I once read (although I can’t remember where) that football was the working man’s revenge against the week - and on Saturday mornings many fans would probably concur. It’s that feeling of relief on waking up, combined with the sudden, blissful awareness that not only is there no work to attend to - but, even better, there is the delicious prospect of an entertaining football match instead. Admittedly, that last adjective may not entirely or very accurately describe the actual vital quality that comprise the overwhelming majority of matches we witness at Loftus Road - but whatever it is that motivates us to attend football, for me that feeling of liberation from workaday woes has been enhanced in recent years by combining a reasonably long walk of approximately 17 miles into the whole matchday experience.
I started walking to QPR from my home in Slough in late 2014, following my belated discovery - after almost 20 years of living in the town - of the canal route which forms about threequarters of this journey. Truth be told, it was the discovery of this route and the escapism and beauty that it provides that has probably meant I have been to many more games in the past five years than I would have done otherwise. Because, before this discovery, I had become fairly dissatisfied, underwhelmed and bored with going to games at QPR.
In those pre-walking days, I usually travelled the short distance to W12 by train and tube, had a few drinks and a bite to eat before and after, and it was always a lazy and pleasant enough day out. However, for a number of years, I’d been aware that it wasn’t really cutting the mustard for me any more. For this, I can partly blame the increasingly passive and soulless nature of the modern ‘football experience’, the somewhat tedious diet of Championship football, the seemingly interminable procession of mediocre players and managers, the often toxic atmosphere and treatment of us fans by characters, chancers and wasters such as Briatore, Redknapp and Boswinga; but it was more than just that. After all, by the time I started walking to games we were back in the Premier League; and, indeed, the first match I walked to on a surly-skied, sodden November afternoon was against a Manchester City side brimming with world class talent.
No, it wasn’t just the football, it was definitely me. It felt like watching QPR wasn’t providing quite enough satisfaction any more. In the previous decade, I had missed more home matches than attended - even in the years when I had a season ticket. Maybe, it’s just an ageing thing, I don’t know, but to put it bluntly and plainly, I had succumbed to football fan fatigue and ennui. First World problems, eh?
However, it was a curiosity aided and abetted by the wonder which is Google Maps that saved me from just about giving up on going to QPR home matches altogether. Through this marvel of modern science, I discovered that it was feasible to walk most of the way from my front door to Loftus Road on the Grand Union Canal; and then by coming off the canal at Hanwell Lock in Ealing, it was possible to cover the last five miles or so by a straight walk along the broad, swept pavements of Uxbridge Road. This way, I could finally alight (in my imagination at least) exhausted but triumphant onto the streets of my destination in W12 like a latter day Dick Whittington. I had no idea how long this would take me but reckoned at an average pace of 3-4 mph over approximately 17-18 miles it would be somewhere in the region of between five and six hours with a rest-stop. The match against Manchester City, our opponents on 8th November 2014, with a 5.30pm Sky Sports kick-off time, would provide the fitting occasion for my first walk to QPR.
The estimated walking time proved to be a fairly accurate prediction and, despite the egregious effects of a blinding hangover, the perpetual, pelting rain and a forest of infuriating, darting umbrellas on the streets of Ealing and Acton to contend with, I left my house at 10.00am and by 4.15pm, although footsore and wet, was happily tucking into a nourishing and restorative meal of mushroom omelette and blueberry pancakes, washed down with a couple of bottles of craft stout at the Hummingbird café in Oaklands Grove, a stone’s throw from the ground. The 18,005 crowd who watched that day were treated to an impressive 2-2 draw against the season’s eventual League Champions - and afterwards, as I prised my still soaked and aching frame up and out of the tiny torture cubicle that is the seating arrangements at Loftus Road, I felt the day had been a rewarding one in more ways than one. My matchday mojo felt revitalised. What’s more, I had burned up sufficient calories to keep the post-match festivities going for at least a few hours more.
