Offering a holiday lifeline to the children of Chernobyl

Many of us will remember that fateful day in April 1986 when the world held its breath as an unprecedented disaster unfolded before our eyes on TV news bulletins.

An explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine released large quantities of radioactive contamination into the atmosphere over much of what was the western Soviet Union and parts of Europe.

The blackened and shattered site remains to this day one of the iconic images of the 1980s – a chilling reminder of risk posed by the use of nuclear power.

The battle to contain the radiation ultimately involved an estimated half a million workers and between 1986 and 2000 more than 350,000 people had to be moved out of the most contaminated areas of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus and resettled in new homes.

Just 31 deaths were directly attributed to the outbreak – all of whom were people who either worked at the reactor or for emergency crews.

However, various studies have conservatively estimated that tens of thousands of additional cases of cancer and subsequent deaths have been caused by exposure to radioactive material.

In 1995 John and Julie Gater, of Light Oaks, were watching a television documentary on the after-effects of the disaster and were so moved by the story of one little boy – Igor – that they decided to become involved with a charity which provides hope and respite to the children of Chernobyl.

John, aged 50, said: “Igor was born with severe deformities as a result of the radiation but he had a personality which was 10 miles wide.

“It was that which inspired us to ultimately become involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Project (UK).

“They said they’d love to have us but that there wasn’t a group in our area and that we’d have to go away and find 10 friends who would be prepared to help us. We didn’t want to be put off by that and so we went away, and – because we are Christian – we prayed and decided to set up our own group based at St. Luke’s Church in Endon.”

Seventeen years later and the group is still going strong – having arranged trips to the UK for more than 470 children and young people and a handful of parents from contaminated areas of the former Soviet Union.

During that time more than three dozen have stayed with the Gaters in their own home.

John and Julie’s branch of the charity covers the Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire Moorlands area and they have a network of families willing to take in children and young people and help with looking after them during month-long visits to the UK which include trips to beauty spots and fun days out to places including the Alton Towers resort.

John, a garage proprietor, explained that doctors in Belarus say that four weeks of clean air, fresh food and a happy holiday improves the children’s health for at least two years and gives them a better chance of either recovering from or avoiding serious illness.

He added: “Julie and I have four children and, at the time we became involved with the charity, our youngest was only three.

“It has been a big commitment in terms of time and effort but neither Julie nor I regret a single moment of it.”

Anyone wishing to contact the charity to offer help can log on to: http://www.chernobyl-children.org.uk or contact John and Julie by ringing 01782 535000.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

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Alton Towers: A magnet for thrill-seekers which helped put us on the map

Believe it or not, there are some people who don’t know our city as the Potteries and don’t even know which county it is in.

Instead they refer to Stoke-on-Trent as ‘that place near Alton Towers’.

Yes, the gargantuan theme park set in the rolling Staffordshire Moorlands countryside really is what puts us on the map for many visitors.

Last year the Alton Towers resort attracted more than 2.6 million visitors – making it the most visited theme park in the UK by some margin.

This wasn’t always the case, however. In fact, thirty odd years ago there was little to indicate that the semi-derelict former seat of the Earls of Shrewsbury was to become a magnet for tourists and thrill-seekers.

During the Sixties and Seventies the grounds to Alton Towers were reopened to the public.

There was a boating lake, a small fairground and visitors were allowed to look round the empty house into which concrete floors had been placed.

Then millionaire property developer John Broome bought out the majority stake in the Towers and it was he who laid the foundations for today’s internationally-renowned attraction.

Broome installed various permanent rides and began to develop the grounds of the estate.

But 1980 was the year when Alton Towers really announced its arrival with the installation of the Pirate Ship and Alpine Bobsleigh along with a ride that was to become a household name.

The Corkscrew was officially unveiled on April 4 that year and was the first rollercoaster yours truly experienced.

Back then there were relatively few steel rollercoasters and the Corkscrew was unique in that flipped you upside down twice (a double inversion in rollercoaster-speak).

The ride did wonders for Alton Towers’s profile in Britain and those who tried it, like myself, wore the experience like a badge of honour.

During the Corkscrew’s first year of operation the waiting times for the ride frequently reached five or six hours – forcing the park to close early.

For many years the Corkscrew was the iconic rollercoaster in this country – used for the opening title sequence of ITV’s The Chart Show (1989-1991) and even the cover image of a single by dance outfit The Prodigy.

