Huntingdon Gymnastics Club – Interview With Head Coach Paul Hall

In my home county of Cambridgeshire is one of the UK’s most successful gymnastics clubs. From its humble beginnings in 1976 when founder Terry Sharpington coached a few gymnasts in a local school, Huntingdon Gymnastics Club has expanded massively over the years to become the highly successful enterprise it is now, training hundreds of people of all ages and producing winners of four Olympic, five World, six Commonwealth and over twenty European medals.

Being a keen writer, I recently came up with a new angle for my blog, and the more I considered it, the more I liked it. Thanks to the ever-increasing success of British gymnastics, the sport is developing a healthy following both locally and nationally, and since the lead character in my debut novel Dory’s Avengers is a gymnast, I have a keen interest in it too. Approaching the staff at Huntingdon Gymnastics Club, I offered my services and suggested I post a blog for them, perhaps leading to a regular feature about the gymnasts, coaches, events.

To my delight, I received an enthusiastic response, which was what led to me travelling to Huntingdon on a sunny Tuesday afternoon to meet with head coach, Paul Hall.

Taking me on a brief tour, Paul pointed out the original buildings and the parts that have been added on since the club moved to its current location in 1982. As we walked around, I was struck by how cheerful everyone seemed, from the group of toddlers leaping about in the newest section to the steady stream of office staff and coaches flitting past as I bombarded Paul with questions. The whole vibe of the club is warm and friendly – it drew me in and made me want to get involved, and so I would if I were younger and more agile. However, being about as flexible as the average plank of wood, I think it’s probably safer if I stick to what I know and participate in the world of gymnastics by sharing my interview with Paul instead.


Huntingdon Gymnastics Club head coach, Paul Hall

Alison: Good afternoon, Paul. Thank you for agreeing to answer a few questions for me today. I’m interested to know what got you into gymnastics in the first place.

Paul: Like most kids of my day, I loved climbing trees and getting up to mischief, going on all sorts of adventures, and I liked jumping around. There was a local gymnastics club that my mum took me to as I’d worn out all the springs on her bed and sofas, so I started off as a gymnast there. I immediately fell in love with the sport, couldn’t get enough of it, was doing gymnastics in the lunchtime club, the after school club, and then in the evening club as well.

Alison: Was that here in Huntingdon?

Paul: No, that was in Castle Point in southeast Essex. We were in a little school hall, and that’s where I started – humble beginnings. I wasn’t a particularly good gymnast as I had very stiff shoulders, I wasn’t very flexible, but I loved being thrown around.

Alison: That must help! So tell me about your coaching career. When did you start coaching?

Paul: I was a gymnast up until I was about 18 years old, and then the coach who was working with me decided to retire and the club was going to close down. Rather grudgingly I decided to take on a basic coaching course just so that we could keep the club going and I could assist with running it. So I started a little reluctantly, but I gradually got more and more interested as I realised it was just as much fun teaching people to do things as it was doing them myself. I worked as a volunteer, part time as well as doing a regular job, until I was about 25 years old when I got a full time coaching job in Kings Lynn, Norfolk. That was my first proper gymnastics job, and I worked there for a couple of years before moving to Huntingdon. I’ve been at Huntingdon for the best part of 23 years.

Alison: What was it that encouraged you to get involved at Huntingdon?

Paul: Well, I knew the guy who was here before me, Terry Sharpington, a very charismatic man. I knew him on the regional circuit, I’d been to squads and he’d coached me as a boy, and I was inspired by him. He would often invite me to come and work for him, saying he’d give me a job one day. And so I left Kings Lynn and turned up on his doorstep all those years ago, saying, ‘I want to start working here [Huntingdon].’

Terry didn’t immediately have the money for me so I spent the first 3 or 4 months living in his house and working free of charge in the gym, just getting my board and lodgings. But I liked Terry, I liked the club. At the time it was one of the top clubs in the country – it still is – and had produced some high level girl gymnasts, but hadn’t really had too much of an impact on the boys’ side, so I was there to try and grow the boys’ circuit.

