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Cricket, a steeplechase and a beautiful ballroom

This is a transcript of episode 13 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Emma Barnett, Professor Martin Polley, Deborah Lamb, Robert Curphey and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson as we begin our journey through the history of sport and leisure in England.

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Emma Barnett:
Welcome to Irreplaceable, a history of England in 100 places. I’m Emma Barnett and in this series we’re exploring the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.

So, how does it work?

10 categories, 10 expert judges and thousands of your nominations will lead us to a list of 100 places that together tell England’s story. If you are enjoying the series, don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss an episode. And if you’re listening on iTunes, please do rate this podcast and leave us a review.

So, far in this series we’ve heard about some of the country’s important homes and gardens. We’ve travelled to sites that tell of great journeys and we’ve learned about places that have witnessed incredible moments of scientific discovery. And if you’d like to have a say in nominations for our remaining categories, hurry along to: historicengland.org.uk/100places, using the number 100 and tell us what you think should be on the list.

Don’t forget to visit historicengland.org.uk/100places to learn more about the overall campaign and how you can get involved.

Today, it’s time to explore our sport and leisure category. Our expert judge for this category, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, has selected her top 10 sport and leisure locations from your nominations and today I am joined by Professor Martin Polley, Director of the International Centre for Sport History and Culture at De Montfort University and author of the British Olympics, Britain’s Olympic Heritage 1612 to 2012.

Martin Polley:
Hello.

Emma Barnett:
And Deborah Lamb from Historic England.

Deborah Lamb:
Hello.

Emma Barnett:
To uncover the first two. Welcome to the studio and welcome to our podcast. And what better place to begin than with a sport that conjures up images of English village greens, gentlemen whites and finger sandwiches, we begin with Lord’s Cricket Ground in St John’s Wood in North London. Here the Code of Laws for Cricket were established in 1788. And this is where our sport and leisure judge Tanni Grey-Thompson says, every cricketer dreams to play. Lord’s has been home to Marylebone Cricket Club since it was founded in 1787 and is widely regarded as the home of modern cricketing tradition. We took a walk around with Robert Curphey from the Marylebone Cricket Club Arts and Libraries department.

Robert Curphey:
We’re standing on the Rooftop Terrace at the Pavilion and in front of us, we can see the media centre and to our left we can see the Grandstand. The Grandstand was initially erected in 1867 but it’s in it’s current form, it’s been here for just over 20 years. The pitch has been cordoned off ready for work to go on it prior to the new season. It currently looks very green and very lush at the moment.  But I’m sure that will change.

[applause/crowd cheering]. If you’re looking out at the ground in front of you, you can really get a sense of the famous slope which so many cricketers have talked about. The slope is in the cricket pitch and it runs from the where the Grandstand is to the Tavern side with a fall of approximately 9 feet. The pitch is surrounded by the Pavilion, the media centre faces directly opposite to it and if you go clockwise from the Pavilion there are seven stands, all of which have their own histories and are very, very unique.

The ground feels like a village all of it’s own. It’s got trees, we’ve got gardens and we’ve got flowers. I think people are surprised as to how much actually goes on here, particularly when we don’t have any major match days, there is still a lot of activity here even though the season’s over.

The club itself, the MCC, the Marylebone Cricket Club was founded in 1787. As London’s populations grew, the nobilities impatience with the crowds that gathered to watch them play was also growing. And in pursuit of exclusivity they decided to approach a gentleman called Thomas Lord. Now Thomas Lord was a bowler with the White Conduit Cricket Club and he was asked to set up a new private ground.  Now Lord was an ambitious entrepreneur and he staged his first match at Dorset Square. So, the name ‘Lord’s’ doesn’t have any connections with the English Aristocracy.

A year later, MCC laid down a Code of Laws which were adopted throughout the game and MCC today remains responsible for the Laws of Cricket.

We had a short stay at Marylebone Bank in Regent’s Park for a couple of years and then in August 1813, Thomas Lord signed a lease with the Eyre Estate which owned a lot of properties and areas around St John’s Wood to form a new ground in St John’s Wood in 1814 as Lord leased a part of the ground which was originally the site of a duck pond.

