Before The Echoes Fade Away

By Miles Whitelock

Reproduced by kind permission of the Whitelock family.

Part One: Between The Wars

It has been suggested to me that the residents of Whitchurch might be interested to read a short account of the history of Whitchurch Cricket Club as I remember it. I was born at Underwood in Hardwick Road in 1918.

Any story to be told must also include impressions of some of its more active and colourful members. In writing this I have no wish to appear anything but affectionate and loyal to those who have created a lasting tradition.

The ground was acquired by my father, A.R. Whitelock, in 1921. Originally it had been a lush meadow, seemingly much enjoyed by a pedigree herd of Mr Aldridge's ruminating cows, but at the time no longer required for their use. It will be appreciated that in 1921 the country had hardly recovered from the awful consequences of the 1st World War. The Cricket Club, though theoretically in existence, had no ground and no equipment.

My father was a keen tennis player. It came to his attention that the meadow to the south side of Hardwick Road was for sale. He already had one tennis court in his garden on the north side and saw the possibility of making another one and extending his garden. This project was much encouraged by my mother, a keen tennis player herself and an avid gardener.

Accordingly, the pasture meadow was acquired and a quarter of it, bordering Hardwick Road, was soon converted into a grass tennis court, surrounded by netting and cherry trees, a substantial kitchen garden with fruit cages and pretty herbaceous borders. This left three quarters of the meadow unproductive. At this point my father became aware, through consultation with his village friends, of the plight of a Cricket Club with no ground, no wicket, no equipment and no facilities. Having ascertained that there was, at the time, considerable local interest, he decided that he would provide at least the bare essentials. In his opinion no English village should be without a cricket pitch and a thriving club.

It is, in fact, no small task to create a wicket and outfield, suitable for batting, bowling and the fielding of cricket balls, from a pasture meadow. It must be remembered too, that in 1921/22 motor mowing and rolling equipment was primitive by today's standards. My father and his gardener, Albert Higley, with part-time assistance, particularly from Albert's brother, set to work with a will. The meadow was scythed, at first by hand. A heavy horse drawn roller was acquired and a large hand-mowing machine bought. In due time the outlines of a playing area became visible, the plantains and other weeds treated, a square pitch or wicket repeatedly rolled, grass seed sown. Nottingham marl was used to top dress the wicket, canvas sight screens were erected, a small hut representing the pavilion established and seats made from the fallen boughs of the bordering elms put in place for spectators. It was, indeed, by 1923 when I first, hazily, remember it: an idyllic scene.

Thus, the village Cricket Club re-emerged from its paralysis. Stumps, bails, balls, umpires' coats and score book were all organised. The score board used today is the same one that was acquired at that time. A fixture list was arranged and at last cricket was played again on "England's green and pleasant land."
I was a very small boy at the time and matches against Pangbourne, Goring, Streatley and Woodcote filled me with excitement. Gradually the fixture list expanded to include Wallingford, Thatcham and Caversham - clearly much larger and more prosperous clubs than ours. But Whitchurch held its own and all the larger clubs wanted a fixture with us on our lovely ground.

In the early years of the nineteen twenties the side was led by Captain Whitamore, a fast bowler and hard hitter. Our splendid wicket keeper Mr Johnson, who lived in Whitchurch Hill, wore black trousers, braces, white shirt with no collar and black boots. He refused, politely, my father's offer of a present of white flannels, cricket boots and shirt. He was a fearless keeper, a great slogger (at one time, when he was batting, I stationed myself in the village allotments to retrieve the balls he hit there) and a warm, cheerful personality. He was ably supported by Mr Higley (the gardener) who bowled off cutters to an impeccable length and by Mr Green, a solid opening batsman who owned the garage in Pangbourne and ran the local taxi service. The club owes much to him, his family and all his descendants.

In the early 1930s Mr Sykes took over the side. Harry taught Maths and navigation at the Nautical College and was universally respected. He was a Yorkshire man, a tricky left arm slow bowler with a well-disguised faster ball and was a steady, middle-of-the-order batsman. I well remember the jubilation and acclaim when he made a century against Wallingford. Harry was an inspirational leader, widely known throughout the County, who if he'd had the time could have played Minor County Cricket for Oxfordshire. He was a founder member of the South Oxfordshire Amateurs, a high performance club side which played two matches on our ground just before the war.

