The West Sussex village of Henfield is a surprisingly bustling hub, sandwiched between cosmopolitan Brighton and the historic market town of Horsham, recently voted the second most pleasant place to live in the country.
An affluent setting, Henfield hit the news recently with the passing of its most famous recent resident, horror fiction writer James Herbert, author of bestselling titles The Rats, The Fog and The Survivor, who spent a lifetime in the village penning these and other universally popular works. Millions enjoyed Herbert's 2006 supernatural thriller 'The Secret of Crickley Hall', dramatised in three parts for BBC television late last year.
Despite its modest size and single-street shopping, Henfield boasts other notable claims to fame - the popular TV presenter Holly Willoughby was born and bred in the village, whilst '60s singing heart-throb turned actor, Adam Faith, lived just beyond the High Street.
Less well known perhaps is the village's sporting heritage, which has as many twists, turns and unexpected events as the best Herbert tale.
When leaving the village, en route to Brighton, one would likely pay little attention to the recreation grounds on your left - nothing out of the ordinary. The rather unassuming little cricket pavilion would offer no clue that organised sport is commonplace here, and has been for many generations.
In fact, the inconspicuous wickets amidst the puddle-pocked outfield (the weather was particularly miserable when I visited), sitting on what is an unusually undulating profile, is in fact the site of one of the world's oldest cricket grounds, founded in 1771, and still bowling along today.
As its rich history alludes to, the work and effort of a legion of enthusiastic volunteers is the cornerstone of today's and past triumphs and is key to why the game is still enjoyed by locals nearly two and a half centuries after the first ball was bowled.
Henfield Cricket Club is not only one of the earliest adopters of the game but also is one of the most important as well, in terms of its evolution.
A handful of sites might claim a more ancient provenance, but Henfield considers its place in history relies on its foundation as a club playing regular cricket, rather than the first recorded date of the game being played in the village, half a century earlier, in the 1720s.
Its central location and its most prized asset - the Common - have proved pivotal in allowing the site to assume so prominent a role in the rise and development of cricket in the county.
Henfield Common was, with the possible exception of Broadwater Green (Worthing), the most important cricket ground in Sussex for nearly one hundred years, until the 19th century.
Fast-forward to today and the Common is still at the heart of the community. Out of season, dog-walkers are perhaps the ground's most frequent visitors, whilst the pavilion doubles as a children's day centre. In winter, wind, rain and snow keep all but the hardiest away but, as spring arrives, it's all hands to the pump for the volunteer groundcare team, headed up by Nicholas Blake, who have to prepare the wicket for what is an intense summer season, when, from April to September, no weekend is without play.
"Time is always our biggest problem, and finding a time for all of us to get together," explains Nick, Henfield's part-time head groundsman, whose 'day job' takes him to nearby Hurstpierpoint (Hurst) College independent school.
His role at Hurst, where cricket takes centre stage, arms him well for the work on the Henfield square, where the site's significant slope - a few feet from one end of the square to the other, presents a tough challenge to even the most proficient player.
Last summer was a washout, even for clubs on big budgets, and Henfield suffered like so many other grounds, yet it managed to wring a healthy few fixtures from the sodden ground.
Conditions took a toll though, and major end-of-season renovations were required to prepare for the 2013 season. "With fixtures delayed, last season ran on late, which meant our contractor didn't start work until much later than we'd have liked," recalls Nick.
"The square needed dimple seeding and new loam spread, but works only began in October, so the results of the germination are not quite what we wanted," he adds. "The weather was too cold and wet by then and, added to that, the slope of the site can be an issue when applying seed or fertiliser."
That delay has compounded the knock-on effects for this season and, due to continued spring downpours and heavy snowfall in March, pre-seeding for April only got underway early that month and Nick has had to rely on his germination sheets to do their best to gain good grass coverage by the time cricket began.
A glance at the fixture list confirms a crowded season is beckoning. "From 20th April to late September, every weekend and bank holiday is full with cricket," Nick says. "During the week, we also hold Twenty20 matches and a local tournament - The Henfield Cup - set up in 2004 by former captain Graham Fuller. In its first year, four local teams competed but, in the years since, it has doubled in size and is popular amongst players and spectators both at Henfield and at the other competing clubs," he adds, "and that's not taking into account the women's and Colts cricket played here."