Alison: What do you look for in a young gymnast?

Paul: I like to think we take all shapes and sizes here. If you’re talking about elite, high-level gymnasts they have to conform to certain physical parameters such as being slightly shorter or slightly smaller than average, but overall they’ve got to be tenacious, hard-working, disciplined. They’ve got to be brave above anything else, so I look for people who like challenges, who like to try scary things, and who are quite flexible and naturally strong. But the club caters for people who aren’t like that as well, which is one of the great things about gymnastics. We provide a service for gymnasts with a disability, young children, older children, adults up to 60+ years old, and as I said, all shapes and sizes.

Alison: What would be your advice to anyone wanting to take up the sport?

Paul: I think it’s a super foundation sport. It’s one of the best sports that anybody, certainly any child, can start off with, and it can be a springboard into other sports. Gymnastics teaches the basic locomotor skills that people use for football, basketball, rugby and general life, so I’m a great advocate of the sport.

Alison: What is (are) your most memorable or proudest moment(s)?

Paul: Ah, what a question that is! Most people will think about the Olympics and the successes we’ve had there, and they were proud moments, but it’s quite funny that the moments which stay with me more than any are the ones people don’t realise. I remember a guy in his twenties from a special needs group that I was working with. I’d spent the best part of a year trying to get him to walk from one end of the balance beam to the other, and after a year he did it and jumped off, and the smile on his face…I’ll probably remember that for ever.


I think it might have been one of the proudest moments I’ve ever had in the gym. That sense of achievement was as good as Louis [Smith] winning an Olympic medal.

Alison: I can imagine! Now I’d like to hear about a typical day at the club. How many training sessions do you take? Are you involved directly with the gymnasts or more with coordinating the other coaches?

Paul: There’s no typical day at the club really. Every day’s different. Now I am more of a coordinator, I try to act as a head coach, giving advice to the staff, and we hold coaching clinics once a week to give them some ideas to make the sessions more interesting and fun. I’m often solving problems in terms of making sure that we cover sessions adequately, making sure that we head to competitions and all the necessary administration that’s involved with the sport, but yes, I still retain a lot of hands-on work. Normally I’ll arrive about lunchtime and there’ll be some of our elite gymnasts in the gym to have a session in a quieter environment between twelve and three o’clock. Then there’ll be an hour’s administration before the main part of the day when the kids finish school and come to the gym. Our gym is then busy right through until nine, nine-thirty in the evening while we work with a whole group of people – up to sixty gymnasts an hour for five hours.

Alison: Sounds pretty intense.

[Short silence while the inept interviewer loses her place in the questions.]

Alison (finally): How often are Huntingdon gymnasts involved in competitions?

Paul: Again it varies between the girls and the boys, but I’d say once they get onto the competition treadmill and start to compete at 10+ years old, they might have four or five competitions a year.


Medals! Medals! Medals!

We try to make it two seasons, although it doesn’t quite work like that, but normally there’s a busy period between September and November where they go to regional or national competitions, then there’s a break when they’ll prepare new elements over Christmas, January and February. The next period’s normally March and April with another round of competitions, and through the summer we’ll prepare again ready for the autumn season.

Alison: How do you help the gymnasts prepare?

Paul: Well it’s mainly learning new elements. It involves making them stronger, so we push them hard on conditioning and flexibility, and we test them once a month to make sure that they’re going in the right direction. There are certain compulsory exercises that each age group has to do, and our job is to keep up with that. As they get older, the elements get more difficult, more complex, and it’s hard to maintain that level of training. Some gymnasts might take a detour into another area of our club; they might go into freestyle or acro or display work, while others continue on the competitive pathway right up to national level and beyond. We do have some international adult gymnasts who you’ve probably heard about.

Alison: I certainly have, yes. Continuing the competition theme, do you host competitions here at Huntingdon, or is it purely training?

Paul: We do occasionally, but it’s not the best venue for spectators. There is a balcony upstairs, but it’s not ideal for competitions as we can’t get too many seats in. We’ve had county competitions and displays here, with parents craning their necks to see over the top of each other and watch their children. But while it’s not the perfect competition venue, it’s a very good training venue.

