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Posts Tagged ‘Colin Cowdrey’


That may not strictly be true.

But it’s how it should work out.

The majority of my summer holidays between the ages of ten and eighteen (when I became too cool to hang on to my parents’ swimsuit tails) were spent in the once fashionable seaside resort of Folkestone in Kent, a seagull’s glide along the coast from the fabled White Cliffs of Dover.

Although there was only one small, inevitably packed, patch of sandy beach along its largely pebble and shingle seafront, the magnificent Rotunda amusement arcade, fringed by fairground rides, putting green,  boating lake and swimming pool, kept a young boy and his cousins handsomely entertained for two weeks every August.

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Just occasionally, the vacation coincided with cricket at the Cheriton Ground where the county team hosted opponents from what appeared then to be exotic, distant places named Derbyshire and Northamptonshire.  My parents would install me in the stand around 10am and go off to do whatever it was they did while, equipped with sandwiches, suncream and scorebook, I drooled over the godlike exploits of Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood. The sun always seemed to shine and Kent always seemed to win, though I’m not convinced that the history books would corroborate either assertion.

But I don’t care – I was in Heaven.

In the absence of cricket I could be found staggering around the bracing pitch and putt golf course on the windswept cliffs overlooking the small but bustling harbour, where saucers of fresh cockles and whelks were in abundant supply. If the cliff top links seemed too challenging, a round of crazy golf could be had on The Stade, the narrow strip of land between harbour and sandy beach. The family that ran our bed and breakfast, who went by what, to a ten year old in 1963 (and probably one in 2016 too), was the hysterically funny name of Clutterbuck, owned the shop at the beach end.

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Finally, there was a daily ferry service to Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France, where I spent my first day abroad. Unfortunately, my recollections of a youthful life on the ocean wave have more to do with leaning over the side of the boat than tucking into a full English breakfast in the café. It was a few more years, therefore, before I could indulge in what became lifelong passions for Brie and Roquefort cheese and French wine.

Folkestone may not have enjoyed the cheeky, “kiss me quick” ambience of Margate or Southend, but I loved its quieter, more refined atmosphere. My parents even spoke on occasion of retiring to the resort but, sadly, it never happened – and with my father’s recent death, never will. I’m comforted, however, by the thought that the last break they shared together was in their favourite location.

And now my wife and I have, or will soon have, means, motive and opportunity to live that dream ourselves. We have been frequent visitors to Folkestone and the neighbouring Kentish seaside towns of Margate, Ramsgate, Broadstairs, Deal and Whitstable in recent years, and enjoy each one for its particular attractions and atmosphere.

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When it became apparent that my father’s life might be approaching its end, I asked her which resort she would like to make her home should circumstances one day permit. To my surprise and delight she replied, without hesitation, “Folkestone”.

So now we have the small task of selling two homes in Medway and buying a property on the coast. It is a slightly daunting, but undeniably, exciting prospect. It might be fanciful to think that, by mid to late summer, we will be opening our curtains and shouting “bonjour” to our French neighbours across the English channel every morning.

But it won’t be for want of trying – even foreign holidays this year might need to take a back seat.

So, apart from the obvious charms that childhood still weaves, what is it that lures us to Folkestone?

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After all, the past forty years have seen the town, in common with many other resorts around the British coastline, decline dramatically as a holiday destination as people took advantage of greater leisure time and resources to travel further afield. The rotunda and surrounding attractions were demolished, the lively, cobbled Old High Street that winds up to the modern town centre fell into disrepair and many of the businesses dependent upon holidaymakers closed.

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Gone were many of the shops selling postcards, beach balls and buckets and spades. Gone were the traditional tea rooms and fish and chip restaurants. And gone was the shop with the big picture window at the top of the Old High Street through which children and adults alike gaped in awe at sticks of Folkestone rock being made.

But, with extensive investment, there have been signs in recent years that Folkestone is beginning to stir again. The Old High Street has undergone a makeover. One of a kind gift shops, artisanal food stores and galleries, and attractive restaurants have emerged, along with a burgeoning artistic community.

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There may no longer be any cross-channel services, and the former harbour railway station may, for now, remains overgrown with weeds, but the town’s accessibility from London and the rest of the county has been enhanced by the arrival of a high speed rail service. And, of course, it is home to the Channel Tunnel and the swiftest escape to the continent.

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The East Cliff beach has been re-branded Sunny Sands and is as rammed with humanity as ever on a warm day. There are few better places to play beach cricket when the tide is out.

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And, last summer, the Harbour Arm, after years of abandonment, re-opened for several weekends with music, food and drink decorating its bracing promenade, providing “new” thrilling vistas back across the harbour. Currently closed for the winter, it is scheduled to resurface full time in May 2016.

