).

Britain now completely dominates world cycling, and the incredibly young-looking Tiernan-Locke, who I hadn't heard of before this week, looks like a possible future Tour de France winner after winning this race.

Apart from the great day we had, the good news is the overwhelming popularity of the race. It isn't yet on a par with the great tours of France, Italy and Spain, but will undoubtedly grow, thanks to cycling becoming a big sport in Britain, and the status its stars are now rightly enjoying. It's an already tangible legacy of London 2012 that people, especially families, are now more interested in sport - and not just football - like they've never been before.

Apart from the petrol, today's whole day of entertainment cost us precisely nothing. And if you are good at stalking, blagging and begging, which I'm not, you end up taking home more than you went out with!

September 14, 2012

Something fishy

After some confusion, we had one of our monthly Lads' Nights Out tonight, which was excellent, as usual, but confronted me with a bizarre coincidence.

We were just leaving the Swan at Radcot (good beer, excellent food) when I saw a stuffed trout in a display case and noticed it had been caught on July 9, 1961, which is the day I was born.

It weighed 7lb, 2oz, which I would love to say was my weight when I was born, but both me and my twin brother weighed 6lb, 6oz each.

For the record, I've never eaten trout because, apart from scampi (at a pinch) and prawns/shrimps, nothing passes my lips that was ever once flapping about in a river or ocean.

September 13, 2012

The summer of 2012

Now that the dust has settled on London 2012 and we have got our breath back, it's time for a little summary of what it has meant for us. I'll keep it as short as possible, but really I could write a book about our experience.

Five seconds after it was announced that our bid for the Games had been successful, way back in July 2005, I made up my mind that we were going to make the most of a genuine once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We always knew the Olympics would be a brilliant experience and that the Paralympics would match it. But even though our expectations were sky high, we were surprised by just how good it all was.

We had hoped to be a Gamesmakers, but when it became clear that it was impossible to be a volunteer and a spectator at the same time, the fact that we were, by then, already holding a fistful of tickets meant that we had to pull out. We spoke to a few Gamesmakers on our travels and if any of them got to see anything, it was only glimpses grabbed here and there. A young lady at the cycling, near the end of the Paralympics, explained that she was lucky: she had managed to get a seat in the stadium for an hour.

Unlike most people, who only seem to have understood the appeal of the Paralympics this time around, we have been avid watchers of the last two, so to us the Paralympics was not a consolation prize after the main event was over, but rather London 2012 - Part II. If anything, we found actually being there even better than being at the Olympics. It also produced what is probably my favourite live sporting moment of the Games (and probably ever, although it's almost impossible to choose) which was David Weir's perfect race in the 5000m.

Why was London 2012 so good? I think most people understood, from watching it on telly, that it was well-organised, but you had to be there to realise just how well-organised it was. The best way we can describe it is to compare it with our experience of visiting Florida, where Disney and just about everybody else is so switched on to providing almost faultless customer service that you know, from the second your feet touch the ground, that you are going to have a great time. It's like stepping into a new world, and London 2012 was a kind of Disneyworld.

What really strikes you about Florida is not just the razzmatazz and the huge entertainment complexes they have built up, but the attention to detail and how most people there are geared up to make sure you go home with a smile on your face. London 2012 was exactly the same.

They thought of everything, and their top priority was clearly to select and train Gamesmakers who really wanted to be there and, even more importantly, wanted us to be there. It often seems to me that the people who work in customer service in this country, or have to deal with the public, are generally those who don't seem to like other people much, and see the presence of customers in their workplace as an inconvenience. This was certainly not the case with Gamesmakers, who all seemed as though they had gone through a Disney-style training, but probably didn't need much of it because they really meant it when they said "Welcome to London 2012" and were still smiling at the end of a long day when they were wishing you a safe journey home.

There were plenty of other things that made London 2012 such a pleasure: the design of big things, such as everything in the Olympic Park, including the stadium, which, though not as spectacular as Beijing's Bird's Nest, was an extremely cool place to be; the design of little things, including the logo and mascots that the doubters were keen to hate, but proved spot-on; the way everything ran smoothly, including what the Americans describe as "London's ageing Underground system"; the amazing performance of our athletes in both games; the fact that everybody in Team GB were not just high achievers but genuinely nice, intelligent people; the genius and the creativity and the spectacle of the brilliant opening and closing ceremonies.

