From the Maiden Over to Le Toad and Stumps, 1996

Bat, ball and bitter: cricket and pubs



The disused The Cricketers pub outside The Oval in south London © Getty Images
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The connection between cricket and alcohol is probably as old as the game itself. Innkeepers were among the first promoters of organised cricket. But it is reasonable to imagine that even before then, the shepherd boys who played on the downs had a quick noggin after the game, and very probably during it too.

The tie-up is reflected in that very British form of everyday history: the inn sign. Hundreds of pubs all over England have cricketing names, sometimes reflecting a link dating back into the mists of mediaeval times, sometimes reflecting some modern marketing man's half-baked idea for a trendy theme pub.

Tim Bible, an army major from Romsey, Hampshire, has turned this arcane but fascinating subject into his hobby. He had a collection of 250 photos of signs with cricketing connections, and knows there are dozens more he has yet to photograph; cricket is represented on a surprisingly high proportion of the nation's 50,000-odd pubs. Bible has logged more than thirty Cricketers, Cricketers Arms, Cricketers Inns (breweries don't seem to worry about apostrophes much) and related titles in his home county alone. They are equally thick on the ground in the other counties of cricket's ancient heartland - Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Yorkshire is well-stocked too. But other places, where the game is popular but perhaps a little less old, have surprisingly few: Bible has found only one in each of Gloucestershire and Devon.

The inn sign in Britain dates back to the Roman invasion, according to Alan Wright, secretary of the Inn Signs Society. "Alehouse keepers had to give illiterate customers an indication of what they were selling and it would become known that you could get a good drink at the sign of whatever it was," he said. "As soon as religious signs gave way to everyday signs, sport became a popular subject, often because the game could be played on the premises. Usually The Cricketers used to mean there was a green nearby, and some of them would have functioned as pavilions."

The most famous of all cricketing pubs was the home of Hambledon: the Bat and Ball at Broadhalfpenny Down in Hampshire. But this has recently had to overcome a bizaree attempt to change its name to Natterjacks. Since 1993 the pub has in effect been using both names, but there are hopes that cricket and history will eventually emerge triumphant. Outside Sevenoaks, there is a Bat and Ball railway station. The trains still stop, but the pub is reported to have closed.

The tradition, however, is a durable one. And for every cricketing pub that vanishes or changes its name, another one seems to pop up. The drearily named New Inn in West Meon, Hampshire, became the Thomas Lord in 1952 to commemorate the founder of Lord's, who is buried in the village. And in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, there is now the Sir Geoffrey Boycott OBE. It was originally called The Park, then reopened in 1995 under its new name, with a sign depicting Boycott taking strike in his England gear. The owner, Bernard Poulter, has been collecting memorabilia and books, has organised his own pub team, and is hoping for a visit from the great man shortly.

On the Darnall estate in Sheffield is the Fiery Fred, opened by Fred Trueman about 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the actual sign was stolen by souvenir hunters and has never been replaced. Other pubs noted by Major Bible as being named after players include two Dr. W. G. Graces (in London and Chesterfield), The Spofforth in Liverpool, The Larwood in Mansfield, and a bar called Sobers (which may be an elaborate pun) in Derby. His own favourite signs include the Cricketers at Wrecclesham, Surrey, which depicts Billy Beldham, the Cricketers Arms at Keighley, with the young Len Hutton, and the Maiden Over in Earley, Reading, showing a girl jumping over the stumps.

Some names are not necessarily connected with cricket, but the signpainter has chosen to emphasise the cricketing side of a double meaning - as at the Dog and Duck in Bristol, the Last Man Inn in the Cumberland village of Plumbland and the First In, Last Out in Bath. There is also the Tommy Wass in Leeds - apparently named after a local landowner, not the Nottinghamshire bowler, though there is a cricketer on the coat of arms on the sign. Most bizarre perhaps is Le Toad and Stumps (formerly The Lamb) at Eversley Cross in Hampshire. The landlord, Tim Paine, had intended to call it Le Toad and Stump, meaning a tree-stump. But an artist did him a really nice cartoon involving cricket stumps. So the most English of games crept on to the sign along with the strange franglais. The pub is, after all, next to the village ground.

You would expect some pubs to have cricketing names, like The Sussex Cricketer, right by the Hove ground, and the Larwood and Voce Tavern at Trent Bridge. But it is good to report that the game survives in the most improbable places: there is a Cricketers Arms right by the rugby league stadium in Widnes, and the supporters traditionally go there to discuss the afternoon's mayhem.

© John Wisden & Co