Just recently, Times staff writer Robert "Bird" Brown went on a trip to London with his youngest son Matthew's soccer team. Here, Bird recaps the highlights of the journey across the pond.
Day One - Bon Voyage
Today marks the first day of what promises to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for this 12-year old soccer team. This trip is the culmination of over 10 months of hard work fundraising to cover a good portion of the costs that we will incur over the next 11 days. This includes car washes, candy sales, Thirty-one bag parties, golf tournaments, NCAA March Madness brackets, Super Bowl block pools and private donations from the community. The last formal act of the Westminster Wolves Soccer Club will be this trip for our soccer team as we journey for eight days to Manchester and the final three days in London.
Day Two - We've arrived
We had an uneventful overnight flight to London by British Airways. Already pressed for time, we suffered through another grueling security process despite the fact we had not left the secure area of the terminal. Twelve of our 40 travelers were left behind in London. The experience of getting three vans and two cars to any place with the steering wheel and the stick shift on the wrong side, and the driving lane on the wrong side of the road was quite an accomplishment. The evening went smoothly with our boys meeting their host parents at our host school, Priestnall School in Stockport.
Day Three - Let the games begin
Our kids spent the morning attending class with their host players. Our afternoon activities included a tour and a match at Manchester United's training ground, Carrington, where we took a tour of the facilities and their indoor training site before moving outside to a match against a Trafford City team of the best players from the area.
The match was evenly played with each team taking a turn sharing the lead before ending in a 4-4 draw. Next up was a Rugby League Game between the Salford Reds and St. Helens. The Reds set up an instructional session before the game to have our boys work with youth coaches and teach them the intricacies of rugby before moving in to watch the game.
Day Four - What goes on the road, stays on the road
This was an open date for players and coaches alike so we'll leave the stories on the other side of the big pond!
Day Five - Soccer and the birthplace of the Beatles
Our trip to Liverpool started at Anfield, the home of one of the oldest football clubs in England, Liverpool, FC. We entered through the players' entrance and toured locker rooms before heading to the field where we were treated to stories of the glory days. We finished the tour through the museum with an unbelievable collection of uniforms and an impressive trophy room.
We were to ride aboard the Yellow Duckmarine, an amphibious vehicle, but due to the second sinking in the last few months, our trip was canceled for the day. We moved to the "Fab 4D Experience," a fun adventure through the songs of the Beatles and later a short walk across Albert Dock to "The Beatles Experience" with a thorough history of the rise and fall of the Beatles.
Day Six - The highs and lows of the English countryside
In Buxton, we had an adventure in the trees called "Go Ape," a sort of amusement park in the forest including rope ladders, walking across cable tightropes from tree to tree, swinging like Tarzan into a rope net, and finally riding zip lines that ended for many of us with a crash landing into a huge pile of mulch. Next we did a tour of Poole's Cavern that included lessons on history, science, geology, and humor. Our evening drew us back to the pitch for a match against the Reddish Vulcans where this time the visitors carried the day as the Wolves walked off with a 4-2 victory.
Day Seven - Old Trafford and old friends
Today we toured Manchester United's Old Trafford Stadium. We went to the players' pregame room and VIP room, the home locker room, and sat in the players' boxes at the field. We finished in the incredible trophy room with videos of some of the best football ever played before finding our way to the world's largest souvenir store to spend some more of the Queen's money.
Our game tonight against Blessed Thomas Holford Catholic School in Altrincham was no match for our much stronger Wolves team as we handed BTH an 8-1 defeat. It was great to see old friends and coaches Brendan Coyle, Shane Goldrick and Dave Pendlebury and former tour guest and current British Masters boxing champion Jimmy Kelly come out to watch our boys play.
Day Eight - Tours, tours, and more tours
Up next was York, an old Viking city with thousands of years of history and a walking tour of a Victorian city with York Castle Prison exhibit. On to an old Tudor home with Mistress Crabby, who walked us through diseases of the time (think Black Plague), the home Buttery (where the beer was brewed), and culminated in the dining hall where our "Lord" entertained his guests and our players learned the meanings of the words "earmark" and "piss pot." Another interactive tour of Roman ruins where our boys could play in the dirt and try to determine the pattern of fossils and artifacts. The final tour included a history lesson on protecting the castle with the front wall known as the Mickelson Bar.