In fact, why am I making a list? It would be much easy to make a very short list of the bad things about London 2012, but they really would be trifles.

London 2012 also showed that our capital city is quite possibly the greatest in all the world (and we are lucky to live so close to it), while those shots over The Mall, Greenwich and Hampton Court reminded us that we live in a country that is as beautiful as any other when the sun shines.

There can now also be no doubt that we are the greatest sporting nation in the world. That's not just because we were third in both medals tables, even though is an incredible achievement to thrash Russia in the Olympics and the United States in the Paralympics (don't they have disabled people in the United States?)

We beat the South Koreans at taekwondo and completely dominate the rest of Europe at their own game: cycling. Name a sport, apart from football, and we are good at it!

But what really makes you the best country in the world at sport is sportsmanship. England football fans do their best to portray us as half-wits when they boo the national anthem of their opponents - something that really makes my blood boil - but at London 2012 the crowds showed it was possible to be incredibly partisan towards your own team but at the same time impeccably respectful of opponents.

That applied even if the opponents were from countries that our leaders and the Daily Mail would like to portray as enemies (and their leaders and media probably do the same about us). So I watched with amazement on telly as the last man home in a Paralympic race was given a whole-lap standing ovation, despite being Argentinian. And the most amazing thing was to be in the stadium for a victory ceremony where the gold medalist's anthem was heard in respectful, total silence and was greeted by a huge cheer when it was over - although the winner was from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Even if any athletes spoilt the day or threatened to, by beating Team GB, their achievement was still recognised with cheers. When was the last time you saw football supporters applaud the opposition?

There has been a lot of talk about what London 2012's legacy might be, but it's this amazing sportsmanship that has brought about the biggest shift for me. It's the biggest reason - among various others - why I am now proud to be British.

I've never been very patriotic as I've always considered nationalism to be a dangerous thing; I hate the idea of the royal family and everything it stands for (but not necessarily certain individual members of it); and I have always been frustrated by what Britain does badly. Being proud to be British also seemed to require you to look down on other countries as inferior - even though, from where I was standing, there were plenty of things that they did better than us. You have no right to be proud of your own country until you have the grace to recognise reasons why other people should be proud of theirs.

It's almost impossible to wave your flag with any pride when it has been hi-jacked, in my own lifetime, by Thatcher and the rest of a Conservative Party that only stood for a narrow (and narrow-minded) minority of us. The National Front, the British National Party, football hooligans and other assorted pond life have also had their grubby hands on it over the years. So it was nice to witness, at first hand, decent people claiming back the Union Jack during London 2012.

Having pulled off the greatest Olympics ever and a Paralympics that was better than all the others put together, London 2012 has proved that if we put our minds to it, there is nothing Britain can't do. And it also sends a message to our miserable government that if you are prepared to think big, believe in your creativity and your own endeavour, there is a much better way out of any crisis than promoting division, destruction and austerity. London 2012 has shown us that Britain deserves better. Much better.

So, to get to the conclusion at last...

We have had a fantastic few weeks. London 2012 was our holiday this year, and we've never had a better one, and never will. Everything about it has been a pleasure and a privilege and an honour.

We are in no doubt that when we look back on the summer of 2012 it will be to remember it as the best one of our lives.

September 11, 2012

London still calling

We (me, Julie and Holly) were back in London again tonight. We can't seem to get away from the place at the moment.

The occasion this time was Matilda the Musical, which we'd booked months ago, but I hadn't really thought much about as it was beyond London 2012, the main event of the year.

Not only is Matilda a bizarre children's book out of the twisted brain of Roald Dahl, but this production is by the Royal Shakespeare Company, of all people, with a score by Tim Minchin of all people. So anything could have happened, although the expectation was always that whatever did happen, it was probably going to be good.

And that's how it proved, although it must have been a huge challenge to turn something that should only appeal to children into a musical that seemed to appeal to everybody. There were hardly any kids in the audience (being a school night) and only two on our coach, where even I was well below the average age, but everybody seemed to love it.

Me included.

