There's no other word to describe the cricket ground at Hagley Hall, in Worcestershire, other than 'beautiful'. The history of the Hall, the cricket club and its friendly, yet competitive nature, was enough for Sky Sports to include it as one of three clubs in their 'Club Life' series during this summer's Ashes contest.
This year Hagley Cricket Club celebrates its 175th Anniversary, making it one of the oldest clubs in the country. The Lyttleton family, who have resided in the Hall for the past 500 years, were the driving force behind the club and still play an important part today.
The club was formed in 1834, two years before the first county cricket club. It was the year in which Britain had three Prime Ministers (Grey, Melbourne and Peel), the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported and the trades union movement was effectively created in Dorchester. Westminster Bank, Harrods and Rimmel were founded and Charles Darwin sailed around the world in HMS Beagle. Queen Victoria ascended to the throne three years later!
No local records exist from the early period but, at the time, the side would have been made up by members of the Lyttleton family, household staff and other local dignitaries. Large country houses would play games against other houses or travelling professional sides, and often large sums would be wagered on the results of these challenge matches.
The earliest written references to the club can be found in the Parish magazines of the 1860s reporting that "the club had 49 members" in 1862.
During the four years of the First World War, no cricket was played at Hagley and it took until 1920 for the square to be restored to an acceptable standard. From then on the square was regularly maintained by hand using a twelve inch push mower.
Mowing of the outfield was not allowed by the tenant farmer, so the condition of the outfield varied from season to season depending on the 'grazing' habits of the farmer's cows. The square was protected by various types of fencing which had to be taken down before and replaced after each game.
The condition of the outfield made scoring very interesting as there were no boundaries until the mid 1920s. There are stories of fielders taking so long to find the ball that one of the skills a captain had to acquire was when to shout "lost ball" to stop the batsmen running.
The ground itself was not fenced until 1959 when the outfield could at last be mown. In 1962, the first Sunday cricket game was played at Hagley, although it had to be finished before the 6.00pm Evensong. In 1975 a licenced bar was installed in the clubhouse, which probably changed that rule!
Hagley 1st XI play in Division 2 of the Worcester County League and, like many clubs, relies on an army of volunteers.
For many years the main driving force behind the club has been David Hill who has been with them since the age of ten. He started as a youth player in 1971, later becoming Captain of the 1st XI, then Secretary, Chairman and now Ground Manager. He and his faithful companion and club dog, Belle, spend many hours maintaining the standards of the ground.
The responsibility for maintaining the square falls to Stan Haycox who was persuaded to leave Old Halesonians CC fourteen years ago to come and work at Hagley.
In his day, Stan was quite a sportsman having played cricket and rugby for Old Halesonians and the West Midlands Police for many years.
Other members, John Birch and Tony Shaw, help cut the outfield twice a week using a Toro triple cylinder mower.
The square has been dressed, for many years, with Banbury loam. It generally provides a consistent even surface and serves the players well. It has thirteen strips that accommodate three adult teams (two Saturday and one Sunday) and three youth teams (under 11, 13 and 15). The club runs three senior Saturday teams with the third team playing on the local Haybridge School pitch. On Sundays the club generally play friendlies.
The club hire in the Worcestershire Association of Groundsmen (WAG) ECB/Channel 4 trailer for end of season renovations, and they begin straight after the last match which, this year, will be on 12th September. This gives them an early start to their renovations.
Stan and David undertake the bulk of work, enlisting other club members to help carry the loam and help spread and brush it in. The square is scarified in several directions and finished in the line of play, applying 6-8 bags of loam to each strip and overseeding with a mix of dwarf perennial rye grasses - 60% Bareine and 40% Bartwingo - seeding at a rate of between 35-50gms/m2.
David hires the WAG Groundsman spiker and aerates the square a couple of times between October and December. In January the club hire in a vertidrain to deep aerate the square.
During the winter months the square is fed to maintain plant health and colour. In the same period the outfield receives little attention other than cutting around 25mm to maintain grass growth.
The club do not have mobile covers but use a flat sheet that was once part of the famous Edgbaston Brumbrella. However, it is not easily managed, especially by just one or two people. But the square is relatively quick drying and, anyway, Stan firmly believes players get better experience playing on unprotected pitches!
A core sample taken during my visit showed the square to be in good condition with very little thatch, no visible root breaks and rooting beyond 225mm.
Stan, who will be retiring from this labour of love at the end of this season, gives the wicket a good roll' for at least twenty minutes, and possibly longer, when preparing for Saturday games. He rolls at two speeds depending on requirements - either one or one and a half miles an hour. It's a job he actually enjoys (perhaps a rarity amongst cricket groundsmen), no doubt because of the peace and tranquility of the setting.
The wicket is prepared over a ten to fourteen day period depending on the weather, which determines how long he actually gets. He uses a Lloyds Paladin to cut the wickets - the club buy all the equipment outright. He drops the height of cut in three stages, keeping some grass on and using the weight of the roller to help colour the strip. Creases are marked out us
ing emulsion paint as it is cheap and very effective.
With extra fixtures this year, as part of the 175th Anniversary celebrations, Stan and David have had to carefully plan how and when each wicket is used.
Once a wicket has been finished with, usually after three games, it is soaked, sarrell rolled and seeded to aid recovery. Rabbits and moles frequently cause damage to the outfield and evidence of mole activity appeared dangerously close to the square last year. Other pests they have to deal with are peacocks and geese from the Hall, which wander over and cause the odd bit of damage. Disease is mainly red thread which is soon controlled with a dose of feed.
This year, as part of their Ashes coverage, Sky Sports featured Hagley, along with Cairns Fudge CC from Oxfordshire and Ireland's Merrion CC, in their Club Life lunchtime feature.
The first programme included a look around the impressive interior of the Hall and an interview with the current 'Lyttleton' incumbent and club president, the 12th Viscount Cobham.
It's a great bonus for the club to be seen celebrating their 175th year in front of millions of cricket loving viewers.
The Lyttleton family are still actively involved with the club and continue to help and support it in many ways. The club has always enjoyed their hospitality and remain grateful for the continued opportunity to play in the glorious setting of Hagley Hall and, even though the ground and facilities have been improved over the years, it still retains the feel of a quintessential English cricket ground.