…..And so 3½ months came to pass – the indentation in my couch just grew (and grew), Asda 3 x bottles of red for a tenner became my friend and the highlight of my (summer) weekends, my Costa Blanca holiday came and went and I now find myself less than 5 x weeks before a near 60 mile sponsored walk….enough to make a grown man cry at the mere thought of the sheer pressure of it all…aw well there’s always that 3 fir a tenner deal to fall back on.
“C’mon yah lazy bassa get yir finger oot” or words to that effect the Mrs repeatedly hurled at me after my (calorie laden) tea every night….you know what, she was right it was time to grab the bull by the horns and do something about “the walk”.
So I did two key things… firstly I went and bought a pair of walking shoes (well you’ve got to start somewhere I thought), this turned out to be some of the best advice I got – from a seasoned ‘moonwalker’ – who told me it was the 1st thing any ‘serious’ walker should do (I wisnae sure if I came into that category but took her advice all the same).
Secondly I roped my big pal Davy Comiskey into the training…he too is (or was) a fellow couch and Sky+ lover not to mention a big 3 for a tenner fan…I convinced him that it was in his best interests to ‘change his lifestyle’…thank god he fell for it, as company while walking is so so important (as I will reveal later)
And so it began….5 miles every night for the 1st week, then up to 2 hours (approx 7 ½ miles) every night in the 2nd week…it was definitely getting easier, I only hope my couch isnae missin me too much.
Week 3 was just more of the same, the only problems I was aware of were – some bealin blisters (thanks to breakin in the new ‘walking’ shoes), my Sky+ planner is nearly full (as I’ve no time to watch TV!) and I’m sure I heard Wal-Mart issued a profits warning due to me and big Davy’s abstinence!
Mark/Lefty bhoy (the President), Scott (big Shed), Chunky (ahm a walker anyway), Muz (Robin Hood man in tights), Ali (the only adult in history wae a Hoopy the huddle hound tattoo on his leg?) and Lorraine (wheels on the bus go round and round) – all fellow members of the Arthur McKenna Lochgelly bus were also taking part in the walk…and to my knowledge were also putting the miles in, this acted as an incentive and spurs you on to make sure that you’re not the one who ‘won’t make it’
However, it was maybe at a ‘walker’s’ meeting in Cardenden, 10 x days before the walk, that the penny finally dropped for me. Mark issued each attendee with a route Map… Day 1 – Gallowgate, Cumbernauld Rd, Riddrie, Robroyston, Lenzie, FORTH – CLYDE CANAL!, Larbert, Day 2 made equally bad reading…more of that later.
I left that meeting in no doubt as to the task that lay ahead. It was a mixture of terror combined with excitement…I WAS genuinely excited about the walk and now couldn’t wait for it to get started.
I (personally) got a boost in the week leading up to the walk when an (old!) but great friend and fellow Ballingry bhoy – James ‘Shanex’ McShane phoned me and asked if he could represent his supporter’s bus (Ballingry CSC) by taking part in the walk, I was delighted about this and would come to rely on his stamina later in the pilgrimage.
The day of the walk all the locals met up in Lochgelly for 7am (ironically at the same place where we would effectively complete the walk in approximately 36 hours time) – where the Shug Rafferty express wheeled us through to paradise which for one day only would become the John Thomson Pilgrimage starting line, with only a quick pit-stop at Kincardine to meet up with Alan (ahm Horny, Horny, Horny, Horny) Horne who supplied us with enough Mars Bars to feed the GB Olympic Team.
The gathering place within Celtic Park was the Kerrydale Suite – and I’m sure everybody was thinking the same things…”whose she?”, “whose he?”, “what’s their reason for doing the walk?” “ooohhh I hope she’s no walkin in they shoes!”, “jeeso he’s nae spring chicken!”, “a man in tights…sorry that’s just wrong”, “I hope I dinnae get interviewed on CH67” and most alarmingly “why is Mark carrying that E-45 lub-cream about with him!?”
Some highlights were in store before we set off though…lovely tea & coffee to well-and-truly wake us up, down the steps into an empty stadium for a few photo opportunities, a beautiful solo rendition of the John Thomson song that chillingly echoed around our magnificent stadium and surely reminded everybody present why we were about to do what we were about to do, a walk along trackside (past the new dug-out Recarros), up the tunnel past the dressing rooms and finally out into the reception area to be met by none other than Lions Bertie Auld and John Clark before we all went outside to be photographed some more and finally walk down the hill to London Road to start our pilgrimage…incidentally John and Bertie took the time to shake every walkers hand, hug them and give everyone of us a good luck message before waving us off…true legends.
And so we were off…at approximately 10.15am (nearly 1 hour later than scheduled) 40 or so eager pilgrims – all bonded by the same love of a certain Scottish football team – shepherded by Celtic security staff (it’s a tough old area you know!) and (Quality Street Kid and fellow Fifer) Tommy ‘Tid’ Callaghan driving the Celtic support vehicle…wow we really are in the big time now when we’ve got ex-Celts driving for us!