Even more of a challenge for new musicals is their lack of instantly recognisable tunes that you can hum on your way home, but it didn't matter this time. That's probably because the audience were captivated by three things.

Firstly there was the colourful and quirky set, even though it isn't really as spectacular as you might expect of a West End show - partly because the Cambridge Theatre is surprisingly small and relatively modern. But it was full of surprises. My favourite bit was the cool way the school desks rose up out of the floor for the classroom scenes.

The second thing that clinched it for everybody was the performance of the little girl playing Matilda. I can't even tell you her name because they have to rotate the lead role and we were too tight to buy a programme, but she was a little darling who, though seemingly only about ten years old, not only remembered all the complex script and dance steps, which is a feat in itself, but delivered them with incredible skill and confidence, plus impeccable timing.

Just knowing where to stand to be in the right place when the set was doing its stuff was impressive enough.

Then there was Bertie Carvel, who was brilliant as the villain, Miss Trunchball; that's right, a man playing a woman.

So it's definitely a show I would recommend, and you don't even need to find a child to take as an excuse for seeing it.

September 8, 2012

Games over

The Carter Family's Great London 2012 Adventure is over. It ended at precisely 2.25am when me and Sean arrived home from the North Greenwich Arena (otherwise known as the O2 Arena and once called the Millenium Dome), where we had been watching the wheelchair basketball finals.

We saw both the bronze and gold medal matches, which was my first experience of watching wheelchair basketball; although, interestingly, I have played it. That was a few years ago when I was writing a story for the Swindon Advertiser, and I spent most of the time at a local club fearing death because I had been warned of the potentially serious consequences if you fell backwards out of the wheelchair and the back of your head hit the floor first.

So I already had an appreciation of the danger and the action, but not so much of the great skill and finesse of a game that is much better in real life than it is on the telly. That's because you get to see more of the picture, including the way all the players twist and weave for space as if it's motors, not their hands, that are propelling them around.

Our seats were pretty high up, but we still had an excellent view of the court, and could also enjoy the atmosphere. We may have been watching the sport's two most important matches in four years, but they were still presented in what I suppose is the American style, with a loud MC, loud music, various razzmatazz, dancing mascots and crowd hits such as 'Kiss Cam' - when couples in the audience have to kiss after they are spotted by one of the many cameramen in the arena and are beamed on to the big screens.

I do not normally approve of this kind of thing when I am trying to enjoy serious sport, but it definitely added to the atmosphere, and we really enjoyed that part of it. But it was the sport that made it.

I always maintain that regular basketball is the world's dullest spectator sport because seven-feet-tall athletes can hardly miss the basket every time they attack, especially if they are agile enough to find a path through the defence. But it's different for wheelchair basketball players, whose way is often blocked by other chairs and they are aiming from much lower down. And they have the added problem of having to propel the ball from a seated position. It takes great skill to score in wheelchair basketball.

That means teams either have to find a clever way through the crowd with slick passing or weaving, or shoot from further out, so you end up with a pretty skilful game.

Unfortunately, most of Great Britain's skill seemed to desert them in the bronze medal match against the USA, which they never led. They were nine points down at the end of the first quarter (of ten minutes each) and although they somehow drew level, early in the third quarter, they faded again and ended up losing 61-46.

If we were disappointed by that and thinking it would make the gold medal match seem flat, we were pleasantly surprised as Canada v Australia turned out to be a close and really impressive match that even neutrals could enjoy. Even better: the star of the game was Canada's Patrick Anderson, who is not only reckoned to be the best player in the Paralympics, but the best wheelchair basketball player ever.

It took us about two minutes to work out why. He could seemingly score from anywhere, moved his chair like a dancer, had incredible vision and passing skills, and had an uncanny ability to catch the ball with one hand. Not that he had big hands that acted like suckers, but rather the ability to pluck even a basketball out of the air like a juggler. You know you are in the presence of a great sportsman when you daren't take your eyes off him for fear of missing what he is going to do next.

The final score was 64-58 to Canada, which seemed fitting as Anderson really shouldn't ever be on a losing side.

Although about half of the 18,000 crowd went home as soon as the match was over, we stayed for the victory ceremony, which took up the whole court, and it seemed a long way home when we finally got out of the stadium and joined a big queue for the Tube. However, such has been the organisation at London 2012 that we barely stood still for more than a few seconds and were soon on a train and starting the long journey to pick up the car at Chiswick, where we had left it at 4pm.

