If A Ghostly Cricket Umpire Walks The H10 (17 August 1973)
In 1951 Mr. Harry Beckett, of Poplars Farm, Simpson, father of Mr “Bob” Beckett, gave me a piece of pink cardboard about the size of a railway ticket. On it was printed: “All England Eleven v. Twenty-two of the County of Bucks, at Fenny Stratford, June 10, 1859. Admission ticket, one shilling. Not transferable.” I should still have it somewhere.
I was reminded of this by the recent Gazette photograph of a lone figure walking along the city’s future H10 grid road beside the Denbigh gravel pits, for it is thought it was thereabouts that the cricket march referred to above was played.
Mr. Beckett had about 50 of those pink tickets. He also had just one which was coloured light blue. This was an admission ticket to the same match but for the following day, June 11.
He told me the tickets had been handed to him many years previously when he had been secretary of the Simpson and District Cricket League and that they had been found in an article of furniture which had formerly been at the Plough Inn.
He assumed that the licensee had been the village ticket seller and that these were unsold stock, the pink ones being for the Friday and the blue one for more popular Saturday.
As a Yorkshireman I have no option but to be interested in the finest game ever invented. Moreover, I am that sort of die-hard who thinks that, come what may, only native-born Yorkshiremen should ever play for the county. Not like those folk over the hill-top, although they live in the most populated county in England, are entirely unashamed to import players from the West Indies or India or anywhere else in the world to try and win a Roses match or a series of one-day knockabouts.
So I began making enquiries about that cricket match at Fenny and I haven’t finished yet.
I already knew from the “Blechley(sic) Diary” of the Rev. William Coles that “the cricket” had been played at Fenny and also at Dunstable around the year 1760 – not a very early date in the total history of the game – but for about a century afterwards the local scoreboard seemed to be blank.
Several old Fenny people told me they had heard tell that such a match or matches had been played about the middle of the last century and one or two mentioned the Denbigh road area as the venue.
Of greatest help was Mr. Alfred Benford, the Simpson Road butcher. He said that his mother, who was over 80 years old when she died in 1919, told him of having watched a cricket match down there when she was young and that the players had played in top hats and frock coats. The match had been played on a field then known as Flannels Meadow, which had been occupied by Mr. Benford himself before the brushworks and the gravel workings came there.
That was all I got in 1951. But later a Mr. Inns, on the occasion of his golden wedding, said he knew such a match had been played because when he was a boy an old aunt had told him about her waiting on the players at their meals at The Chequers.
I have also heard or read somewhere that the All England XI played a match at Fenny to celebrate the opening of the Bedford branch railway line. But that line was opened in 1847 and in November, I believe. So there I am in a quandary until somebody reminds me of where I heard it or what the facts were. Could the team have made two visits?
We were reminded by John Arlott in a recent break-filling broadcast from Trent Bridge that the great populariser of cricket last century was William Clarke, of Nottingham. In 1846 (two years before W.G. was born) he organised an All England XI that played many matches against numerically superior teams up and down the country. He personally took 476 wickets one season! There seems no doubt it was his team who came to Fenny.
More curious is that at some time I have been told that Clarke was induced to bring his team here in 1859 by two keen cricketing brothers also named Clarke who were connected with a brickworks which had been opened by G.O. Clarke by 1819 on the site of the present Pullman’s Press.
When I came here after the war the water-filled gravel pits had become a favourite spot for non-permitted swimming. In earlier years the Ouzel had been used at a spot at Fenny which was still known as the bathing station. But even before the war a scheme for a regular town swimpool was being investigated by the council and after the war the calls for a pool were renewed and they increased greatly in intensity when one local boy met his death in the dangerous gravel pits.
During the winter months the pits were a favourite haunt of local naturalist Mr. Percy King, to whom I have referred previously in this series. He revelled in the arctic terns and other birds that were then to be seen there.
The Beacon Brushes workers also took advantage of the pits to form an angling club of their own from which they have derived much pleasure over the years.
And a still later activity at the pits had been that of sailing.
But if I am ever along that road on a dark night and see ahead a white-clad figure spreading his arms I shall think first of all not of a policeman but of the ghost of an ancient umpire still signalling wides sent down by Clarke or Lilywhite or Wisden or other members of that famous team.
I now know a man who has not only seen that solid beer I have talked about but has actually drunk some.
He is Mr. Sidney White, of 10 Denmark Street, Bletchley, who for the past 41 years has worked for Metalin at Fenny Stratford.
At his home the other morning he told me: ”It happened when I was about 17 or so and not long after I joined Metalin’s. There was an old derelict building there which had been the old brewery and still had the Cave sign on it.
“We were clearing out a loft when we came across quite a number of old tins of about 6lb size. They were rusty on the outside and some had rusted all through, but they were still clean and shiny inside.
“We found they were full of a very dark greyish-brown powder. Originally it could have been in slabs or blocks and have crumbled over the years, but it was definitely powder when I saw it.
“We realised this was the solid beer that used to be made there, so I took a bit home and all the rest was thrown away.
“At home I made it up and found it was beer all right, though I cannot now remember whether it was mild or bitter or anything else about it except that it was beer and I wasn’t poisoned. In fact, I had foregotten(sic) the whole thing until I was reminded of it by your peace(sic) in the Gazette.”
So there you are. On Mr. White’s assurance nobody had been kidding anybody about Fenny’s solid beer because he’s had some and has lived to tell the tale 40 years afterwards.
Incidentally, he also tells me that a vine grew outside that long-since-demolished building, but neither of us is going to talk about solid champagne.