From cricket at Lords to darts in Lakeside and boxing in London, here’s ten of our favourite British sporting breaks. Share your own below.
Visiting the home of cricket at Lord’s
Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard once said that he considered Lord’s “the cathedral of cricket”. Nestled into your seat at a Test match among other worshippers of the game, waiting in reverential hush for the emergence of the teams at the start of a game, his pronouncement has a ring of truth.
Undoubtedly the best way to appreciate Lord’s is to see a match here (preferably a Test, and most preferably an Ashes game, when the atmosphere is at fever pitch). But as a fallback, the tours are excellent. You’ll get to see the Long Room, where the MCC members sit, and the Committee Room, from where the Queen watches when in attendance.
But the real highlight lies in the museum, where in a glass case lies the original Ashes urn, a gift presented to England captain the Hon. Ivo Bligh, possibly containing either a burnt ball or stump. He received it having beaten the Australians, following a defeat in 1882 that led one hack to write an obituary of English cricket, whose “body will be cremated and the ashes taken to Australia”. That little six-inch-high jar is like the shrine within the cathedral; people come halfway across the world to see it. It’s a daft game.
Lord’s Cricket Ground (http://www.lords.org) is a ten-minute walk from St John’s Wood tube station.
Tossing the caber at the Braemar Gathering
No rain-lashed, midgie-ridden Scottish summer would be complete without the cornucopia of arcane sports that comprise a Highland Games. Held all over Scotland, not just in the Highlands, these are very much rural affairs, with rosetted ponies, curly-horned sheep and shaggy Highland cattle to the fore. But they’re also devised as entertainment, with a comically competitive edge – kilted burly men toss the caber (that’s a trimmed tree trunk to the uninitiated), drunken locals vie with each other in the tug-of-war, little girls high-step over crossed swords in country dances, and there might also be dressage, field races and even haggis hurling.
Highland Games range from almost literally one-horse village affairs to the famous Braemar Gathering in Aberdeenshire, which has existed in one form or another for around 900 years. As well as the usual shenanigans, the show in its current incarnation features the dramatic and deafening spectacle of massed pipe bands, and there’s a military element too, with the armed forces competing in races and the tug-of-war, plus a punishing race up the nearby hill of Morrone. All this and all the sporrans you could toss a caber at.
The Braemar Gathering (http://www.braemargathering.org) is held on the first Saturday in September.
Watching darts at Lakeside
The doubters say that darts, whose practitioners never break out of a walk but often break sweat, isn’t a sport. Yet even these killjoys might enjoy themselves at the BDO World Darts Championship, a competition that is as much about boozy good cheer as it is about the actual result. Hosted at a vast hotel-cum-pub complex in deepest Surrey, the competition packs over a thousand spectators onto a phalanx of long tables and gives them every opportunity to shout themselves stupid during all-day weekend sessions and weekday nights. Their voices join in a splendid cacophony with the thud of arrow into cork, the bellowed scores and blue jokes of a flamboyant umpire and the gulp of countless throats.
Don’t look for too much sophistication here: the glasses are plastic, the food runs the full gamut from battered fish to burgers and the crowd perform for the cameras with gleeful enthusiasm, inching their way into TV footage and waving punning placards. But the vibe is supremely friendly. Being thrust onto a table with strangers makes it almost impossible not to socialize, especially when you might be sat alongside fanatical Dutch fans, fancy-dressed twenty-somethings and elderly couples who’ve been coming since the year dot.
The Lakeside BDO World Professional Darts Championships (http://www.lakesideworlddarts.co.uk) take place every January.
Celebrating Cowes Week
Each year, some eight thousand sailors from all over the world descend on Cowes for the world’s largest – and oldest – sailing regatta. Vast crowds of up to 100,000 cram into the narrow streets each morning to watch a spectacular array of sailing vessels gather in the Solent. There are up to forty high-octane races daily, competed by all sorts of sailors from amateurs to Olympians and Americas Cup veterans: with up to a thousand yachts taking part, you’ll need to get used to the sporadic gunfire that marks the start of each class if you make the Royal Yacht Squadron, the official starting line, your vantage point.
With so many to entertain, there’s plenty more to Cowes Week than just sailing, and the regatta is a key part of the social calendar for yachties, celebs and the occasional splash of royalty alike: champagne and oysters are guzzled at balls, dinners and parties by the truckload. The waterfront Parade and Shepards Wharf Marina are packed with stalls and live entertainment by day, while after dark the action shifts to Cowes Yacht Haven (open to amateurs, professionals and ticketed spectators), where there are live bands and DJ sets until the small hours.
Cowes Week (http://www.cowesweek.co.uk) takes place in July/August, starting on the first Saturday after the last Tuesday in July.
Watching boxing at York Hall
Boxing’s biggest bouts, with their pay-per-view screenings, pantomime press conferences and seats that stretch from celebs at the front to dots at the back, are all very well. But it’s surprisingly hard, given boxing’s current popularity as an activity among everyone from estate kids to office workers, to get close to the action. Most of Britain’s smaller venues have died, the victims of redevelopment and a changing entertainment scene. York Hall, recently voted the sixth best place to watch boxing in the world, almost went the same way but, saved from closure by a cost-conscious local council in 2003, the iconic East London venue now hosts fifty fight nights a year.