Having survived this first stroll to Shepherd’s Bush there has been no stopping me, and I’ve found the time and effort in the past five years to walk to a match every month or so. Like the time-lapse camera that portrayed a rapidly changing world in George Pall’s 1960 film adaptation of HG Wells’ The Time Machine, things have also changed greatly both on and off the pitch at Loftus Road in these short years, whereas the canal has remained mostly unaltered, a symbol of continuity. In my mind’s eye, hurtling through the gears, like actor Rod Taylor does in the film, I see Redknapp being replaced by Ramsey just before our ignominious relegation in 2015, then Ramsey replaced by Hasselbaink, then Holloway, then McClaren - Rangers’ results and the quality of players and football mostly getting worse; but strangely, I was enjoying going to games more as I idled my Saturdays away down the old canal. Walking to QPR gives me the freedom and time to think and to reminisce, to walk down memory lane as my feet pound the path. Sometimes, I don’t even need to think at all but just switch off, follow the rhythm of my feet and enjoy the somnolent and bucolic surroundings. As a football-supporting friend and fellow enthusiast of the outdoors put it succinctly when I told him of my wanderings: “You’ve got the whole day off, peace and quiet, a good walk and what’s more, a goal to aim for.” Exactly.
It is also indeed a goal to aim for. If I decide early in the week that it’s a ‘walking to QPR Saturday’ ahead, it puts me in a good mood for the whole rest of that week knowing that in the words of folk-singer Ewan McColl, “I may be a wage slave on Monday but I am a free man on Sunday.” Of course, since relegation from the Premier League, we very rarely play on Sundays, but the escapist sentiment remains. When McColl composed the song The Manchester Rambler in the 1930s, the Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal would have been a relatively thriving hub of transportation and industrial activity. But, McColl’s song is a paean to the working man’s weekly desire to escape to the Peak District, not to a canal - which would perhaps have been regarded in those days as a rather bizarre place to want to retreat to.
These urbanised waterways, would have still been inextricably bound, in the minds of most, to the activities of the industrial revolution; and in the song, the rambler wishes to escape the smoke and grime and factories for the place where the “bracken is deep” and where he can see “the clear running fountains”. In those days, most workers would have finished their arduous labouring week with a half-day on Saturday, clocking off at noon, and the football fans among them would have then headed off to begin their hard-earned leisure time by watching their local side, many of these fans walking to the game. Such a scene is depicted in LS Lowry’s famous Going to the Match painting of 1928. Ironically, but thankfully, in a fortuitous twist of fate, Britain’s canals have been transformed in the past fifty years, from places of work to an escape from the phase of the industrial revolution we are living through now - the world of cars, congestion, deadlines, concrete and screens. Although we are healthier, longer lived and materially better off than them, our working lives, indeed our whole existences, are arguably in many ways just as heavily industrialised as those of our forebears.
So, like the Manchester rambler in McColl’s song it’s the escape from these industrial conditions that I yearn for. Wind, rain or shine; win, lose or draw, it’s always a good day when you walk to QPR. Even, in fact, when it’s a scoreless bore draw, because then at least I can remain seated for the whole 90 minutes and let my legs recover from my earlier exertions, undisturbed by any potential Pigbag-infused goal celebrations. Moreover, whatever the season, it’s beautiful and tranquil out there. In August, as I leave the ugly, car-ravaged environs of the Uxbridge Road in Slough behind me and hit the path at 7.30 in the morning, the canal stretches out ahead, and to the east, the direction I’m heading, the already warm sun rises directly over it, casting a soft glow over the plants, trees, insects and birds. It promises to be a hot and hopefully exciting day.
It’s early in the football season, perhaps even the first home game, so anything is possible. New manager, new players, or maybe (more likely than not) many of the same players in different formations. Still in the first flush of my annual start of the season naivety, I’m sure that they’ve all been training hard and improving over the summer. These thoughts quicken my step as I mull through all of the new season’s enticing possibilities. Immediately, a pair of inquisitive coots come bobbing up towards me. On the far bank, just 20 metres away, is the silent, cloaked frame of a heron and in the middle of the canal, a moorhen mooches lazily around some water lilies. All around me it’s a riot of colour and calm. The tint of the water never appears exactly the same. It depends on the light, the type of cloud, the time of day and year. The trees sway gently above, their leaves rustling gently and cast their reflections too. The water is often also surprisingly clear and the canal bank clean, testament to the volunteers who work hard to keep this section of the canal in good nick.
