In the Shadows Part Two

Mention the name Stansted and almost every person that one is conversing with will assume that said mention is referring to the airport situated near the eponymous village some forty odd miles northeast of central London. For a few the name conjures much different connotations though. Add the word ‘Park’ onto Stansted and the reference morphs into something a long way, geographically and culturally, from the airport or what could, possibly, be construed as a business park residing in the airport hinterland.

Rather, Stansted Park refers to the palatial country house residence located amid the stunning beauty of the South Downs and the West Sussex countryside just a couple of lofted drives from the border with Hampshire. Now a Grade II listed building, the Edwardian house sits within the 1,800 acre estate and is owned by the charitable trust of the same name after being previously owned by the Earls of Bessborough. As is oft the case, cricket and the English country house are good bedfellows and Stansted Park possesses its own pitch and resident team. Indeed, the sport has a rich history on the estate dating back to 1741 when Slindon took on Portsmouth in front of a crowd reputed to number in excess of five thousand.

The current tenants have only been in existence for a decade but play a full schedule of fixtures across the summer months, including a selection of midweek T20 matches. The final of such contests offers a glorious opportunity to experience cricket in front of the house during the beguiling hours of early evening as Stansted Park take on Raymarine in what is likely to be a most social contest.

The team, ground and house feature on the front cover of the excellent tome The Country House Cricketer by Pete Langman, a publication that provided a serendipitous discovery of Stansted Park to this author and the close proximity to this author’s own residence further west along the M27 motorway. Arriving at such a contest can prove an awkward scenario though. Take in a day’s play at one’s local first class county headquarters and one can wander around, snap a few photos and take a pew at one’s leisure almost unnoticed. Such anonymity cannot be assumed at a friendly T20 match in midweek at a country house venue. One is very likely to prove conspicuous as one wanders around the boundary snapping photos or sitting leisurely in a fold-out chair due to not being part of either team or either’s small entourage. One’s local first class county expects spectators; one assumes that Stansted Park and Raymarine have assumed that there won’t be any at their showdown.

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Country House Cricket

In truth, the contest takes second place to the glorious nature of the location and the surrounds. The latest incarnation of Stansted House, constructed in 1903, features a beautiful red brick facade on the two main storeys. A third, smaller, equivalent pokes its head above a stone balustrade whilst a whitewashed cupola stretches into the ether, surrounded by half a dozen or so sentry chimneys seemingly protecting their virginal appearing brethren. Fronting this most magnificent home is a striking entrance featuring stone steps and neo-classical columns that provide a sense of grandeur. The setting and location of Stansted House are understandably most rural and most bucolic, a panorama of undulating fields and surrounding forests providing a beautifully pastoral scene on a late summer’s evening.

In contrast to the main residence, the dark wooden cricket pavilion serving the adjacent ground appears rustic and bijoux as it hunkers into the nearby forest on a small knoll of grass. Opposite the house is a gap in the trees that runs arrow straight toward Rowland’s Castle along which the ancient Monarch’s Way runs whilst the Broad Walk (a sort of shorter version of the Long Walk in Windsor Great Park) crosses not far from the cricket pitch’s western boundary.

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The latest contest in front of the grand house, a twenty over affair between Stansted Park and Raymarine, takes place on a breezy evening, with clouds scudding across the sky along with a fair dose of milky sunshine. Dare one utter such a thought after such a long, dry summer but there is a hint of autumn in the air.

As the house’s impressive clock approaches the appointed hour a rather charming bell is rung in the small pavilion to denote the start of play, akin almost to a first class contest. Play is leisurely and good natured as one would expect in such a grand setting, full of the idiosyncrasies and quirks that are part and parcel of the recreational game.

Stansted begin well but are pegged back by a couple of early wickets. Left handed Pete Clutterbuck ups the tempo with a swashbuckling innings, swinging the bat with cavalier gusto and emitting a clear, commanding cry of ‘Come on!’ after each connection; a modus operandi that keeps the scoreboard ticking along. Clutterbuck perishes in pursuit if runs but Tony Shrubshall is retired upon reaching 25, a rule that is oft adopted in such matches.

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Pete Clutterbuck on the charge

Stansted threaten to cut loose after Shrubshall’s exit but a flurry of wickets ushers the opening batsman back to the crease. His second tenure ends courtesy of a catch at deep mid-wicket as the hosts are bowled out for 124. Raymarine begin their pursuit with gusto, reaching 66-2 from their first ten overs despite a frugal pair of overs from the effervescent Clutterbuck. Stansted’s skipper rotates his bowlers and the changes reap rewards, particularly after the retirement of Dave Hickey and the dismissal of Matt Bradley. Wickets tumble rapidly amid the gathering gloaming and the freshening breeze. Dave Hickey returns at the fall of the penultimate wicket but the final wicket falls at the opposite end, handing the hosts a comfortable victory.

 

Victory is greated with much pleasure by the home team but one senses that the overall result is almost secondary to the simple joy of just playing the game, particularly in such beautiful surrounds. During the Stansted innings such an ethos, and the general persona of the club, was outlined by Pete Clutterbuck as he exuberantly explained that Stansted Park are not a league club but a Sunday equivalent with a selection of midweek matches, always on the look out for new players. Outside the pavilion a clapper board had been placed advertising as such to any lay passers-by. In a sport where leagues and competitions are oft paramount it is heart-warming to discover that the recreational side of the sport chugs along unassumingly but with great zeal. In the week leading up to this particular contest Wisden staff writer Rich Evans pondered whether friendly cricket was heading toward extinction. The existence of Stansted Park and their full summer schedule highlights that the concept still enjoys success in some quarters. In truth, playing anything else in such a glorious spot of southern England really would be churlish.

 

CHC Count: 2 of 12

 

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