Up and down, round about, the first few miles were a struggle, the sun came out and made it even tougher, the pace-setters were…. well…setting the pace and some folks lagging behind had to be waited on (not a problem of course) so it was a bit stop-and-start to begin with….and then we arrived ‘there’…aka the Forth-Clyde Canal, 15 miles of flat, stony, mind-numbing, conveyor-belt like torture.
All along this middle section of the walk all we had for ‘company’ were nettles, puddles, anglers, cyclists, barges, dog-walkers, wasps, empty buckie bottles (how did they get there?) and the occasional fellow-pilgrim.
One group we did have for company were the ‘support team’ these guys had the un-canny knack of turning up just around a corner, just when you needed them most (I’m sure there’s a song in there somewhere!)…bottles of water, bananas, mars bars and tuna pieces were always being handed out – along with words of encouragement “keep it up guys, no long tae go noo” they repeated…wee statements like that mean an awfy lot when your head is down and feet are in agony (even when there is about 18 miles still to go!).
As I mentioned earlier, my auld mucker Shanex was a god-send on this stretch of the walk, never known for his big sentences, he too had a knack of speaking just at the right time and was always asking “you okay pal?” it’s hard to describe but 3 wee words like that can give you a huge boost…it kept me awake if nothing else.
At one point along the canal stretch we must have resembled and sounded like Jack and Victor out of Still Game…”ooh ma knees killin me”, “awww ma wee taes agony likes”, “ooowww it’s ma back noo – what nixt?” we came to the conclusion that any aches and pains we had were not gonnae get any better nor were they gonnae get any worse – so it was mind-over-matter most of the time – get your head up (or down!) and just get on with it. And got on with it we did.
The major milestone and landmark for us on day one was always the Falkirk Wheel, we knew (from the info cards handed out at Celtic Park) that when we got here we had approx 3 or 4 miles to go (about an hour’s walk). We thought we had spotted it a few times before we actually did…hallucinating obviously!
And then….like an oasis in the desert there it was…the big steel lump aka the Falkirk Wheel appeared and a support team member corralled us through a farmers field (for a short-cut) with the words “only two miles to go” Shanex and I looked at each other…braw we thought even less than we had imagined…it was all bull-shit psychology of course, 1 ½ hours and 5 miles later at 5.45pm we reached the day one finishing line (by which point we had ironically walked past not one but TWO hospitals) …a Premier Inn has never looked so inviting. A few quicker and hardier souls were already there of course…no big smiles and encouragement awaited us though… only claims of “that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done” and “I’m f****n dreading the morn likes”, we thought “aye tell us aboot it”.
While all the other walkers headed to the overnight hotel or to their homes for a night of feet up and chillaxin…Muggins here had to get into the nearest phone box and get his ‘Starman’ outfit on…a further 5 hours on my feet behind the decks awaited…a charity night I couldn’t really get out of…oh well another good cause helped out…I better get intae heaven I’m telling yeh!!
Day two came all too soon…4 ½ hours sleep and it was up and away again. Back up to free-Gelly for the rendezvous with Shanex, big Shed and wee Kev Smith (who at 51 years old and with a 12 month old plastic hip really showed some of us younger bhoys and ghirls how it’s done).
It was 7.50am on Saturday 3rd September 2011 when we landed back at Premier Inn hotel in Larbert to meet up with the rest of the pilgrims…in contrast to 24 hours earlier, smiley-faced, excited, enthusiastic and able-bodied walker’s were in short supply.
And for the second time in 24 hours we were off…no Lisbon Lions this time to wave us off just a couple of stray cats and a few bemused hotel residents.
Our oasis in the desert this time being Lochgelly Town Hall…26 or so miles away!
The Fifers seemed to think we had a mental advantage over the others on this leg of the walk, we were familiar with the route and (probably more crucially) we were aware of how far we had to go at any point in the walk; on reflection, I’m not sure that was a good thing or not!
It was a 6 mile plod BEFORE we reached the Kincardine Bridge and the start of the Fife stretch…where we were greeted by two well kent faces – (Kirkcaldy bhoy and author of 20 or so Celtic books) David Potter and Sean Houston (a man so famous Dubliners named a train station after him). Then that ever increasing ‘slope’ between Culross and Dunfermline’s Carnegie Drive, I must have drove it hundreds of times but never before walked it…wow what a difference sitting on yer arse in a car makes to this stretch of road!.
The picturesque Fife Coastal Route through Culross, Torryburn, Low Vallefield and Newmills was transformed into a sordid, depressing slog where our stamina, body parts and abstinence were all tested to the limits.
When Shanex and I walked past The Goth Pub in Newmills, the barman was just placing the drinks chalk board outside on the path…at the top of the board was a picture of a large red ‘T’ (you know the one I mean)…this signage just toyed with our minds…coupled with the fact that our toes were pounding like a bass drum – were we in purgatory?
On and on we marched – through Dunfermline town centre (which for us was always a key landmark)…when a wee boost came in the shape of a walking buddy – Kevin ‘Mr Motivator’ McCann, who we met up with just outside East End Park – Dunfermline FC’s ground. Kev, who was meant to be taking part in the walk but had to pull out due to injury, lifted our spirits and managed to slow our pace down a wee bit – still, the dinner/dance didn’t start until 7.30pm this evening – so plenty time!