The Colts section has proved immensely successful since its inception, with membership rising year on year, attracting a high calibre of local players and those from further afield.
Henfield won its Clubmark accreditation in 2006, allowing the Colts scheme to flourish. Two years later it gained Focus Club status, further building on its sound reputation in the county. A fair percentage of the current 1st XI came from this source.
The year 2006 also marked the first steps taken to establish women's cricket in the village and, a year later, saw the first Henfield Women's fixture played. It's pleasing to see that the spirit of the club's ancestors is still alive and kicking in today's leading lights and Henfield CC continues to assume a key community role.
Lewes, Arundel, and Horsham were major cricketing centres of West Sussex, but many local villages have provided the opposition in Henfield's sporting heritage.
The village's central Sussex location was pivotal in catalysing cricket. Travel back then was limited compared to today (although the Beeching rail closures in the early 1960s again left the village a tad inaccessible), so Henfield appears to have been central to the game's emergence, as teams would use the Common as their ground of choice.
Whichever site claims bragging rights as 'the home of cricket', the Common seems likely to be ranked the second or third oldest ground still in use anywhere in the world, although no evidence can show that for sure, it seems.
Entries in contemporary newspapers and diaries - copies of which adorn the interior of the clubhouse where I'm chatting with Nick - do allow sporting and local historians to pinpoint certain early dates, however.
One of the most important is Marchant's Diary, which offers the following references: 1719: June 4; "A cricket match in the Sandfields with Henfield."
By 1771, mention of Henfield CC is growing ever more frequent, with games against Lewes, Broadwater, and Colston (Coulsdon, near Purley, Surrey) - the first recorded instance of the club playing outside the Sussex boundary. During this time, a Sussex newspaper was founded, so recorded cases of cricket in the village moved from diaries to more thorough accounts written up. The reason local historians are confident in dating the foundation of Henfield Cricket Club as no later than 1771.
By now, Henfield were a side of considerable strength and status, playing the best teams in Sussex and Surrey, as reports in the then Lewes Journal confirmed. The club played a major part in the creation of Sussex County Cricket Club and held a seat on the county's committee until comparatively recently.
Throughout much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Henfield's cricketing status stayed strong and, in 1877, the club secured their future on the Common with an agreement that nominal rent would be paid to 'enclose a piece of ground on the Common for the sole use of Henfield Cricket Club'. The future of the game on the ancient site was secured.
As the demands of county cricket became more pressing, the fortunes of Henfield, and its ranking as a big player in Sussex began to wane. Young, talented cricketers were replaced by old county players, standards inevitably dropped and appeal for the sport in the village plummeted.
The big Sussex clubs in Brighton, Horsham and Lewes, quickly disappeared from Henfield's fixture list and the club's fortunes dived. Around 1911, the game's popularity in the village hit an all-time low, with not a single recorded match taking place in the four years up to the outbreak of World War I.
The fact that the sound of willow on leather didn't disappear off the map altogether rests largely with cricket 'nut' and local vicar Rev. R J Lea, who arrived in Henfield in 1913.
Although WW1 was to intervene in his endeavors, the cleric's drive and enthusiasm for the game dragged the club up by its very bootlaces. Even during the war years, he worked hard to ensure cricket would return to Henfield, once peace descended on Britain.
Drive and enthusiasm perhaps best describe the efforts of Nick who, at sixty-three, is tasked with juggling his duties at Hurst College with devoting the time needed to deliver the goods at Henfield - work that would test the energy levels of far younger men.
Small clubs increasingly have to generate income to survive, and Henfield is no different. Even at the village level of the game, members often assume that the cricketing prowess they enjoy watching on television can and should be replicated by their own club.
While Lord's is always the dream, Nick and the team have to do their best on what limited resources they have available to them. By day, the pavilion is hired by Dove Nursery and the revenue it generates serves as vital income for Nick to make the changes and improvements the square needs.
"The club put on a fair amount of their own events, from quiz nights to coffee mornings and, with a performing rights licence and big screen TV, the club will be able to host live sports fixtures to keep the kitty topped-up," Nick tells me.