After a hard working week, arriving here soon after the start of my walk can feel like the perfect balm. In late autumn and early winter, replace the sun with the moon in the early morning and what better place to see the day dawn? A clear, frosty night means the path is hard and good to walk on, with the occasional, satisfying sound of the crack of a thin layer of ice. It was around here, about a mile in, early on Boxing Day 2018, that I saw the unmistakeable blue flash of a kingfisher hurtling by on the opposite bank. A few hours later, at Loftus Road, 14,587 others and I saw a confident QPR side defeat a sorry and doomed Ipswich Town 3-0 - and in the process move to eighth in the table and to within two points of the Championship play-off zone. So I took the kingfisher sighting as an auspicious one. Alas, no kingfishers (apart from the odd, discarded empty bottles of the branded beer) were seen by me between then and a disastrous second half of the season - which, of course, saw us plunge from being promotion hopefuls to relegation candidates.
This part of the canal, officially the Slough Arm of the Grand Union Canal, was constructed in 1882, a coincidental date in the history of our own beloved QPR, as it was also the year that Christchurch Rangers, one of our founding clubs, was created. By 1886, when QPR officially came into being, the five-mile canal was already entering its heyday as a conduit for the brick, sand and gravel trade between Slough and London. Some of the original features of this period are still visible, with cast-iron barriers, bridges, passing points and aqueducts. There is a timeless feel here, where the canal and its surrounding banks seem to have fused in harmony after nearly a century and half of shared intimacy. Here, only three miles from the centre of Slough it feels serene, even with the approaching rumble of the M25 overhead, and one’s mind can wander to imagining what the canal would have been like in its working pomp. I often wonder, whilst walking this section, if any pedestrian of the late Victorian era used this route to walk part of his way to any of the many grounds in West London QPR played at in those pre-Loftus Road years.
I climb back into the time machine of my mind’s eye and crank back the gears. Later, in the inter-war era when McColl wrote Rambler, did any QPR enthusiast hot-foot it down here, in cloth cap and flannels, on his cheery way to see George Goddard, our all-time top scorer, hammer in a few against the likes of Merthyr Tydfill, Thames or Clapton Orient? Did Alan Wilks, who was born in Slough in 1946 and who once scored five goals for us in a League Cup tie against Oxford in 1967 ever tread these ways? Probably not, but it’s an intriguing thought.
Sadly, even before Alan’s time, in fact, even by the time Brian Bedford was banging in goals for us at the beginning of his QPR career in the 1959/60 season, this part of the canal was already moribund, as the brick and quarrying trade had dried up. The canal was closed and plans were made to fill it in and use the land for different purposes. Thankfully, due to the intervention of a local campaign group, it was saved and re-opened in 1975. Oh, the mind revels at the idea of a regular walk to QPR that season down the newly-restored waterway. Moving back through the gears of my machine, I see happy, floppy-haired ramblers in flares, with silk scarves tied around their wrists, dancing and bounding their way along to see the finest QPR side of them all. Oh, if only my time machine were real and I could still join them…
With these fond thoughts, it’s farewell for now to the Slough Arm, as this section comes to an end, just after Packet Boat Marina at Cowley Peachy in Uxbridge. Turning sharply right here takes you onto the much older main trunk canal, The Grand Union Proper. The Slough Arm (along with the Manchester Ship Canal) had been one of the last canals in the country to be built. Slough, unusually, had a railway station (on the old GWR) almost forty years before it had a canal link to London. The Grand Union itself, however, long pre-dates this, linking London to Birmingham and constructed between 1793 and 1805 as the ‘Grand Junction Canal’. This was the very dawn of industrialisation itself and this famous canal is a relic of this momentous period. It’s part of the same industrialisation which eventually produced, amongst a trillion and one other things, organised national football leagues - and in a much later phase still, the technology on which I type this.
