No place like Arundel
Forty nine miles south of London, 18 west of Brighton, and home to 3500 people, Arundel could be like any other English town.
It's not. That's clear before you're off the train. The spectacular views across meadows and the River Arun afforded by the final minutes of the journey into the Railway Children-style station at the town's foot are enough to set a child's imagination racing: sat proudly atop a hill Arundel could be the Emerald City or a faraway fort from German Märchen.
There's the steeply sloped high street, lined with traditional staples: butcher, baker, bank, plus antique and art galleries aplenty, tea rooms, restaurants, quirky clothes and book shops and cosy pubs. Photos a half-century, even a century old reveal few changes. Then there are the streets that snake off the high street, weaving round the river and through the hills, with their hotchpotch mix of Tudor cottages, Georgian townhouses and Victorian terraces. There are other pleasant quirks: a summer festival of art, theatre, music and food; that meandering river and its wonderful walks; the smell of sea air on a gusty day. This is England from the postcards.
Arundel boasts three stunning Cs: the soaring cathedral that towers over the town, the medieval castle - built a year after William conquered Hastings, and home to the Duke Of Norfolk - that crawls through it, and the cricket ground that hides amidst downland in the quiet beyond woods and walls.
Aesthetically, the ground is a thing of beauty; historically, it's eccentric and grand; for character and originality, there's no place quite like it.
I, happily, am one of those 3500. I'm no mullet - that's the name given to folk born in the town due to the fish that fill the river, not the hairstyle - but I owe my passion for cricket to the town my family has called home since I was five.
My school team trained in the indoor nets during winter and played in competitions on the outfield in summer. My strongest early memory of watching cricket came at Arundel in 2000, when nearly ten, as Brian Lara strode out, ton on the board, bat under arm and Victoria Sponge in hand, with myself and countless other nippers surrounding him after teatime revelry on the outfield with dads and pals.
Twelve months on, it was Steve Waugh making a century and the year after that VVS a stylish 85. The serial record-breaker, the toughest man I'd ever seen, and the guy who had recently played the innings from the end of the earth to beat the seemingly impregnable Australians. All in my little home town? These are days pre-teens don't forget in a hurry.
I'm not the only local who goes giddy at the ground's mere mention. Grown men, speaking of their chance to play there, express joy every bit as childlike as mine when a metre from Lara: I'd seen first-hand a friend's anguish as, on his first appearance at the ground, he chopped a half-tracker onto his stumps four shy of a maiden century.
When you hail from a small town, a poser arises whenever you're asked where exactly you're from. Brits from London or Manchester or Edinburgh have it easy: everyone knows where that is. If you're from some quiet corner of middleofnowheresville, which, for its myriad charms, Arundel is, the answer is more vexing. Even in the UK, "er, Arundel" will prompt puzzled looks. I might try a mumbled "near Brighton" or "Sussex".
Yet it didn't take long living in Australia and visiting New Zealand to clock that when in the company of cricket lovers, I could plough straight in with "Arundel" and they'd know exactly where I meant. These weren't one-offs or simply in professional company. Many had even paid a visit. The ground represented the very essence of English cricket: a village-green feel, a festival atmosphere - all brass bands, pork pie-laden picnics, row upon row of deck chairs - and maybe an extra sweater, too.
Upon returning to the UK after ten months, I decided to head home to a cricketing place whose proximity and old-worldliness has meant I've maybe taken it for granted since those impressionable early days. Even as someone who loved all he knew of the place, cricket in Arundel seemed the product of a bygone era, rather too quaint in an age when cricket jumpers have zips, an age of 82-page dietary dossiers, an age of Bunnings Warehouse Replays and Karbonn Kamaal Catches.
I chat with John Barclay and James Rufey, respectively Director of Cricket and Coaching and Executive Secretary of Arundel Castle Cricket Club and Foundation. We sit in their tiny office overlooking the oval. It's October, the season's over and the weather's turned, the lashing rain calling a halt to work on next season's pitch.
Many will remember Johnny as an opening bat, offspinning jack-of-all who captained Sussex for half of the 1980s. Since, he's remained quite the allrounder. He arrived at Arundel within months of his retirement in 1986 but is also chairman of the Sussex Cricket Board, has managed England tours, written three books, served as president of the MCC, and still sits on the committee at Lord's.
He tells me the ground was built by Henry, the 15th Duke, in 1895 as a family luxury ("They did a damned good job," he notes). There were other grand grounds at country houses that remain to this day, such as Goodwood, Blenheim and Chatsworth, where too aristocratic types would invite their friends, some stars, and gamble large amounts on games in their gardens.