Once again, it had been a privilege to be part of London 2012, and we are going to feel sadder than most when the closing ceremony takes place tomorrow, after which I am probably going to have more to say about what has been a sensationally good summer of sport - of which we have enjoyed every second.

Our now complete Olympics/Paralympics album is here.

I must also mention a photo album my brother Brian has put together after his visit to the Paralympics last week, which includes some stunning pictures. See them here.

September 7, 2012

Without a hitch

Today was my brother Ron's 64th birthday, but it was tomorrow's 60th birthday of my other older brother, Maurice, that got most of the attention.

He had a party at Stratton Royal British Legion, where he first met his wife Jacky, and I had a key and pretty scary role in the celebrations.

Our band was the evening's entertainment - an event I had been looking forward to and dreading in equal measures for weeks. It's bad enough playing in front of random audiences without your whole family turning up. And many had never seen us play before, so the potential for disaster was staring me in the face.

For ages, in fact, I was undecided - firstly whether I should accept the invitation to play, and then whether I had made a terrible mistake. So the way I feel before any gig - not so much nervousness as a heavy dread in my stomach - was multiplied.

However, it all went pretty well from where I was sitting. I didn't drop my sticks, only made two mistakes, which nobody except the band seemed to notice, and, most importantly, Maurice seemed to enjoy it. He also said he had had several good reports from the audience, which made it even better.

I was too busy playing, chatting or unsuccessfully trying to persuade my camera to use its flash to get any pictures at all, but given what could have gone wrong, a slightly faulty camera was a real let-off.

September 5-7, 2012

Good in tent

One of the features of our London 2012 travels has been how perfectly things have fallen into place, even when there have been complications. Only Seb Coe can be more proud of running a more organised project this year -

We got really ambitious with our latest jaunt (to cycle road racing at Brands Hatch in Kent) because we worked in some camping, even though the lack of a tow-bar on our car stops us from using our big tent and doing it in any style.

So we identified a conveniently situated little campsite and grabbed the new family two-man tent, which we are waiting to hear back from the Guinness Book of Records about because it is so small. It's so small that when we had pegged out the groundsheet and started to put together the fly sheet arrangement, we weren't sure whether to put it over the tent or use it to keep the flies off our cakes. Our car isn't exactly huge, but as the photo shows, it is bigger than the tent.

Fortunately, the weather was perfect, so we travelled down early, the day before the event, and had a leisurely day in the sun to prepare us for the early start the next day. We'd booked into the first intake of cars in the 'park and walk', which was actually just parking on site at Brands Hatch. All the racing today consisted of either six, eight or ten laps of the same 8km course, which was half on the motor racing circuit and half on the streets nearby.

So we found ourselves near the front of the queue to get in, waiting for the gates to open, and soon realised we were able to get extremely close to the start/finish line, which our experience of road cycle racing had led us to believe would be impossible. Those places are usually reserved for press, sponsors, family, VIPs, disabled spectators or people willing to pay a bit more than us.

We eventually settled for just beyond the line, which turned out to be literally next to the bell that the timekeepers use to signal the last lap; and there was a bonus as we were a short walk from where they held the victory ceremonies.

British interest in the first two races (men's C4-5 and women's C1-3) soon faded, which was a shame, but as soon as the next two races (men's C1-3 and the women's C4-5) began, it was clear we were going to witness one of the key moments of the Paralympics.

Sarah Storey had already won three golds and was favourite to win her fourth, and she soon left her rivals behind, and would finish an incredible seven minutes ahead. At one stage, the on-site commentator said: "She's so far ahead, she's in a different postcode to the rest." She even overtook the men's race, which had started two minutes earlier - although, to be fair to them, they were in a more disabled class and were racing as a group, which in this situation probably slowed them down.

We were delighted to watch her cross the line from about ten yards away, then see her get her presented with her latest gold, but the highlight was yet to come. While we let the rest of the crowd go home, and hung around, we noticed a group of people wearing 'Team Storey' T-shirts and posing for pictures with the little boy Sarah had plucked out of the crowd as soon as the victory ceremony was over.