Lord’s is still widely regarded by many people as kind of the cathedral of cricket to all who visit and also really the administrative centre of cricket. I mean, there’s people who contact our department who will refer to Lord’s as ‘HQ’ (laughs).

So I think for cricket enthusiasts it’s really something that they can tick off their bucket list.  And it’s a place that we’re very proud of our past here. Heritage is at the heart of what we do but we’re also very forward thinking and thoughtful. So it’s not only in our future, but we’re also focused on the future of cricket as well with additions and changes to the laws and then also, changes to the game such as day/night test cricket which had been widely promoted by the MCC World Cricket Committee.

Well I’m thrilled Lord’s is in the top 10. I think it’s a testament to a couple of things really. It’s not just the history and the heritage which is significantly important and it’s iconic status as the home of cricket, but I think it’s also a testament to the amount of people that have been involved in making this place so special. And not just the current staff but the people who have contributed a great deal over the years, that there is special feeling when you get in the ground. And we all make a special effort to make sure that people really enjoy their day. And you know we do see a lot of happy and satisfied faces around the ground during a major match day and it’s a real pleasure to be … a privilege and be a part of that.

Emma Barnett:
Marylebone Cricket Club is arguably the most famous cricket club in the world. Why is this?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
I think because the MCC is really the keeper of the laws and the rules in cricket. And Lord’s is the home of the MCC. But what I love about Lord’s is that fantastic combination of tradition and innovation. So, there’s this gorgeous pavilion, there’s all these blokes sitting around in stripy ties and blazers, but right opposite them is that fabulous new media centre which is a fine piece of modern design. And I think that combination of tradition and innovation is what sums up cricket today actually.

Emma Barnett:
And why do you think so many cricketers dream of playing there?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Oh, I think cos it’s the heart of the game. It’s the home of the MCC and that view of the Pavilion at Lord’s is just so gorgeous and walking out on to the grass there in front of that Pavilion, I think is really magical.

Emma Barnett:
The Cowdrey Lecture is one the MCC’s annual events. Eminent speakers use it to discuss crucial and current developments in the cricketing world, but also actually sometimes takes on wider political significance, doesn’t it?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Yes, and in 2004, Desmond Tutu actually used the opportunity of that speech to urge cricketers to boycott a tour of Zimbabwe in protest against Robert Mugabe. As it happened actually, the England and Wales Cricket Board tried to cancel the tour but couldn’t because they needed endorsement from the government which they couldn’t get at the time. So, the tour actually went ahead but it was in that tour that there were two Zimbabwean cricketers, Henry Olonga and Andy Flower who wore black armbands to protest the death of democracy. And of course Andy Flower subsequently became the coach of the England cricket team.

Emma Barnett:
Wow. Well the women’s side of course is growing. We should not forget that. Our judge Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson noted how remarkable the transformation of the women’s game has been generally but also specifically at Lord’s.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Yes. It’s been fantastic. I mean, and you know, England’s performance in the World Cup this year, was just terrific and so enjoyable. It even got my household of three men more enthusiastic about women’s cricket.

Emma Barnett:
Cos you’re a cricket fan, aren’t you?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
I am a big cricket fan, yes.

Emma Barnett:
And does that extend to the women’s game?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Yes, it does. I mean, especially recently, I think they’ve been so terrific and it’s been so enjoyable.

Emma Barnett:
And in terms of the former England women’s cricket captain, Rachael Heyhoe Flint, who was the real trail blazer.  I mean there are names now, that people, you know, even I and I’m not a cricket fan, you know her name because you know how much of an impact she’s been having.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Yes. Yes. I mean, she, you know, I knew here name years ago actually. And it’s just so satisfying to see the growth that there’s been in the women’s game actually since she was captain.

Emma Barnett:
And there are other things that go on at Lord’s not just cricket?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Yeah, it’s a real excitement. It’s always a real treat going to Lord’s actually. And partly, I think because it feels … you know, it just feels quite posh actually, with the Pavilion and all those kind of people dressed up in stripy blazers. But one of the things that I really like about it is there is this kind of tension between the members and the Pavilion and the rest of the crowd. And whenever there’s a Mexican wave at Lord’s the whole of the crowd will do the Mexican wave and then it stops at the Pavilion because the members don’t do it. And actually the rest of the crowd, I think really enjoy that …

Emma Barnett:
Oh, that’s funny.

