Saturday 16th came with the predicted sunshine and showers and the prospect of the first full-day schedule of the football (soccer) World Cup which I am interested in but that was not the sporting event I was most looking forward to which was considerably closer to home than Russia.
I shall begin with the customary breakfast image and the thought that I really picked the wrong domain name when I bought http://www.fergysrambles.org as I should probably have chosen http://www.fergysfries.org or http://www.fergysbreakfasts.org instead (don’t click these last two as they don’t exist, I’ve looked). By firing up two frying pans I have cooking time of a fry-up down to about 15 minutes now which is handy as I can knock one up in the half-time interval of the football. Pancakes, bacon and syrup is less than ten. More single man cooking.
I’ll get the football (soccer) summary out-of-the-way now so those who have no interest can skip it and then on to the other happenings of an interesting day.
After the truly magnificent Spain vs, Portugal fixture the night before, anything was realistically going to be a bit of an anticlimax and France vs. Australia and Peru vs. Denmark weren’t great although my great friend Claus, who is Danish, will be pleased enough with his result but the middle game of Argentina vs. Iceland was interesting.
Argentina have a huge World Cup pedigree and Iceland are the smallest nation in the competition in terms of population with 334,252 (as of 2016) which, for the benefit of British readers, is about the size of Stoke on Trent or for American readers Aurora in Colorado. The manager makes more money in his “day job” as a dentist than he does as the national coach and the goalkeeper is a film director! It really was a David and Goliath scenario and whilst Goliath wasn’t slain he was certainly stunned by a heroic performance from the minnows who earned themselves a point from a 1 – 1 draw. The way their supporters celebrated you would have thought they had won the entire competition. Well done them,it is good for the game and great watching for the neutral.
That was the football news, on now to other sport.
Northern Ireland is renowned for its love of Motorsports, especially motorcycling of all varieties and Tandragee annually hosts one of the best road races in the form of the Tandragee 100 which, apart from a bit if hiatus for safety reasons a few years ago has been going for decades. On tiny little country roads not far from where I am writing this guys hurtle round with lap speeds averaging over 100 miles per hour. Imagine then a closed road circuit, three or four wheels, speeds which allegedly reach 40 mph (I am a little sceptical) and no engine! Yes, folks, it is the Tandragee Soapbox Derby which is nowhere near as old as the 100 being only in its 4th running, which sadly may be its last as I shall explain later.
Tandragee is in an excellent position to host such an event as the reader may know if they have read previous entries here because the Main Street is just one fairly steep hill with a bit of a right hand curve towards the bottom end. All my mates round town had told me it was a great laugh so I thought I had better go and have a look.
The Derby is run by the excellent Royal British Legion charity to raise much-needed funds for its excellent work in commemorating those who have made the supreme sacrifice whilst serving our country and supporting those who did return but were affected in some way. It is the Legion who organise the annual poppy appeal which raises so many millions of pounds and also oversees the Remembrance “pageant” on the eve of Remembrance Sunday every November.
As the images show, this fun family evening out is sponsored by Tayto the potato crisp (chips) and savoury snacks manufacturer who are easily the largest employer in the village. I may have mentioned before that my sister-in-law works there as does apparently a good proportion of the local population. The owner of Tayto, a guy called Hutchinson, is generally reckoned to have “deep pockets and short arms” so fair play to him for sanctioning the sponsorship although it was fantastic advertising, not least Mr. Tayto (pictured) who was keeping the younger ones amused.
The fact that his “little helpers” were giving away seemingly unlimited bags of Tayto products probably didn’t hurt. Tayto had entered their own professional looking vehicle in a yellow and red livery which reflects the packaging of the flagship cheese and onion flavour. Inexplicably I did not get an image of it. Sorry.
My own experience of driving “gigs” or “guiders” as we called them in my day dates back to the 1960’s when my Father, always good with his hands, had made us a very decent rig with a wooden chassis, pram wheels on the rear, a piece of cord by way of steering and a lump of wood which you jammed against the rear wheel to slow down. Note the use of use of the word wheel singular which made stopping at any sort of speed an interesting experience. You had to remove your left hand from the steering cord which made the gig go to the right, then when you applied the brake to the left rear wheel it lurched left and the trick was to try to balance the two so you did not tip over to either side which happened now and again. In those days kids were allowed to be kids and not wrapped in cotton wool as they seem to be now. There was no such thing as protective clothing then and we got skinned knees and elbows but it didn’t seem to do us much harm. I loved that old gig.
