The old maxim dictates that time is a great healer but the chronological measurement is pushed for such an honour by the restorative genius of nature. Examples abound of stark, ravaged quarries that have enjoyed a renaissance in growth and foliage, formerly polluted sites that have been deserted by humans but have attracted resident wildlife and areas previously dominated by concrete and macadam that have slowly been reclaimed by the incredible force of nature as plants and shoots of green force their way through the seemingly impenetrable human creations.
Thus, four years on from the last game played at the famous venue, the cricket ground at Swan Green, near the small town of Lyndhurst ten miles or so to the west of Southampton, has quickly returned to its existence prior to the first match being played on the New Forest turf late in the nineteenth century. Cricket grounds come and go but this venue, akin to that at Portchester Castle, was one that formed a niche in the memory. Visually, Swan Green was a most bizarre spot to play cricket. Forged on the humps and hollows that are a feature of the New Forest topography, almost the entire playing area was uneven apart from the small square itself. Lord’s may be famous for its eight foot slope but such a feature pales into the background in comparison to Swan Green’s dramatic twenty foot drop in elevation from the pavilion side of the ground to that flanked by the A35 road that runs from Lyndhurst through the New Forest to Christchurch. Indeed, the thoroughfare itself adds to the quirky nature of the ground, cutting a shallow semi-circle portion out of the adjacent boundary whilst a manhole cover bizarrely resided at mid-on. The pavilion, bijoux and antiquated, sat almost apologetically in the lee of the surrounding trees. It was a humble structure and could not compete with the line of thatched cottages that reside behind the Lyndhurst end of the ground and the pub across the road that all helped to create a scene visualised in boxes of the confectionary variety.
Such frivolity came at a price though. Swan Green’s first XI achieved promotion to the Hampshire Cricket League’s Regional Division Two at the culmination of the 2005 summer but were denied the ascension due to the foibles of their home ground, the league decreeing that the venue was not suitable for the higher levels of the club game. Such a decision was arguably the beginning of the end for Swan Green and its famed home. The second XI disbanded soon after before lack of playing interest forced the sole remaining team to go the same way at the end of the 2013 summer.
One of the last seasons that the second XI competed in the Hampshire League culminated in a personal cricketing landmark. Five years before the club disappeared off of the league radar I managed to record my sole half-century in a modest cricketing career. The afternoon was arguably a microcosm of cricket on Swan Green. Upon arrival our car party looked at the playing area, decided that it surely wasn’t a cricket pitch and headed on toward Emery Down before realising our error. The hosts’ opening batsman circumspectly sized up our attack before launching a couple of sixes over the road into the adjacent field whilst a middle order dasher was not quite so polite, flaying a succession of shots toward the oak trees that stand sentry on the pavilion side of the outfield, some clattering into the branches, others avoiding foliage and traversing the boundary rope. Our bemused, slightly irritated bowlers and fielders were informed that the batsman usually played Hockey, hence his impressive hand-eye co-ordination. The opener’s peppering of the short, roadside boundary very much highlighted the elephant in the room with regards to the venue though.
Our team was tasked with chasing a formidable total but, on such a compact playing area, scoring quickly was perfectly feasible, even for visiting teams. Our progress was soon interrupted by another Swan Green bizarre quirk though as a succession of crunches and crackles emerged from the trees flanking the southern end of the ground, closely followed by a small herd of cows that elected to stage a stand in on the adjacent outfield. Cows stopped play, could that have made it into the following year’s Wisden? Needless to say the herd was soon ushered back from whence they had come and the serious business of cricket resumed. Upon reaching my half-century the thought of winning the game became ever more real. Hope proved ephemeral though as a lusty cut flew straight to the Hockey player stationed near the fence separating the ground from the road. His hand-eye co-ordination proved useful in the field too.
Perhaps the close proximity of the boundary and the main road that runs from Lyndhurst through the New Forest to Christchurch highlighted one of the reasons why the end was nigh for the club, underlined by the denial of the first XI’s promotion. Nevertheless, the ground proved beautiful in its own quirky manner. Face the bowling from the Lyndhurst end of the ground and a batsman could easily be distracted by the achingly beautiful thatched cottages that reside on the opposite side of road that heads across the New Forest to Emery Down. One could easily slip into the clichéd, whimsical world of idyllic, quintessential, chocolate box, countryside England but a more succinct description would be Midsomer Murders without the brutal criminal activity.
Turn one hundred and eighty degrees and one is faced with the forest part of the New Forest from which the herd of cows had emerged during that match almost ten summers previous, the trees providing a wonderful sense of intimacy that doesn’t quite cancel out the noise of the nearby road. Huddled into the trees on the opposite side of the ground to the road is the wooden shack that served as a most humble pavilion. In truth it was primitive and rather hopeless but the ground’s setting helped cover over any such deficiencies. Nowhere on the property was flat aside from the small area designated as the square; the humps and hollows that are part and parcel of the distinct New Forest terra firma so dominant and influential on the play. Strike a fine cover drive toward the north boundary and the chasing fielder’s calves would disappear in acquiescence with the topography, the batsmen never completely sure if the ball had reached the boundary. Indeed, one imagines that utilising the twenty foot slope of the playing area was likely an art form and a distinct advantage for the home team. Plenty of cricket is played on billiard table playing areas but the equivalent of a cricketing links golf course proffers the random vicissitudes that provoke such joy amongst aficionados of the sport when played along the seaside. It’s not perfect but incredibly intoxicating.
Sadly, not even Swan Green’s eccentric, idiosyncratic old venue was enough to save the club as the harsh realities of dwindling player numbers and higher demands on peoples’ time wreaked their influence. Cricket had moved on and moved away to pastures new and pastures different. The game had gone but the memories remain vivid of this curious, quirky little ground though. Our team played at better prepared, more orthodox venues but most have faded into the forgettory due to their lack of remarkableness. Unfortunately, memories are all that remain of Swan Green and its pleasing niche in the amateur cricket genre.