Reading Brian Levison’s excellent coffee table book Remarkable Cricket Grounds prompted a pondering or three. In the acknowledgements section the author highlights that he has only watched cricket at half a dozen of the seventy-eight grounds featured in the tome, a statistic that prompted an audible “Pah!” at such a low number and an undertaking to discover how many my personal tally could beat that of Mr Levison. Such hubris proved misplaced though as counting my travels revealed that I actually fell one ground short of Mr Levison’s total. (I had managed to score a Hampshire Cricket League half century at Swan Green, featured in the introduction but that probably doesn’t count) Hence the pondering. With a little effort my personal tally could be increased whilst experiencing some of cricket’s more interesting venues.
One obvious opportunity resided just a short jaunt down the A27. Thirteen or so miles from my personal Blighty located on an outcrop jutting into Portsmouth Harbour is Portchester Castle, a medieval citadel and Roman fort wedged in between Fareham and Portsmouth. Part of the Southwick estate and managed by English Heritage, the castle is one of the area’s popular visitor attractions. Nevertheless, it is one type of visitor that proves intriguing. For within the inner sanctum of the castle’s walls lies a cricket pitch, home of the eponymous team’s third XI. Thus, thoughts of an afternoon mooching around the boundary edge inside the bailey hoping to see a cavalier batsman launch a ball into the nearby moat or the smote a delivery over the walls into the adjacent harbour prove most intriguing. Somewhen in mid July seems an ideal juncture to make the short journey down the aforementioned zone 2 road.
Upon approaching the entrance one ponders how we are going to pass the gate without having to pay an admission fee just to watch some cricket. Reality dictates that entrance inside the walls is gratis; a charge is only incurred if one wishes to enter the castle area itself. Reality dictates another stark truth though. Today is not mid July but early April. The cricket ground is not populated by players in traditional whites but just a smattering of people out enjoying the glorious early spring sunshine. The club cricket season may be less than a month in the distance but the future proves rather uncertain for this beautiful ground. One missive listed toward the end of October threatened to undermine my initial idea. The Hampshire League’s new structure for the 2017 season only included two teams for Portchester both of whom, according to the club’s website, would play at Cams Hill School. Later correspondence with the club confirmed that the third team had been disbanded and there would be no representation of the club at the castle. No shots into the moat, no idling around the boundary within touching distance of the castle walls. Neither of Portchester Castle’s two teams would actually play at the eponymous structure.
Amateur cricket has suffered from falling playing numbers for many years now and the loss of another team is hardly a surprise. Similarly, playing grounds come and go as the sport moves in line with society but the uncertain future of such a beautiful location does leave one with a sense of melancholy and concern. Losing a council ground liberally decorated with dog excrement is unlikely to provoke much mourning but such a unique ground deserves more. With no permanent, regular team in situ one wonders how much of the sport will be played on this pitch over the upcoming summer, if any. And if there are no regular visitors then one ponders how long the ground’s owners will continue maintaining the square and outfield for the merest potential usage. Fortunately the ground is not going to become part of another concrete estate but once the sward starts to become a little more feral one would imagine it is ever more difficult to return it to former glories.
More detailed perusals of the playing area reveal a square possessing a rough and ready appearance and an outfield laced with daisies. Standing at one end of the square one can envisage shots heading toward the aforementioned moat and over the surrounding walls. The playing area is rather bijoux and both occurrences would not be beyond big-hitting batsmen. Under the sunshine of a Saturday afternoon the inner sanctum of the walls would prove a most beautiful spot to play or watch a game.
Neither scenario is likely to happen this summer though. At this early spring juncture one would expect to see the square cordoned off from the walkers, the young families and those indulging in picnics as the groundsman prepares the first wickets of the summer. The outfield would be trimmed and ready for red orbs to scuttle across its acreage. Instead the square is a little overgrown and returning to its form prior to cricket first being played on this enclosed patch of southern Hampshire. Most in attendance pay little or no attention to the slightly greener patch of grass in the middle of the field; the wedding in the adjacent church seems to attract more interest. For those who know what has happened on this patch in previous summers the whole area seems a little sad and forlorn. One of cricket’s most remarkable grounds may well have hosted its last match.