12. A forest away from Nottingham


To Brian Clough, Geoff Boycott, Peter O’Toole and Tim Healy, the idea that woodland acres lacked footpaths worn out by generations of dog walkers or adventurous ramblers seemed implausible. Maybe in the Congo, yes, but Cumbria? Knitted between the ghostly trunks of silver birch were winding, thorny spider’s-web strands of undergrowth that tugged at trousers and snared sleeves. It was as if the ground had been abandoned for decades, like it was the scene of a massacre that had become overgrown and deliberately left to return to nature. Healy, in protective biking gear, took the forward position, blindly clearing a narrow channel through the outstretched barbed-wire brambles for the others to follow. This was the most effective mode of movement available to the troupe, but in his layers, Healy was building up a sweat.

“Hang on lads, it’s hard work this,” Healy panted. “Do you know what I could do with? A Mars or a Marathon. Pork pie, maybe. I’m famished.”

“We must keep moving forward,” O’Toole said. “It’s too cold for a night on the tiles. The Wooden Hill in Bedfordshire – that’s where we need to be. Not outdoors in bloody Cumbria in January.”

“It’s like being in a Tarzan film this,” remarked Boycott. “Or King Kong, where they’re ’acking through unchartered jungle, not knowin’ if they’re going to end up in a tribe’s cookin’ pot.”

King Kong,” O’Toole dolefully recalled and found himself looking out to the wings. “That gorgeous great monkey. The torment he endured! He didn’t mean that mistress any harm, he was simply minding her. Any sane person could see that! Why cage such an incredible creature? He was content in his dinosaur kingdom chomping big bunches of bananas, beating his mighty chest, looking for a dust-up with a brontosaurus that threatened to queer his pitch. No, what those captors did was unforgiveable. They chained him up so nosey New Yorkers could stand and ogle. No wonder he shimmied up the Empire State Building. It was the nearest thing he could find to a great bloody tree. Why did they have to terrify him so, blasting their machine-gun bullets from swarming biplanes? He swiped and swiped and swiped at those awful machines of death, putting up a terrific fight too, but it was all so unfair, so one-sided. I saw the film but vowed… never again.”

“I always found Lassie films a bit much,” Boycott admitted, sloshing through a small brook. “For a collie, it saw a lot of cruelty and there were usually way too much bother to deal with – but it tried. It were a dog for pity’s sake, but in a way, almost ’uman. If you were a farmer wi’ a dog like that ’un, you’d be made. It’d be like ’avin’ a partner rather than a workin’ animal. I turn them films over when they come on. There’s enough misery in world as it is, what wi’ Libyans, Argies and pit closures. It doesn’t do to get overly sentimental about pets. Give me a Carry On any day, or On The Buses.”

“Well, you’re in your own war film tonight, lads,” Clough said, cracking dry twigs and last autumn’s leaves beneath his feet. “Pity we can’t find two more lost souls and we could be the Dirty Dozen.”

“I wonder how the snooker’s gannin’?” Healy frowned. “If we get a shift on, we could still catch coverage on the box, I reckon.”

The further the gang edged into the wooded terrain, the less the unkemptness of the landscape made sense. This was a wilderness; unmanaged ground – almost a barrier. Britain wasn’t a vast nation and most of its countryside had to be used for money-making schemes, be it farming, tourism or forestry. So what was this?

Clough caught a thorny bramble on the cheek, which he batted away with his hand, but not before it had drawn blood. He called to his companions, “You know, I have my players running through nettles in training by the City Ground cos it toughens them up and strengthens them mentally. And when they come out, I send them in again. But I wouldn’t send them in here! We must have missed a trail somewhere! We need machetes and scythes to make any headway. Or a bloody Sherman!”

“It’s slowing us up alright.” Healy noted. “We might need to make a den and camp out. See what the morning brings. There aren’t even any animals or birds here, like. No hootun’ owls or anything.”

“We’ve made a mistake here,” Clough growled. “Dropped a clanger. This isn’t working. We’re tiring ourselves out just to cover a couple of hundred bloody yards – and no bugger’ll find us in here for the next 100 years.”

“Straight line, Brian, we agreed,” Boycott reminded. “No point turning back now. We’ve a game plan and we should see it through.”

“I understand the rules, Geoffrey, but even Romans had to deviate from their direct roads when faced with an immovable object, like a big block of bloody granite,” said Clough. “It’s similar to that farm on the M62. Sometimes we can’t have things our own way and what you do is, you curve round it. For all we know, there’s a rambler’s trail running parallel to this straight line, so we should go back and walk round the perimeter of this wood, just for our peace of mind. Try and find an easier route.”

Clough found himself outvoted, which he seemed to take with good grace and an indifferent smile, but inside he was appalled. He wasn’t used to asking people to do things; normally he told them and they said “yes”. Healy began his human thrashing machine, pushing onwards, kicking, karate-chopping and forcing a trail through the endless jagged melange he faced.

