Larks on the Wing, Worms in the Bud

Worcestershire v Nottinghamshire, RLODC, New Road, Worcester, 27th April 2017

In his essay ‘Prelude‘ Neville Cardus wrote that

Cricket, as I know and love it, is part of that holiday time which is the Englishman’s heritage – a playtime in a homely countryside.”

Leaving the rest of this aside for a moment (or longer), the significant words here are “holiday time”. Watching professional cricket has always, for most people, been associated with being on holiday and from that derives a significant part of its appeal. Some are on a permanent holiday : historically, this group would have included the progressively dwindling minority who had private incomes large enough not to need to work, but is now mostly made up of people who, like me, are retired. You might also once have included in this fortunate band resting actors and the unemployed (in the happy days, long gone, when that involved nothing more strenuous than signing on once a fortnight and going to the Post Office to cash your giro*).

There were workers who managed to combine employment with watching cricket on a regular basis : vicars, postmen and those who worked nights (some of whom had chosen their line of work specifically for that reason), but for most it was a holiday occupation. Bank Holiday matches attracted huge crowds, particularly for derby games such as the Roses Match and Surrey v Kent at the Oval, which were timed to coincide with them. Teachers, schoolchildren and students could, if they chose, spend their long Summer holidays at the cricket. Then there were Saturdays (or Saturday afternoons in the early days), half-day early closing (when the factories often shut to allow their works teams to play) and – sweetest of all, in my experience – the snatched day off work.

Then there are those who choose to combine their annual holidays with watching cricket, which would once have offered seaside resorts to suit every taste (Blackpool, Scarborough, Eastbourne, Hastings, Southend), Cathedral and University cities (Canterbury, Gloucester, Worcester, Oxford, Cambridge) and spa towns (Tunbridge Wells, Harrogate, Cheltenham, Buxton). Some of those venues have been ripped from the calendar, but some remain, and there are still those who choose to spend their annual holiday allowance following their team around what remains of the circuit, even if that involves spending three nights in a Travelodge in Chelmsford. (If you ask them how their trip went, as with any other holiday, the answer will include the quality of the hotel, the journey, the weather, the food and perhaps some comment such as … “the cricket wasn’t much cop”.)

I cannot aspire to that level of devotion, but I do sometimes yearn to deviate a little more from my East Midlands beat to take in some of the diverse glories of the English scene, which is how I found myself, the other week, staying in Malvern Spa the night before a match at Worcester.

As this is a cricket blog and not a travelogue, I won’t linger too long over my description of Great Malvern, except to say that I liked it very much and hope to return. The same is true of my hotel (the Foley Arms, now a branch of J.D. Wetherspoon)

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though, as this is not TripAdvisor, I won’t linger too long on that either. The town can boast a priory,

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some restful and elevating late-Victorian architecture, numerous literary and musical associations (C.S. Lewis, Tolkien and Auden, who watched over me benignly as I ate my reasonably priced Traditional Breakfast

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Elgar, who is commemorated by a statue, and Cher Lloyd, who is not). There was also the chance to climb a reasonably inclined hill to view the original source of Malvern water, St. Ann’s Well. Those who insist on finding a worm in every bud will note the sign attached to the well, saying that the water had “failed recent bacteriological tests and should be boiled before drinking” ;

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although I am confident that the bottled Malvern water sold by Mr. Wetherspoon is perfectly safe to drink, I decided to take no chances that evening and opted for the very reasonable offer of 3 bottles of Sol for £5.00.

The day dawned bright and clear (as they say in the kind of novel I rather felt I was living in) and I made sure to arrive early enough at the well-preserved railway station to buy a cup of coffee in Lady Foley’s Tea-Room (Lady Edith Foley, who essentially owned Malvern when it was at its height as a spa, once had this room reserved for her personal use). I felt this was what Cardus would have done, on one of his much-relished forays out of Manchester, though I suppose he would have ordered a cup of tea and a bun rather than a cafe latte in a paper cup. I did not notice any larks, but, if there were, I am confident that they would have been on the wing, likewise any snails on the thorn.

I have sometimes pondered the paradox that some of the chief glories of Europe’s architecture – its spa towns – own their existence to what was, at best, Bad Science, and, at worst, conscious fraud ; some (not I) would say the same about the Church of England, whose Cathedral famously provides the backdrop to cricket at Worcester (this is one of two things everyone knows about New Road, the other being that it is subject to periodic flooding by the River Severn).

If you sit in the right position, it is still possible to see the Cathedral as a backdrop (and that word, with its suggestion of painted theatrical scenery, seems somehow appropriate):

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but if you require, as it were, the classic Worcester experience, you would have to look at the painted version which still seems to be used to advertise the ground to potential corporate clients

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or buy one of the greeting cards sold in the Supporters’ Club Shop, neither of which feature the large hotel that has been built in a corner of the ground, nor the cluster of rectangular buildings that adjoin it.