I asked one lady if she was Sarah's mum and she said: "No. I'm Barney's auntie." That's Barney Storey MBE, Sarah's husband. Then the lady explained which one of the group was Sarah's mum, followed by explanations of who all the others were, including the little kid, who is Sarah's nephew. We told her she must be proud, and the lady said yes, but insisted they were just an ordinary family, which was nice.

We were still chatting when Sarah herself re-appeared, cycling across from the other side of the track with her medal round her neck. This not only gave us the chance to get some great pictures, but I also got her to autograph my ticket.

There have been so many really heart-warming things about London 2012, but perhaps the best thing of all is that the sportspeople who have been inspiring us this summer also seem to be such nice people. Sarah Storey is no exception. It's so refreshing to know that elite athletes who are performing at such a high level, including Paralympic superstars such as her, are as nice in 'real life' as you would hope them to be. She had loads of time to stop to pose for and chat to spectators, and she would have stayed longer if she hadn't had to go off and do her drugs test.

The day wasn't quite over for us. We found a nearby Harvester pub and had a nice meal, then went back to our tiny tent again, pretty exhausted from being on our feet all day and having had such an unforgettable day. Even the fact that our camping airbed has developed a slow puncture and we woke up virtually on the ground didn't dampen our spirits as we made our way home in the morning.

That's the last of Julie's Paralympic events, but I still have one more to look forward to...

Our Olympics/Paralympics album so far is here.

September 4, 2012


Technically speaking, this blog entry should read: "Went to a meeting."

However, in the interests of continuity, I have to mention the fact that while I was sat round a table, the Carter family's London 2012 adventures continued at the Aquatics Centre, where Julie and Holly were watching Paralympic swimming.

We foolishly only applied for two tickets for the swimming, and as I've been to all the other events and can't swim myself, I was always going to lose out in the ticket allocation process.

The lucky winners got to see the now-legendary Ellie Simmonds get a bronze; sadly not the third gold of the Games everybody was hoping for. But they did get to see British girl Heather Frederiksen win the 100m backstroke (S8) and other medals. This puts Julie top of the Carter medals table - level on British golds witnessed, but ahead on silvers.

Our Olympics/Paralympics album so far is here.

September 2, 2012

Perfect finish

Part two of our Paralympics athletics weekend began when I got up at 5.15am, having only got to bed at 2am. By 7.30am we had parked in London and were on the tube, ready to meet up with our friends Pete and Julie, who had taken our two spare tickets (Holly having to work and Sean too busy to come on the second day of athletics).

They kindly bought us breakfast, which we ate within sight of Tower Bridge, and we separated until the evening.

Me and Julie had an appointment for 10.30am to go up the Orbit tower, the giant 'artwork' that overlooks the stadium. Like all our London 2012 ideas, this turned out to be a brilliant one as you not only get a unique view of the stadium - and we could actually see the whole of a 100m race - but also over the rest of the park and the London skyline beyond.

We spent the rest of the day trying to preserve energy, but also visiting some of the sponsor's attractions within the park - Panasonic's 3D film (OK), Coca-Cola's 'Beatbox' (far too streetwise for us), and (best of the bunch) an entertaining 360-degree presentation by BP. We also had a quick look at an interesting exhibition about the Paralympics, which included displays and a chance to talk to expert about the 'blades' used by the athletes, including the ever more inconic Oscar Pistorius. This was ironic (as well as iconic) as his unexpected defeat, which we were just about to witness, was to ignite a big debate about the technology involved.

We met Pete and Julie inside the stadium. After previously sitting at either ends of the stadium, this time we were exactly in the middle, overlooking the back straight. So we got a good view of the javelin, long jump and the fascinating discus competition for blind men.

As well as Pistorius's race, the highlights of the evening were partially blind 100m runner Libby Clegg winning a silver medal - we had seen (and pictured) her qualify the night before - Graeme Ballard also coming second, in the 100m for T36 athletes (mild cerebral palsy), and discus thrower Aled Davies being presented with the gold he won in an earlier session.

I have been in some big, noisy sporting crowds where the atmosphere has been real hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck stuff, and these were up there with that, but the finale would go even beyond that.