Henfield has also benefitted from money kindly bequeathed by former member, Wally Weatherley, enabling the club to purchase some much-needed kit, including a two tonne Poweroll roller and new covers, which are proving a sound investment given the state of our weather.
The bequest may not have matched the millions left to nearby Preston Nomads by the late benefactor Spen Cama, but it was certainly sufficient to progress important remedial works on the square - it's donations like this that can keep smaller clubs afloat.
"The next major project on the list is the purchase of new double nets," explains Nick. "It'll be a £28,000 purchase, but we're hoping to win ECB funding if we can tie it in as part of a bigger undertaking," he continues. "We'd like to level the square but, at an estimated £6,000, this might be one for the future."
In 2010, the club contracted Grasstex to koro the square in a bid to rid it of the proliferation of annual meadowgrass. The £4,000 planing job has done what it promised, improving the bounce and carry of the ball and freeing the surface of the shallow rooted weed grass that can blight many a village square.
In fact, such was the success of the operation that, last year, the square was ranked three in its league, Nick says proudly. "The top layer was replaced with Essex loam then dimple seeded with a dwarf ryegrass. We used Johnson's Premier Wicket on the advice of Andy Mackay, head groundsman at Sussex, who regularly offers us tips and many part-time ground staff at other Sussex clubs."
"We were also fortunate to gain excellent detailed analysis from Andy (who lives in the village), as he used us as a case study for his pitch inspector exam," adds Nick. It was this analysis that led to the koroing and subsequent recommendation that a programme of fraize mowing should be set up five years later to keep the resurgent meadowgrass at bay.
The Hove-based groundsman clearly ranks highly in Nick's approach at Henfield. "It was also Andy who suggested that we leave the wicket a little longer, to allow for greater carry, so I now cut to 5mm. This is better for the longevity of the twelve wickets too, as each has to play at least five matches in a season, and we simply don't have the time or manpower to repair any during the season."
Nick is also able to seek advice from a local supplier of seed and fertiliser as well as on-hand technical know-how from them.
"They are a great source of knowledge and have offered some particularly good tips to help eradicate meadowgrass," Nick says. "We've trialed a very weak solution of Round-up weedkiller, which promises to work wonders. Results remain to be seen as I only tried this technique for the first time last autumn."
Nick carries out all spraying and chemical applications himself as he's armed with a PA6 certificate. He's the only trained member of the part-time staff, with Martin Payne helping with everything from rolling, mowing and marking; Paul Pheasant, a self-employed carpenter, the retired Mike Simmonds and Richard Dale also help out. Pre-season rolling begins in March, starting with a low-pressure roll, building up the weight slowly to reduce risk of compaction.
Pre-season rolling begins in March, starting with a low-pressure roll, building up the weight slowly to reduce risk of compaction.
April 20 ushers in the start of play (weather permitting!), and the pressure really kicks in for Nick to combine his busy workload at Hurst College with his Henfield commitments.
"It's difficult to find time in the week when we can all get together, as the Colts turn up at 6.00pm to practise. We have to grab time when we can and work it round the playing schedules of the club."
Membership of the Sussex Association of Groundsmen, headed up by none other than Andy Mackay, is also of major benefit to Nick - it offers advice to grounds professionals at smaller clubs and gives them access to a fleet of turfcare machinery, which was originaally donated by Channel 4.
Access to new machinery is key, believes Nick, who has to operate on a slim budget at Henfield, a constraint aggravated last season with the theft of some crucial items of kit. Pitchcare readers will know all to well about the growing issue of machinery thefts. Nick felt the sting following some evening rolling. He returned to the shed to discover a Sisis mechanical scarifier had been stolen, adding to a previous theft of a Kubota tractor. Bigger clubs find such episodes irritating, but they can usually claim for losses. For the likes of Henfield though, they present major setbacks on top of the tight deadlines they are already working to.
In 2021, Henfield will celebrate its 250th anniversary - and the tricentenary of cricket played in the village; a remarkable feat for any sports club, let alone one that has operated largely on a local pool of talent for that long.
The club's history and heritage has become an integral part of its appeal, so there's no reason to suggest its fortunes are likely to dwindle, especially if passionate and committed men like Nicholas Blake are willing to offer their time for free in the pursuit of excellence at the grassroots level of cricket.