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
… and that kind of chance to have a bit of a jeer at the members.

Emma Barnett:
What do you think Lord’s means to people today. And you’ve talked a bit about the tension there between the people who are just coming and the members, but how do you think it’s kind of transformed in to the 21st century?

Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson:
Well I think that the new media centre building there is really stunning. And given the amount and weight of tradition at Lord’s it was such a brave move, I think, to build a building like that at Lord’s. And I’m sure it wasn’t without it’s controversy. It must have been very difficult to get agreement to that. And it’s a fabulous building. It won the Sterling prize, it’s that good a building. So, I think they’ve managed to pull of that bit of innovation and modernisation really well.

Emma Barnett:
Very good. Well, on to our second location in this category. Which is just as important for it’s sporting heritage. In 1829, a Liverpool innkeeper called William Lynn opened a racetrack next to his village pub. A few years later, he added a grandstand and you held you know, a four mile steeplechase there. Riders had to leap over a stone wall, cross ploughed land and finish over two hurdles. That steeplechase was the start of the modern Grand National at Aintree Racecourse in Merseyside. Now of course, the Grand National we do know a lot about the pomp and the circumstances of that as well.  There’s hats and there’s silks and all of that. Have you actually been? Have you experienced the atmosphere?

Martin Polley:
Unfortunately, not. It’s one that’s on my bucket list. One day I’ll make it but I’ve not made it yet.

Emma Barnett:
Okay. But ‘Ladies Day’ of course famous for its hats, Deborah?

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, unfortunately, I’m not really a hat person. I look appalling in hats.

Emma Barnett:
Oh! Well I am and I’ve not done it and I would love to go along. You’ve just got to make sure the weather’s alright and then you’ve got any awful paparazzi taking photos of your skirts flying up [laughter]. Let’s talk about the racing. Why is it called a ‘steeplechase’ Martin?

Martin Polley:
It’s called a ‘steeplechase’ historically because it was run over … well horse races that were run over open country from town to town, typically they would use … the riders would use the steeple of the town they’re approaching as the marker for know it’s the end. That’s chasing a steeple. And it was used in both horse racing and of course in cross country running as well. It’s still there in the Olympics as the 3,000 metre steeplechase.

Emma Barnett:
And why do you think the Grand National at Aintree has become such a famous race? Such a famous steeplechase?

Martin Polley:
Yeah. It’s really hard because I think it was once of the first to really grab national attention. The coming of the railways helped obviously. And with the coming of the railways, not long after that, the coming of a genuinely national sporting press. So, races like this that were getting some of the best riders and the best horses and it was always a very interesting course with all sorts of twists and turns and the famous Becher’s Brook, it just very quickly entered in to the sort of national sporting consciousness.

Emma Barnett:
Is it the longest horse race in Britain?  Is that right?

Deborah Lamb:
It is. It is. It’s long and it’s also kind of very dramatic with the scale of the fences and the risks involved in that. I think that’s part of the excitement and part of what’s made it popular and really rather controversial.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, 30 jumps. 600 million people follow this race worldwide. And the famous Becher’s Brook which is a notoriously high obstacle.  Four foot ten high, up to five foot eight on the landing side. That is named after the captain who fell here in the first Grand National of 1839 and said that ‘water should not be ingested without brandy’, or ‘whiskey’ depending on which account you read.  So, it’s got this huge history which only must add to it Martin now in terms of its appeal?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. I mean, there are some mega events that become famous because they happen all over the world from place to place. There are some that become famous because they are associated with one place. And the Grand National at Aintree I think is very much one of those.

Emma Barnett:
What sort of impact do we think Deborah, it’s had on the sort of town and the surrounding area because of its reputation and the expansion of its appeal?

Deborah Lamb:
I think because it’s close to the town it’s kind of played quite a big part of it. And actually, you think of Aintree as being kind of very closely connected with Liverpool as well. You know, it’s that bit different. It is whereas, the Derby is kind of the south, the Grand National is the big horse race in the north. And actually, I think one of the things about the Grand National is that it’s become a bit like the FA Cup Final. It’s one of those sporting events that even people who aren’t very interested in sport know about and connect with.