At Arundel it was all hosted and financed by the Duke, visiting players would stay in the castle, and there was an estate team made up of staff. All of which paints a convivial, if elite, picture: Arundel was a place known only to a privileged few: the Duke's chums and those invited to play.
Things opened up under Bernard, Henry's cricket-mad successor as Duke, who would go on to be president of Sussex and MCC and was England's tour manager for the '62-63 Ashes. In 1953, the year of the Queen's coronation, Bernard's team hosted the Duke of Edinburgh's XI. Both men played and a typically resplendent line up of stars received the ducal summons: Bill Edrich on the home side, Gubby Allen and Bill Voce for Prince Phillip. The match appears to have been played out in front of a crowd greater than usual - perhaps 10,000 - and it was this, according to Sussex and Arundel regular Robin Marlar, quoted in Sir Michael Marshall's book, Cricket at the Castle, that persuaded Bernard that Arundel was ready for a big step forward.
That step came in 1956, when he invited the Australians - with Messrs Benaud, Harvey and Miller - to open their tour at the castle. "This," agrees Johnny, "was the turning point for the ground in terms of publicity and fame." Though the game was played in late April, a hardy crowd of 13,000 watched Australia take on a Duke's XI containing Len Hutton, Alec Bedser and Colin Cowdrey - who would become a fixture at the castle, even making Bernard's daughter Anne his wife many years on. Among that crowd, according to Marshall's book, was "a large press contingent." Word spread back to Australia, and so a tradition was born: England's opponents would come to Arundel to open their tours. This happened almost every year until the memorable summer of 2005, when the Australians played the PCA at Arundel.
Johnny recalls visiting as a boy: "I came in 1963, '64 and '66, with my grandparents, always sat over the far side, in front of the gap. It was late April and we would have to wrap up warm, although it never rained. There'd be a crowd of five-figures, all rugs, picnics, bottles of wine. There were no restrictions, people came up and enjoyed the cricket."
In 1993, that was certainly true as the gates eventually had to close with 16,000 in - including Prime Minister John Major - to watch Botham take on the Aussies. The nature of these games was friendly (Bernard's wife Lavinia even thought it sharp practice to invite a team to Arundel and beat them). The toss was rigged so the tourists would bat first. It was a festival, a curtain-raiser, an exercise in blowing away cobwebs in the most English of surroundings; complete with marching band, deck chairs and book stall.
Lyle Turnbull, part of the 1956 press corps, wrote in the Melbourne Sun: "Cricket has never been played in a more pleasant atmosphere… It was essentially a picnic match with broadcast announcements about lost dogs, lost children and even a lost wife." Very little changed in the 49 years these games were played.
"It was special, and completely unique," Johnny continues. "Of those days as a kid I just remember watching legends, heroes of mine - Sobers and Bob Simpson and the Duke's guests, Barrington, Dexter, Graveney. I was a young boy learning the game, I was impassioned by cricket. I was in thrall of it all."
Such recollections mirror those I felt upon juvenile visits to the ground. That calibre of star remained until the last, but eventually the fixture ceased to exist for obvious reasons: shorter tours with congested schedules, diminishing availability of guest players, and the perfectly reasonable desire of other counties to host games. Arundel couldn't demand a fixture and, equally, couldn't compete financially. Those names, though: Miller, Sobers. Botham, Lara. Golden sun sparkling on whites. The lushest of green ovals. In a "picnic match". What a thing to have on your doorstep.
It seems an apt juncture to describe the place that grabbed me - not by the scruff of the neck, it's gentler than that - and ignited my love of cricket. Johnny described it as "a work of art", which is fair, although a spot of precision is required: this is a masterpiece.
We're chatting on a cold, wet day when it's lying dormant and it's perfectly serene. But on summer days, when filled with hordes of cricket lovers with blues, reds and whites thrown onto the green canvas, it's a sight to behold.
The approach takes in two colours, the grey of ancient stone buildings and paths, and the green of bush and tree. The oval is vast: a 3.5 acre amphitheatre flanked by meaty oaks. There are steep banks around a quarter, and an understated, red-tiled pavilion atop one such bank. From the pavilion to the pitch's perimeter, there's a wide wooden staircase. Glimpses are offered of the castle, sitting to the south-east, just visible through the trees, while the cathedral can be seen from the Park End, soaring above them. The freak, famous and utterly un-British hurricane of 1987 felled some foliage and altered the complexion of the ground - for the better, according to Johnny, the castle coming into view without sacrificing the sense of ringing. Overhead it's not unusual to see birds of prey - buzzards, kestrels, kites - stalking.