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Our permanent residence could not have been better timed.

The jewel in Folkestone’s crown remains the Leas, once described as “indisputably the finest marine promenade in the world”, a wide clifftop walk with well tended flower beds and glorious views across the channel. Imposing old hotels speak of the resort’s former glory, no more so than the Grand and Metropole, though some are now holiday apartments. The Leas Cliff Hall is a popular stopping off point for musicians and comedians on tour. I will never forget a long and hilarious night with Frankie Howerd there back in the late sixties.

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On a clear day, you can almost pick out individual buildings on the French coast as you head towards the charming neighbouring resorts of Sandgate and Hythe with its access to the world class attractions of Port Lympne Wild Animal Park and the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway, still the smallest regular light rail system in the world and as thrilling a ride more than a half a century later than the first. At the end of the line, you arrive at Dungeness on the tip of Romney Marsh with its end of the world atmosphere, where the abundant birdlife shares the shingle with two nuclear power stations .

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Despite the loss of the ferry service and crazy golf course, as well as the diminution in the fishing trade, the pretty little harbour and adjoining Stade with its seafood stalls still retain some of the atmosphere that first captivated me fifty years ago.

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The Guardian newspaper recognised the efforts being made to enhance Folkestone’s appeal by rating it among the world’s best holiday destinations to visit in 2014. Many, especially those who have not visited in recent years, will snigger or even guffaw at the idea, but the town is showing signs that it has a future.

We might even put you up while you visit!

Now, if they could only rebuild the Rotunda and resume playing first class county cricket there ………….

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(more…)

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You may be familiar with Mr Jingle’s assessment of Kent in The Pickwick Papers: “Kent, sir – everybody knows Kent – apples, cherries, hops and women”. Although the abundance of the first three may have been diminished in recent times (being a happily married man I could not possibly comment on the fourth), this still holds true to a great extent.

An alternative definition that I would subscribe to might be “coast, countryside and cricket”.  It is certainly a triumvirate of glories that make me a proud product of its soil. That pride has been rather dented over the summer months with the dismal displays, both on and off the pitch, of the county cricket club. The cradle of the game, home to some of its greatest ever players and with a tradition of playing cavalier cricket in front of large festival crowds in beautiful surroundings, now reduced to a laughing stock in the cricketing world.

Rising debts, the result of a succession of poor financial decisions, a stalled ground redevelopment programme at its Canterbury headquarters, poor communications with its members and supporters and woeful performances on the field leaving the team second bottom in the county championship, all combined to make the season one of the worst in the modern Club’s distinguished 141 year history.

And in the past few days, the coach and two of the senior batsmen have all departed, leaving the team desperately short of both numbers and experience. With doubts remaining too over whether the player of the season will get the new contract that he deserves, that situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

But in the past week, I have sought solace in some of the county’s many other delights – country walks through the full to bursting apple orchards of haunted Pluckley and the beechwoods and meadows of handsome Harrietsham, a stroll among the bookshops in civilised Tunbridge Wells, and Kentish beer and seafood at the Broadstairs Food Festival, overlooking the packed beach of Viking Bay, basking in the baking October heat and looking like a scene out of the nineteen fifities.

Though I currently live in the “compost heap” of the “Garden of England”, I am no more than an hour and a half, by car, bus or train, from any of its attractions – the castles of Hever, Scotney, Leeds and Rochester, the gardens of Sissinghurst and Emmetts, splendid houses like Groombridge Place, Finchcocks and Knole and what J.M.W Turner called the “loveliest skies in Europe” along the Thanet coast. Throw in two world class animal parks dedicated to conservation, the White Cliffs of Dover, otherworldly Romney Marsh, the rolling North Downs and atmospheric Wealden woodland – the list goes on (my apologies to any favourites of yours that I have missed out).

I count myself lucky in having been born, educated and, after a brief but largely loveless affair with other parts of England, lived in this wonderful county. I’ve been equally fortunate to have grown up hearing and reading  of the exploits of Woolley, Ames and Freeman and watching Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood in their pomp.

But whilst the experience of the cricket, at least at the professional level, has sunk in the past couple of years, there are still those other two features, and much more, to fall back on in the coming months.

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On a baking early August day I took in my first day’s play of Kent second XI cricket for many years against Glamorgan at Mote Park in Maidstone.  It was an equally belated return to “the Mote” which, since 2005 when the county was, unjustly, deducted eight points by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) for a sub-standard pitch, had not hosted first class cricket.  My sense of anticipation was twofold – an opportunity to see a number of highly regarded young Kent players in action for the first time, and to reacquaint myself with the ground that has always been second only to the Nevill at Tunbridge Wells in my affections.

