AN EYE on the Winter Olympics, familiarly making bricks without straw – a skill denied even the Children of Israel – the column two weeks ago recalled the life and extraordinary times of toboggan king Keith Schellenberg.
The problem was that he himself hadn’t been available.
We now discover why. Luge cannon, he had been winter disporting in Switzerland and downhill, it must be assumed, all the way.
Already the recipient of two new hips, he will be 81 next week. “My knees are still quite good,” he insists.
One small concession to hurtling years, they stayed not in St Moritz – “the fleshpots,” says Jilly, his wife – but in a small village nearby.
“I don’t think he’s very keen on St Moritz any more,”
adds Jilly. “It’s full of Russians wearing dead animals.”
He is a charmer, an adventurer, a character and an incorrigible, life-long, four seasons risk taker. Twice in the 1960s he contested the Richmond parliamentary seat for the Liberals – it should have been the Rainbow Party, the guy is so gloriously colourful – both times soundly walloped by Tim Kitson, the Conservative.
“Tim’s an old chum, a lovely chap,” says Keith. “He says I only did it to annoy him.”
He captained Yorkshire at rugby, represented Great Britain in both 1956 and 1964 Winter Olympics, was a successful motor racer and international car rally participant and an accomplished power boat racer, too.
In his youth, it’s recalled, he’d play rugby for Middlesbrough on Saturday afternoon, head for Braemar thereafter, spend Sunday skiing and be back at his family firm desk first thing Monday morning.
Might he have played rugby for England, had he not so greatly and universally diversified? “I think that Yorkshire was quite big enough,” says Keith. “It doesn’t strike me that I’d do anything very differently at all. It’s all been rather fun”
ends He was born in Middlesbrough, lived in Sandsend and in Scotland, famously became laird of the Hebriddean island of Eigg and created what may best be described as mixed feelings and ultimately lost his Rolls Royce to arsonists.
The phrase about Eigg and baskets comes to mind – something quite similar, anyway – though who was what and to whom may forever be debated on those wild Atlantic shoes.
“Either you were a Keithophile or a Keithophobe,” says Jilly, his South Africa-born fourth wife. “He did divide opinion.”
The West Highland Free Press was emphatically the latter, a framed cartoon showing islanders joyfully waving him farewell as he headed back to Yorkshire.
“They won’t admit it, but they miss him no end.
They’ve no one to write about,” says Jilly.
The Guardian wasn’t overimpressed either, comparing poor Keith to Toad of Toad Hall – the weasels and stoats chasing him from the island – after the paper came out on top of an expensive libel action.
“What happened on Eigg really hurt him,” says Jilly.
“He spent a lot of money, really only wanted the best. I do wish he hadn’t taken on the Guardian, though.”
Keith says simply that it was time to head back for England. “I’d done forty years on the north-west frontier, trying to tame the Scots.”
They moved back to Richmond in 2001, paid £900,000 for the 16th century house and adjoining gardens formerly occupied by Lady Serena James – who’d died at 99 – and still graze Highland cattle on the pasture beyond.
Each Tuesday he meets rugby contemporaries –“We have a glass” – at Darlington Rugby Club.
“The garden was in a very sad state and just needed someone to rescue it,” says Jilly. “Keith’s always been a rescuer.”
They are warmly welcoming, wholly hospitable.
The house is eccentric, says Jilly, which may at once be suggested by the two African figures – eunuchs, says the master – either side of the fireplace in the hall. One’s wearing a straw hat and carrying a rugby ball.
Toad Hall it may be – “He quite likes the Mr Toad comparison, it means he can wear his plus fours,” says Jilly – but it’s also singularly, spectacularly Schellenberg.
The rooms are lined with all manner of paintings, photographs and memorabilia, a garrulous gallery – a captivating cornucopia, a treasure house – of a life lived richly, oftrecklessly and at high speed.
“What we need is more walls,” says Jilly. “If you think this is quite something, you should see his bedroom.”
There are pictures of rallying in the Sahara and from London to Sydney, , skiing in the Alps, powerboating off Cowes, approaching Devil’s Elbow – “Great caution” says the road sign – while laughing over his shoulder at the camera.
Two of his beloved daughters are compiling a very splendid book of his exploits, a sort of in-house This is Your Life. The foreword addresses him as Mr Toad, too. Family are allowed.
The tour continues. The photographs of the Cresta Ball at the Savoy and of the Schellenberg-owned Shipyard Club at Whitby, the motor racing pictures from Brooklands to the sand flats at Saltburn, the memories of two Olympics.
“It wasn’t like now, all the millions that are thrown at it.
“We might get a week off to train, then two weeks at the Olympics and then straight back to work again.”
Then out the back to the garage where, joyously, rest three magnificent vintage Bentleys and a motor cycle and sidecar that may be yet older. One of them bears on the bonnet the slogan that smoking is a deadly disease – “I used to get tired of seeing all the cigarette advertising,”
says Keith – and on the other side is the maxim “Conserve resources, build cars to last.”
Cars last when they’re Keith Schellenberg’s.
In another garage there’s a horse drawn fire engine, once belonging to a tarmac company in Runcorn, or somewhere. “I’ve had some of these for ever,” he says, affectionately.