Then there's the gap. There's nothing cryptic or complicated about a simple break in the trees, but it's a truly glorious reminder of exactly where you are. It's absolutely intentional and provides a picture of the boondocks beyond, the great folds of rolling downland from which this ground is carved. Arundel is a cricket ground for escapists, for fantasists, with the trees providing seclusion and privacy, but the gap is a window out to the Weald beyond. The velvety oval and the rugged downland are dramatically juxtaposed.
Bernard died in 1975 and cricket at Arundel stood at a crossroads. Bernard had only daughters and thus no immediate heir, so the Dukedom passed to a different strand of the family, who were new to Arundel and no cricket lovers. Bernard's widow Lavinia, however, would not allow her husband's pride and joy to wither and die.
In that spirit, she founded - with the help of Colin Cowdrey, Billy Griffith and Ronnie Aird (who she described as her "three musketeers") - the Friends of Arundel Castle Cricket Club. Lavinia and her daughters were generous with their time and money. Membership had to be built and staff paid outside of the estate's finances. Eighteen months after foundation, in spring 1977, the club had over 1250 members and 141 life members, had hosted Clive Lloyd's West Indians and many other fixtures. It hadn't been easy but the beautiful - and by now storied - cricket ground at Arundel had survived the passing of its patriarch and Bernard's legacy was secured.
Even with wealthy friends, drawcard fixtures and paltry rent, it was difficult to fund. It wasn't easy to ask benefactors to pour money into a club. The solution was the establishment of a charity: the Arundel Castle Cricket Foundation. The two bodies - FACCC and ACCF - happily coexist to this day. Paul Getty, a man with his own stunning legacy at Wormsley, donated generously, funding the indoor school that I used as a kid. The charity's motivations were to support disadvantaged youths and to foster a love of cricket
Johnny, who was involved in the establishment of the foundation, says: "I don't think the whole thing would have got off the ground without Getty. All the cash was volunteered by him, and it's wonderful that this ground has a purpose and is giving something back all year round. The foundation blossomed. The aim was to get the young, many from inner-city backgrounds, perhaps who had a disability or for whom life was a struggle, down to Arundel to enjoy cricket, have a day by the seaside and in the country.
"The tourist match rolled on happily. It was easy in those days - I'd just ring the secretaries of the counties that weren't playing and invite players down. None ever complained about money, and it was all friendly. It didn't take place - I think in 1999 - and that was an eye-opener and reminded us not to put all our eggs in that basket. When it did conclude, that was fine: between 2003-05 it hung on with the PCA's help. It remained popular with fans and players but it was untenable, just politically impossible."
So, to 2014. Once more, with the tourist match gone, cricket at Arundel has survived the passing of its rock. Sussex has used Arundel as a first-class outground - increasingly a rarity, these days - annually since 1990. This year, the Sussex Cricket Festival at Arundel saw Yorkshire visit for a four-day game, Somerset for a T20 and the county's ladies play on Sunday. As a devotee of such fixtures, I can confirm they buck the hackneyed "one man and his dog" image of county cricket. The five figures of yore it is not, but the crowds flock in high summer to see top-level cricket at a ground as stunning as ever.
"This year we had 14,000 across the week and 5000 at the T20," says James. "We have our week, we enjoy it and feel we do it very well: we've a beautiful ground and an attractive town, which helps. You see people popping into town and there's a slight upturn in the fortunes of local businesses. It's great fun.
"But it's not all about top-level cricket. We have 50 days cricket a year and many more foundation days. I'd say we cover the widest range of cricket at any one ground, not just in England, but in the whole world. Seriously."
This is a bold claim and I'm dubious, but the calendar's out and we're off: alongside the men's and women's first-class cricket, there's top-level club cricket, England's blind and deaf teams, touring sides, school matches, county 2nd XI, societies, varsity, a couple of commercial days, and many matches that have been played since Bernard's days: Martlets, I Zingari, Combined Services, MCC. Add the 1500 children who benefit from the foundation's philanthropic activity every year and the variation is staggering.
"It's about balance," Rufey says. "We're a small organisation with six staff and a desire to retain character. We've got 800 members with a core who'll come to every day's play. The standard is high but people come for a love of cricket and summer and all that constitutes. Sitting on the boundary, reading the paper, having a picnic - some of them take that very seriously!"
A wander from the town to the ground on such a summer's day remains special, a small splattering of spectators - modest obstruction to the players' whites on the ground's greens - simply soaking up the smells, the sun, the sport, the spot.
Johnny continues: "In cricket, at every level, it's hard to make ends meet. Whether you're a county or a tiny club. We're somewhere in that puzzle. It's a balance between the commercial aspects of a business and maintaining the essence of the place itself. We see ourselves as unspoilt."
A glance over my shoulder, out the window is as good a reminder as any that this place sure ain't spoilt.