My first recollection of going to a county cricket match was a trip to the Nevill Ground in Tunbridge Wells on Saturday 15th June 1963 when I was ten. Although the cricket I witnessed was characteristically utilitarian for that era, the game evolved, in the words of Wisden, into one “without parallel in the history of first class cricket”. On Monday morning (there was no play on a Sunday then), the Middlesex first innings of 121 for 3, in reply to Kent’s paltry 150 all out, was declared closed by the umpires because nine members of the visiting team, allowed home for the weekend rather than staying in a local hotel as they had done the night before, were delayed in a massive traffic jam, and did not reach the ground in time for the start of play. There is little else to commend the game, however, as rain on the final day condemned it to a draw.
In those days my father and I travelled to the traditional festival weeks at “the Wells”, Maidstone, Gravesend and Canterbury on the special double decker buses laid on by the Maidstone and District Motor Services Ltd. With virtually no one day cricket – the Gillette Cup competition was in its first year and only test matches were televised – championship games represented the only opportunity a young boy had of seeing his cricketing heroes, in my case the Kent captain, Colin Cowdrey, play live.
The bus journey was uncomfortable, a combination of sitting upstairs, poor suspension and unforgiving road surfaces. Nonetheless, it was exciting, not least because of the animated, sometimes, coarse, banter engaged in by the adult male company, speculating on how many runs Cowdrey might score today or, equally pertinently, how much weight he had put on since they last saw him, a fact belied by his graceful batting and nimble slip fielding (the manner in which he pocketed a catch and then looked behind him to see if the ball had reached the boundary always deceived and delighted this marvelling supplicant).
Sadly, he made just 8 runs on this fateful day, caught and bowled by medium pace bowler Ron Hooker. And ten days later his season was over when his left arm, just above the wrist, was broken by a delivery from the fearsome fast bowler, Wes Hall, on the final afternoon of the second test match against the West Indies at Lord’s. However, with England needing six runs to win with two balls left, he returned to the wicket with his arm in plaster. Fortunately, he did not need to face a ball and the game was saved.
In his autobiography he stated that he “felt confident that even if I had to face a couple of overs I could keep the ball out of my wicket one-handed”. Now, that’s a true hero!
Already a cricket fanatic and no mean schoolboy player either, I was forever hooked on the three, now four, day format of the game. Equally captivating was the arena itself, set in a shallow, tree-lined bowl, with rich splashes of pink and mauve rhodedendron bushes in full bloom. At the lower end of the ground a group of marquees curving gently from the ladies’ stand to the Cumberland Walk entrance. The large, decorated tents were home for the week to dignitaries such as the Mayor of Tunbridge Wells, the Band of Brothers and the Men of Kent and Kentish Men. Their elaborate lunches stretched long into the afternoon session of play, providing a raucous if refined aural backdrop to the almost incidental action on the field.
Furthest from the pavilion were smaller tents populated, amongst others, by the less privileged, but no less respectable, denizens of the Association of Kent Cricket Clubs (my father and I often sat here) and the Civil Service Sports Council, where beer and sandwiches were more likely to be the luncheon of choice, but where attention was firmly directed on the cricket.
The open seating area opposite was shared by the middle and lower orders, the former in their own deckchairs, parked, along with picnic tables and baskets, behind the boundary ropes where the family dog snoozed contentedly, dreaming of its next walk during the lunch or tea interval, but intermittently jolted from its slumbers by the polite applause that greeted a well struck boundary or the fall of a wicket.
The “free seats” were where you were most likely to find those hardy souls who had endured the bumpy bus rides from around the county. Dressed in jacket, collar and tie (this was “Royal” Tunbridge Wells after all and the “sixties” had still not quite announced themselves), they dined on pork pies and cheese and pickle sandwiches wedged into tupperware containers, whilst drinking tea from flasks prepared by their wives earlier that morning. As a special treat, they might visit the public beer tent to fortify themsleves for delivering fruity retorts to the gentry laughing and clinking their wine glasses across the other side of the wicket.
