Paul Edwards travels into the unknown

Buy the article

Lord’s and the Oval truly mean Zenith of hard-won fame, But it was just a village green Mothered and made the game. GD Martineau – The Village Pitch

I thought it was a daft idea and I nearly told Chris Waters as much. Early last October the cricket correspondent of the Yorkshire Post rang to say that he’d been contacted by Bernard Ginns, the paper’s former business editor, who’d asked if Chris knew anyone that might be interested in writing something about Burton Agnes CC, a village club in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The attraction, heaven help us, was that Queen Victoria was once staying overnight at nearby Burton Agnes Hall and, as her carriages drove down Woldgate on a perfect summer afternoon, she ordered the royal entourage to stop. She looked back at the Wolds and the sight of  Burton Agnes playing cricket against unnamed opponents. “This is my England,” she said. I

I didn’t want to go. For one thing, I’d just finished covering the county season, a six-month stint that had been interrupted by a major operation. The idea of concluding my long-term convalescence in the flat on which I paid the mortgage was appealing. For another, village cricket is one of cricket writing’s biggest clichés. There are only so many tear-arse blacksmiths, big-hitting farmers and bespectacled spinners that the genre can take. All the same, I agreed with Chris that Bernard should contact me and I’d think about it.

Bernard’s email was full of an enthusiasm I would come to recognise in other Burton Agnes folk. Did I think a feature was possible? Either way, it would be excellent if I could attend the end-of-season dinner and awards evening. Craig White, the club’s president, was going to be there, along with Ryan Sidebottom. Full disclosure: it didn’t harm that they agreed to put me up for a couple of nights but nor did it clinch matters. I was gradually warming to the notion of visiting a cricket club I didn’t know in a part of England I’d last visited in 2005. I checked train times…

“Do you mean the ‘Royal’ Burton Agnes CC?” asks Dave Jackson. We are sitting outside the club’s pavilion on a relatively benign Thursday afternoon in early November. Eighty or so yards away, a groundsman is marking out the lines of a football pitch. Behind us on the left is a bowling green but Burton Agnes also hosts archery and used to welcome a clay-pigeon shoot. Around an hour previously, Dave had picked me up from Beverley station and now the club’s manager is politely correcting my first question, although his query is delivered with self-deprecating humour.

“I have the privilege of being the manager of the cricket team and have been now for 22 years,” continues Dave. “It’s everything that village life used to be in a quiet corner of England we’re trying to hang on to. They had seven players when I started and I was asked because they knew I was an enthusiast. It’s just one of those institutions that’s worth nurturing and enriching and preserving in any way we can. We’re a Thursday evening cricket team that plays in a distinctive style. The emphasis is on having a good time with some chums and sharing a good game of cricket. But for goodness sake, keep it relaxed and keep it enjoyable.” wondered how many other clubs number relaxation and enjoyment among their priorities. Probably far more than I assumed, for within an hour of arriving in Burton Agnes I was recalling the village clubs where I had spent some of the happiest afternoons of my life: North Cerney in Gloucestershire, for whom I had played with quite spectacular incompetence in the early 1980s; Hinton Charterhouse in Somerset, for whom Scyld Berry is the all-time leading wicket-taker; Filleigh in Devon, which boasts one of the prettiest grounds in the country – Harvey Bainbridge, the bassist with Hawkwind, used to turn out for them. My professional commitments no longer allow me to cover such clubs and I welcomed the reconnection. My cricketing life before I entered a press-box tumbled out. I thought of RC Robertson-Glasgow’s words in his autobiography 46 Not Out:

“Sometimes I look back at reports of games in which I took part, and I have thought: ‘And are these arid periphrases, these formal droolings, these desiccated shibboleths really supposed to represent what was done and how it was done? What has become of that earthy striving, that comic, tragic thing which was our game of cricket?’”

The line-marker came within a few yards of the pavilion and we exchanged pleasantries. I asked Dave why cricketers joined Burton Agnes.