Day Nine - Lions and tigers and bears (and screaming girls), Oh My!
We made the trip to nearby Chester for a visit to the Zoo and some more Roman ruins. When we had exhausted our time in the zoo, we ventured over to downtown Chester for an authentic tour of the Roman elements of the city by a properly adorned Roman soldier who taught us about their heating system, a sewerage system, and toilet paper on a stick.
We made our way back to our host school for our final game of the trip against the Year 7's and 8's in front of our American families, our newly adoptive host families and a collection of school girls screaming like Beatlemania. Our boys took care of business on the field with a 2-0 shutout of the host team and a win in the final game. All this in driving English cool rain on a beautiful, lush green pitch.
Our tour host, Jason Kneen, organized an after game party back at The Heatons Cricket Lacrosse Rugby and Tennis Club, a place that gave me a vision of what I had always envisioned for Wolf Park with multiple sport fields, a clubhouse for all and a bar for adult beverages.
Day 10 - Bueller? Bueller?
We arrived in London via train and for the first time since leaving Dulles, we were all on our own. We had one final group act together, a trip to the London Eye on the Thames River. We sat through a 4D version that was a fun prelude to what awaited us in the 30-foot glass tubes that would be our home for the next 20 minutes. We had our first celebrity sighting, Sex in the City's Sarah Jessica Parker. Her husband Matthew Broderick, he of Ferris Bueller fame, walked right past us. When the ride on the London Eye was complete, our group split up, never to be together as a large group again, leaving the exploration of London to each family.
Day 11 - Rainbows and bridges
Many of the team toured Arsenal's Stadium, but we decided to chill a bit from our frantic pace. The tube line that we needed to take was headed to Wimbledon so you can only imagine how crowded it was. We walked through Trafalgar Square and through the middle of National Gay Pride Day with banners demanding equality of marriage and government buildings flying the rainbow flag. We arrived at Stamford Bridge (Chelsea's Stadium) and ran into another three teammates who also were there for the tour. After catching up with our English friend back at the London Eye and being treated to dinner, we took another tube venture back to the Marriott Marble Arch hotel where many of the team was staying to finish the day.
Day 12 - Squeezing out the last drop
On our last full day in London, we started at the famed British Museum, a building filled with such incredible history, including the Rosetta Stone, pieces of the Parthenon, and an artifact that was 1.8 million years old. You must gear your tour toward your audience. When I was last here with my oldest son, it was our biggest regret not making this tour because even at 12 he was fascinated by histoy. But son number three? If it doesn't include throwing or kicking a ball, fuggetaboutit. We then jumped on an open air, double decker bus, and got the Reader's Digest version of all of London before making it back to our B&B to pack for our trip home and watch the Confederations Cup final between Brazil and Spain.
Day 13 - Our journey home
From all over London, we ventured back to Heathrow Airport by private car, taxi, and the Underground. The boys passed the wait time having a kick around in the terminal before piling into our plane that would be our home for the next eight hours and our trip back to God's Country. Another uneventful, wonderful flight by British Airways brought us home to Dulles early in the afternoon, Eastern Daylight Time.
While several families stayed back in London for a few more days of touring, the players and families that touched down were sad to see the trip end but overjoyed to be back on American soil. The team as we knew it heading over to the Mother Country 12 days ago would no longer be the same, but the memories we forged on this trip will bind us together for the rest of our lives. The connections we made with each other and especially with our new English families made the 10 months of preparation and fundraising well worth the effort.
The Road Ahead
In a few more weeks, these boys have the opportunity to return the favor to their host families, as coaches Jason Kneen, Adam Morrison, and Dave Pendlebury will be bringing 20 boys stateside. We have a robust itinerary planned for them as well with tours of Camden Yards, Ft. McHenry, The Naval Academy, Smithsonians, Gettysburg Battlefield, Orioles and D.C. United games, and a day at the Six Flags Amusement Park. Oh yeah, and plenty of opportunity to spend their pounds on our American products and play a few more games against some of our local teams. I hope we can live up to the standard they set for us.