It was the stunning 5000m wheelchair race for T54 men, which was eventually won by Britain's Dave Weir. By then, 20 per cent of the sell-out crowd had left - presumably young families going home to bed and people trying to get a head start on the rest. They are probably all feeling a bit silly now because however far they had got home on the journey, they would have heard the roars that greeted the last 100m of the race. Those who stayed will be easy to spot tomorrow as we will have lost our voices.

It was interesting to hear the noise follow the pack as they made their way around the track, and then all join together for the last lap and - just when you thought the volume had reached maximum - double for the last 100m. It was only the second British gold medal I'd seen won in all our travels in the last few weeks, after Bradley Wiggins in the Olympic time trial. But it was worth waiting for.

All three of our trips to the Olympic Park have been a privilege, which will leave us with fantastic memories for years to come, and that final race was the absolutely perfect way to finish it off.

The pictures are obviously in our now bulging Olympics/Paralympics album.

That's the last time I will be in the Olympic Park, but there are still more trips to come, with Julie and Holly going to swimming, Julie and I watching road cycling, and then me and Sean at the wheelchair basketball final. So stand by for even more pictures shortly.

September 1, 2012

Olympic Park revisited

While some people have latched on to the Paralympics after being inspired by the Olympics, we always saw them as part of the London 2012 adventure, so have been looking forward to it for just as long; more than seven years.

And as they have already exceeded even our high expectations just watching on telly, it's safe to say that being back in the Olympic Park and seeing an evening session of athletics in the stadium has been fantastic.

Day one - we had tickets for consecutive days (see above, eventually) - was a family affair because for the first and only time in the whole London 2012 thing we managed to get all four of us (me, Julie, Sean and Holly) together for a whole day.

We took the train to Paddington, then the tube, stopping off for a big breakfast and a quick stroll around Tower Bridge before arriving at the Olympic Park, which is a treat just to be in. And because ours wasn't the only stadium session of the day, the park was packed with happy people.

One of the pleasures of going to the Olympics and Paralympics is - not to put too fine a point on things - very few of the people there are riff-raff, just decent people enjoying a day out.

And you never know who you are going to bump into. While me and Holly were waiting for Julie and Sean to arrive with our tea (curry), we spotted a group of people wearing orange tracksuits and gathered around a young woman in a wheelchair. I worked out they were part of the Netherlands team and as we were near the velodrome at the time, guessed they were cyclists.

Then I noticed the woman was wearing a medal, which turned out to be the silver medal she had just won. She even still had the little posy of flowers they give all medal winners. I looked her up and discovered she is Alyda Norbruis, who was competing in the 500m C1-2-3 time trial.

The athletics started at 7pm, and we got in the stadium early to soak up the atmosphere and, as it turned out, also the heat.

We were almost exactly in the opposite place to where we had sat for the Olympics, this time being just above the Paralympic Flame, looking down on it from about 20 rows above (in row 66). Amazingly, the heat it was giving off meant none of us needed the jumpers we had brought for the evening.

We were a bit disappointed not to see any British gold medals won, but Oscar Pistorius set a new world record and there was plenty more to cheer, including a brilliant win by Irish sprinter Jason Smyth.

The way that British supporters have been so partisan but at the same time given maximum respect to the other athletes is probably what has made the biggest impression on me this summer. During the session there was a medal ceremony for a final that had taken place earlier in the day. It turned out the winner was from the Islamic Republic of Iran, which is the country that, if you listened to politicians, would be the one least likely to deserve a favourable response from the outside world. In fact, you could even say that as far as countries that we aren't actually at war with, the West sees Iran - and they probably see us - as their greatest enemy.

Yet the cheers for the gold medalist were completely unaffected by this, the Iranian national anthem was greeted with absolute silence, as is traditional, and the huge roar after it finished was exactly as it was for any other (non-British) winner.

In terms of its ability to put us on a high, the Paralympics isn't much different to the Olympics, except there is the bonus of the athlete's stories, which are always inspiring.

When we had completed the long journey home, which included waiting 40 minutes for our train to leave Paddington, it was gone 2am before we went to bed, with me and Julie needing to be up at 5.15am for part two of the weekend (to follow)...

See our Olympics/Paralympics album.