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Fascinating tales of Rob’s journey through middle England as a shoeshiner. Shining the shoes of bikers, lawyers, drop-outs and the Royal Calvary!

Being Down, Looking Up

Having been reliably informed that it was the top real ale pub in the town, my first visit was to the Green Man. I found that the customers there divided cleanly into two groups: those that had been there for the football match and had watched England get knocked out by Portugal, and those that couldn’t care a toss about football and were simply out for a Saturday night booze up. The former were sad and drunk, the latter were happy and tipsy – but they were all kindly disposed to an itinerant shoe shiner. One group of sad drunks could not be bothered to have their shoes shined but sponsored me to shine my own sandals – and this I did. They tired of the joke after a while, but they paid the £2.50 and I walked away with shiny sandals.

A much livelier group was led by Derek, a man with the arms of sailor, blue with tattoos, receding hair, and a toothless grin. Aged somewhere around fifty he was wearing the most splendid pair of cowboy boots I had ever seen. Fashioned from a mixture of leather and crocodile skin, they were highly decorated and he was rightly proud of them. It took me an age to clean and polish the vast surface area presented by all those indentations and embellishments but he maintained a constant and amusing patter whilst I did so. As I neared the end of this prodigious task, I made my usual announcement:

“And now, the secret ingredient that allows me to attain the perfect shine … my wife’s tights.”

Derek seized the tights from me and appeared to study them for some time, a frown of concentration creasing his usually smiling face, then he pronounced:

“Yes, thought I recognised them.”

Good man Derek, paid me five pounds for my efforts – double the normal fee!

And so back into the central whirl of Stamford. The night was young yet drunkenness was rife. I presented myself at the door of the Crown – a hostelry recommended by locals at the Green Man. My entry was barred by a bouncer – not a good start - I always assume that pubs which need bouncers certainly do not need me. This one was the quintessential bouncer – there is a bouncer look – solidly built, oozing the confidence of superior physical strength, wearing a long black coat, white shirt and dark tie, he was bald and sported a minimalist beard.

“Can I help you sir?” he asked in a manner which exuded surface politeness but with an undertone that suggested helping out rather than helping in.

I explained my shoe shining mission without much enthusiasm and he listened with less. He then swept his walkie-talkie phone to his ear like a cowboy drawing a gun, turned away and began a clipped conversation with someone, the manager or head bouncer or whatever. I could hear very little – “some geezer,” “shoe shine,” “box,” “backpack”.

He turned towards me, focussed his eyes on the building opposite and said, “No,” so definitely that I knew there was no chance of an appeal. I left thinking that this was my first refusal by radio.

I soon found another pub, there are plenty in Stamford. This one was a tired looking place that had seen it’s finest hour earlier that day and was now recovering. There were not many customers left. Somehow I got into conversation through a window that opened into the street. Try as I might I cannot remember whether the people that I talked to were inside or out, or whether I was inside or out. Either way it was an odd circumstance. We talked about the music festival that was taking place near the river. Though it was getting rather late, I thought I might take a look at it. However, they had been and were not too impressed: the beer was warm and the music not to their liking. Most people now seemed to be drifting away from the event into the centre of the town, they told me. My new friends turned out to be motorcyclists. They said that they were staying at a campsite near to Stamford and were very interested in exactly where I was camping. I told them the truth:

“Somewhere cheap and secluded.”

They were intrigued but I would not be drawn – wild campers must be discreet.


108,000 words

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See TV Coverage of the start of Rob’s journey