The Log Flume, which was to be enjoyed by the likes of Diana, Princess of Wales and her then young sons William and Harry, was unveiled in 1982 and two years later the park’s second rollercoaster, The Black Hole, became operational.

The Eighties was the decade when Alton Towers cemented its reputation as the number one theme park in the UK as more rides such as the Congo River Rapids (1986), attractions and areas were added.

These included Towers Street which is the first area visitors encounter and includes the famous ‘jumping frog’ fountains, a lawned area where seasonal events take place and refreshment and merchandise shops.

The renowned monorail system which transports visitors from far-away car parks to the main entrance and ticket booths was launched in 1987 by non-other than Star Trek’s Captain Kirk – alias actor William Shatner.

Also unveiled that year was the Skyride cable car attraction which transports visitors between different areas of the park.

Since the 1980s Alton Towers has continued to evolve and innovate – adding new ride experiences such as Nemesis, Air, Th13teen and Rita: Queen of Speed to draw in the crowds.

The park also boasts no less than two hotels – one of which has a themed, tropical water park where even our inclement weather can’t spoil the fun.

Of course, Alton Towers hasn’t been entirely free of controversy in the last three decades.

Given the fact that the park can receive up to 28,000 visitors each day, there were bound to be odd technical hitches, fires and accidents.

There has also been a long-running battle with a few local residents who bought their homes prior to the park’s incredible expansion and object to the noise and traffic it generates.

However, there is no doubting the importance of Alton Towers to the region’s economy and the fact that it really does put our city – and the wider North Staffordshire conurbation – on the map.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

You know you’re a Potteries child of the Eighties when…

The end of my first year of 80s nostalgia columns has prompted me to consider what it means to be a child of the Eighties.

I guess there are some general criteria, such as understanding the profound meaning of the phrase ‘Wax on/ Wax off’, knowing the words to the original McDonald’s advert off-by-heart and remembering when Betamax was the cutting edge of technology.

Alternatively, there’s being at school at the same time as Tucker and ‘Gripper’ Stebson, knowing what YUPPIE stands for and still owning a few cassette tapes.

Of course, these could apply to any children in the UK who grew up in the decade of decadence.

However, if – like me – you were raised in North Staffordshire during those years, here’s my somewhat localised list which defines you as a child of the Eighties:

*You were annually enrolled on the Staffordshire Police Activities and Community Enterprise (SPACE) scheme which kept you out of mischief during the summer holidays

*Your were dragged to the 1986 Garden Festival several times in all weathers because your family had bought a season ticket and the thought of the Twyfords ‘cascade’ still makes you laugh

*You remember the brown and cream Sammy Turner’s buses but more often caught buses run by PMT (Potteries Motor Traction) and thought nothing of the connotations of the acronym

*You can’t remember what was on the site of the Potteries Shopping Centre before it opened its doors in 1988

*You viewed it a badge of honour to have survived a ride on The Corkscrew at Alton Towers

*You either went to Rhyl or Blackpool for your holidays during Potters’ Fortnight and ate cold toast on the journey

*You remember the city centre having two cinemas on the same street – The Odeon (now The Regent Theatre) vying for business with the cheap and cheerful ABC down the road

*You considered Fantasy World and Lotus Records the coolest places in Hanley and knew Bratt & Dyke as that posh shop your mum took you to when the sales were on or you needed a winter coat

*You bought a 10 pence mix from ‘The Outdoor’, including Black Jacks and Fruits Salads, and remember some of the sweets costing a tiny half a pence

*Your drank Alpine pop in a variety of radioactive colours delivered by the milkman

*You remember when our Spitfire was displayed in a big greenhouse outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and the best thing inside the building was THAT skeleton

*You recall Stoke City changing their manager more often than their socks and poor relations Port Vale earning a reputation as FA Cup giant killers

*You viewed Eric ‘Crafty Cockney’ Bristow and Ray Reardon as local celebrities – even though neither of them were actually from the Potteries

*You were amazed when a newsagent from Cobridge won an Olympic gold medal in Seoul – mainly because you thought hockey was for girls

*You partied at The Place, attempted break-dancing at Regimes, fell in love with Indie music at Ritzy’s nightclub and should have known better than to have been seen dead in Chicos

*You remember people having jobs at Shelton Bar, Royal Doulton and ‘down the pits’ and being told during a careers fair at your school that a job at ‘The Mich’ was a job for life’