We normally go to Ipswich for the regional competitions, then all around the country and around the continent for the other competitions.

Alison: Do you travel with the gymnasts?

Paul: Mostly they’ll travel with their parents and we’ll drive there ourselves. Certainly when I was working internationally, I had many years of travelling every month to various countries for competitions, so I’m very well-travelled.

Alison: That must be pretty exciting.

Paul: It is, yes, very.

Alison: And finally, what are the club’s plans for the future?

Paul: We’ve had a frenetic two years of expansion since we built the new hall and there’s been a period of consolidation to get more staff in to cope with the vast numbers of members. We have 1,500+ members and a waiting list of some 500. We’re getting to a position now where we can stabilise the staffing and cope with the numbers, and then we have to think long term about expanding still further to cope with the demand and build up our elite programme. We want to continue to challenge at the very highest level of the sport on both the women’s and the men’s side, and hopefully produce more Olympic medals.


The bronze medal-winning men’s gymnastics team, London 2012 Olympic Games, including Huntingdon gymnast Louis Smith

Alison: An ambition I’m sure all Team GB fans will applaud! Well, that’s wound up my questions. Thank you very much for talking to me today, Paul.

I left Huntingdon Gymnastics Club with a spring in my step. Despite my interest in gymnastics having grown hugely since I first wrote Dory’s Avengers, I’d never had any contact with people who are actually involved in the sport before, and I’m not sure what I expected. What I found was a bunch of people, coaches and gymnasts alike, who are inclusive, enthusiastic, and best of all rejoice in each other’s achievements, recognising that however small those achievements may seem to others, they are huge to the person who’s worked so hard to succeed.

At Huntingdon, everyone who enjoys the sport is welcome.

To find out more about Huntingdon Gymnastics Club, please visit their website. You can also follow the club on Twitter and Facebook.

All photographs supplied by and used with kind permission of either Huntingdon Gymnastics Club or Paul Hall.



Great Big Trumpety Triumphant Fanfare, Please: Dory’s Avengers, Re-released TODAY

Yes, today’s the day I’ve been waiting for, the culmination of a year’s hard tweaking – my lovely sleek new version of Dory’s Avengers is available to buy on Amazon Kindle.

Please click on the appropriate link below to find out more.

UK link     USA link     Australia link     Canada link


A tale of loyalty and betrayal, kindness and cruelty, mystery and discovery, oppression and freedom, Dory’s Avengers is modern take on a good old-fashioned adventure with a great soundtrack, a healthy portion of sport and a huge dollop of humour, all leading to…

Stop right there! No spoilers.

To celebrate this momentous day, I have been out dog walking and chatting with my good friend and fellow author Georgia Rose, creator of the wonderful Grayson Trilogy among other works, and she’s been kind enough to share our chat on her blog. Would you like to have a read? Then head on over … here.

Thank you for joining me today to celebrate my book re-launch. I hope you enjoy reading Dory’s Avengers as much as I enjoyed writing it. And for those of you who have been asking, yes, I am writing novel number two (which goes under the super-exciting working title of New Book at the moment – it does exactly what it says on the tin, I suppose). Finally!

Happy weekend 🙂

My Author Interview

I have given my first author interview. Throughout the process of publishing DORY’S AVENGERS I’ve had a persistent niggly voice in the back of my mind telling me that I’m not really an author. I’m only pretending. Finding a publisher, editing, proof reading, approving the wonderful cover art, promoting, guest blogging, networking, organising the book launch; yes, I’ve done all these book publishing essentials, but none has managed to silence the niggly voice.

‘But, look!’ I tell the niggly voice. ‘That’s my photograph on the cover of Dory’s Avengers. I am the author!’

‘Well now you’re being silly,’ replies the niggly voice. Smugly.

As I said at the start of this post I have given my first author interview, and to my amazement the niggly voice is silent.

‘Niggly Voice, look! An author interview, featuring me.’