In the early 1930s we were lucky to have as a member, Mr Tuffin. He was a fast bowler, short, square chested with a good slinging action and follow through. On his day he could bowl really quickly and became the terror of our opposition. I believe that he had played Minor County Cricket in East Anglia before setting down to live in and play for Thatcham. But he loved our ground so much that he changed his allegiance and joined Whitchurch - much to his own pleasure and our delight.

Another great asset at that time was Police constable Hatch. He was a real character off and on the field. He modelled his batting on his hero, Jack Hobbs. P.C. Hatch practised assiduously, he played a very straight bat always on the line of the ball and never across it. Indeed, if the war had not intervened, he could have played for Berkshire. I last met him when I was myself playing for Whitchurch against Maidenhead where he had been posted in the early 1950s.

He made 80 against us and batted beautifully, though at that time in his sixties and nearing retirement age. He especially endeared himself to my mother as he invariably stopped the busy traffic in Pangbourne for her to cross the road - much to the indignation of the frustrated motorists because my mother took her time! He also had the unfortunate duty to deliver the telegram from the War Office to my parents to say that I had been wounded in North Africa. All three of those involved in reading the contents recovered from the shock with suitably laced cups of tea in the Underwood kitchen!

From 1935 to 1939 I was fortunate enough to play a few games under Harry Sykes' leadership. I well remember one fearsome encounter with the village of Nettlebed. In the words of Sir Henry Newbolt:

"There's a breathless hush in the Close tonight -
Ten to make and the match to win -
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in."
I was the last man!

I was also able to arrange, much to my delight, a match between the Old Rugbeians (my old school) and the S.O.A on our ground. It was a perfect summer's day, the ground looked a picture, the game was keenly contested and hospitality flowed.

Then came the 2nd World War and paralysis, alas, again took over.

Part Two: 1947 - 1960

So the lovely cricket field once more reverted to a barren meadow, lush only with dandelions, cowslips, thistles and buttercups. For a description of Underwood and its gardens at that time I quote an extract from a book entitled "Down to Earth" written by my friend and army colleague, Arthur Kellas. Arthur had been with me in N. Africa and had kindly visited my parents on his return to the U.K.

"I spent a tranquil weekend at Miles' home near Pangbourne where I played croquet with his father, mowed the lawn, helped to build a frame for the beans and inspected the cricket pitch, which was grievously threatened by Canadian tanks lurching through the hedges on manoeuvres."

On returning from the Army in September 1946, I had a discussion with my father about the future of the field. Though he was now in his late seventies, he told me that he would be prepared to remake the outfield and the wicket and ensure therefore that the village had access to cricket again, provided he could be certain that there would be sufficient interest and support.

Accordingly, we arranged for a public meeting in the village hall - at that time the Scouts hall in Eastfield Lane. We had little idea whether anyone would turn up. In the event the hall was packed to overflowing and the offer made by my father, to reinstate the playing area at his expense, was greeted with overwhelming approval. The newly arrived GP - Dr Tony Spafford - made an impassioned and most articulate speech in favour of the idea and many others offered physical and moral support.

Thus, once more, and for the second time in his life, my father set to work to make a cricket field. By this time equipment had become motorised and he had unstinting and sustained support from Percy Green and his brother-in-law Reg Baker. Percy, who lived in Eastfield Lane, concentrated on the wicket while Reg, who lived in Pangbourne, worked on the outfield. Both spent hours of their free time, mowing, rolling, seeding and generally preparing their precious cricket ground for use again. During the winter and spring of 1946/47 the ground took shape and began to look in prime condition once more.

Tony Spafford was elected Captain of the Club and enthusiastically recruited new and former members and not least the vice Presidents, to help pay for bats, pads etc., all lost during the war years.

In June 1947 the ground was ready and the opening match was arranged. My father decided that it would be appropriate for me to assemble a side made up from my own friends and colleagues to play the village side led by its inspirational doctor captain. It was also decided that a ceremonial opening ball should be bowled! Captain Short, who was then about 70, had been born in the village and had been a distinguished harbour master in Cape Town, was invited to perform this honour. Capt. Short had retired and at the time also lived in Eastfield Lane. The afternoon was sunny and with a slightly rounded arm the first ball was bowled and greeted with great applause by both teams and many spectators. I do not recall the details of the match itself but after it was over both teams were entertained in the garden at Underwood. All were suitably refreshed and the party lasted well into the night. Photographs of the occasion are in my family album.