When I first heard of the Derby I wasn’t really expecting anything as crude as my childhood contraption described above but I was a little taken aback when a mate showed me some footage on his ‘phone from the previous year as there were some professional looking vehicles that looked to have been engineered by people who knew what they were doing. Certainly there were a few odd-looking wagons but that is all part of the fun.
By a stroke of extreme good fortune the pit area was in the car park of my local, the excellent Montagu Arms which I have spoken of before here so that was touch of two birds with one stone (three if you count watching a bit of football). Let’s go for a walk round the pit, shall we?
I had been told that there were more entrants this year than ever before and the paddock was certainly fairly well filled as was the pub which had laid on extra staff for the evening. There were frantic last-minute adjustments going on all around but everyone was quite happy to chat and there was a very friendly atmosphere. I really cannot imagine getting this “up close and personal” in an F1 pit lane.
One of the first rigs I saw was this rather sleek effort. Lightweight, professional looking construction, decent wheels and just check out the suspension.
Many of the entrants were sponsored and this one is fairly self-explanatory. I do hope the driver had a good bowl of the product beforehand to fortify himself for the rigours of that hill. More of this one to come.
I remember Speedicook porridge oats from my childhood and Whites is a very long-established firm, probably the oldest in the area now the linen mill is long gone like just about everything else. Mr. White opened his first basic flour mill all the way back in 1841 when it was powered by the River Cusher that runs past the village. It took until 1920 before they got round to porridge and the website given informs me that they are kibbled oats whatever they might be, I thought they were just porridge. Shows you what I know. Sadly, this fine-looking machine was not to see the meeting out as you shall see.
This is another professional looking rig which for some reason reminded of me of an old 1930,s or 1940’c car. It looks as if some thought has been given to aerodynamics, just look at the angled windscreen. It is certainly a decent paint job, one of many on display.
If you are wondering about the loops of rope on the front of some of the karts all will become apparent in a moment.
Another lightweight kart which looks very professionally put together. I have no idea if you can actually buy these things commercially or if they are just constructed in garages, sheds and workshops around the country. Not much in the way of aerodynamics on this one.
I know for a fact that this one is professionally made as it is the machine entered by Diamond Trikes who are based in Portadown and make bespoke trikes albeit ones with very large engines included. They are great supporters of the soapbox derby and through their contacts provide practical assistance.
I doubt my 6’5″ frame would fit in this one and even if I could fit in it I wouldn’t fancy not having a roll bar fitted as my head would be well outside the cockpit.
I loved this one and the story behind it. I was talking to the driver, a chap with a wonderful beard that makes my effort look fairly pathetic and he told me the story behind this machine which is obviously based on the principle of a motorcycle combination. It turned out that, having entered the competition, he and his co-pilot had only begun construction the previous Tuesday evening which means they had put it together in four days. Nice work, guys.
There was obviously some work still to be done and I was joking that it would not do for the front wheel to fall off. I did not see what happened but they managed to tip it on the first run requiring the driver to be taken to hospital where it transpired he had broken two fingers so perhaps the wheel did come off after all. It didn’t seem to bother him too much as my mate showed me an image on Facebook later in the evening of him standing outside the Casualty Department of Craigavon Area Hospital brandishing the two injured digits and grinning from ear to ear.
This one was obviously based on a couple of oil drums and the polythene covered cockpit shows that the weather was not exactly playing ball although thankfully the threatened rain did stay off.
I have to say that this was one of the slower machines on display and was never going to bother the leaderboard but I thought it was cute looking. I am no engineer but I am not sure about the huge tyres on the front and pram wheels on the back. There must be a reason, I am sure.
This was undoubtedly one of the odder vehicles on display and comprised the largest polyurethane container I have ever seen in my life on a chassis and completely enclosed by a fairly sturdy roll cage. I have no idea what it originally held but there was a lot of it. I was a bit baffled after I had walked right round it and seen no obvious means of access for the driver.