Could it be that my subconscious finally believes that I am an author? About time!

My niggly voice silencing author interview can be read on Jera’s Jamboree.

Author Interview – Janet Hopton

My apologies for not posting an author interview last week. It was a bit of a hectic week for me one way or another, but I’m back on the case now and would like to extend a very warm welcome to Janet Hopton. Janet’s fast paced thriller ‘Strange Days’ was published towards the end of 2012, and I’m delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with her and bombard her with questions.


Purchase Strange Days on Amazon

UK link         US link


Alison – Hello Janet, welcome to my blog and thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. Let’s start with your debut novel Strange Days. In your own words, please tell us more about the book and its launch.

JanetStrange Days is Crime/Thriller Fiction.  It is my debut novel and it tells the story of a young barmaid whose life is changed for ever when she gets herself involved, after witnessing a car accident.

Since the launch of Strange Days on the 29th of November 2012, I have done two book signings, one at Waterstone’s in Derby and another at Waterstone’s in Burton-on-Trent.  Both signings went very well resulting in 45 books been sold altogether.  Unfortunately, since then I have had a fall resulting in some injuries, which has meant that I haven’t been unable to do anymore promotion but I hope to get back on track very soon.  I intend to arrange more signings and talks at Women’s Institutes and Townswomen’s Guilds.

Alison – I’m sorry to hear about your accident, and hope you are on the mend now. I’m sure you’re looking forward to getting back to the business of promoting Strange Days. What inspired you to become an author in the first place?

Janet – Since being a teenager I have had it on my mind that I would like to write but for some reason never got started, other than writing a few poems.  It wasn’t until I was married and with teenagers of my own, did I decide to have a go.  It has always been in the back of my mind that I wanted to achieve something, to be recognised in someway, to leave something behind after I am gone.  Maybe that is my driving force!

Alison – I can’t think of anything better than books to leave behind for generations to come! Looking to authors from the past, do you feel that anyone in particular has influenced your writing?

Janet – I don’t think my writing has been influenced by any other authors.  I think it is entirely me, or am I being naive thinking that?  You ask which authors I like.  To be honest, I think I like the books rather than the authors.  A good book makes a good author and you have to be a good author to write a good book and there are many who fit that category.  I particularly like the classics, such as Dickens, The Brontes, Jane Austen but any good book will do!

Alison – I’m a big fan of Dickens myself, I love his turn of phrase. Was there anything in particular that gave you inspiration for Strange Days itself?

Janet – My inspiration for Strange Days was when I worked behind the bar in our local pub.  It came from observing the clientele and getting intrigued by them and wondering what their lives must be like.

Alison – People watching is something I guess all authors must do. Our characters would be a little boring otherwise! Going back to the subject of books in general, what are you reading at the moment, and what is your opinion?

Janet – The book that I am reading at the moment is Small Island by Andrea Levy.  I am enjoying reading it.  I thought at first that she was taking too long to get to the plot and going into too much detail about the characters in it but as I have read further I have found that she has brought the characters to life for me in a very interesting way.  I am only two thirds through it at the moment, therefore cannot give my full opinion on it.

Alison – I recently read a highly entertaining blog in which an author describes the rituals she has to perform before she begins writing for the day. A second author commented that she has to be wearing certain jewellery when she writes. Do you have any idiosyncrasies when you’re writing?

Janet – None in particular, other than that I like to be alone in the house when I write and nobody can see it until I am happy that it is finished.

Alison – I can relate to that. My poor partner gets snarled at if he so much as glances at my unedited work! As I’ve mentioned I’m reading a lot of excellent blogs by fellow authors, and one thing that intrigues me is the different writing styles each one has. Do you like to plan your work, or do you just see where the story takes you?

Janet – I didn’t plan Strange Days.  I had an idea and worked on it.  I let my imagination run away with me as I typed.

Alison – That’s very much how I write too. Once I get to know my characters the story becomes theirs and I just follow along to write it all down. I remember hearing an author speaking on a radio show, saying his characters told him when they considered it the right time to finish their story. Do you find your characters talk to you?

