Having embarked on an 870-mile rail journey, PETER BARRON has a chance encounter up a Swiss mountain with the inspirational founder of a badminton club for youngsters in Darlington

IT’S a small world…You try to get away from it all by travelling nearly 1,000 miles, then venturing more than 600 feet up a mountain, only to bump into a local hero from back home.

My wife, Heather, and I were at the start of a long-awaited railway holiday to Switzerland – twice cancelled due to Covid-19 – and we’d taken our latest train ride up the magnificent Schynige Platte.

After building up an appetite with a walk through a magnificent Alpine garden, we followed the path to a cafe and, being in Switzerland, we, naturally, went inside for coffee and apple strudel.

Who should be coming the other way but Philip Boyle – inspirational team manager of the Hummersknott Badminton Club, in Darlington.

“What are you doing here?” I blurted out, having written about Philip’s latest endeavours just a month earlier.

“I was about to ask you the same question!” he laughed.

Philip has moved mountains for young people during the 48 years he’s run the badminton club, a passion which began as a lunchtime activity during his days as a science teacher at Hummersknott Academy.

He was awarded the MBE for services to education in 2011 but remains notoriously humble about his efforts. If he can possibly get away with it, he does his best to shun the spotlight, insisting “it’s all about the kids”.

It is, therefore, safe to say that the last thing he was anticipating, amid the peace and tranquility of his Swiss Alps holiday with wife, Bridget, was an encounter with that bloke from his local paper.

Nevertheless, the chance meeting provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with Philip about the mission I’d helped him publicise at the start of June.

Thanks to him, young members of Hummersknott Badminton Club have visited 42 countries over the years – gaining priceless life experience along the way.

And, a week on Friday, another group will set off on the latest expedition, this time to Cyprus and Greece.

Among them will be four young badminton players – Nastya Ruban, 13, Masha Ilinska, 14, Ivan Spynu, 16, and Illia Iliashenko, 16 – who have fled, with their mothers, from war-torn Ukraine.

As soon as the Russian invasion happened, Philip’s thoughts turned to how he could use the sport of badminton to help integrate refugee families who’d sought refuge in this country.

The result is that the Ukrainian youngsters have become adopted members of the Darlington club.

As part of efforts to make them feel welcome, a weekend trip to London – combining sight-seeing and games of badminton – has already taken place.

And they will also be part of the 33-strong party that heads to Cyprus and Greece.

The aim of last month’s article was to appeal for donations to help cover the costs of travel and accommodation for the Ukrainians. Around £8,000 had already been raised for the local youngsters, but another £1,500 was needed to enable the four Ukrainian players, as well as Nastya’s mother, Anya, to go.

I’m pleased to report – thanks to my mountain-top update from Philip – that the total is now more than £10,000. 

As well as playing a series of matches, the Hummersknott contingent will also be guests at the UK Embassy in Athens.

Even during his holiday, Philip spends time at his computer, finalising the details for the trip. “It’s just the way he is – he can’t stop,” confirms Bridget, with a knowing smile.

And, despite topping his appeal target, Philip is typically still aiming higher. The plans for the trip are constantly evolving, and the costs rising, so the appeal remains open.

“It’s something these youngsters will remember for the rest of their lives, so we want to do whatever we can to give them the best time possible,” says Philip.

He may be self-effacing, but the truth is that Philip Boyle is a kind and admirable man, who deserves all the credit in the world for what he’s done, in his own time, over nigh on half a century.

Hundreds of feet up a mountain, and nearly 1,000 miles from home, it was a pleasure to cross his path.

CONTINUING along the path of education and supporting young people, I’m thrilled that my latest children’s book – launched this week – will help raise money for a great cause.

Zizu Loses His Stripes is a book aimed at early-years children, with a message about the power of friendship. The rhyming story is about a little zebra who loses his stripes and turns to his jungle chums for help.

The book was commissioned by Teesside businessman Maaz Rahman and his partner Nicci Knight, who run Zizu’s Day Care and Learning Centre, in Middlesbrough.

The Northern Echo:

The couple have launched a new charity – Zizu’s Foundation – and proceeds from the book will go towards funding nursery places for local children who may otherwise not get the opportunity.

This Saturday, I’ll be giving a reading of the book at Cockerton Library, between 10am and 11am. Then, the book’s illustrator, Jonathan Raiseborough, and I will be signing copies in Waterstones, in The Cornmill Centre, Darlington, between 12 and 2pm.

TV presenter Pam Royle, who has provided the voices of Zizu and his friends for the audio version of the book, will be in Waterstones to give readings between 1pm and 2pm. After that, Jonathan and I will be popping across to Guru, in Blackwellgate, to sign more copies between 2pm and 4pm.Oh, and there will also be guest appearances by Zizu Zebra himself!

I hope to see you there.