It was only when I looked at the top of the container that it all became clear as there was a hole cut in it which could have been no more than a foot x 18 inches. I did not see the driver but (s)he must have been exceedingly slim and not claustrophobic as a view of the interior shows.
Having seen all there was to see in the pit area it was time to go and have a look at the track passing these beautiful trikes on the way. I have always loved motorbikes and I really fancy one of these.
I had decided to walk down one side of the street which was in the process of being barricaded off by some of the army of volunteers who were rushing about like lunatics but who had obviously been well-drilled and seemed to be very efficient. Time was not on their side as I shall explain now and also let the reader know of some appalling bureaucracy which disgusted me. I have this information from friends locally and much of it was in the official programme.
Roads close at 1700, racing starts at 1800 and has to finish by 2100 as the roads must be reopened by 2200 by diktat of the generally considered to be useless local authority called ABC of whom I have spoken before. The acronym stands for Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon although there are many who believe it means “Awful Bloody Council”. Their behaviour in relation to the Derby was nothing short of disgraceful.
After the whole event had been arranged and advertised they moved the goalposts completely in relation to road closures and it was very much touch and go whether it would take place at all. Remember that this is in support of a well-respected charity and brings business into the village which it so desperately needs as I have previously discussed. It took numerous meetings and the former Mayor stumping up £1000 of his own money for additional insurance and the cost of the road closure to ensure it went ahead. I have no idea whether it will even be feasible next year which would be yet another stain on the already sadly tarnished reputation of this universally despised body.
The Council cannot even claim that it is to cover policing costs as I was amazed that I did not see a single police officer at a public event that attracted hundreds if not thousands of people. There was never going to be any trouble but I would have expected at least a token presence if only to look after lost children and do a bit of “community relations” in a country where the police still do not always enjoy the greatest relationship with the populace.
Certainly it doesn’t help that the village police station has been closed down and is in the process of being gutted as I write this. Rumour has it that the owner of Tayto is looking to buy the site. By virtue of police boundaries we were always under the control of Armagh even though Portadown is much closer but even the station in Portadown (a decent sized town) has been bulldozed to the ground now. It is not so long ago that Tandragee had a small number of officers who knew everyone and led by an old-fashioned Sergeant who wasn’t afraid to walk into a bar alone and clear it if it was after hours (yes, occasionally the licensing laws in these parts were interpreted somewhat liberally) but the village was generally pretty peaceful. I have no idea how long it would take even a fast police vehicle to get here from the far side of Armagh in an emergency.
This set me to thinking about this current visit to Northern Ireland. I have now been here 17 days and have not exactly been housebound and yet I have not seen a single police officer either on foot or in a marked vehicle. When I mentioned this to various friends they all tell me that this is completely normal and the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) are all but invisible. Whether this is due to lack of personnel, sheer incompetence or just a total abnegation of their duty I have no idea. More disturbingly, people who live here have no idea of the cause but there is absolutely no confidence in those entrusted with law enforcement.
I did, however, see some uniforms and they were those worn by some very smartly turned out young people of the Army Cadet Force or whatever they might be called these days. By the uniform flashes I believe they were Royal Irish Rangers and they were a credit to their Regiment, smartly turned out and very polite. They were “selling” programmes although they were technically free but donations were requested so I duly donated. As I say, the Legion is a charity I have a huge respect for.
Although it is a great fun event, hurtling down a steep hill in a flimsy kart along a street lined with hundreds of spectators has the potential to be dangerous and the organisers really do take every precaution. This is the size of the crowd.
As well as the traditional crowd barriers and bagged hay bales there was a new addition this year in the form of a huge inflatable “sausage” that stretched about half the length of the street on either side. I dread to think what size of a fan was required to keep it inflated to the requisite level. Even the finish gate is inflated. There were also a large number of members of the St. Johns ambulance in attendance who unfortunately were a bit busy as you shall see.