The last 8 or so miles after Kevin joined us really were a walk in the park, the back of the walk was well and truly broken at this point – cautiously we actually started to enjoy the walk – geographical psychology kicked in at this point me thinks.
Prior warnings of an Orange Order parade in Cowdenbeath (how nice of them to remember Johnny’s passing by doing a walk for him!) came to nothing and another boost came in the shape of some family members who met up with us in Cowdenbeath and walked the last few miles with us including my niece Roxy who cheered us on from her pram before zonking just before the finishing line!
And here it finally was…the hometown of my supporters club Lochgelly, and the finishing line for day 2 of the pilgrimage. The town clock read 4.15pm as we strode past it…what a feeling that was as me and Shanex walked down the High St shoulder to shoulder.
Just in front of us was Cllr Mark Hood (walking like a lame elephant) and big Leven bhoy McFarlane and his wee neebir (who were enjoying a well earned puff on their fags)…these three guys even took time to stop for an ice-cream in Crossgates…class.
We were also informed at this point (by local Fish wife eh ah mean fish man Gordon Donnachie J) that Ali ‘the white Ethiopian’ Schulz and young Bowhill bhoy Sean Foley (15 yr old Cowdenbeath FC apprentice) had jogged day 2 and had arrived back in Lochgelly at just after 1pm, closely followed by Mark ‘Lefty Bhoy’ Cameron and his wee cousin Toni ‘hey blondie’ Cunningham…some effort guys. Of course it wasn’t a race and eventually everybody made it back – maybe not in one piece – but made it back all the same.
For me, all I could see in front of me was a hot bath and ’40 winks’ before tonights big occasion….alas at 3.45am I woke up in my bed gasping for a drink of water…on seeing the time on the clock by my bed the words – shit, aw, slept, ah’ve and in – crossed my mind…and there you have it, Jock ‘Starman’ McPhillips the only Pilgrim to sleep in for the Saturday night Dinner/Dance!! So please accept my apologies for not being able to give you any personalised feedback from the Saturday night festivities, safe to say everybody I’ve spoken to who was there had a brilliant time and the photos I’ve viewed do indeed back this up. Still at least I was fresh for Sunday!
The morning of Sunday 4th September 2011, at 9.30am in Lochgelly the sun came out to greet the 200 or so locals who had turned up with supporter’s club banners, pushchairs, dogs, walking sticks and a spring in their step to walk the final stretch to Cardenden with the 40 odd pilgrims.
The sun shone for us the whole way and after the 5 or so miles we arrived in Moorside Park (home of Junior side Dundonald Bluebell) to be greeted by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown (this walking lark really does bring fame along with it!)
Before the annual football tournament took place, each and everyone of the pilgrim walkers and support helpers were called out by name and given a personalised plaque by Gordon Brown…the round of applause and pat on the back we all received in that 10 minute period wiped clear any bad memories we had of the two previous days…it’s true what they say – this made it all worth while.
A day of mixed emotions, highs and lows, followed… highs and enjoyment on the sun drenched football field watching the local young boys and girls entertain us with their football skills, then more laughter after the procession down the brae to the local social club to see virtually every one of the young players receive a trophy of some sort…with the highlight being all of the pilgrims on the stage to greet our club captain into the hall with a rendition of “Broony, Broony, Broony” and “Lets all do the Broony, Lets all do the Broony…” .
Then the low, surrounding the poignancy of the real reason we were all gathered here today – from all corners of Scotland – in this tiny part of Fife…to remember the Prince of Goalkeepers. As the march set off from the social club to John’s immaculate grave in nearby Bowhill Cemetery – every pilgrim, joined by friends and family all followed on and made the short ½ mile walk to pay their respects.
Every year when his anniversary comes around it is remembered and commemorated by the brilliant John Thomson memorial committee; they do their utmost to keep up traditions and to ensure that his memory is never forgotten. This year, the 80th Anniversary of his passing, they really did surpass themselves…I personally do not think they could have done any more to have remembered him by.
The pilgrimage (if you did not already know) was held in an attempt to re-enact the journey that 30,000 or so football fans made on their way to Fife for John’s funeral on 9th September 1931. They, of course, did not have walking shoes, support vehicles (Mars Bars included!), i-pods, traffic-free pathways or an overnight stay in a hotel.
What the 2011 pilgrims DID share with those hardy souls however, was a common love and respect for the former Celtic goalkeeper as well as a fraternity that very few other football clubs (if any) will ever experience.
So, after what can only be described as a life changing experience – I have hobbled away with many great memories, many new friends, a new found respect for the Celtic family, strained ligaments in my right ankle, and several blisters on each foot not to mention a newly developed phobia of for bananas and mars bars.
Well done to all my fellow pilgrims, support workers, walking buddies, family, friends and just as importantly sponsors – thank you all very much for donating your hard earned cash to a very worthwhile, local charity.
Roll on next year J
Pilgrim Jock ‘Starman’ McPhillips
Arthur McKenna Lochgelly CSC