Making the long walk from Hull to Widnes
Rugby League Trek cuts 220-mile swathe through game's heartlands in aid of Outward Bound Trust
Monday 28 July 2003
It might not be the most scenic route across England, but Hull to Widnes links both ends of the much-maligned M62 corridor - the heartlands of rugby league.
There are only a few people who would have a burning desire to walk the 220 miles linking all the Super League clubs across the region, but as soon as I heard about the project I knew I was one of them.
Not only was it for a good cause - the Outward Bound Trust, which sends young people on the sort of challenges and adventures that can change lives - but it was also an opportunity to see the places I visit for games all the time, in a completely different light.
Take Hull, for example. Standing by the Humber with the sun glinting off the chocolate brown water, it is an uplifting place to start something like this.
There are a couple of hundred people here to see of Sky's Mike Stephenson and Phil Clarke and, in a supporting role, myself, as we set off.
Among them is Nicky Barmby, the Hull-born Leeds footballer, who is so keen on league that he occasionally regrets going into another sport that pays him so much more handsomely.
"Football could certainly learn a lot from league about camaraderie, because in our game the egos tend to take over," Barmby says.
The Hull coach, Shaun McRae, walks with us to Swanland 10 miles away, as does Johnny Whiteley, perhaps the club's most famous player of all time, who played 700 games as an amateur and professional without being sent off.
Also with us is 14-year-old Scott Walker, confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy, but a qualified referee and a fund of rugby league knowledge - another hero of the game in his own way.
Monday and Tuesday
With its duckpond and winding village main street, Swanland is an evocative starting point for an 18-mile stretch that marks the beginning of the hard work on the Rugby League Trek.
Our progress is eased by the recurring presence of Graham, a Hull fan who has taken it upon himself to drive ahead of us and set up a drinks stand every couple of miles.
The trip is also enlivened by Dave, a fitter at Drax power station, who pursues us down country lanes to ask one of the day's most pertinent questions: "Does Eddie Hemmings dye his hair?" At Castleford that night, as well as at Wakefield and Leeds on the following nights, the questions deal with equally burning issues in the game.
The only consistent thing about referees is that Stevo is consistently damning about their standard whenever he is asked about it, which he is without fail.
Eggborough might sound like a rural retreat, but it is notable mainly for its power station and it marks a return to the real rugby league heartlands, especially when you get as far as Knottingley, where Castleford supporters start to join the trek.
At the club's town-centre shop, we are offered a choice of face-paint designs. Mindful of Wakefield territory before long, I opt for the "half and half".
It turns out to be the Tigers' home colours on one side of the face and the away design on the other, and it has to come off well before Belle Vue.
For a club which has not had a great deal to cheer about in recent years, the turn-out from Wakefield is truly outstanding.
It includes the former chairman of Wakefield Trinity and of the Rugby League, Sir Rodney Walker, owner of the world's most crushing handshake, and the actor Chris Chittell, better known as villainous Eric Pollard in Emmerdale.
He travels rather better than Sir Rodney, leading the way of the route's first serious climb, Lofthouse Hill on the way into Leeds, where Barrie McDermott, Kevin Sinfield and the Great Britain coach David Waite are waiting outside the Queen's Hotel for the climb out of the city to New Pudsey.
The first bad weather of the tour makes a mess of the entry into Bradford, but the deputy lord mayor throws a reception at the City Hall and there are still a couple of hundred fans at Odsal for the family fun day.
"Better cross out the 'fun'," someone suggests, but the show goes on, with the walkers piped into the stadium by the Royal Dragoon Guards to the strains of "Ilkley Moor Baht 'at.''
Backtrack to Headingley at night for Leeds versus London, watched by now through something of a haze.
The sun shines on arguably the toughest day of the trek so far - the climb from Odsal, over into Halifax and on to Huddersfield.
Tony Anderson, the man with possibly the worst job in rugby league as coach of the struggling Halifax side, without a point at the bottom of Super League, seems glad to walk a few miles by way of a little light relief.
"I bet you are all sleeping well," he says. "I wish I was."
After the day's second breakfast, at The Shay, it's onwards and upwards to Huddersfield and a welcome pint in the George Hotel, the birthplace of the game in 1895, or slightly before we started this little enterprise.
Huddersfield is the approximate halfway point of the trek, but its real watershed comes some eight miles later as we finally cross from Yorkshire into Lancashire.
Among our native guides for the climb over the Pennines are the former Great Britain forward, Paul Dixon, who is taking time off from his farm on the hillsides above, and Huddersfield's fitness coach and recently retired Bradford front-rower, Brian McDermott.
As befits a former Royal Marine who is used to yomping across the Isle of Skye, he takes the 18 miles in his stride, even carrying a backpack full of kit needed for last night's duties at the McAlpine Stadium.
For details of how to make a donation to the Outward Bound Trust on behalf of the Rugby League Trek, call 020 7928 1991.
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