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

Why we all loved being blasted off into SPACE

June 20, 1983, was blast off for a new initiative aimed at preventing crime by providing activities for young people during the summer holidays.
The Staffordshire Police Activity and Community Enterprise or SPACE scheme was launched in Stafford on the same day that the Space Shuttle ‘Enterprise’ flew over the town, piggy-backing on a jumbo jet.
It proved to be a good omen because the programme went on to run for 17 years and kept generations of children like yours truly out of mischief during July and August.
Aimed at 10 to 16-year-olds, the SPACE scheme was at the peak of its powers in the late Eighties and it became the Rolls-Royce model for similar programmes across the world.
In 1988, for example, more than 25,000 children participated in 33 different projects under its umbrella.
That year it cost £320,000 to operate the scheme – and that didn’t include the salaries of the many police officers involved.
Each youngster paid a £1 registration fee (if their family could afford it) which earned them to a SPACE identity card entitling him or her to cheap bus travel across the county.
As well as serving police officers, literally thousands of members of the public volunteered to help co-ordinate what was a huge logistical exercise.
The highlight of the SPACE scheme was carnival day when around 20,000 children and carers visited the Stafford County Showground.
As well as the usual police dogs, Army vehicles and funfair rides, in 1989 carnival attractions included The Falcons parachute display team, the Royal Signals motorcycle display team and even the Red Arrows.
Activity courses were also staged at the Police’s Cadet Camp at Consall, near Leek, for children who were unlikely to be going away on holiday.
SPACE scheme Day trips included Alton Towers, Granada TV Studios, Chatterley Whitfield Mining Museum, Drayton Manor Park and Zoo and – my personal favourite – Rhyl Sun Centre.
Football teams representing the SPACE scheme also took part in the force’s annual five-a-side football competition.
But many people remember the SPACE scheme because your I.D. card also got you free entry into the cinema to watch movies which were a couple of years old.
I have a vivid memory of being in the rowdy audience of mainly boys to watch Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the former Odeon Cinema in Piccadilly (now The Regent Theatre).
In those glorious pre-Health & Safety days, the SPACE scheme also allowed us to try our hands at activities such as trampolining, canoeing, archery and shooting or clamber all over an RAF Sea King helicopter. (The engine was off at the time).
The SPACE scheme ended in 1999 due to funding and staffing cuts within the force.
It may be gone, but it’s certainly not forgotten as there is even a Facebook page calling for it to be reinstated.
Sadly, unlike the Wispa chocolate bar and Monster Munch, I think the SPACE scheme won’t be landing in the Potteries again anytime soon. More’s the pity.

Potteries won’t restore out fortunes

The contrast couldn’t be more stark. The front page of Saturday’s Sentinel informed us that Burslem’s great white elephant – Ceramica – had finally closed its doors.
Yesterday’s paper then ran with the story that Alton Towers was unveiling a new, multi-million pound white-knuckle ride to pack in even more visitors after a record-breaking year.
Our weekend edition told the sorry tale of an ill-conceived venture, badly executed which had cost an awful lot of public money and never attracted anywhere near as many visitors as was hoped it would.
Monday’s paper revealed plans by a renowned, privately-run business to raise the bar even higher in order to maintain its reputation as the premiere attraction of its kind in the UK.
I appreciate that mentioning Ceramica and Alton Towers in the same breath is akin to comparing crab apples with green D’Anjou pears.
However, the raison d’être of both is to attract tourists.
You see, despite the fact that most of us knew it was doomed from the start, a lot of nonsense has since been talked about Ceramica.
A few people have bemoaned the loss of its hands-on exhibits, pointed out that schools and the disabled used the venue, and asked where people will go now to find out more about the history of the Potteries.
Pardon me, but don’t we have a perfectly good museum in Hanley with a world-class collection of ceramics?
If anyone wants to look at some old crocks or find out a bit more about the grim days of smokey Stoke then they just have to take a trip to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery or Gladstone Pottery Museum.
The simple truth is that pottery isn’t that exciting – particularly to younger generations.
Imagine the kitchen table conversation in your average home…
“Right kids, it’s a sunny day so we’re off out. We can either go to Alton Towers and have a go on the rides, go to see the animals at Chester Zoo or make a pot at Ceramica. What do you fancy?”
This is what I mean when I describe Ceramica as ill-conceived.
Whoever believed that such an attraction would bring 100,000 plus visitors a year into Burslem must have been having a laugh.
Just 98of the 7,400 visitors in 2009/10 paid the full £4.10 adult admission charge. I rest my case.
Ceramica may have had the best, most committed staff and trustees of any tourist attraction in the UK but if the core product is dull then they were fighting a losing battle from day one.
The closure of this dreadful carbuncle is a wake-up call – not just for Burslem, but for the city as a whole.
We should be rightly proud of our unique industrial heritage but must stop putting too much faith in its power to resurrect our fortunes.
When people travel any distance or shell out their hard-earned cash to visit tourist attractions they want to be wowed, entertained or taken away from the hum-drum of daily life – which is why Alton Towers is such a magical and enormously-successful venue.
People can find cups, saucers, pots and plates on the draining board at home without paying for the privilege.
Whatever new purpose the city council comes up with for the Mother Town’s magnificent, Grade II-listed Town Hall I just hope and pray that is different enough and innovative enough to ensure the old girl is regularly packed out – rather than barely-used as it has been since 2003.
We need to think long and hard about not just the kind of attractions we think will breathe new life into towns like Burslem but also how we can re-brand Stoke-on-Trent to outsiders.
Is the ‘Potteries’ tag a help or a hindrance these days – because we all know that there are precious few people still working in the industry on which our six towns was built.
Alton Towers continues to be successful because it is constantly re-inventing itself while remaining true to its core values.
It strikes me that Stoke-on-Trent could learn an awful lot from this hugely-successful, money-making machine on our doorstep.

