More than a generation ago, a friend of mine fell in love with and later married a farmer who lived in Herefordshire. One of my friend’s talents always was to throw people together to create a rather electric sort of fun, and almost the first party she arranged in her new setting was a cricket match. It was played by a local team assembled by her cricket-mad husband, against a ramshackle gang of us who had driven the epic distance down from London to the farm in the remote Golden Valley.
I was among the spectators at that inaugural match, and I remember the luscious green summer countryside, the lazy deckchair placed near the scoreboard and then…not so much. None of us had children in those days, and the cricket was followed by dancing and drinking and general carrying-on under the forgiving stars.
We must have had a good time, because we were all pleased when the invitation came to repeat it the following year. Envious friends joined in, a good thing for the overall fun quotient because by then several of the women were pregnant (no, not necessarily as a direct result of the cricket weekend, but). A second match was played and the extreme partying became enshrined in the early rules of the game. The next year, there were babies laid out in Moses baskets beyond the boundary line.
And so it went on, thanks to the hospitality of Ellie and her husband. The cricket weekend mushroomed by reputation and in reality. More and more people joined in the elaborate programme. One year there was a circus, complete with big top, and our hosts began to droop under the pressure of pre-match party, gargantuan cricket tea, entertainments for the growing troop of children, post-match dinner and dancing to a live band followed by recuperative Sunday barbecue for a cast of hundreds. Who wouldn’t? By this time, locals and Londoners had mingled and even intermarried. The older children looked forward to reacquainting themselves with the teenager they had fancied last year. Amongst the parents the tally of divorces mounted until life rocked back on to an even keel and the mantle of worst-behaved party individual gradually shifted from first generation to second. There were other life changes, illnesses, and then a couple of sad empty chairs at the Saturday dinner.
As the years passed the weekend simplified; the party was held in a barn instead of a marquee, caterers and a discreet bill appeared instead of all the work being done by Ellie and friends, but still all the old and young faces returned year after year. The journey down from London grew no shorter, and we all still needed that glass of fizz after the M4 on Friday night. The children grew up and married, and the first grandchild appeared.
A whole group of friends had been connected and nourished by that one July weekend, repeated through heat-waves or drizzle or happiness or anxiety until the memories have blurred into a long glow of good times. ‘Was that 1989? No, can’t have been. It was the time Jamie bowled Andrew for a golden duck after Andy had come all the way back from Boston to play’. ‘Must have been ’92, or ’93. Before I did my knee in’.
There have been different venues, big years and smaller nods to the tradition, but it has – wonderfully – gone on and on. This year, the match was a gala held in honour of the London captain’s seventieth birthday. We played on the island of Vis in Croatia, where the game was established by Captain William Hoste, originally Lord Nelson’s shipboy, who spent six years from 1889 guarding the island for the British. A combined London-Herefordshire XI took on the local cricket club, and was gracefully defeated by a couple of runs in an exciting last over finish. On the boundary line, as ever, the onlookers sunned themselves and exchanged a year’s worth of news as grandchildren toddled and appraised each other.
Our long narrative would make a good novel, perhaps – except that it wouldn’t be as good as the real thing.