At this juncture, the canal loses a little of the tranquillity of the Slough Arm, due to there being simply more houses and people about - but on an early winter’s morning you can still walk for a mile barely seeing more than a handful of human beings. Quite remarkable when you consider you are now entering the confines of a city of over eight million inhabitants. Meanwhile, here I am, six miles closer to Mecca, having just passed West Drayton station on my right, lost in my own little reverie of day dreams as I stride along purposefully - thinking, in fact, of my ‘most scintillating Loftus Road moments’. Lost in the wonderful memory of more than a quarter of a century earlier and Les Ferdinand’s third goal in a storming performance against a late Clough-era Forest side featuring a very young Roy Keane, where Les, completing his hat-trick and sealing our 4-3 victory, flung himself across the six-yard box, to meet Andy Sinton’s cross with a remarkable diving header. Not unlike my kingfisher.
Or, striding purposefully on, the recollection of Adel Taarabt’s sublime finish in front of the Loftus Road end against Fulham in 2012, where he glided the ball past Mark Schwarzer in the Cottager’s goal with the outside of his right boot. Ah, the hairs start to rise up on the back of my neck, just at the very thought of it. And what about Bobby Hazell’s belting header from a corner in the third round of the FA Cup against Watford in 1980? A header so ferocious that I can remember the whole goal-frame vibrating from the impact of ball with onion bag, as Bobby wheeled away in celebration in front of a delirious Loft.
And, what about the time…? Suddenly the sharp, shrill ring of a cyclist’s bell behind me, instantly destroying the moment, as well as interrupting my nostalgic train of thought. A lycra-clad warrior on a mountain bike: entitled people, who plough up and down the path as if it’s their own personal fiefdom. I escape to the towpath to get away from him. A man who probably spends the rest of the week ramming his 4 x 4 around every street corner and tail-gating poor sods up and down the motorway. Now, he’s out living his weekend version of the rat-race on the canal. As Jimmy Reid, who admittedly was more of a River Clyde man than a canal man, once put it: “A rat race is for rats. We’re not rats. We’re human beings.” “It’s not meant for cyclists,” I mutter to the apologetic wheeler as I move slowly and reluctantly aside to let him pass. Probably a Chelsea fan, too, I think to myself.
Back to reality, as I re-collect my thoughts and bearings, and look around to see that I’m now approaching Hayes, and just about half way on my journey. Despite being very much now within the confines of the metropolis this section is decidedly green and reposeful. The trees arch over the pathway as they do for large sections of the canal, protecting you from the elements on an inclement day. Now my mind starts to properly calculate distance and time to QPR, my taste buds to anticipate victuals, particularly ales, wines and ciders. Soon I pass Bulls Bridge, where a new section of the canal opens up to the left. Thirteen miles to Paddington from here if you fancy it, via a long meandering stretch around Greenford, before it eventually leads you into the heart of London, past Trellick Tower, Little Venice and finally Paddington Basin. I have walked this route and then down though Hyde Park to the Albert Hall for the Proms concerts, a close season diversion.
Today, however, it’s very much the shorter walk to football, so it’s head down and into Southall. Even in the relatively brief time that I’ve been walking the canal this next section has witnessed a lot of building along the ‘Canal Living’ section, as it has been marketed. Around here, is the least enjoyable part of the walk. Half a mile or so either side of Southall recreational ground, the canal banks are littered with detritus of every kind - bottles, cans, plastic bags, cartons, rotting and discarded food, old clothes, mattresses. It’s an indictment of modern economic practice, when hundreds of millions can be spent on new development but not the relatively small amounts that it would take to clean up the environment here. These are, sadly, the too evident effects of our modern instrumental mind-set and our loss of connection with nature. Furthermore, it’s sobering to see the evidence of rough sleepers at various places along this section of the canal. Despite the degradation, however, this is still the place to see swans, and Canadian and Egyptian geese.