“Reputation,” he replied delphically. “There may be other teams who are a little bit more serious in their approach to cricket but we normally get a couple of people each year who ask if there’s room for them to join and that’s normally because of what they’ve heard about the club. We have a lot of fun. In every game we award a bottle of port for an outstanding moment in batting, bowling or sheer stupidity. Twice this summer, someone won a bottle for failing to take a catch and crashing through a hedge.”

All of which is not to say that the results do not matter to the Agnes Men. The club’s only team plays in the top division of the Bridlington and District Evening Cricket League (B&DECL) and has finished runners up in each of the last three seasons, a fact which still rankles. The season consists of 14 T20 matches and a sprinkling of knockouts. The league remains very local although one game is played at distant Wetwang, which is a dozen miles from Burton Agnes. Some players turn out for other clubs on a Saturday and a couple were in the Folkton and Flixton side that won the National Village Knockout six years ago. Yet playing for Burton Agnes still matters very much to them. Perhaps it is difficult to find a club that understands the line between caring about the result of a cricket match and yet not caring too much; tougher still to carry that knowledge onto the field. But spectators cherish such things. I recalled Malcolm Guite’s Poet’s Corner column in the Church Times after he had come across a game at Linton in Cambridgeshire:

“There is something very satisfying about village cricket; for there you see a great sport returning to its humble origins. To witness a game in which there are more players than spectators is to be reminded what play itself is: a thing done delightfully for its own sake, with no thought of pleasing crowds, selling tickets or, heaven forbid, promoting products… Reflecting on my pleasure in the whole scene, I realised that it was not simply the pleasure of an isolated moment but something richer and more cumulative: an amalgam of memory and attention.”

Dave Jackson is central to all this at Burton Agnes. A successful businessman, he has the air of someone with a perpetual to-do list. More significantly for the cricket club, he funds a number of events and covers some costs. “I suppose I’ve put a bit of money into the club,” he admitted. “It’s an easy thing to do. We put some cash into relaying the square and rebuilding the bowls pavilion. Our business sponsors the annual dinner and prize-giving. There used to be four divisions in the B&DECL – which shows how village cricket has declined. But that’s all the more reason to put a bit of extra effort in to make Burton Agnes interesting and a fun team to play for. The dinner is another embellishment.”

That generosity is never taken for granted by the villagers and it extends beyond money. Early on Friday afternoon Dave took me to see Flamborough Head and we visited Sewerby CC, whose ground is perched almost on the cli! edge. We continued our conversation about village cricket. All too predictably, I thought of Alan Ross and told Dave about the matches played at Clayton, the Sussex village where Ross lived for 25 years, and the behaviour of Daisy, his much beloved bearded collie. “Sometimes there would be sheep and cowpats in the outfield,” Ross writes in Coastwise Lights, “and Daisy, when I was batting, used to insist on taking up a position at square leg, from which she declined to be moved.” Dave is tickled by this story and is certain he knows someone whose pooch could be trained to behave similarly. Other team managers, I reflect silently, would sign players. This one plans to recruit an obedient dog.

By now, though, my fondness for Burton Agnes was growing. That morning I had shared a pot of coffee with Albert Boynton, the club’s oldest player, who made his debut against Flamborough in 1966 and celebrated his 70th birthday this year. Albie looks after the square, plays when he’s needed, umpires when he’s not and last season won a bottle of port for being hit on the head when batting against South Dalton. As soon as the maize has been harvested in the field adjoining the cricket ground, Albie goes in search of the cricket balls that have been whacked over the hedge during the season. Last summer, he found half a dozen.

“I’ve lived in Burton Agnes all my life and worked on the estate which is now owned by the Cunliffe-Listers,” he says. “I still do a few days for them if they’re short. The cricket club’s changed a lot. When I started all the villages had a team and there were games almost every day. In one summer we played 22 games in 21 days because we played two knockouts on one Sunday. We used to play on the lower side of the village and all you had was a square in the middle of a field where cows grazed. The Brid Cricket League fell through, as did the Independent Cricket League, and we’ve just ended up with the evening league.

“You need to find the balance between victory and enjoyment. When we play out at South Dalton there’s just a happy atmosphere about the whole occasion but there’s no quarter in the games against Brandesburton or Driffield. I keep thinking I’ll have to pack up one day but I’ll keep doing it as long as I love it as much as I do now.”

