The village of Abbotskerswell lies a few miles south of Newton Abbot in typical 'patchwork' Devon countryside. Its most famous son is John 'Babbacombe' Lee - the man they could not hang - having survived three attempts to end his life thus. He was a known thief and, in 1885, was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay near Torquay on 15 November 1884.
The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm. Despite claiming his innocence, he was sentenced to hang. After three failed attempts to end his life, all on the same day, his sentence was commuted to life. He was later released from prison and made his living by narrating his story to anyone who would listen.
Just a few years after all this notoriety, in 1898, the village cricket club was formed on land provided to them by a Miss Hillard adjacent to her Marystowe house. She also donated 'kit' for the gentlemen of the village to go about their game.
I stumbled upon this quaint little cricket ground whilst driving through the village on my way to Newton Abbot racecourse. Not one for missing a potential article, I called in to find three of the club's longest serving members hard at work getting the ground ready for the new season.
Eighty-two year old Tony Bowhay has served the club for the best part of fifty years as a player, groundsman and chairman and is the current president still actively doing what he can for the club. Working alongside him was Joe Clowes, the current fixture secretary, and Barry Hedger, a former player who continues to serve the club, racking up over thirty years service.
Tony was keen to explain the virtues of the club and fill me in on the history of the club and ground and what work they had done, over the years, to improve the facilities.
"The motive for Miss Hillard's kindness is not known," began Tony, "but the date is accurate, as the story was related to me by my grandfather, William Elliott, who was one of the original team members."
After seven years of playing at Marystowe, in 1905, the club moved to Farmer Widdicombe's field at Berry Meadow which remained the club's home for the next twenty-five years.
"Various ground moves followed," continued Tony, "before the club settled at our current Two Mile Oak home at the end of the 1975 season, courtesy of the landowner Bernard Mills. Throughout that winter, the members built the existing clubhouse and prepared the cricket square.
It was a wonderful achievement in such a short space of time, and Bernard Mills kindly granted the club a lease - a security that had taken seventy-five years to achieve."
In 1979, Bernard Mills died and the freehold of the Two Mile Oak ground was offered to the club for £7,000. Tony, along with then members David Wheeleker and Alistair Rooth, coordinated the raising of the necessary funds. Grants were obtained from various sources and, with large donations from villagers, plus various other fund raising activities, the club realised the money within just eight weeks. "Our future was secure," says Tony proudly.
"In 1983, the club members voted to join the Devon League, and this was probably the most important decision we ever made, other than buying the ground," he says.
The club now run four senior teams and a plethora of junior and youth teams. The 1st XI play in the Devon Cricket League A Division, the 2nd XI in B division and the 3rd XI in the league's E Division. There is also a Sunday XI who play in the South Devon League.
Youth teams are provided for Colts, U10, U11, U13, U15, U17 and U19, all of whom play in the South Devon Youth Cricket League.
Such a depth of teams is laudable for a village cricket team and you can almost touch the passion that Tony exudes.
In his typically enthusiastic manner, he went on to explain how the club manages to raise the funds needed to maintain the teams and the ground. "We organise regular car boot sales at the ground, at least three a season, and this generates a fair sum of money each year. We have to make sure they do not damage the outfield though," he says with a smile.
"In recent years, we've been successful in gaining funds from the Landfill Communities Fund via Viridor Credit, who provided the club with £20,000 to help buy our new John Deere tractor, Dennis mower and Poweroll."
"Other funds are secured by regular fund raising events, bar takings and selling sponsorship boards, all of which keep the club running on a day to day basis. We do not pay players and simply pride ourselves on developing local talent and bringing them on through the junior and senior sides."
Whilst the grounds have been tended for many years by Tony, with help from Joe and Barry, plus a number of others as required, he decided to pass on the duties to Paul Mitchell, who was keen to take on the role. "I am, after all, eighty-two and simply can't manage what I used to be able to do," he comments, somewhat regretfully.
Paul, himself a former player, level 2 ECB coach and qualified umpire, took on the role of Head Groundsman two years ago. He has attended a number of cricket groundsmen training courses and is keen to put into practice some of the things he has been taught.
The square is Surrey loams and provides ten match pitches, three practice pitches and three junior pitches. The club has also invested in a two bay net practice area which they installed themselves.
The outfield slopes on one side and can become boggy when the adjacent pond floods, fortunately only usually during the winter months, otherwise it drains well and keeps a good coverage of grass throughout the playing season.
The outfield is cut with a set of Lloyds Leda gangmowers set at 20mm, sometimes two or three times a week depending on growth. The square is kept at 10mm and brought down to the playing height of 3-4mm during a standard ten day preparation. A Ransomes Super Certes 51 cylinder mower and Jacobsen 22 with floating head are used. Paul also uses a Dennis FT 610 for verticutting.
Paul confesses that the recent purchases from Devon Garden Machinery - a John Deere 4410 compact tractor, new Poweroll 12 roller and Dennis FT 610 - have made his job a lot easier.
He hires in a verti-drain to undertake deep aeration work to decompact the outfield, usually in March. He also hires in a tractor mounted scarifier to renovate the square in September. His end of season renovations are centred on a good clean out, scarifying in three directions, topdressing with loam and overseeding with rye grass.
Paul is an avid Pitchcare member who constantly uses the site for keeping up with products and services. He also purchases seed, fertiliser and weedkiller from the online shop and enjoys reading the message board and magazine.
He is keen to continue Tony's good work and further improve the bounce on the square. After taking some soil samples, we could see that root depth was good at 225mm and there were no root breaks, giving the best indication that the work carried out on the square over previous years had been consistent.
As a self employed accountant, Paul is able to juggle his work commitments, but confesses that he spends time "most days" down at the club to keep on top of the workload. "During the playing season, the number of games mean that you are at the club nearly every day, but I am lucky that I do have willing and able volunteers to help me out."
There are plans to refurbish the old wooden clubhouse or, perhaps, even replace it with a new building, so the fundraising efforts look like they will be continuing for a good while yet.
Abbotskerswell Cricket Club has been in good hands for many years and will continue to provide a valuable community asset for the village and surrounding communities.
It is a testament to Tony, Paul and their fellow volunteers - and the many hundreds of other volunteers around the UK - that cricket clubs are able to function and survive.
Without these dedicated individuals the game of cricket would be in serious decline, and it is important that club members recognise and support the role of the volunteer groundsmen by helping to provide the necessary finances to equip them with the right machinery and materials to maintain the grounds.
As Tony concludes; "you cannot put a price on the value a sports club brings to the community, especially when you take into account how many people actually come to use the facility over the year, wherever it be playing cricket, socialising or simply visiting the car boot sales. It becomes an essential part of the fabric of the local community. My only worry is that we need more young people to get involved as volunteers, so that we remain viable and sustainable for the next generation of up and coming cricketers."
People should be 'hanging' on his every word!