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Archive for the ‘Sport’ Category

For my post this month I thought I’d share some pictures* of that most British of pastimes, the New Year Hunt. Traditionally, the hunting season runs from November to April, with Boxing Day or New Year being one of the calendar highlights.

Fox hunting has been illegal in the UK (but not in Northern Ireland) since an Act of Parliament in 2004. The Act has been hotly protested by the pro-hunt lobby—indeed, Otis Ferry, son of the Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry, wrote an article in the Sunday Times on the subject last week, while the anti-hunt lobby claims that, since the ban, more foxes are slaughtered by illegal hunting than ever before.

Hunts now follow a false scent trail (called drag hunting) and are (meant to be) strictly monitored. While I love foxes, I also love tradition, so for me at least it’s wonderful to be able to see a hunt, even a false one.


The arrival of the hounds, accompanied by the Whipper-In (on the white horse) and the Master of the Hounds (red coat, brown horse).

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Anyone for tennis?

It’s that time of year again: strawberries, rain, athletic young folk leaping about in whites, and the gentle thwack of balls.  Tennis balls, that is.  Yup, Wimbledon is here again.  Two weeks of joy for tennis fans, two weeks of fuming and searching the tv listings for *anything* that isn’t tennis for those of a less sporting persuasion.  But hey, it is only once a year.

For me, it’s two weeks of bliss that bring back happy memories of perching on Mum’s knee and watching the likes of Ilie Nastase and a young Jimmy Connors on a grainy black and white tv.  These days it’s slightly less of an event, simply because thanks to cable television there’s more chance to catch up with our tennis heroes and heroines week in, week out.  Back then, if you missed the action at Wimbledon, you’d have to wait a whole year before you saw tennis again, with the minor exception of the US Open final.  Not the whole tournament, you understand – just the final.

So, for the next two weeks I may not be at my desk much.  Instead you can find me camped in the living room with a tray of sandwiches, and perhaps a laptop, hooked up to the telly and imbibing tennis intravenously.  As long as it doesn’t rain, of course.  Because Wimbledon is played on grass, the matches have to be stopped if it rains, in case someone slips over and hurts themselves.  This year, the All England Club have gone to vast expense to fit a roof over Centre Court, so that at least one match can continue if the heavens open.  Normally the spectators hate rain because it plays havoc with their viewing schedule.  This year, according to a BBC website survey, 80% actually want it to rain so they can see the new roof in action.

Including me, I’m ashamed to say.

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The Championships, Wimbledon

Wimbledon, that is. The freshly-cut grass, the polite applause, the strawberries and cream, the rain, the stoic disappointment, the endless queuing…it’s about as British as you can get.

So what is it about Wimbledon? I’m not usually very interested in sport—I’m baffled by cricket and the only thing I know about rugby is that you get points for trying—but I’ve been visiting Wimbledon for about ten years now to watch what is always referred to there as ‘The Championships’.

It’s different from the other Grand Slams (the French, US and Australian Opens) for several reasons. First, it’s the only one played on grass, which is kept to a ruthless standard by the Wimbledon groundskeepers (I’ve actually seen them measuring it). It’s always puzzled me how and why it’s thrived in Britain—the wettest place in the world (no, really, there are tropical rainforests with less rain, I swear). Even a tiny bit of drizzle stops play, because the grass becomes so slippery it’s not fit for purpose. Because of this, a new roof is being built for Centre Court which should keep the moisture off, and allow matches to continue despite the inevitable drizzle.

At Wimbledon, as soon as the umpire declares it to be too rainy, the court is cleared of net, chairs and other furniture, and a cover is pulled over the court by hand in a matter of seconds. Every single action on court, by every member of staff, is absolutely impeccably choreographed—in fact, the ball kids attend an academy where they’re taught exactly what to do, and when to do it. They march onto court in an almost military fashion, and stand with their hands behind their backs, facing away from the court, during breaks in play. The line judges wear Ralph Lauren. No, seriously.

Wimbledon umpires

Tradition is everything at Wimbledon. It’s the only Grand Slam with a dress code for players, who must wear predominantly white outfits (a dislike for which was Andre Agassi’s given reason for not entering the tournament about twenty years ago). There are multiple booths inside selling strawberries and cream (about £2.50 for six strawberries!), champagne, and Pimm’s.

The official patron of the All England Lawn Tennis Club is the Queen. When she is present in the Royal Box on Centre Court, players are required to curtsey to her (or to the Prince of Wales) as they enter or leave the court.

Outside the tournament grounds is Wimbledon Common, home to the Wombles. They often entertain the Queue, pose for photos, and generally confuse people who’ve never heard of them before.

Wombles

Ah, the Queue. Another thing that makes Wimbledon so unique is the large number of tickets available for purchase on the day. The downside is that you have to queue for them (see, I told you it was very British. No one queues like we do!). I’ve only ever queued for ground tickets (admission to the ground and the outer courts), which usually requires arriving by about 6.30am. Gates open at about 10.30, and play begins on the outer courts at 12. If you want show court tickets (Centre, No.1 and No.2), you’ll generally have to queue overnight. This involves taking a tent and staking out your place before the close of play on the previous day. The Queue is kept in line by volunteer Stewards (in blazers and straw hats), and entertained, at least from 8am, by Radio Wimbledon. Newspapers, often carrying freebies like collapsible chairs, radios, or rain ponchos, are sold to the Queue, there are fast food stands with wonderful, life-giving supplies of caffeine, and there’s usually at least one breakfast cereal or fruit juice being given away.

All this effects a general air of camaraderie, and because we’re British, it actually adds to the experience if it rains. No really, it does. So long as Cliff Richard doesn’t start singing, anyway. Queuers are given stickers to proudly proclaim their stoicism—I have a collection saying, “I’ve queued at Wimbledon in the rain!”. So long as the drizzle has dried up by the time play starts, no one really minds all that much.

Because, really, Wimbledon’s like a lot of other things in Britain. It’s full of tradition, pride, and dashed hopes (oh Tim Henman, why couldn’t you win just once?). It’s expensive, exciting, and baffling. And if we let the weather get in the way, why, we’d just never get anything done at all.

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