Like the Legion, I have a huge respect for this organisation and the wonderful voluntary work they do but they also fascinate me historically. Without going into too much detail, they started as a chivalric Order at the time of the Christian crusades to the Holy Land and were rivals, often acrimoniously, of the Knights Templar, who I am also interested in. Having been ejected from the Middle East by the “Mohammedans” they were forced ever Eastward back cross the Mediterranean and eventually settled on the island of Malta where they reigned for many years before capitulating rather tamely to the French some centuries later.
I visited Malta for a month in early 2013 and visited many sites pertaining to the Order who are also known as the Knights of Malta due to their long association with that most pleasant island. In the area of Clerkenwell close to my home in London, I have visited the Chapel of the Order, which still exists in a modern-day chivalric form distinct from the ambulance / healthcare function, and the nearby Museum which is tremendously interesting. Both of these locations shall form the basis of future entries here but it may take some time as I have so much to do.
Let me tell you now about how the whole race works. All the karts line up behind the start line and approach one by one. As if the laws of physics were not enough to propel you down the hill, there was a fairly well-built young man present to give you an almighty shove to get you on your way. He was wearing an Ulster Rugby shirt and judging by the size of him he could probably have played for them. After hurtling down the hill, hopefully without mishap, you brake hard before you crash into the bales at the bottom and turn round. Some of the guys got a bit flash and did some fairly exciting “hand brake turns” to finish.
OK, so you have survived the run and you want to have another go. How do you get back up the hill for the next run? That is where the trikes come in along with the lumps of rope on the karts I mentioned earlier.
The trikers hitch three or four karts by way of metal hawsers and the ropes and simply drive them back to the start. Simple.
The first event is just a straight run so I didn’t bother watching too much of it but by the time I got back the first casualty was in the pit again.
Another quick pint and back off down the hill for another look around. The first run had been a straightforward sprint so why not make it a bit more difficult? This is achieved by introducing a couple of tyre chicanes to test the steering capabilities of the machines and the driving skills of the madmen piloting the contraptions. As you can see from the image above, they are not particularly severe but they did claim a couple of victims including the guy on the sidecar combination who broke his fingers as I mentioned earlier.
OK, back up the hill and the survivors ready themselves for the third, final and easily most dramatic run of the lot, the jumps. A lorry reverses down the street and the busy stewards offload four reasonably steep ramps which they position at intervals along the course. I should point out that the chicanes have been removed by this stage, that really would be a suicide run.
Virtually all the rigs get airborne, some in dramatic fashion and the cheer of the evening was reserved for one outfit that took off, landed heavily on the front axle, somersaulted forward through 360 degrees end over end and landed, still travelling the right direction, in time to take the final jump. Superb driving and you can see it here. Sadly you can also see a rather bad smash (the second of the two in the clip) which left the poor driver on the deck for a considerable amount of time being attended to by the first aiders.
I have mentioned before that the racing has to finish by a set time so the roads can re-open and a decision was taken to put a premature end to proceedings. No problem with that as obviously the welfare of the injured driver must be paramount and so it was back to the Monty where there was a prize presentation which I didn’t bother watching as I was in company with friends by then. I did find out later that the injured driver had suffered nothing worse than a broken arm and whilst that is painful and inconvenient it is nothing compared to what might have happened. It really was a very bad smash.
The Monty can get busy on a Saturday evening and the extra custom generated by the Derby made for a very lively session. Paddy was doing his thing on the DJ decks in the big bar and us more senior citizens filled the small bar. It was a great evening all round and it was quite late when I got home to bed.
I do hope that the petty minded bureaucrats at the local Council do not behave so badly next year and that the soapbox Derby is allowed to go ahead but I have a feeling that this will not be the case which is a shame. The hilarious Scottish comedian Billy Connolly once offered a theory that anyone standing for any sort of public office should be automatically debarred on the principle that if they wanted to be elected they were undoubtedly doing it for the wrong reasons. I think he had a point.
I realise that this has been a long entry, certainly my longest to date although the way I ramble on (the title of a great Led Zeppelin song incidentally) I doubt it will remain so. It has taken literally two days to compose, publish, link, add images and so on but I do have a bit of time on my hands at present.
Believe me, the next entry will be a whole lot shorter so if you don’t have a spare hour for another “War and Peace” there is a mere novella in the offing so stay tuned and spread the word.