County view April 30, 2008

The ups and downs of Lord's development

Ivo Tennant
Ivo Tennant looks at the redevelopment of Lord's, where things could go down as well as up

Tunneling takes place under the Nursery End in 1896 © The Cricketer
The redevelopment of Test and county grounds has become so rife that clubs could be mistaken for making a fashion statement. At Lord's, no less than £200m is to be spent over the coming years on everything from the rebuilding of five stands to re-positioning the cricket museum to the erection of apartments and installation of retractable floodlights. The Nursery End in particular will be transformed. The somewhat forbidding perimeter wall along Wellington Road will come down and the hospitality marquees will be removed. Building work will go far underground as well.

Running 200 metres from Wellington Hospital to St John's Wood Road and extending 38 metres under the Nursery Ground is a railway tunnel which was part of the Marylebone to Aylesbury line, constructed in 1897. The original station at Lord's was demolished in 1939. The developers who acquired this space from Railtrack almost ten years ago and who are working in conjunction with MCC, have a total of 40,000 square feet to turn into something becoming a modern sports arena. They have discovered that it will be possible to dig deep beneath the ground, for the soil is soft and there are no planning restrictions. The Lord's masterplan architect, who will soon be appointed by the club, will deliberate over what rises above the ground. Attention is now being given to what could be done about the space in the tunnel - a car park, banqueting facilities, a real tennis court and a cricket academy are all possibilities - and there is a strong possibility that Wellington Hospital will extend their adjacent premises into the tunnel and burrow down to create no fewer than six stories below the tunnel itself.

This is a remarkable idea, one that makes considerable sense given the cost of real estate in St John's Wood and the fact that the hospital, which is part of the Hospital Corporation of America, the largest of its kind in the world, has the capital to afford it. "We would take a long lease on the tunnel from the developers, Rifkind Levy Partnership, and create a gym, health spa and health screening which would be very much integrated with MCC. We treat players who are injured at Lord's and if a public thoroughfare is needed, we can provide it. I reckon this could be open three years from now," said Keith Hague, the chief executive of Wellington Hospital. The entrance to the tunnel is at present through his premises.

Building a new station at Lord's is another possibility, enabling spectators to walk straight to their seats rather than down Wellington Road from the jubilee line at St John's Wood tube, crammed as this is on big match days with ticket touts and queues. A priority of David Batts, who is in charge of the redevelopment, is to improve the walkways around the ground, which are particularly jammed during the lunch and tea intervals in Test matches. The revenue that MCC will accrue from developing the Nursery End - the club still owns top soil to a depth of 18 inches above the tunnel - will fund much of the ambitious building elsewhere at Lord's. The possibilities are endless for such a prime site that, other than winter nets in the indoor school, has been used out-of-season only by members participating in bridge evenings or playing real tennis.

So the question has to be posed: why did MCC not purchase the tunnel when Railtrack decided to sell? Jack Bailey, secretary of MCC between 1974 and 1987, said it was not available during his time (which coincided with a typically audacious suggestion by Phil Edmonds, then playing for Middlesex, to develop it) and the club, although not exactly far-sighted, did not have the marketing muscle it possesses today to fund an acquisition in 1999.

A sweeping redevelopment of the ground will not, of course, be to everyone's taste, in the same way that not everyone cares for MCC's research into the use of pink balls for use in one-day international matches. Bailey, who according to Edmonds gave a sharp retort to his idea, is a traditionalist. His views would not be dissimilar to those of Gubby Allen, who treasured and protected the view of the treeline at the Nursery End. This, though, will be obliterated by the rebuilding of the Compton and Edrich Stands, which will be redesigned by an architect chosen from a shortlist of five that includes Herzog & de Meuron, who built the Olympic Stadium in Beijing.

Issues about the redevelopment and a possible merger with Middlesex in the future will inevitably be raised at MCC's AGM on May 7. There is a small but vociferous element among the membership which objects perennially to some form or other of club policy and the news that Keith Bradshaw, the secretary of MCC, had had informal discussions with Middlesex about pooling resources was greeted with a flurry of complaints including one or two calls for his resignation.

Interestingly enough, this idea was originally mooted by Edmonds as well. His return to Lord's in some capacity or other, which is what he would like to do when he winds down his entrepreneurial activities in Africa, will only add further spice to the widespread transformation of the great old ground. By then, it will be well underway.