It is hard to argue in one sense with Philip Larkin’s assertion that “life was never better than in nineteen sixty-three…..between the end of the Chatterley ban and the Beatles first LP”. It may have been an eventful year, with the Profumo scandal, the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the explosion of the British pop scene, but it was cricket, county cricket, Kent County Cricket Club and the Nevill Ground in particular that stirred the soul of at least one ten year old boy that day.
The ground had, and still has, a timeless quality. If you didn’t look too closely, the photographs I have taken in the past two years that accompany this article, could almost have been taken back in 1963, were it not for the fact that there are now new stands either side of the pavilion, spectators, other than those in the grander marquees, are more casually attired and the rhodedendrons are now less abundant and colourful (or has lady nostalgia seduced me too well on this sensitive subject?). The absence of houses from any vantage point completes the idyll.
There were many more such “outgrounds” on the county circuit fifty years ago, including those at Blackheath, Dartford, Dover, Folkestone, Gillingham, Gravesend and Maidstone, but none were, or remain, lovelier, or more eagerly anticipated, than the Nevill. But then, as a Man of Kent, born a few hundred years from the east bank of the River Medway, I’ll freely admit to being biased.
The ground had hosted county cricket since 1901 and held its inagural cricket week a year later. Like its venerable counterpart at the club’s headquarters in Canterbury, the town embraced the event with a series of social gatherings, music and plays throughout the week. Anyone arriving in the town would be greeted by bunting and flags flapping gently above the main streets of the old High Street and the elegant Pantiles.
The cricket week remained a highlight of my summers (though I could only attend on the Saturday due to the annoying necessity of attending school on the other five days of play), until I left home for university in the rough, upstart cricketing county of Essex in 1972. I saw little county cricket during the rest of the decade, preferring to play, mainly in the serious, competitive world of the Yorkshire club game.
The love affair with the Nevill was resumed in the early eighties when my wife and I took the festival week off work each year and stayed in one of the town’s hotels (the Royal Wells, Russell and Beacon all had the dubious pleasure of our patronage). Kent victories were rare during those years in seamer friendly conditions, and my most vivid – and sad – memory is of Bob Woolmer being carried from the field against Sussex, never to play again. I had been less often in recent years, though since I escaped the clinging clutches of the home civil service a little over two years ago, I have returned to more frequent hours of worship.
The nearly sixty year old man still experiences the same thrill entering the ground as the ten year old boy. And any visit would not be complete without performing certain rituals beforehand. Whether arriving by car or train the first stops are the secondhand bookshops of Hall’s and the Pantiles, both of which, as befitting the rich Kentish heritage, maintain excellent stocks of cricket books. A hearty breakfast is a prerequisite for a day at the cricket and there are several good options in the old High Street, Chapel Place and the Pantiles. Finally, there is only one way in which to approach the Nevill, and that is by taking the ten minute amble up delightful Cumberland Walk, an alleyway that separates townhouses on the left from the more spacious properties and expansive gardens of Warwick Park.
Much as I want my county side to do well, watching well contested cricket in pretty surroundings under a cloudless June sky, has always been more important than seeing Kent win. It does not invest me with the same measure of partisanship that following my local football club has done. And that is no more the case than at Tunbridge Wells, where the setting and serenity are paramount – though it was gratifying to be present on the final day of the championship game against Leicestershire this year to witness their first home victory of the season!
The traditional week has assumed a different shape in recent years, with the ground now hosting a single championship game and two one day matches. Relatively large crowds have placed pressure on the county club to commit to playing at the Nevill even when facilities at Canterbury are being upgraded and the T20 programme is to be curtailed next year.
Many in the membership, including myself, would welcome more, rather than less, county cricket at Tunbridge Wells but, financial considerations aside, would it retain its lustre later in the season when those famed rhodedendrons have long faded? I know my answer.