Thus, during the summer of 1947, cricket was again established on this beautiful ground. Tony was himself a hard hitting, exciting batsman and he gathered together a very useful team of cricketers. Indeed, during the late 1940s and in the 1950s we were a strong side by village standards. I was able to play only occasionally, but I remember vividly some memorable matches. For example there was, at that time, a match at the end of August against the Reading football club. This always created excitement in the village and more spectators than usual would turn up to watch not so much the cricket as, I suspect, the footballers. It was usual for the Reading professional footballers to be cricketers as well. One or two who came were, indeed, first class players. One match stands out because Reading brought with them a Northamptonshire fast bowler. One or two of our faint hearted members were "out before they went in." Not so our undaunted Captain, Tony. The faster the Northants bowler delivered the ball the further and higher Tony hit him. He made about 70 and after the applause had died down he told me that he had been aiming to hit the ball into my father's tennis court - he did not, in fact, quite reach the target!

On another occasion, Whitchurch was batting, a birth was imminent at Boazedown Farm House on Hardwick Road. A little boy arrived on his bicycle to fetch the doctor, who took off his pads and hurried away. It so happened that one of our other members playing in the match was a consultant obstetrician at the Royal Berks Hospital. About half an hour elapsed and the little boy reappeared on his bike to request the presence of Mr Wheeler. He too, took off his pads and rushed off to Boazedown farm. A little later Tony and Peter Wheeler returned, grinning contentedly - all was well, baby safely delivered. They padded up again, resumed their innings and made a century stand together.

At the end of the 1940s and early 1950s our fixture list grew to such an extent that, at one time, it became embarrassing. Visiting sides loved to play on our ground and we were, after all, only a small Oxfordshire village with, inevitably, a small playing membership. It became quite a job to meet our commitments. This was accentuated because of the excellent and sustained work carried out by Percy and Reg who acted as our unpaid, entirely voluntary groundsmen. The club in general owes much to these two sterling individuals and they are both remembered with great affection.

Another important factor of the enjoyment of any cricket match is the tea interval. During the years 1923 to 1939 tea was served in the Scouts hall. The club has always been greatly indebted to the devoted band of mothers, wives and girlfriends who play such an important role in the background. We always enjoyed excellent teas - good solid sandwiches, home made cakes, jam rolls etc. The game cannot be played without the support and sympathetic understanding of the fair sex and we were lucky to have it in full measure. I am sure the present generation continue the tradition.

During the 1950s the old green pre-war shed, acting as a pavilion and erected by my father, was replaced by the present pavilion. Gradually, and over time, services - water, drainage, and electricity - were connected. The club received a welcome grant from South Oxfordshire District Council and I was able to match this with an interest free loan, which I subsequently wrote off. Nearly all the development work and part of the cost was willingly undertaken by the members, who not only provided their own labour but also defrayed some expenditure through subscription. A little later when the Scout's hall became redundant and demolished we were able to obtain part of its remains to erect as a tea shed. Today (even if in need of urgent refurbishment) we have a shower, running water and 2 loos: facilities unheard of in the pre-war days.

Some readers might be interested to know that golf, as well as cricket, became part of my life on this field. In the early 1930s, my interest in golf originated in a visit to my parents by the then secretary of the Goring and Streatly Golf Club. He taught me the art of the golf approach shot and it has to be said that the expertise I learned from him did not, wholly, correspond to the teaching of the off drive coached me by the senior member of the cricket club. But I persevered with this particular game and I made a 5 hole short golf course on the field. After the war, during our family caravan holidays on the field, I was able in my turn to encourage my sons to learn to play a game that can be enjoyed by all ages. Our family holidays ensured continuous respect and affection by all of us, not only for the field, but also for the beautiful village of Whitchurch. Happy days indeed.