“What a bloody mess,” Clough complained. “We should have stuck to the bloody road and taken our bloody chances.”

“You swear more when you get tired, Brian,” Boycott spoke.

“So bloody what?” Clough laughed. “I’ve hours left in me yet, pal. Most of the players I buy are bought after midnight. That’s when I’m at my best! It’s the witching hour, Geoffrey.”

O’Toole looked as if he’d aged 30 years during the evening. Exhausted, with bulging eyes and open-mouthed like an angler’s catch on a riverbank, he suddenly barked, “I’m coming out of this doctor-imposed booze retirement at the earliest opportunity. If that is in the next half hour, my companions, you will find me the most genial company and what’s more, I’ll stick a fair wodge of ackers behind the bar. Geoffrey, as a Yorkshireman you’ll appreciate such a gesture.”

Boycott pondered for a moment and then nodded. “I like a free drink like next man, Pete,” he said. “If our Hollywood friend is willin’ to fork out for a cup of Horlicks or two with maybe a bit of grub thrown in, I’d be ’appy as Larry. Although I can’t stand curry. It gives me shockin’ ’eartburn.”

“Don’t worry Geoffrey,” said O’Toole. “I’ll get you some cod and chips, with your favourite – red sauce.”

“That’d be my dream come true right now,” Boycott accepted. “Plenty of vinegar of course and ’andful of perfectly broadcast Saxa. Maybe pickled egg perched playfully on side of plate. Buttered bread, of course – white. Not wholemeal wi’ bits and stones in it.”

Healy stopped dead in his tracks and placed a gloved hand over his eyes, wondering how and why he’d decided to tag along with this rag-tag bunch of over-the-top showmen. But their fortunes were shortly to improve – while worsening in the long-term.

No more than five strenuous minutes had elapsed before the foolhardy foursome abruptly came to a halt. “I-I-I cannae believe it, man,” Healy blinked. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

O’Toole stepped forward, wheezing, catching his breath. “What have we here then?” He gazed upwards at brickwork 15-feet high as if he were admiring a masterpiece in the National Gallery. “My guess is…” and then he stopped for a moment lost in thought. “It couldn’t be…”

“What’s up, O’Toole?” Boycott enquired. “You think we’ve been caught in slips?”

“Caught in slips, perhaps,” O’Toole nodded, with a serious demeanour.

“Come on, we can get over this easy,” Clough said. “What we need is a bit of teamwork. I’ll give a leg up, provided you haven’t trod in dog shit, and if you, Peter, are up there first you can pull us all up after you.”

O’Toole flatly refused Clough’s linked hands. He’d need no assistance with this mini-cliff of jagged limestone blocks. O’Toole was a seasoned urban mountaineer, having scaled a multitude of drainpipes and window ledges in his time. He grabbed firm hold of a sharp projection and heaved himself upwards, scrabbling with slip-on shoes and nicotine-stained fingertips. With his last ounce of energy, O’Toole was able to place his chin and knee on the flat summit and inch his body up until he was laid horizontally, breathing deeply. Scanning the immediate vicinity, he noticed strands of rusty barbed wire hanging helplessly around him.

Clough followed, huffing and blowing, but determined to reach the summit of the wall with as little fuss as possible. His smiling face appeared in front of O’Toole’s: “Eh, give us a kiss!” he said.

Boycott, with heavy kit bag linked over a shoulder, complained with each movement of his hands and feet: “Get a shift on, mister,” he ordered himself. “Don’t you show me up, you lethargic bugger!” he continued. A slip almost sent the veteran sportsman hurtling down the wall, but Clough’s hand grabbed Boycott’s wrist. “Good catch, that man!” Boycott commended, regaining his footing. “Have you ever considered a career in crickeeet?”

Healy took up the rear, lightweight rucksack neatly spread across his back, showing a Spider-Man like ability as he scaled the craggy surface, feeling for crevices to gain purchase until at last he saw three faces staring back at him out of the darkness. “Did you miss me, bonny lads?”

“If we’re breaking into Slade Prison,” Clough spoke, holding a lifeless string of barbed wire in his hand, “I’ll manage the football team.”

“I’ll be your groundsman,” Boycott added peering into the black fog. “But to play a match you need to see goalposts from ’alfway line – so there’ll be no games played this evenin’, Bri.”

“I wouldn’t mind breaking in to a prison tonight, I can tell ya,” Healy smirked. “Anywhere with a roof, eh? I’m sure ‘Genial’ Grouty will be able to procure us a bottle of something strong for a reasonable price.”

“Mr Barrowclough!” Clough called into the darkness through cupped palms. “Get some glasses ready! We’re coming in!”

Go to Chapter 13: Hangingbrow Hall.