The Eighties is the decade most of us remember fondly

The original Now That's What I Call Music album.

The original Now That’s What I Call Music album.

Sunday, December 25, 1983. Christmas Day. That’s when I officially fell in love with the Eighties.

I sat in my bedroom marvelling at my brand new copy of the original Now That’s What I Call Music album, my shiny new record player and the sturdy black singles box containing my first 45s.

I’ve still got that album and all the seven inches – Status Quo’s Margeurita Time, Paul Young’s Wherever I Lay My Hat, and Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl, among others.

That day I played them from the moment we’d finished the turkey until I was ordered to bed.

Suddenly, at the age of 11, I realised music wasn’t the sole preserve of my parents.

Apparently, there was more to life than Elvis and Roy Orbison – despite years of brainwashing by my mum.

Money saved from my Sentinel paper round was soon being spent on singles and albums.

I walked up to Hanley on Saturdays and bought everything from Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran to Bruce Springsteen and the mighty Bon Jovi.

Through music I discovered that girls weren’t just things to make you flush red if they looked at you in class or, heaven forbid, spoke to you at break time.

I took umbrage with Michael J Fox because a certain girl in the top class at Holden Lane High called him ‘dreamy’ after watching Back To The Future.

I was mesmerised when Kim Wilde or Belinda Carlisle came on the telly – and fell hopelessly in love with Susannah Hoffs from The Bangles.

I am delighted to say that while the Eighties may be the ‘decade that taste forgot’ it is also the decade that has stubbornly refused to go away.

Of course, it helps that my generation of 30 and 40-somethings are now in control of so many TV remotes and perhaps have the most disposable income.

But it is a fact that, for some time now, there has been a genuine appetite for 1980s nostalgia.
An internet campaign brought the Wispa chocolate bar back from the dead.

Monster Munch crisps have been relaunched.

Hit 80s TV shows like Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard have, sadly, been turned into big-budget movies.

What’s more, you can’t move for Eighties bands and singers hitting the road again to relive past glories.

People like Rick Astley, Bananarama, Midge Ure and, er… Kim Wilde (blush), who all performed at Alton Towers’ 30th birthday party at the weekend.

We lap it up because of music’s wonderful talent for forcing us to don rose-tinted Ray-Bans and reminding us of a special time in our lives.

When my sister-in-law celebrated her 40th birthday earlier this year it has to be said that the highlight of her raucous party weekend was the 1980s music.

I danced – I use that term loosely – until 3am and, as I lay in bed that night it occurred to me that I couldn’t see children of the Nineties or Noughties yearning for their formative years with quite the same enthusiasm.

For some, the Eighties was a grim decade of industrial unrest, high unemployment, terrible hair and worse clothing.

But, to me, as a child growing up in the Potteries, it is a decade that will always be golden – a time of great certainties, household names and sunny optimism.

In the Eighties, our milk man delivered bottles of pop in a variety of radioactive colours and the ‘outdoor’ at the top of our road sold Black Jacks and Fruit Salad sweets for half a pence.

Royal Doulton and Wedgwood seemed like immortal employers and a job on ‘the Mich’ (Michelin) was a job for life.

