Posts Tagged ‘Tunbridge Wells’

I was born with cricket in my blood. My father was an enthusiastic if modest club performer who played for a team that, where once it had consisted largely of doctors from the local hospital from which it derived its name, and had been one of the strongest in the Medway area, had declined by the early sixties into a dad’s army of clerks, TV repair men and shipwrights (not to denigrate those trades but rather to demonstrate the disconnection over time from the medical profession).

My father’s skills were confined to a stubborn resistance to giving his wicket away easily (though, despite himself, he invariably did), and an aptitude for both pocketing slip catches himself, and occasionally by redirecting the ball from his commodious stomach into the hands of more agile teammates in the vicinity.

The team was my extended family – every player was an “uncle”, though not in the biological sense of the word, and I revered them, despite their limitations on the field. At the age of ten I graduated from mascot and scoreboard operator to become its official scorer. I fulfilled this role for the next five years, spending summer afternoons in cramped, rotting wooden sheds, invariably sat alongside grizzled, gap-toothed septuagenarians with a life long chain smoking habit.

But I loved it.

It wasn’t just the game that captured my young heart, but the environment surrounding it – the rickety double decker bus journeys through the Kent countryside, the team being forced to change on the bus if it was behind time, the sing-songs on the journey back (my party piece for some reason was Wouldn’t It Be Loverly from My Fair Lady) and the regular stops at pubs such as the Chequers at Loose and the Five Bells in Snodland. “Home” games at the Civil Service Sports Ground and Langton Playing Fields in Gillingham did not generate the same romance but were, nonetheless, events to be savoured. And then there was Tuesday night net practice, when I spent two hours building up a fearful sweat scurrying to retrieve balls that had been clubbed hither and thither (funny how they never managed it at weekends), was bliss.

At fifteen I made my own “first class” debut at Blue House Marden, a short walk from the Stile Bridge Inn and, “batting” at number eleven, notched a magisterial 0 not out in the customary crushing defeat. My other memory of that game was landing in a jungle of nettles, vainly chasing an edge down to third man. I could not sit down at school for the next three days.

And then there was the county side, on the cusp of its glory years of the seventies. Club commitments limited our outings to the Nevill, Garrison, Mote, Crabble, St Lawrence and Bat and Ball grounds, but my father and I managed a handful of days each season, courtesy of his Association of Kent Cricket Clubs pass.


My greatest thrill came when our annual holiday to Folkestone in August coincided with the traditional Cricket Week. My parents would deposit me at the Cheriton Ground around ten o’clock in the morning and went off for a day of beach, bingo and Bobby’s shopping, allowing me to indulge in my busman’s holiday of scoring every ball of both matches and haring after Cowdrey, Knott and Underwood for their autographs as they left the field at lunch, tea and close. It was an era when, aside from newspaper photographs and occasionally black and white television coverage, we only saw our sporting idols “in the flesh” – yet they were more accessible for that.

Of course, I was playing cricket too at school, on both playground concrete and playing field grass. At Glencoe Road primary school I was the proud custodian of the chalk required to repaint the wicket on the wall at each break, lunchtime and long after the bell sounded to send us home. The only spectator sport that could compare were the regular fights outside the school gates at home time.

Although, unlike football, we did not play against other schools, I opened the batting in games at the Maidstone Road recreation ground in Chatham. My finest cricketing hour in those pre-eleven plus days was, however, imbued with tragedy when having, like Hutton at the Oval in 1948, carried my bat in a pathetically low team total, I arrived home to be informed by my mother that my pet dog, Patch, had been put down. I suppose the events of that afternoon taught me the value of treating those “twin imposters” of triumph and disaster equally.

Moving to Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School I was converted in my first year from an opening bat into a medium quick (for a twelve year old) bowler with a capacity for late swing – an pubescent Jimmy Anderson if you like. After flirting with the styles of Fred Trueman, Wes Hall and the mercurial Alan Brown, I began to model both my bowling action and fielding demeanour, if not my batting, which suffered in the process, on the mighty John Shepherd (though there was still the occasional Wes Hall whirl of the arms for variety).

My school had always been strong at cricket, competing successfully with teams from the Judd School, Skinner’s, King’s School Rochester and Dartford and Maidstone Grammar Schools to name but a few. At under twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen levels I was a prolific wicket taker, with regular six and seven wicket hauls. My proudest moment, and I suspect my father’s too, was when he slipped away from work early in London one evening to watch me play for the under fourteens against Chatham South Technical School. I took eight wickets for three runs in eight overs and we won by ten wickets. I don’t recall him coming again – perhaps he just wanted to cherish that moment always.

The most publicly acclaimed performance was seven for fifteen against Faversham Grammar School. The school headmaster, a fine club cricketer himself for, I believe, Linton Park, who umpired a number of the age group games, announced at the school assembly on the following Monday morning that my spell had been the finest he had ever witnessed by a schoolboy of my age.

My exploits caught the eye of the Kent under fifteen selectors and I played in a handful of trial games, including the final eliminator for the county team. Playing for East against West Kent, I chose that match, however, to misplace my customary accuracy and spray the ball continually down the leg side of Graham Clinton who, when he managed to reach it, clipped it to fine leg for four. He made the Kent team, and forged a strong county career – I did not.

But I didn’t fade into cricketing obscurity – yet. In the second of three years in the First XI at “the Math” I took forty nine wickets, falling just three short of the all-time record. I followed this with a couple of highly successful seasons at university, and subsequently – albeit briefly – played at a decent level in both Yorkshire club cricket and around south east London in the late seventies and early eighties, where, oddly, I reverted to being a middle order batsman who bowled a little.


My playing is now limited to fielding the occasional ball on the boundary at the St Lawrence or Nevill Ground, and the beach (I recommend Sunny Sands in Folkestone and Viking Bay at Broadstairs). I wonder too if I’m alone in strolling around the ground in the breaks between innings or along the seashore in the hope of being called upon to pouch a skier or pounce on a straight drive from one of the ever diminishing number of impromptu games.

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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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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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