Cricket in a farmer's field

Cricket in a farmer’s field


In the changing room-cum-scorebox


The ancient roller, surely created here


Matthew, out

Spout House is not a place. You will struggle to find it on a map, while Messrs Google and Google direct you to the National Park’s page on the old Sun Inn, a remarkable thatched, cruck-framed pub that closed in 1914, but is preserved intact and can be visited during the summer months. The family that owned the old Sun Inn built the new Sun Inn next to it. As the National Park website notes, dryly, ‘from then time stood still.’ That family is the Ainsley clan, who served warm beer in the Sun Inn for generations, until just a few years ago, when it closed as William Ainsley became too frail to continue his work there.

In January 2013, William died and, on an evening of dazzling clarity and benign June warmth, my cricket team lined up beside Spout House’s side, while their captain spoke warm and tender words of tribute. William’s son, the latest William, stood alongside us, silent and fidgeting, then headed back down to the pub that remained his home. The captain later intimated, with suitable discretion, that the latest scion had mental difficulties that prevented him from carrying on the centuries-long family tradition.

Earlier, four of us had arrived by car, had driven up through the farmyard and into the steep field and parked by the new ‘shed’ that was the changing room and scorebox for the evening’s game of cricket. We wandered onto the field to find the pitch. Four lines of white paint had been employed to mark the wickets, but the grass was thick and long. Players from both sides arrived, parked up and inspected the field with degrees of humour. A few of the local players got a mower from the shed and wheeled it over, firing it up on the pitch. By 7, we were ready to play, the sun still high over the hills to the west.

Spout House is a vestige of other ages; to play here is to feel the burden of history as strongly as if playing at Lords in London. Matches have been contested here for at least 150 years. The most famous player of all time, WG Grace, was out first ball to a farmer’s boy and doubtless swore like a sailor as he strolled back to whatever shed they had back then. And the scene is utterly unchanged: the single road that passes beyond the bottom of the field, the great dry stone walls that form the boundaries, the old Sun Inn, the immense, ‘homemade’ heavy roller carved in situ.

We bowl first, and I enjoy the novelty of fielding down the hill, studying the swings of the bat to judge the ball’s direction, as I cannot see the action, so steep is the incline. The sheep have nibbled the field low, so there are no comedic hunts for the ball in long grass. I bowl an over and get clouted, high and handsome, onto the stable roof.

When we bat, I stand as umpire, the shadows now lengthening. We win, playing well in a game we might easily have lost. We shake hands and get back into our cars. The evening has had a surreal quality to it, in exaggerated, dazzling sunlight. That the sport clings on here is difficult to understand; it relies on a few players reconciling the past to the modern game, of batting in helmets upon on a farmer’s field on a blissful, unforgettable summer’s evening, at a place that does not exist. Like the very best things in life, it requires imagination.