Friday 23 June 2017

Cricket and psychogeography number 3: Tilford - Billy at rest

This pub sign, unearthed in Barnham, West Sussex but originating from an establishment a couple of hundred yards from where it now stands, bears the image of 'Silver' Billy Beldham in his dotage [read part one of Billy's story here]. It comes from the Cricketers in Wrecclesham, which itself is now a restaurant called The Bengal Lounge, but which Billy frequented with his brother in law and batting mentor John Wells, and where, on one wall, was scrawled the commemorative legend: 'Good beer as drunk by those famous men Beldham and Wells'.

Billy was born a stone's throw from the sign in Yew Tree Cottage, a glorious tumble of sagging bricks and beams with a raked roof, Grade II listed since 1972 and possessing a measure of fame itself as the model for 'Oak Cottage', one of those Lilliput Lane miniatures that stand on nans' shelves everywhere. It was probably built in the 16th century, although there are records of a dwelling there since the 1300s. Billy arrived in 1766 and handed the tenancy of the house to John Wells in 1820, the year before his long playing career came to a close.

The ground beyond the sign is The Rec, home to Wrecclesham CC, founded in 1902 and who first played on this pitch in 1927. Billy would never have seen cricket here (unless he ventured out of his door to practice, which is not unlikely), yet the ground further nestles this tiny village into the lore of the game. When I played for Wrecclesham's U15s (sneaking across the border from, whisper it, Hampshire) the Thorpe brothers were mainstays, Ian, eldest and captain, and Alan were buccaneering all-rounders; the youngest, Graham, was a left-handed bat... and in Graham Thorpe, Wrecclesham had another great player (I'm sure Graham still revels in the title, 'the second best batsman to come from Wrecclesham').

Nonetheless, by virtue of the era of his birth, and the alchemy he brought to a rural pastime, Silver Billy has a significance no modern player can match. In striding out to the ball and countering the early dominance of bowling, he made batting beautiful and cast the batsman as the aesthetic centre of the game. As Nyren wrote in Cricketers Of My Time: 'It was one of the most beautiful sights that can be imagined, and which would have delighted an artist, was to see him make himself up to hit a ball'. And when he was done as a maker of runs and a star turn of Hambledon, Surrey, MCC and All-England, Billy Beldham moved here:

This is the Barley Mow at Tilford, where, in 1821, at the age of 51, Billy became the landlord. The building adjoining the pub to the right is Oak Tree Cottage, home to Billy and his wife Ann. Ann was Billy's second wife, and his second wife called Ann (Ann the first bore him a daughter called Ann, too; both had passed away by the time Billy got to Tilford). It must have been like Mick Jagger moving to the village. Modern notions of fame don't really apply, but it's fair to say Billy Beldham had something of the rock star about him, from the blond locks that gave him his nickname to the stories that he'd fathered thirty-six children - nine is the more likely total, eight by the second Ann.

Tilford stands where the two branches of the river Wey meet, and its medieval bridges cross the water either side of the Barley Mow. In front of the pub is a triangular village green that rises quite sharply at the far side and rolls in swales that catch the light. It has been recreational ground since 1853, and Tilfird began playing cricket on it in 1886, but as with The Rec at Wrecclesham, it was Billy's playground before then. In the back room of the Barley Mow he made cricket bats, and where else would he have gone to test his workmanship (and how could he have resisted having a hit?).

Silver Billy was one of the first men to make a living from cricket. In one of his earlier seasons, 1788, he played ten matches for which he was paid a total of £44 and two shillings, more than double the annual wage of a farm worker. His form of fame lingered. He died at Tilford on 20 February 1862, and five months later, London Society magazine carried these lines: 'Old Beldham died last winter near Farnham, aged ninety-six. Not long before, the old man was invited to Lord's, and received with all honours in the pavilion: he was also advertised as expected at the Oval, to increase the attraction of a match between the old players and the young'. He was also said to have been the first cricketer ever to be photographed.

What's harder to feel is the texture of his life, the rhythm of his days. Billy died no more than seven miles from where he was born, and even that may have represented some journey for a rural villager given a short life of hard labour and hard drinking. Billy had travelled to the great metropolitan grounds of Lord's (he saw all three of its locations) and the Oval (said to have been named after Holt Pound Oval, where Billy played his first big matches). He journeyed regularly to Hambledon, thirty miles away, by horse. For anyone dropping by the Barley Mow to hear his stories, he must have sounded like an explorer or an astronaut, a resident of places that they could only imagine.

What drew him to Tilford is lost in time, and there's an odd connection, probably coincidence, but worth thinking about. In 1894, a young architect, Edward Lutyens, put up one of his first commissions, The Tilford Institute, opposite the Barley Mow. It has served as the pavilion for Tilford CC, and it's one of the few places in the world where you have to cross the road as you go into bat.

In its summer setting, a Lutyens on one edge and the Barley Mow on another, the green has become a vision of a certain kind of Englishness, a deeply timeless place. With the cricket on, watched by the drinkers in front of Billy's pub and the kids paddling in the river beyond, it has been used in adverts by companies emphasising their roots - British Airways, Rover, Courage Beer - and by Stephen Frears as the setting for his BBC film (apparently never shown) of the cricket match from the novel England Their England.

Somehow Billy, who had defined the aesthetic of the batsman when he played, ended his days on a green that still embodies this particular type of beauty. What a great and mysterious force he was.

Next time, to the early sites of Lord's, and the rise of another archetype that has run through the history of the game - the autocratic administrator...


growltiger said...

Lovely post. Just caught up with it. Vince caught behind again...

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