The 1940s turned into the 1950s. Various characters emerged; great, exciting matches were arranged. One of Tony Spafford's most endearing abilities, as a captain, was that somehow he could ensure an exciting finish to practically any game, however one-sided it became. It is an art that requires not only an understanding of the game but of human nature as well. Tony perfected this art in full measure.

Every year during the 1950s I was able to bring a side to play the village and a number of photographs of the period remain in my possession. But Anno Domini eventually takes over and in 1960 I was fielding at mid-off and jumped to take what I hoped would be an athletic catch, only to fall over, ignominiously, and wrench my ankle. My wife ordered me never to play again and in the words of Rumpole of the Bailey 'She who must be obeyed was obeyed.' So I took to the golf course instead.

Since 1960 therefore, I have not had the pleasure of actually playing cricket on this wonderful ground. During the last 15 years, due to the prolonged and very sad terminal illness of my wife, I have been prevented from taking an active interest in the affairs of the club. However, I have retained a keen passive interest. I was enormously encouraged to visit the ground again on Sept 10th [2006] this summer. Arrangements had been made for the revival of the President's match and this year, I was able to attend. My grandson, Tom, led the President's side, which also included his brother Ben with their mother and father, Jane and Hugh, in support. So it was a familiar and family affair.

Whitchurch Cricket Club gave us all a warm welcome and a most enjoyable day was experienced by everyone - despite a cloudburst which put an end to the cricket at about 4pm. Yet again, we had a delicious tea and an excellent (if rather damp) barbecue to follow. To quote Tom's words, "I thoroughly enjoyed it and particularly the bonding with the members of the Whitchurch Cricket Club side." I personally hope, and I'm sure I speak for the rest of the family too, that the President's match will again become an annual event.

No account, however, of the Whitchurch Cricket Club by me, its President, must omit to mention the enormous and continuing debt we all owe to its current Chairman and Captain. Tim Brickhill, the chairman, started playing for the club at the tender age of 15. For years he kept wicket, opened the batting, took over the captaincy and quietly and in an unassuming manner orchestrated matters behind the scenes. For years his family, including his mother, stepfather, wife, her parents, children and their friends were involved, doing the teas, umpiring and scoring; all giving of their time for the enjoyment of others. Tim was captain for 17 years. I don't know how many runs he made or how many stumpings and catches he took behind the wicket. But I do know that in his first match as captain (and he was very young at the time) he asked Harold Hearne, our steady medium paced bowler, who normally bowled the entire innings from one end exclusively, to come off after bowling six overs. Crisis indeed! But he rode out the storm and became much respected as a result. I also know how much the club enjoyed the Brickhills' hospitality in their lovely homes. We are indeed lucky to have him and to be able to benefit, now, from his wise counsel.

Last, but by no means least, mention must be made of our current captain Mike Butt. Mike must surely have entered the Guinness Book of Records. The fact that he has been captain of a village cricket club for 25 years reflects his enormous popularity and the affectionate esteem in which he is held. In his time, he opened our batting, was a fine stroke player and very difficult to dislodge. We could always rely on a firm foundation if we knew that Mike and Tim were our openers. But Mike was more than an opening bat. He was also a tricky and often successful googly and leg break spinner. Perhaps our wicket suited him. Cynics might say that when he was responsible for rolling and cutting the wicket himself, he did so to suit the way he bowled - not so in my view. He was a natural spinner and gave the ball a real tweak, needing no assistance from the pitch. But above all his ebullient, cheerful personality, which he gives out unstintingly for the enjoyment of his team and our visitors, makes him the respected captain who holds down the job today. The club is indeed fortunate to have a Chairman and Captain of the calibre of today's incumbents.

As to the future: the ownership of the field has now passed to a trust, the beneficiaries of which are my son, Hugh, and his family. They all agree with their predecessors that no English village should be without a thriving cricket club. Two world wars were fought to preserve Britain's National Heritage and all the family believe that cricket is part of this concept. I hope that the sensible and equitable plan to ensure continuity of tenure for the Club and the village, now under consideration, will meet with approval. The pavilion needs refurbishment, the wicket and outfield need continuing and sustained attention. We have one more, and possibly final, opportunity to settle this matter for the lasting benefit of those who love the game and love Whitchurch.

Miles Whitelock

(President of the Club for many years until his death in 2011)