Emma Barnett:
It’s not without its controversies though, is it? I mean, in the sense of there’s always concern about the safety and well-being of animals whenever they’re involve in anything. But there are particular concerns about this, aren’t there, Martin?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. It’s famously a race in which a number of horses have died or had to be put down afterwards due to, particularly for leg injuries, hitting some of the obstacles or landing awkwardly after them. There have been no deaths in the race since 2012, but it does remain a major issue. And other races at the same meeting have still had some horse fatalities.

Emma Barnett:
But as you say, it’s come down and it’s fallen by a third in the last 20 years due to improvements made. So, perhaps, even more improvements to be made.  There had been races at Aintree prior to the 1839 Grand National though, hadn’t there??

Deborah Lamb:
Yes, racing had been a past time in this area as far back as Tudor times. And some people argue that the first real Grand National took place as early as 1836. But it was really only grew with the coming of the railways and made it possible for more people to get there and enjoy the events.

Emma Barnett:
And Red Rum! We can’t talk about this without talking about Red Rum. It’s the horse that made the record books. It was the only horse to win three times in 1973, 1974 and 1977. I mean, talk to me about Red Rum Martin?

Martin Polley:
He was an amazing horse. I’m just old enough to remember Red Rum. And the legend that he was. I think there was a great narrative because he had been sick, he had suffered from bone disease and there was a big famous story around him. And certainly the three winning … the three victories was incredible. And it’s quite rare I think for a sporting animal to get to be remembered … commemorated after their death. Mick the Miller, greyhound did. He’s stuffed in the Natural Museum in Tring. And with Red Rum, he’s buried by the winning post and there’s a life size bronze statue of him at Aintree. So, a very, very beautiful commemoration of the site of his most famous victories.

Emma Barnett:
And it’s not just horse racing at Aintree, is it? There are other things that go on there now?

Martin Polley:
There are. There’s a variety of events there. There’s a golf club. Obviously, like many sports clubs, they’ve learnt to diversify in to corporate hospitality and other things to keep the business going. It was also one of the British Grand Prix tracks between 1955 and 1962. It was used for motor racing as well. So, it does have a long sporting history.

Emma Barnett:
Lovely stuff. Well let’s have a break from sports for just now. Let’s look at a leisure location, cos this is leisure and sport this category. Number three in Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson’s top ten, is the Blackpool Tower Ball Room. And I’m personally, extremely excited about this making it in to our sport and leisure top ten, because I absolutely adore Blackpool and the Tower is so iconic, isn’t it? It’s one of England’s most iconic landmarks. It was built in 1894. The attractions in this Victorian seaside resort include the grade I listed tower that stands 518 feet above a pleasure beach and pier. It is a northern gem. I’d go as far as to say it’s a national gem, come on.

The original Blackpool Tower Ballroom opened in 1894 in a small Pavilion where people could dance six days week but not on Sundays of course. In 1899 it was reconstructed in it’s present form, designed by Frank Matcham. And it’s famous sprung dancefloor covers 120 by 102 feet of gleaming mahogany oak and walnut. It’s superbly elegant design and heritage make it a destination for dance fans everywhere. And if any of our listeners are Strictly Come Dancing fans, they will know that the ball forms the centre piece of the series marking the midway point which the celebrity dancers aim to get to.

We visited Blackpool for a whirl around this stylish destination.

[long pause/no sound from 00:16:51 to 00:19:56]

Emma Barnett:
Deborah, there’s still a lot of affection for Blackpool. It might not be the incredibly popular holiday destination it once was, but it does have this charm, doesn’t it?  And if you have been, you tend to have a lot of love for Blackpool.

Deborah Lamb:
Oh, I love Blackpool. I think it’s fantastic and you know right from the beginning of Blackpool as a holiday resort, once people kind of started being able … working people started being able to take holidays, it’s become associated with that sense of joy and escapism and fun, leading to much of the kind of fantastical architecture that you get in Blackpool. It’s fabulous.

Emma Barnett:
Now, I don’t do this when I go, but do you taste the waters anymore? Cos, this is what people used to do.