As I walked up Mote Road, with my right shoulder creaking under the weight of my new holdall bulging with laptop, notebooks, Kent CCC annuals and food, but rendered even heavier by the purchase of three cricket books in the Oxfam bookshop in town, I was saddened, if not altogether surprised, to see that The Cricketers pub was up for sale, a shame as it had often been a handy retreat during the lunch intervals in the past.

My initial impression on entering the ground was that it seemed in remarkably good health (it is still the home to cricket, rugby and squash clubs). The lovely two-storey pavilion, a recent centenarian, looked resplendant with its tiled roof and handsome black and white gable, hanging baskets and recent paint job.  On closer inspection, however, the facilities inside clearly needed substantial upgrading to meet the demands of the modern professional game. 

Alongside the pavilion stands “the Tabernacle”, described by George Plumptre in his book, Homes of Cricket – the First-Class Cricket Grounds of England and Wales as “one of the most delightful curiosities to be found on any county ground”. 

It had been built by the Mote’s most prominent patron, (Sir) Marcus Samuel in the style of “an ornamental cottage with herringbone pattern brickwork and a covered verandah in front”.  Originally Marcus’s private pavilion in which to entertain his well connected friends, it had latterly become a temporary office for the county club during the traditional week, as well as a suitably imposing structure from which “the brethren” the Band of Brothers Cricket Club could sit and watch the game.

Today, it was a dusty shell, though it was heartening to note from the contractors’ awning that a significant makeover was imminent, perhaps a further indication that the local authority and club were making necessary ground improvements in preparation for the resumption of county cricket in the next few years, a “consummation devoutly to be wished” by this supporter.  

The mature trees, primarily oaks, encircling the ground were magnificent as always and the new fence at the bottom end, whilst plain and rustic, gave it a neat appearance.

Entering the pavilion in pursuit of a scorecard, I saw a sight I wasn’t expecting – Daniel Bell-Drummond helping himself to a fruit juice.  A dashing opening batsman, the 17 year old from Millfield School is being touted as a star of the future, and had already been scoring attractive runs in the England Under 19 team.  It had not been expected that he would be released from an international boot camp to play today, so this was a pleasant surprise.

Salivating at the prospect of watching him and 18 year old Fabian Cowdrey, the latest in the distinguished Kentish cricketing dynasty, open the innings and rattle up 150 before lunch, the news from Daniel that Glamorgan had won the toss and elected to bat was deflating – my hopes raised and ruthlessly dashed in the space of thirty seconds! 

Although Kent sported an experienced attack,  it already felt like it would be a day of toil for Kent players and spectators alike, which it subsequently proved (Glamorgan were 287 for 5 at tea when the combination of heat and desultory action persuaded me to leave).

The outstanding moment from the Kent perspective was a stunning leg side stumping by 20 year old Sam Billings off Simon Cook. Billings is yet another prospect in what might (everything is crossed) develop into a “golden generation” for the county.  Already being “billed” as Kent’s best wicketkeeper since the mercurial Alan Knott, he also proved the chief cheerleader in a side that was vocally encouraging of each other all day, impressive given the humd conditions and very different from the deathly hush that falls over the first team for long intervals in the field.

The size of the crowd, a number of whom appeared to follow the second XI to the exclusion of the full county side, probably did not reach 100, with smatterings in the pavilion, alongside the tabernacle, under the great oak tree and on the top of the ground, many sitting in their parked cars in chairs bought from the local garden centre. 

I had not known what to expect when I arrived, particularly as far as catering was concerned.  Whilst I had bought my own food I was worried whether I would be able to get a drink at all, hence my delight, half an hour after play had commenced, to see the bar open and the Shepherd Neame Whitstable Bay handpump hove into view.  A couple of gorgeous pints of that helped to counteract the stifling heat.

There was a quaintness about proceedings that belied the intense endeavour of young men striving in stifling heat to use their undoubted talent to forge a career in the game.  This was epitomised by the hilarious sight, every half an hour or so when the umpires called for a drinks break, of two small boys, the sons of the former Kent player and now part-time coach, Mark Ealham, with a combined age of no more than the number on the back of Kent captain Alex Blake’s shirt (10), bounding onto the field carrying hefty trays of cold concoctions that must have weighed at least as much as their bearers.  Priceless!

It is a pity that there are now no more home second XI games this season because I think I’m hooked!  Oh, and I do hope that the club and the local council can get their act together and bring first team county cricket to this beautiful ground that was, after all, Colin Cowdrey’s favourite.

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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.

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