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The presence of a hotel would be less incongruous if it were the Foley Arms, or indeed the Grand in Scarborough, or any building more in keeping with the spirit of the place ; its design is, however, as one of the various bodies who objected to its being built, “simplistic”, as though the architect had given a three-year-old a crayon, asked it to draw a house, and passed the resulting arrangement of rectangles straight to the builders. I am only too well aware of the financial imperatives involved, but it does sometimes feel as though the County circuit is being turned into a giant Monopoly board, the aim of the game being to build as many hotels as possible on the prime properties.

Cardus also once described the spirit of cricket in Worcestershire as being “as genial and magnanimous as the English landscape”, but I’m not sure that was quite the vibe around the ground when I visited. When I was making a preliminary perambulation a rather grim-faced man in search of a parking space tooted his horn impatiently at me, and my purchase of a greetings card was delayed by a tetchy exchange between a man representing the Supporters’ Association and the Chief Executive (“You may have apologised to him, but you haven’t apologised to me” – “Don’t tell me how to run a cricket club”). (I am uneasy about recording these kinds of eavesdroppings, but do feel that this kind of conversation is significantly symptomatic of the uneasy relationships County Members often have with those who run them, and not just at Worcester.)

When play started, I began by sitting in the spot that offered what I have referred to as the classic Worcester view, which happened to be in the Ladies’ Pavilion. I was unsure whether, not being a Lady, I should have been there at all, but was reassured by the presence of one or two other Gentlemen, and took my seat, inscribed in memory of Rev. Prebendary W.R. Chignell, W.C.S.A. President 1977-1994 (until 2006 the ground was owned by the Cathedral). To my right I had my eye on some wooden benches, in the shade (or, as seemed likely to be more useful) under the shelter of some trees.

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The drawback to this arrangement was that, although I had a good view of the Cathedral, the square had been pitched so far over to the river side of the ground that I had little idea of what was happening on the pitch, except that the Worcestershire seamers were restricting the scoring of the Nottinghamshire batsmen without having much success in removing them.

As I have said, the day had dawned bright and clear and dry : after the first half hour it was still dry, but no longer bright or clear, and by noon it was no longer dry. When the first shower started, I thought to retreat into the interior of the Ladies’ Pavilion ; I must have looked as though I was considering sitting on a particular canvas chair on the verandah, as a Lady politely, but firmly, informed me that, although I could, if I wished, bring one of the plastic chairs in the Pavilion out on to the verandah, the canvas chair, and a cluster of armchairs inside it, were reserved for Lady Members. I write this, by the way, in a spirit of admiration, rather than mockery : if anyone embodies the quixotic spirit of County cricket, it is those Ladies fiercely defending their hard-worn privileges by sitting cosy in their armchairs, admiring the view of the Cathedral.

When the shower relented, I left the Ladies to their privileges and switched to the ubiquitous plastic bucket seats nearest the (very) short boundary. From there I had a good view, which only served to confirm the impression I had formed from the Ladies’ Pavilion that neither side were obviously in the ascendancy. The Worcestershire seamers (the useful quartet of Mighty Joe Leach, John Wayne Hastings, Ed Barnard and Shantry) bowled accurately enough ; the Nottinghamshire batsmen scored off the loose balls, whilst periodically losing wickets. Lumb played what used to be known as “the anchor role”, making a handy, but entirely unmemorable, century and there was a brief flurry of sixes from Samit Patel. Over all, it went to show quite how uninvolving 50-over cricket can be to the disinterested observer, particularly if he is chilled to the marrow.

The rain returned, drizzly at first, then briefly torrential, with Nottinghamshire’s innings not quite complete. During the drizzly spells I watched, of all people, Bob Geldof performing on the new scoreboard (the Boomtown Rats are soon to appear at New Road) and discovered what must have been the old scoreboard, now beached by the advancing tide of modernity and bucket seats (I suppose Geldof and his Rats would have had to stick their heads out of the flaps).

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When it turned torrential I passed up the chance to buy an ice-cream from the splendidly-named Cow Corner (staffed by a shivering goth),

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discovered that, whatever their merits as sunshades, the trees offered little protection from the rain, and finally holed up in an internally, if not externally, attractive new cafe called Foley’s (the Foley family, as well as owning Malvern, played an important part in Worcestershire’s early years).

I stayed long enough to see Nottinghamshire conclude their innings (on a marginally below par 273-6), then cut and ran for the station at about 4.45. The last train that would be sure to get me home was the 6.20, it was damp, painfully cold and very dark (one of the penalties of an aesthetically pleasing ground is that it is hard to erect floodlights), and I could see little prospect of a result. In the event, play did resume and Worcestershire won, by making 169-5 (this doesn’t sound better to me than 273-6, but then I am neither Duckworth nor Lewis). Cricinfo’s correspondent admitted that the first three hours had been “humdrum”, which I can vouch for, but described the game over all as “a minor classic” ; I imagine he could not have had much company at the ground by the end of it.

So, how was my holiday? The hotel was nice, the food was good, the weather was awful … and the cricket wasn’t much cop. I should like to return to Malvern, and Worcester, perhaps when mid-Summer shows it to better advantage, though, I suppose, if the Ladies take my comments the wrong way, I may have to do so wearing false whiskers.

*Author’s memory.

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