It was a time when Hanley still had family businesses like Bratt and Dyke where I could spend hours just mooching around.

It was the decade when the Boothen End proper at the Old Victoria still roared its defiance and when a certain bloke with a flat cap took over the reins at Vale Park – promising nothing and delivering the best era in my football club’s history.

It was a time when this newspaper still produced the much-anticipated Football Final on Saturdays.

It was also the decade of the Garden Festival that transformed 180 acres of derelict land in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent into the thriving retail and business park we all now take for granted.

Yes, the Eighties may well be ‘the decade that taste forgot’.

It’s also the decade that I, and I suspect many others, are most happy remembering.

We must be more proud of our stunningly-rich heritage

Until this week I thought I was reasonably well versed in the history of the Potteries.

Then I met the Reverend Robert Mountford, founder of City Vision Ministries in Burslem and a passionate local historian.

He’s a bit like TV favourite Simon Schama… having taken the drug ‘speed’.

In 25 minutes Robert raced through his presentation on the history of what we now call ‘the Potteries’ from the time of the Celts to 2009.

The truth is, he could have talked for hours. And hours. Such is the fascinating story of how North Staffordshire became the unique, diverse and ultimately flawed conurbation it is today.

Simple things stood out for me. For example – do you know where the name Stoke-on-Trent originates and what it means?

I have to confess, I didn’t.

Well, the first centre of Christian preaching and worship in the area (as early as the 7th Century AD) was situated in the valley at the place where the infant River Trent met the even smaller Fowlea Brook.

Stoke Minster now stands on this site. The name given to this ancient place of meeting and worship was ‘Stoke-upon-Trent’.

The name ‘Trent’ was originally Celtic and meant ‘the trespasser’ or ‘the flooding river’. ‘Stoke’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘stoc’, which meant in the first instance ‘a place’, but carried the usual, secondary meanings of ‘a religious place, a holy place, a church’, and ‘a dependent settlement’.

Thus the name Stoke-on-Trent could actually be translated as ‘the holy place upon the flooding river’.

I don’t know about you, but I quite like the sound of that. And the fact that the city’s roots can be traced back more than 1,400 years.

Of course, North Staffordshire’s history goes back much further than that.

Chesterton was a Roman fortress which archaeologists estimate was probably occupied from the late 1st to early 2nd Century AD.

Which means we have almost 2,000 years of history to talk about.

So why don’t we? Why are we so poor at trumpeting our rich past?

Is it because we are so often told that we shouldn’t keep harping on about the past?

Is it because critics blame our current social and economic difficulties on our inability to embrace change?

‘Why call yourselves the Potteries’, they say, ‘when there is so little of that industry left to be proud of’?

We may be resistant to change, but – conversely – there is certainly also something in the DNA of the average potter which makes him or her reluctant to crow about the area’s history and achievements.

Why? We should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Why isn’t every local school teaching Roman history through the eyes of the legionnaries based at Chesterton during the Flavian period?

Why aren’t all our children taught about the monks of Hulton Abbey?

Why isn’t the most important period in North Staffordshire’s history a bigger part of the curriculum in local schools? Aren’t Josiah Wedgwood, his mate James Brindley and the roots of the Methodist Church (which have direct links to trade unionism in this country) worth talking up?

What about the stories of the tens of thousands of local people who lived and died around the pits and pots on which the city built its worldwide reputation?

What about Burslem’s Second World War Victoria Cross winner Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, and Butt Lane’s Reginald Mitchell whose Spitfire turned the tide of the Battle of Britain?

Shouldn’t they be lauded in our classrooms? I think so.

I had a truly brilliant history teacher at Holden Lane High, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. (That’s you, Geoff Ball).

Thus, this isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession. It’s more a plea for us, as a city, to strike the right balance between history and progress.

I suspect more tourists would visit us if we simply made more of our heritage.

“Come to see our factory shops”, we should say. “But don’t miss out on our interactive history trail.

“Learn about the Celts and Romans who lived here, sample the ruins of our Cistercian monastery, walk in the footsteps of the great pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, visit the birthplaces of the captain of the Titanic, an Arnhem hero, and the man whose aircraft defied the Luftwaffe.

“Oh, and don’t forget to pop in for a drink at Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s pub, drive past Robbie Williams’s old house and have your picture taken alongside Sir Stan’s statue. Have a nice trip!”

Welcome to North Staffordshire. (Not just that place on the way to Alton Towers).

Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday