Goodwood Cricket Club, on the Estate of the Duke of Richmond in West Sussex, is almost certainly one of the oldest in the world. A receipt for brandy, given to players there, is dated 1702. Goodwood House, one of England's finest country houses, is its backdrop and it's but a mile or two from Goodwood Racecourse. Neville Johnson dropped by to see what cricket is like there now and how the ground is looked after
Arriving at Goodwood Cricket Club, you can't help but be struck by how open and tranquil it is, yet with a feeling of grandness and history. There's no one at the ground except Richard Geffen, Club Chairman and the man who takes care of the playing surface. We chat next to the scoreboard in the club's thatched pavilion, built by Estate workers in 1953.
Straightaway, there's absolutely no doubt that this is a club with a notable past. James Lillywhite, England's first captain, played there whilst an employee of the Duke of Richmond and, further back, an earlier Duke had been a backer for Thomas Lord's enterprise in starting the 'home of cricket' in London's St John's Wood. It was a gambling sport in the early days, every bit as much as the horseracing that Goodwood is so famous for. Wagers between rival teams were normal and a record of the rules for a match between the 2nd Duke of Richmond's team and a team from Godalming dated 1727 is said to be the oldest written rules of cricket still in existence today, pre-dating the MCC's Laws of the Game by a long way.
"If you worked here, you played here. That's how the club was from the early 18th century pretty much until after the Second World War," says Richard.
"Nowadays, the present Duke of Richmond, who is a keen cricket follower, and his son the Earl of March, who took over management of the Goodwood Estate in 1994, are both very supportive of the club and its future development."
Before the pavilion was built, players used to change in a tent, and I can remember when I first played here thirty or so years ago there was no electricity. After September match finishes, changing was a hurried business.
Gradually, since the fifties, the Goodwood club team has become an open one, with players from the local area joining. It has a distinct characteristic in that virtually all its matches are at home, and nearly always on a Sunday, which especially suits players with families. There's no better place for a picnic and no bigger playground for children. Currently, there are eighteen playing members and, over the season, everybody gets games.
All fixtures are friendlies and, until only a year or so back, they played declaration games. Now though, it is predominantly forty over format. Richard tells me that, in last Sunday's match, they called someone back after an LBW decision because he'd nicked the ball onto his pad, so there's in-built cricket spirit on top of all the history.
The club has been forging strong links with Chichester club Priory Park, which uses the ground every Saturday from May to August for its 3rd and 4th team league games and, on some evenings, for its junior sides. It's a good source of income - in cash or kind - and it keeps the pitches in full use, bringing in more players interested in playing for Goodwood too.
In recent times, there's been a little concern about the future, especially in attracting players and looking after the square and outfield but, as Richard tells me, big changes could be just around the corner.
He started looking after the ground in 1986. He's now retired from a teaching career, latterly as head of a Dorset school. Before going into teaching, he had had some experience of cricket ground upkeep by, in his gap year, helping a groundsman in Yorkshire, so that's why he volunteered for the task at Goodwood.
"It was wonderfully peaceful in the evening after a day's work. We had great fun too, even when we got it wrong sometimes, like the time an off-colour wicket resulted from using the wrong fertiliser," he recalled.
Richard retired last summer and is now groundsman whenever he's needed and whenever it pleases.
"Three of us generally do the work. As well as myself, past chairman Tim Odell mostly does the outfield mowing, and Henry Whitby helps with strip mowing and rolling. I handle what you might call the planning and resource gathering. Being back and available most of the time means I can give more time to the pitches."
The ground is on downland turf. The square has twelve strips and it's always had a history of being slow and low. Richard uses Emerald Green 23 cricket mix and achieves good consistent cover.
The club wants to lift the level of performance and play, or at least investigate the possibility of doing this, particularly with a view to Priory Park playing more of its competitive matches there. Sussex County ECB inspectors were recently asked to come and look at the square and provide an opinion. They took core samples, measured levels, and did grass counts with a grid. Their report was due at the end of July and, when I talked to Richard, things were still on hold.
"We don't really want to trickle along with things as they've been. We want now to get the best possible playing conditions, but need help and guidance to achieve this, perhaps getting the square to Premiership level," said Richard.
"We're hoping that the ECB will suggest a programme of activity and there will be opportunities to apply for grants. All this, of course, will depend on the likely costs involved.
" Goodwood House has always been very supportive, but it's being looked at in a very different, much more practical way now. We're getting access to the facilities - notably equipment - of the Estate's two golf courses, the Downs and the Park, and already getting the benefit of the outfield being mowed by one of their Toro 3550-D fairway mowers. This is so much better than the old gangs and tractor set-up we've had for years and years."