Albie’s attachment to Burton Agnes and its cricketers was plain that evening when he, like almost all other players, went up to receive an award at the annual dinner. Ryan Sidebottom had opted to work at the World Cup, so his place was taken by club captain Rob Norman, who donned wig, headband, Yorkshire retro shirt and left-arm over the wicket attitude for an impersonation that reduced Craig White to helpless laughter. Such behaviour was perfectly attuned to the mood of the evening. As far as I could see, no one had really dressed up for the occasion and people sat where they wanted. There was none of the suited and booted formality that often kills cricket club dinners and encourages younger players to stay away. There were no speeches but almost every award was accompanied by an anecdote before “Ryan” gazed admiringly at the recipients. “They’re quite messy do’s sometimes, those dinners,” mused Jazz Fisher, who owns Salt, the excellent fish restaurant in Bridlington where Dave had taken a group of us for supper the previous evening. But really there was no mess; there were just a lot of happy faces and a collective enthusiasm to celebrate the game that had brought them  together. This, I thought to myself, was the occasion I nearly missed.

Dave drove me back to Beverley on Saturday morning. Apparently the celebrations following the dinner had carried on in the farmhouses and garages cum bars around the village. Some of us, on the other hand, had not even managed the chimes at midnight. Yet as my train sped back to Liverpool I reflected that I had been blessed with an insight into a part of the English game it was all too easy to neglect. No one had talked about the Ashes, the IPL or even the County Championship come to that. One imagines they want both England and Yorkshire to prosper but they can do little to bring that about. What the Agnes Men can do is o!er visiting team a pizza and a pint at Carnaby’s Manor Court Hotel, where the dinner was held. By doing so they ensure that the simple pleasure derived from playing a sport is shared with most of their opponents. “Everyone looks forward to every game,” said Fred Langton, who has played for the club for around eight years. “I don’t know a single member of the team I’m not friends with.” Robertson-Glasgow would have loved it.

History or Folklaw?

It was July 1947 and 15-year-old Albert Boynton lay on his bed, hands clasped behind his head and dreamed of the evening to come. He opened his eyes, kissed the photograph of a topless Vera Lynn that he kept under his pillow and bounced downstairs, where his mother was arranging a vase of chrysanthemums she hoped would draw a compliment from the young parson after Sunday morning’s service.  Their eyes met for a moment and a look of anxiety flashed between them, soon ended by a single bark from the family’s collie who could sense the unease in the cottage kitchen. “I’m away then” Albert stated in a volume and depth of voice that asserts the first footsteps of a boy into the shoes of a man.  The sense of pride that shone in the maternal eyes was tempered with the worrying knowledge of the trials, pitfalls and dangers that he would be facing during his journey into manhood that night.

“Good luck Albey” she murmured to herself as he swung the wooden gate closed behind him, no tears, just a solitary sob and a lungful of the flowers subtle scent.   Striding down the middle of the street into the small village that the family called home, neighbours and passers-by noticed that Albert looked good.  His jet-black hair, cut with short back and sides in the style of the day, was heavy with brillo cream (greasy stuff made from a mixture of mineral oil and beeswax, a forerunner of hair gel) and his compact, sinewy frame, hardened by farm work after leaving school at the age of 9, moved easily under his father’s de-mob suit.  Chin up and chest out, that was the way of the Boynton men and Albert was going to be a man tonight.  He walked with a jerky movement as, if you watch any old films, everybody did in those days and although the sun had done its best to turn the earth into a scorched, barren tinderbox, the only colours to be seen were differing shades of black and white (it really was an awfully long time ago you know).

It was a short walk to the recreation ground which was at the back of the large manor house situated in the verdant, undulating landscape of the Yorkshire Wolds.  After the pub, the sports ground was the focus of village life.  Bowls, football, archery and cricket were the traditions that bound the village folk together and provided welcome respite from their daily toils, farming the fertile lands to feed the undernourished population of post-war Britain.  Albert nodded to a flight of giddy young maidens who were seated under a swaying oak tree, saving a longer gaze for Mabel Cappleman whom he hoped to find in his arms before the clock struck 11 that night.