Janet – I haven’t noticed my characters talking to me, if they did I would worry that I was Schizophrenic, but I will say that I do become my main characters as I write.

Alison – That’s very interesting. My characters chat away to me all the time, but I’ve never felt that I was one of them. It just goes to show we all have our own unique ways of writing. It must be very exciting, and quite daunting, once your book is published and you know people are reading it, especially when those people start to write reviews. Has Strange Days received any reviews, and were you happy with them?

Janet –  I have had some favourable reviews, the ones on Amazon giving Strange Days 4* status and some on my Facebook Site – Fans of Strange Days, all very favourable.

Alison – Do you feel you have learnt anything throughout the publishing of Strange Days?

Janet – I think I learnt a lot from my publishing experience.  The way the process is done from the editing, through the proof reading and artwork stages.  I looked at self publishing at first but felt out of my depth, so I went through an independent publisher, Book Guild.  I was glad that I did, as when it came to promoting my book at Waterstones, I was told that they wouldn’t have been interested in it, if I had self-published.  I am not sure whether that is always the case!

On reflection I think I might have benefited from a more local publisher, the only reason I say this is that Book Guild Publishing is in Brighton and I am in Derby.  There were occasions that I thought maybe they would have attended promotional events if they had been closer and that I could perhaps have attended promotional events that they are involved with.

Alison – I think bookshops are becoming very wary of promoting unknown authors now, with all the competition from e-books making it harder and harder for them to survive. I’m convinced Waterstones would never have agreed to hosting my book launch had I not had the support of an established publishing firm. Aside from book signings, have you joined any book clubs or writers groups while promoting Strange Days?

Janet – I am not involved with any book clubs, but having said that I recently joined Vixen Fiction, a small group of ladies who like to write and meet at our local library once a month.  We have a trip to D H Lawrence’s House and Museum in Nottinghamshire coming up soon.

Alison – I’ve found networking with authors, editors and book lovers very useful as I approach the publication date of my novel. At the very least we can bounce ideas off one another, and I’ve made some useful contacts for when the time comes to get reviews rolling in. I’ve mentioned editing here; would any writing other than fiction, such as editing or script writing, appeal to you?

Janet – I would be interested in other writing ideas, such has writing plays but I am not sure how good I would be at it.  As for writing reviews, I don’t think that I am eloquent enough to do a good job, especially when there is so much at stake.  Editing is very specialist, I think one must need a degree in English Grammar to be able to do it.

Alison – I’m not so sure about that. Obviously, an editor needs a high standard of grammar and a good command of the language in general, as well as an eye for storylines and characterisation, but I think one can learn all that from being a voracious reader. You’re right about script writing, which I think is very different to writing a novel. As for reviewing, I think you do yourself a disservice! Anyone who can write a book deemed worthy of publication is eloquent enough to write a review. Revisiting the subject of editing again, do you think authors need to get their work professionally edited and proof read, or is it something they can do themselves?

Janet – I do think that professional editing and proof reading is essential for the publishing process for most of us.  I hope that someone edits and proof-reads this before it goes out!

Alison – Just me I’m afraid, although I may be able to persuade one of the lovely people at Book Guild to cast their expert eyes over it too! It’s no disrespect to an author’s talent, but I don’t believe anyone can successfully edit and proof read their own novel, and it’s a shame that some authors think a DIY job is a good way to save some money. Apart from employing the professionals to edit and proof read, is there any other advice you would give to a budding author?

Janet – My advice to any budding authors out there is to give it a go, what can you lose?  You will never know, unless you try!

Alison – I’ve recently received the first copies of my debut novel, which I found immensely exciting. What a great feeling it was to hold my book in my hands for the first time. How did you feel when the initial copies of Strange Days arrived?

Janet – I felt a bit overwhelmed when my book arrived all done and dusted.  In fact I made my husband open the box and look at it first.  My first reaction when I got my hands on it was ‘WOW’, it was a lovely book and nicely presented.  My only gripe was that I thought it would be thicker.  The strangest feeling was seeing it being advertised in Waterstones for my signing.  I then expected to see it everywhere, on bookshop shelves, in libraries, I guess that only happens, every blue moon!  Not giving up hope though!