"Previously, after the season end, we've had to verti-cut, but now we'll be able to do proper scarification thanks to the golf club. We don't yet know just how much of this we'll be doing ourselves or whether the golf clubs' greenkeepers will be giving us some of their time. We'll be happy either way, and this is a great step forward."
"Spreading sixty bags of Mendip Loam by hand is something I'll be glad to see the back of. Proper spreading equipment will save so much time and get the job done more accurately, not to say with less personal wear and tear."
It's all in the air right now, but there's clearly massive potential. The injection of professional help and equipment is going to make things so much better for the club, Richard is sure.
"Our one hundred percent amateur days may soon be behind us. Goodwood Estate does everything to a very high standard indeed and now wants to see the cricket at the same level."
Goodwood's Golf Course Manager Phil Helmn and his two head greenkeepers have embraced the prospect of getting involved with the cricket ground. Phil's already been to the ground to advise on outfield upkeep, and a greenkeeper has sprayed the outfield with herbicide, which is a new departure for the club, as no one in its ranks has certification and there's no sprayer anyway. It's now six weeks since spraying and there's not a weed in sight.
There's a strict organic regime for the Estate parkland and there are 10-metre barriers between fence lines where weedkillers cannot be used. Sheep regularly graze yards from the boundary, so any spraying is a carefully controlled exercise, which the greenkeepers are used to.
The sheep don't intrude, but Goodwood's celebrated Festival of Speed does, to the extent that the ground becomes what Richard calls a mini city of tents, food concessions, picnic areas and, of course, people. The ground does recover very quickly because it is so well looked after. Whilst the festival is on, the club play a couple of matches away - what the players call their tour games.
"This year, we've been brushing the outfield once a month and this has made a big difference to it," says Richard.
Goodwood House has always been very supportive of the club in every way. Alex Williamson, the Estate's CEO, has assured Richard that changes in infrastructure management will not in any way take away the independence the club has historically had. The Estate will always want people who come to the club to play to have a wholehearted involvement in its well-being and its place in the life of the Estate and its surroundings. "I'm very confident that this will be upheld, whatever happens in the way we look after the ground in future," said Richard.
However much things develop, Richard expects to continue doing pre-match preparation duties. It's the renovation aspects only where the Estate's golf facilities will lend a hand. Generally speaking, greenkeepers sign off for the day at around 2.00pm, so after that the machines are available for the cricket ground. Richard expects they will be getting plenty of friendly tuition on their usage.
Two areas where the Estate golf clubs won't be able to help are rolling and pedestrian mowing. They don't use a roller and the cricket club needs pitch mowers to be on site. Currently, the club uses an old tarmac roller. It's ugly but effective, though Richard does want to get a proper one.
"Hours of three-way rolling in March with the old road machine, because I had the time, has made quite a difference to bounce this season, and players have commented favourably on this," said Richard.
Paladin and Dennis mowers owned by the club for some seasons now continue to do the strip trimming.
"Getting rid, soon perhaps, of the big equipment we have to keep in the open behind the pavilion will be better for the park setting. We won't need a tractor in future and a new roller can be kept under cover, out of sight," said Richard.
An £1100 ECB grant recently enabled the club to purchase side cover additions to its pitch covers, plus a Waterhog for taking care of excess water on the run-ups and edges of the covered pitch area.
Richard maps out which match is on which strip for the whole season. What you might call key matches are in the middle of the square. Light verticutting and rolling gets carried out in the two weeks before each game, with watering as necessary with hosepipe and timer.
In the two or three days prior to a fixture, he'll cut the strip down to 4mm. It must be a pretty fair surface because, in the previous Sunday match, over 400 runs were scored and thirteen wickets taken. Richard will use each strip five times over a season.
The Goodwood Estate hosts a number of celebrated motoring events and the next one to affect the cricket ground is the Revival Festival in September when two teams of drivers play a cricket match with upwards of 600 spectators watching. Richard will mark a pitch with 1950s crease markings when there was no front foot rule. He doesn't imagine any of those playing will know the difference, but it's very much part of just how important tradition and style are to everything done on the Goodwood Estate.
As we continue chatting, a couple, accompanied by Rosemary Williams from the Estate, look approvingly at the pavilion and surroundings. Latterly, the ground is being considered for wedding ceremonies - but not receptions - on the steps of the pavilion, pretty much where we are sitting.
The buying power of the Estate is infinitely bigger than the club's has ever been, or will ever be, so the switch-over to be part of the whole Estate infrastructure will be a benefit all round. "Better pitches and less club outlay," enthuses Richard. "It's an exciting time, and it has certainly revitalised the club."