Standing, hands on hips, young Albey stared intently and with great pride at what must have been the most assiduously prepared field to be found in English village cricket.  He had spent every spare moment that week, cutting, raking, rolling the grass in anticipation of that week’s grudge match against a full strength Driffield side.  Even the stumps had been sharpened to points to ensure that they anchored strongly into the hard- baked earth.  The sky was now an intimidating blanket of pulsating grey clouds and although a brief shower of cooling rain looked to halt proceedings, nothing was going to stop the assembled teams from doing battle with bat and ball.

As a player, this was to be Albert’s first opportunity to represent his village and the assembled crowd which included his proud parents knew that the team needed a first-class spin bowler if victory was to be had.  The Agnes batsmen had played with venom, aiming to fire every ball to the thickly hedged boundary’s but their running had been lacklustre and with only 1 over remaining in the second innings, the Driffield chaps needed 5 runs to take the game.   This was Albey’s moment, he was directed to bowl the last over by the Agnes skipper, Julius Norman, a renowned Bon Viveur with a shock of black hair and a habit of shooting his cuffs from the sleeves of his skippers jacket.

Albey stepped to the crease with a confidence and nonchalance that masked his quaking nerves.  The first five balls were deliveries that the batsmen could get hold of, some fell short and rolled harmlessly away to the keepers waiting gloves and a couple were dabbed back towards the bowler.  No runs were scored and no wickets were taken.  The final ball of the match was a disaster for Agnes.  Distracted by the sight of Mabel’s dress blowing up in the strengthening breeze, Albey sent a poor ball that was gleefully smashed for 6 to win the game for Driffield.

The Agnes supporters reaction to defeat was heart-breaking.   The ladies cried, the men looked at the ground and then cried and Mabel ran, wailing back to the village.  Albey knew that he and only he had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory and his shame, humiliation and embarrassment was complete.  The rest of the Agnes players returned to the pavilion, turning their backs on poor Albert who was dejectedly retrieving the stumps from the middle.  Eventually, he too made his way back and was about to enter the changing room when he found an older man, hands in his pockets, blocking his path.

It was Jack Futter, an Agnes supporter from a nearby village who had a reputation as a drunkard and a womaniser.  “tonight Albert, you bowled absolutely shite and Mabel Cappleman is coming back to Noth Botton with me”.  Without pause or hesitation, Albey took one of the stumps he had just collected and drove it with every ounce of passion that he was feeling, into Futters eye, killing him stone dead.

Albey was most definitely not a model prisoner.  Sentenced to 15 years in HMP Hull, his strong accent, peculiar to his village and sounding more like Danish than English meant that he could not be understood by the guards or his fellow prisoners.  This led to many fights with both staff and lags and Albey soon earned a fearsome reputation.  Whenever the sound “Naaw fella” left his lips, somebody would find themselves sweeping their teeth up with a dustpan and brush.  His 15 years were mainly spent in solitary confinement, but the day eventually came when the gates opened, and our hero walked free.

On his return to Burton Agnes, Albert walked straight back into the team and his role as grounds-man.  Nobody dare to oppose him or question him but once back in the arms of his kinfolk and community, he renounced his violent ways and became probably the nicest man in the village.

Roll the clock forward to 2018 and Albey is still a valued and admired stalwart of the Royal Burton Agnes Cricket Club and on Thursday the 26th of July, turned out to play against Driffield at the ripe old age of 102.  The result of the match was unfortunately the same.  The Driffield lot were a team of good cricketers and the Agnes lot struggled to match them with bat or ball.  Richard Watts, a man who rarely takes to the field nowadays and when he does it is always under some duress, hit a lovely 4 which earned him a bottle of port. I think he quite enjoyed himself.  And Albert Boynton?  After all those years in solitary and with no female company, he developed an incredibly strong right arm with which he now puts to good use when bowling.  He can turn the ball like a wizard, a sorcerer who takes wickets whenever he gets the opportunity.  In this game he took two.

Driffield beat Agnes by some wickets and runs and things and Albert stopped for a kiss and a cuddle with Mabel who is 98 on the way home from The Manor.