After a long and lovely morning, unequivocally filed Keithophile, he offers a glass and drives me back to the bus.
It’s only a Mondeo but he sits low behind the wheel as if awaiting a green flag at Goodwood.
Downhill as ever, the glorious Mr Schellenberg may have a few good miles in him yet.
Winds of change at Lawyers
CLEARLY it is to be something of a wild weather column. Up next to ice-age Tow Law where the football club now has its own wind turbine – “one of those drunken clubhouse ideas that actually came to fruition,” says club secretary Steve Moralee.
The turbine became operational on Thursday. “It should have been Wednesday, but sod’s law said there wasn’t a breath of wind in Tow Law,” says Steve.
“The lads who installed it said it could withstand gales of up to 130mph, so we may only need to turn it off a couple of weeks a year.”
The 15m turbine, a breathof- fresh-air example of playing the hand you’re dealt, will not only provide the club’s energy needs – no more electricity bills – but generate profit by selling the surplus back to the National Grid.
The £27,755 project cost has been met almost entirely from grants from Durham County Council, the Big Lottery Fund and the Low Carbon Buildings Programme.
It should have been wholly funded. “I cocked my maths up and was £20 short. I had to put it in myself,” says Steve.
The club got planning permission only after a bat survey, carried out free by Gary Tudor from Ramshaw, revealed that whatever fly-by-nights may inhabit Tow Law, none has wings.
The turbine was installed by Sid Milton Alternative Energy Contractors from Frosterley, in Weardale. Wind of change, Steve now hopes to persuade other clubs to undertake similar projects.
He’s also exploring the eco-friendly possibility of solar panels in the stand roof. “You don’t need sunshine, just daylight. We do have daylight, even in Tow Law.”
THEN there’s the incomparable Sharon Gayter (right), who having last year run the world’s hottest ultra-race – at Badwater Valley, USA – is now back, victorious, from her coldest.
“The snow was even worse than Guisborough,” she reports.
This was the so-called Trans-Siberian Winter Edition, a four-day event which, despite carrying a calf injury, she won in 19 hours 19 minutes.
“The weather was extreme even by Slovenian standards, much colder than expected and I hate the cold,” says Sharon, though one or twice the thermometer crept up to minus six. Then it would fall away to minus 12.
Throughout it she wore a face mask – the type used for climbing Everest, apparently to combat the Khumbu Cough – though in her case it was to fight the asthma. “I’d never have finished without it,” she says.
Runners were also required to carry a mobile phone, a slight problem in that she and the redoubtable Bill, who drives a lorry, only have one between them. “Unfortunately he forgot to tell his work mates, who continued to ring or send dirty jokes,” she says.
Back home with a T-shirt, a certificate and a small plastic trophy, she learned of her inclusion in the four-member Great Britain women’s team for the World 24-hour championship in France on May 13-14.
After that, onward and upward, it’s the world’s highest race – ascending from 12,000 to 18,000 feet. That’s not until July.
The snow might have melted by then.
Farewell to born-again Pilgrim
MICHAEL Foot was the biggest Plymouth fan since Sir Francis Drake. We’d interviewed him in May 1996, a couple of days before Argyle’s play-off final with Darlington, diplomatically offered the hope that the better team win.
“To hell with that, the winner will be Argyle,” said Foot, then just 82. They won, of course. However true a Socialist, in football terms he was decidedly the green party.
The former Labour leader still rose at six, still walked his dog Dizzy – named after Benjamin Dosraeli – on Hampstead Common, still came in to work in his little broom cupboard of a fourth floor office at The Tribune.
“His hair is familiarly obstreperous,” we wrote, “his clothing best described as casual. Behind the plywood door hangs something which the once-fashionable may call a blouson, but certainly isn’t a donkey jacket.”
Many things aroused his emotions, few more greatly than Plymouth Argyle.
There’d been a directors’ box incident at West Brom, had there not, during Argyle’s run to the 1984 FA Cup semifinal?
“West Brom are rather a class club you know. I suppose we got rather excited, caused a slight noise, made a few gestures….”
Gestures? “Well, they frowned upon it. I didn’t know that Midland people could be so snobbish.”
He tried to compose his hair for the photograph, admitted to four wishes before, as he put it, he conked out. At least two – Labour control of Plymouth council and a Welsh rugby grand slam – came about.
The third, to see a “decent”
Labour government, may have been a matter of opinion.
The fourth was to see Plymouth in the Premiership. “In five years we’ll be at the top, and not that twopence ha’penny first division, either.”
It didn’t quite happen, of course, but two – perhaps three – out of four wasn’t bad. Certainly it could have been worse. He could have been MP for Darlington.
THE footballer who on February 26 1983 became the first to make 1,000 League appearances (Backtrack, March 2) was the great Pat Jennings.
Malcolm Dunstone in Darlington, first up with the answer, remembers meeting him once during his one season at Watford. “His hands were massive,”
It’s tempting today simply to invite the identity of the coldest Northern League ground but since that’s slightly subjective, readers are invited to name the Football League side that for more than 80 years raised temperatures down Cold Blow Lane.
The freeze permitting permitting, a report from Norton and Stockton Ancients’ FA Vase quarter-final on Tuesday.