York Hall hosts it all, from kick boxing and occasional theatre to amateur white-collar events, friends and family yelling and pogoing in one corner of the venue. There are big fights too – David Haye, Joe Calzaghe and countless other names have walked these boards. But while there’s hype aplenty here, this historic venue’s rowdy embrace makes you feel a vital part of the action.
York Hall, 5-15 Old Ford Rd, London E2 (http://www.gll.org/centre/york-hall-leisure-centre.asp) is a few minutes’ walk from Bethnal Green tube station in East London.
Witnessing medieval football in Derbyshire
Played on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, “Shrovie” is a relic of the rough-and-tumble sports of the Middle Ages – one theory states that the original “ball” was a severed head thrown to the crowd after an execution – and there have been moves to ban it since at least 1340, when Edward III complained that its noise disturbed his archery practice. You could see parallels with both football and rugby: there are two teams – the Up’ards and the Down’ards, formed of townsfolk from either side of Hemore Brook – and two goals. That, however, is where the similarity ends: discover that the game lasts for eight hours, that each team is a hundred or so strong, and that the goals are three miles apart on either side of the town centre, and you’ll realize this is no mere kickabout. Nor do the rules leave much room for niceties: the ball can’t be hidden or travel in a motorized vehicle, and murder and manslaughter are prohibited – but that’s about it.
The next events will take place on February 12 & 13, 2013. For more information. see http://www.ashbourne-town.com.
Watching Wales at the Millennium Stadium
Watching Wales at the Millennium Stadium can be a mixture of ecstasy and pain for a Welsh supporter, but is more akin to an exotic cultural experience for everyone else. The singing, the sobbing, the angry curses and cries of unabashed joy create an unforgettable experience. You’ve never heard a national anthem sung like this before, 70,000 passionate voices united in Celtic pride. After the singing, the playing – a wall of red-shirts being urged on by near-hysterical fans. When Wales scores (and the team is pretty good these days), expect more songs, chants and roars.
Whatever the result, expect a long and detailed autopsy in the pub afterwards, where pints of locally brewed Brains cask ales are sure to flow freely.
Wales’s home games in the Rugby Union Six Nations (Feb-March) take place at Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium (http://www.millenniumstadium.com).
Having a flutter at the world’s greatest horse race
The Grand National is an event of superlatives: it’s a dead cert as the world’s most famous horse race; the prize money (nearly £1m for the winner of the main race) is the highest in Europe; and more is bet on it than any other event in the domestic racing calendar (upwards of £100 million in Britain alone).
But what makes the race, which dates back to 1839, unique is the atmosphere. The Grand National, perhaps more than any other British sporting event, attracts a real cross section of society – from royals in the VIP grandstands to locals in the budget enclosures – giving it an inclusive feel and a festive air. This helps to make the contest, the focal point of a three-day meeting held each April at Aintree Racecourse, uniquely popular with both racing enthusiasts and once-a-year punters alike. As does its unpredictability – the favourite rarely wins and 100/1 shots have triumphed on several occasions.
The Grand National takes place at Aintree Racecourse, Ormskirk Rd, Aintree, Liverpool (http://www.aintree.co.uk).
Reaching tennis nirvana in SW19
The first thing to remember about Wimbledon is that it’s not a tennis tournament, it’s a religious experience. For two weeks in high summer the faithful arrive with their tents and wet wipes, each harbouring a blind hope that they will enter the promised land and a British player will be crowned champion. The good news is that the promised land is within reach of anyone prepared to assemble at dawn at a golf club in SW19. As for the British champion, well, what’s a faith without it being tested?
The ideal time to arrive is early in the opening week before the hype reaches boiling point. Week one also provides a smorgasbord of talent from all corners of the globe and some of the tournament’s greatest surprises, all on the cheaper ground courts. In 2010, for example, the longest match in history was ground out on lowly Court 18, a bloody-minded three-day epic finally won by 70 games to 68 in the final set.
Around 6000 Ground Admission tickets are available each day at Wimbledon, plus 500 show court tickets. If you can’t face the queue try the public ballot for tickets (apply online at http://www.wimbledon.org).
Burning rubber at the Isle of Man TT
For fifty weeks of the year, the Isle of Man is a sleepy little place. But for two weeks in summer, everything changes, as forty thousand visitors – with twelve thousand motorcycles – cross the Irish Sea and turn this quiet island into a rubber-burning, beer-swilling, eardrum-bursting maelstrom of a motorcycle festival.
The TT (Tourist Trophy) has been screeching round the Isle of Man for a hundred years, although the race they devised in 1907 would be impossible to initiate today. It’s the kind of event that drives health and safety officers to drink: the 37-mile Mountain Course, which competitors lap several times, is no carefully cambered track – it’s an ordinary road that winds its way through historic towns, screams along country roads, climbs up hills and takes in two hundred bends, many of which are not lined by grass or pavement but by bone-mashing, brain-spilling brick walls. And the fastest riders complete the course at an average speed of 120mph.
Sad to say, they don’t all reach the finish line. Around two hundred riders have taken their final tumble on the roads of the TT, and islanders will delight in describing the details to you over a pint of local Bushey’s beer. They’ll also tell you that, while many of their fellow Manx folk love the adrenaline, the triumph and the tragedy of those two weeks in summer, others are less enthusiastic. The combination of road closures and roistering bikers drives these malcontents to blow the dust from their door keys, to lock up their homes and seek refuge elsewhere – taking their daughters with them.
TT race week is the first week of June; for more information, see http://www.iomtt.com.