When in London I called into The British Library and asked for it, only to be told I was too early as it takes more than six months to get there.  Must try again!

Alison – Are you planning a sequel to Strange Days?

Janet – I haven’t planned a sequel to Strange Days but it isn’t out of the question, especially as friends tell me that they need to know what happens next to some of my characters.

I do have another novel nearly finished and hope that my publisher will like it.

Alison – I shall keep my eyes open for that. Would you ever consider ghost writing a novel for a celebrity ‘author’?

Janet – Ghost Writing for a celebrity author – I think that if I was younger that would be a great idea.  I am not sure what the celebrity author would think of me doing it though.

Alison – Have you ever thought about Strange Days being made into a film or television drama? If so, would you like to appear in it?

 Janet – Some have said that Strange Days would make a good television drama, as for me starring in it; I think that would be best left to the actors.  Maybe an extra on set would be good!

Alison – Just a couple of general questions to round off the interview. What are your top five books, if you can narrow it down to five?

Janet – My five top books are:

  • Papillon – Henri Charierre
  • Gone with the Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  • Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
  • The Blind Miller (I like a good cry) – Catherine Cookson
  • The Secret Garden (Childhood Inspiration) – Frances Hodgson Burnett

Oh yes, I did like Puckoon (I also like a good laugh) – Spike Milligan

Alison – I loved The Secret Garden as a child too, I must have read it dozens of times. I do love my Kindle for its convenience, but I don’t think it will ever replace the pleasure of opening a brand new book and smelling the print before I delve into the story. Do you think there is a future for physical books, or will the e-book eventually take over completely?

Janet – I do hope that the future is okay for real, touchable, smellable books, however I think that there is a place for e-books to.  Perhaps everyone who purchases an e-book should buy a real book to make amends.  I can’t see readers loaning out their e-books, can you?

Alison – No, I can’t see that happening either; but, on the plus side for us authors, it means everyone will buy their own copy for their e-reader and we make more sales. Kerr-ching! Thank you very much Janet for taking part in this interview. It has been a real pleasure to chat and hear your news and views.

Janet – Thank you Alison, I think this is a great idea!

To find out more about Janet and her work, please visit her facebook page Fans of Strange Days or follow her on Twitter  



The Joy of Recognition

It’s been said many times, but it bears repeating: I love writing. I have always loved writing. At school, the days on which my English teacher said, ‘Homework tonight is to write a story!’ were the days I loved best. Homework? Writing’s not work, it’s pure pleasure! Even as my classmates were moaning and groaning at the assignment, I’d already be working on storylines in my head, eager to get started.

Nothing’s changed a few decades on. My passion for writing hasn’t dimmed in the slightest; in fact, the more I write the more I want to write. Often after writing all day I will continue to write into the evening, with my partner imploring me to stop working and relax.

‘It’s all right,’ I reply. ‘I’m not working, I’m writing.’

In addition to fiction I write blog posts, reviews, interviews, and bit by bit people are starting to read my work. Nothing compares to the thrill of discovering that my website has gained another subscriber, or my blog has a thumbs up. Logging on to my computer is a joy at the moment; the delicious anticipation, followed by the excitement at discovering my latest post has received a new comment. I’m not naive enough to think the comments will always be favourable, and I’m already bracing myself for the first bad review my novel receives when it’s published next month. The thought that someone will one day pick holes in my baby scares me rigid, but I realise reviews are the lifeblood of new authors so I’ll be brave and take the bad along with the good. After all, a constructive criticism can be easily turned into a lesson learnt.

To date, though, I have had nothing but positive feedback for my blog posts, reviews, interviews. Whenever a stranger takes the time to read my writing and leave a comment it gives my sometimes fragile confidence such a massive boost. Every retweet on Twitter, every like on Facebook, every follower of my blog is another reason to keep writing, and every single recognition is important to me.

Thank you all. Happy Friday!