Monday, 7 May 2012

The Headless Umpire

Pre-Dr Beeching’s cuts, nets adorned the tables of moving trains; nets spanned our once vast rail network: the lob, loop, block, and smash were a common if somewhat blurred sight for commuters as The Ping Pong Special (as it was affectionately known) sped through stations like, Cowden, Heaver, and Eridge. In those days you could always be sure of a table in the table tennis coach. Some say these early train-travel tennis tournaments inspired the astronauts to hit a golf-ball the moon (on the Apollo 14 moon landing in 1971). No, pre-Beeching, Rail Tennis was a serious passer-of-the –temps on trains - trains with coaches specially designed for the contests (unlike nowadays where, due to the dominance of airline seats, it’s virtually impossible to get a seat with a table). However the game wasn’t without its critics; a few diehard traditionalists (Beeching among them no doubt) considered train-travel tennis as nothing more than training for tennis.
But table tennis “on the move” required much more dexterity than it’s earth-bound brother, as valuable points – sets, even - were often won or lost as the train rattled over a set of points. And then there was the question of where to seat the umpire. Because the ceiling of the coach being too low for the umpire’s elevated seat, holes were cut in the roof. But the through draft this created caused havoc with flight of the ball. This, coupled with the problem of low bridges (The Headless Umpire – lovely pub sign - still serves decent pint if you like your beer without much of a head), led to the invention of the Mobile Umpire’s Chair. This strange contraption ran on the train track parallel to that of the tournament train, thus enabling the umpire to track the play through the window of the coach. The umpire would communicate his rulings through a hosepipe, connecting his chair to a loudspeaker in the players’ coach.
Those were the days. Gone is the “Ping Pong Coach” (nowadays it’s designated as the “quiet coach”), although Tennis Coaches are still working for an hourly rate on the tennis courts in our city parks and leisure centres. But sadly there are very few example of the Mobile Umpire’s Chair left. Post-Beeching most were converted into wheelchairs (in anticipation of the Paralympics? Pure 'Pataphysics). But occasionally you can still spot one of their vital appendages - their portable yellow ramps – leaning up against the wall on station concourses. These were once used to transport the umpire across the tracks - into the players’ coach - for the presentation of the “Winner’s Trophy”.   

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