Then, an incredible transformation as you approach Hanwell Locks. The path and surroundings are tidier, more open and everything brightens up considerably. Here, you can experience the marvel of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Three Bridges, completed just before his death in 1859. An aqueduct carries the canal across his earlier Great Western Railway, whilst above is the road traffic bridge on Windmill Lane. The bridges are engineered and juxtaposed so skilfully, to form a most agreeable impression. Ever closer to the ground now, I eagerly anticipate the soon-to-be realised spectacle of watching similarly cleverly-worked angles conjured up by our blue and white festooned midfielders this coming afternoon. Yes, a long, bracing walk to the match certainly never fails to instil an optimistic outlook. And this is even before the first snifter of the day.
You are now walking downhill deeper into London and the canal is broken up by the impressive and rustic looking Hanwell flight of locks, whilst the high brick walls on your left mark the outer perimeter of Ealing General Hospital. There is an information board here with a fascinating photo from the General Strike, when strike breakers brought coal supplies by canal barge to a since bricked up supply hole in the wall of what was then Hanwell Asylum. You can still see the place where the supply hole was, by virtue of the contrast in brick colouring. Cranking back the lever of my time machine, I wonder if my imaginary cloth-capped and flannel-flapping QPR fan passed by here on Saturday 1st May 1926, on his way to Loftus Road to see us beat Northampton Town 3-2? On that day, nearly a million British coal miners were already on strike against the imposition of proposed wage cuts and longer working hours, and within days they were joined by hundreds of thousands of other workers, particularly from the transport industries, in one of the biggest shows of workers’ solidarity in British history. Unfortunately for both the strikers and the QPR fan, things did not turn out as well as hoped. The General Strike was abandoned after only nine days.
As for QPR, that victory over The Cobblers marked only the fifth win of the entire 42-match season. A season that also saw the R’s lose a total of 27 games and finish adrift at the bottom of the Third Division South in very last place, with an abject total of 21 points. Even the soon-to-be defunct Aberdare Athletic finished 13 places higher in the table and with double our points tally. In that now distant spring, over ninety years ago, the club were forced to apply for re-election to remain in the lowest tier of the professional league - which was, luckily for us, granted. And we thought last season was bad.
Anyway, the scars on the wall mark almost the end of the canal part of my walk. From here, I turn off at Green Lane where one is greeted by the heart-warming sight of the gable end and livery of The Fox public house. The pub opens at 11.00am and I have been known to be pushing open the door of this feted establishment at precisely one minute past that hour, eager for a sit down, and a glass of beer and a plate of sandwiches. On the coldest of Saturday mornings, I warm myself by the glowing fire in the hearth, sipping intermittently between a hot black coffee and a large rum. A happier man on earth you could not find at such times, as fuelled by endorphins, alcohol and dreams of football glory I gaze contentedly into the coals, before re-donning coat and scarf to begin the last five miles of my journey.
From here, through suburban Ealing streets, it’s a short hop up the hill to a reunion with the Uxbridge Road, which I left behind just three or four hours earlier in Slough. It’s somewhat of a startling, almost bewildering transformation from quiet canal to teeming streets. On the canal, I could walk almost entirely unimpeded - but now, on a busy West London Saturday lunchtime, there are shoppers, cars and junctions to contend with. My wings feel slightly clipped but the pavements are flat and, even when it’s hammering down, don’t create the troublesome puddles or mud that can accumulate along large sections of the canal bank. Moreover, I know that in just over an hour’s time, I will be safely within the confines of Shepherd’s Bush.
Before I started these walks, I’d assumed that by the time I was walking through Ealing I’d spot the odd QPR fan making their way to the same destination - but so far I’ve never seen any fellow Hoops. In fact, far more common is the sight of groups of rugby fans congregating outside their West London hotel or B&B before they head off towards Twickenham for the afternoon. Walking past the pubs and bars along here, you often hear the exclamations and cheers of those inside watching their Manchester Uniteds or Liverpools in the early BT Sport kick-off. The streets become monstrously slow moving and crowded as you make your way to Ealing Broadway but then the wide open spaces of Ealing Common restore a degree of equanimity. Then it’s straight down into Acton - and by now I’m yearning for another rest. Even here, QPR fans are to be seen in buses and cars - but very few, if any, walking. Past the fine art deco lines of the Granada cinema, formerly the Dominion, opened by Gracie Fields in 1937, and then the green space of Acton Park means I’m nearly there; and slowly, almost inexplicably, I spy the first huddles of QPR fans gathered outside The Askew and Princess Victoria public houses. I’m home. I’ve made it.
I’m always pleased to get to this point and slightly proud of myself - but this is a relatively easy walk. It’s a relaxing and enjoyable one and not overly strenuous. This is not a humble brag. My walk is really nothing more than an opportunity for a self-indulgent, solipsistic saunter in my own little corner of the Garden of Eden. The jaunt of a privileged man. It’s a flat, safe surface for the entire journey and there are plenty of opportunities to stop and tarry a while on the way. My efforts look very small beer indeed compared to those of fellow football fan Scott Cunliffe, who ran from Turf Moor to every single Burnley away match last season, covering over three thousand miles in the process. Or, our very own Don Shanks who, aged 66, ran the New York marathon last November in honour of Stan Bowles and raised money for three charities in the process. And, of course, the QPR Trust in the Community Tiger Cubs who have walked every year for over a decade now in aid of young people with Down’s Syndrome.
I’ve recently read other inspiring stories of walkers. For example, Walking the Woods and the Water, Nick Hunt’s account of his 2011 walk across Europe, re-tracing Paddy Fermor’s 1933 journey from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn on the Bosphorus in Istanbul. Even more uplifting is Raynor Winn’s 2018 publication The Salt Path, which recounts the story of her and her husband’s 600-mile trek along the South West Coastal Path, camping every night along the way and living on the margins of sustenance after they had been made homeless after suffering bankruptcy. And, unlike Lawrie Lee, who in 1969’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning, tells us how over thirty years earlier he left his home in a small village in Gloucestershire to walk to London and then across Spain, where he later returned to fight for the Republicans. I don’t have a civil war to contend with when I arrive at Loftus Road - even when Millwall, Cardiff City or Leeds are the visitors.
It’s after the matches that I feel it most, as the aches and cramps set in, sitting sometimes still a bit damp, in a pub on Shepherd’s Bush Green, as it fills up with excited post-match chatter, looking out through the big plate glass windows at the shoppers hurrying home in the winter dark, and the big red buses with steamed up windows passing by - and I gesture to all of this and say rather proudly to my wife, who has travelled up by train, “...and to think, I walked up here today.” And smiling, she always jokingly asks back: “But when are you ever going to do the walk back home again as well?” Not likely when just a few hundred yards away lie a tube station that can take me to a train station that can transport me quickly home to a much-needed hot bath.
But now, sipping my pint and staring out at the traffic and crowds, looking beyond them, my imagination is already wandering again. I’m easing myself back into my time machine. I push the lever gently forwards and then a bit further still. Future matches, future walks. Many, many more such occasions yet to come. I see the seasons changing, myself walking down the canal, the days all whirring past and into each other and overhead, the suns and moons arcing past in a circular game of cat and mouse, against the changing, fluttering skies. Eventually the last few hundred yards of the walk look slightly different, even strange, the destination has changed. There’s now a new, bigger, bolder, cantilevered stadium, with ever bigger crowds filling it. I can even see steep banks of terracing and the tumultuous ferment of the hordes upon it. What wonderful visions! I see cheering and celebrations, happy, happy faces and goals galore, and even the glint of silver being paraded; but most of all I see kingfishers, lots and lots of kingfishers.
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