Deborah Lamb:
I don’t.

Emma Barnett:
Maybe you taste the vodka or the beer but not the waters.

Deborah Lamb:
Yeah, I used to when I was kid, when I was a bit braver, I seemed to be a bit better at swimming in the cold seas when I was kid.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, well. And following the industrial revolution, I mean, as you say, the idea of people having these holidays and the mills being closed for people to be able to away, I mean this was a big deal, wasn’t it, Martin?

Martin Polley:
Absolutely. I mean this was the invention of the modern seaside holiday as we know it now within entire communities really. So, as the mills were closed down for maintenance entire communities would get a week, occasionally two weeks off. They would sometimes link them around traditional holidays as well. And the entire community would up sticks from the mill towns in Lancashire and get to the coast. Obviously, the Yorkshire ones would go elsewhere. And Blackpool really grew from that kind of community holiday time.

Emma Barnett:
‘Wakes Week’, is that the name?

Martin Polley:
That’s right, yes. Yeah, ‘Wakes Week’, I mean obviously the word itself is far order and relates back to religious wakes, but the word was maintained in to the industrial revolution.

Emma Barnett:
Now, let’s talk about specifically with the ballroom. What do you makes it appealing Martin?

Martin Polley:
I think a particular appeal does come partly down to the architect, Frank Matcham, who obviously we know as well from some of his theatre architecture, Hackney Empire, the Colosseum, the London Palladium, he knew how to do spectacular, he know how to make impressive spaces. And obviously, the difference here is that rather than having a large seated auditorium as he did for his music halls and his theatres, it’s the huge dancefloor that makes the difference there which clearly is an absolutely stunning piece of architecture.

Emma Barnett:
And if you haven’t been Deborah, I mean what do you think makes it so special?

Deborah Lamb:
Oh, well the first time I went in to the Blackpool Ballroom it was, I felt that sense of awe that you get going in to a magnificent cathedral really. That’s probably a bit sacrilegious but it was just so awe inspiring. And the quality of the craftsmanship. You know even though Frank Matcham was a theatre designer it was done to the highest standards with Italian craftsman. It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s really stunning. And the sprung floor in Blackpool I was told, I assume this is true as I was told when I was there, has seven different settings …

Emma Barnett:
Wow!

Deborah Lamb:
… depending on what dance your are doing.  I’m not sure I could notice the difference. But I mean that level of kind of technical achievement is just extraordinary.

Emma Barnett:
And the chandeliers have to be lowered to be cleaned.

Deborah Lamb:
And the chandeliers have to be lowered to be cleaned and take … then take a week to clean. And then, of course, there is the famous Wurlitzer organ as well which is magnificent.

Emma Barnett:
Yes, in 1929 that’s when that organ was introduced. And the organist, Reginald Dixon, played there on that organ between 1930 and 1970. And he became known as a name, I’m sure Martin you would love to have?

Martin Polley:
[laughter].

Emma Barnett:
‘Mr Blackpool’?

Martin Polley:
Mr Blackpool, it’s a pretty good one. What I love about that is the way in which this site has become nationally and indeed internationally famous. Still has very strong links with certain individuals. And I think Reginald Dixon, ‘Mr Blackpool’, is very much one of those.

Emma Barnett:
Well the organ did have a lucky escape in 1956 when a fire started by a cigarette did close the site for three years, but they did have craftsmen come in and work tirelessly to restore the ballroom to it’s former glory in time for the next stage of dancehall culture and rock awards. It’s amazing how also, ‘Strictly’ has kind of revived it again, ‘Strictly Come Dancing’.

Well that is all we’ve got time for today. But thank you very much to my guests.

Join us next time as we reveal the next three nation shaping locations in our sports and leisure top ten. You can find out more about the whole campaign to uncover the 100 places which best tell England’s story by visiting historicengland.org.uk/100places. You can also join the conversation by using the #100places, that’s the number on Twitter, to tell us what these places mean to you.  Make sure you rate, review and subscribe on your podcast player so you don’t miss an episode.

Thank you very much to my guests, Martin Polley and Deborah Lamb.  I’m Emma Barnett and I’ll see you next time on Irreplaceable the History of England in 100 places.

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