Keswick FC – Fitz Park

Deep in the beautiful Lake District National Park you can find Fitz Park, the tranquil home of Keswick Football Club. It sits just a few metres away from the River Greta, a tributary which has flooded the town in previous years. On this warm summers morning, the water which had cascaded down the nearby mountains was trickling calmly through the town centre.

Set against the dramatic backdrop of Skiddaw mountain, Keswick FC boast one of those grounds which has to be on the ‘bucket list’ of every non-league football enthusiast. While some may argue it isn’t necessarily a ground, does it really matter when you can enjoy days like this?

“You’re not one of the players are you?” shouted back the groundsman, as I hopped over the fence and asked him what time kick off was. This was at 10:00 in the morning and he’d already nearly marked out the pitch. I’d made the decision to drive up to Keswick as early as I could, knowing full well that by kick-off time the town would be swamped by holiday deprived tourists.

A young couple were loitering by their car and had overheard my conversation. They became a little concerned that they would be blocked in by hordes of football fans. Perhaps they were too aware that still, the only football you could ‘legally’ watch in England was at Division 12 and below. I assured them that there wouldn’t be a rush of drunken football fans flocking to watch this pre-season friendly against nuclear power enthusiasts Windscale FC. With my flip-flops on I headed along the river, enjoyed a paddle and continued further around the bend for a stroll around the town centre.

Every cafe and bar was rammed full with customers, which was great to see, with outside seating all being made the most of. Keswick’s bustling main streets are also a haven for people who want to stock up on hiking and mountaineering gear. No collection of vaping shops or tanning salons here. Of course, there’s still a Greggs. I think even if the world ended, Greggs would manage to keep a shop open on every high street, with discarded pastry-flake-filled-paper-wrappers the only sign of life.

Aside from the plethora of hiking shops, in the middle of the town’s large square stands the imposing Moot Hall, which can be dated back to 1571. Today it was hosting a ‘Himalayan Craft Fayre’ which was one of the more ‘normal’ things that were present amongst a large offering of tat and local produce.

Keswick has held a market for over 700 years and the ‘newest kids on the block’ were those trying to make a quick bit of cash by flogging face masks. Alongside these stalls were the normal staples of all markets; cheese, chocolate and abstract artwork. One such stall was selling a collection of music themed coasters and it took me a few seconds to work out whether they had produced items featuring Ozzy Osborne or John Lennon. Perhaps the artist had painted them whilst suffering from the effects of the pungent English camembert on the neighbouring stand.

Unfortunately no pubs were open at this time in the morning. This wasn’t Newcastle. The only place serving was the town’s offering of Wetherspoons, which I didn’t really fancy stepping into on a warm and stuffy morning. The Chief Justice of the Common Pleas is the area’s old magistrates court and police station, with one of the dining rooms still set out as a courthouse. We’d had a few pints in here a couple of years back after we’d completed the climb up to the summit of Helvellyn, along the treacherous yet breathtaking Striding Edge.

With everything that is going on, you’re not really allowed to be spontaneous at the moment, with most places requiring a reservation. So, a couple of days beforehand I had excitedly booked myself into the infamous Derwent Pencil Museum, which if you didn’t know is home to the ‘world’s largest pencil’. They bloody love pencils here, so much so that they’re open every single day of the year except Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years Day. A shame, as I’d love to welcome in a new year singing Auld Lang Syne with other pencil enthusiasts. 

I arrived at the entrance to be greeted by a young girl, who made sure I thoroughly sanitised my hands and put on my face mask before I was invited through to the main desk. The mask muffled my voice which along with my accent, led the woman to believe my last name was “Symonds” and not “Gibbons” which meant she handed me a family ticket for two adults and two children. I looked around, searching for my non-existent offspring, before informing her that I had indeed travelled – on my own – all the way to the Lake District to touch the world’s largest pencil.

“I’ve got a confession. I’m not actually a fan of pencils. I’m a primary school teacher and I find that they’re the source of a lot of arguments and stress within the classroom,” I explained to her. “Well, you’re in the wrong place if you don’t love pencils!” she chirped up before presenting me with a track and trace form and a souvenir Derwent pencil.

No sooner had the graphite from my souvenir pencil touched the paper of the form, it had snapped, which caused a great deal of embarrassment to the personnel on the desk. “This is not the time to start breaking rank!” my host shouted at the shattered HB pencil, in the same way a dog owner would talk to it’s companion. It was a show up for the books. If you’re a pencil museum, you’d expect to have high quality pencils on show.

“Please mind your head as you enter through our replica graphite mine,” were precisely the words I’d always dreamt of hearing on a Saturday morning. I headed into the darkness for a few seconds. Inside, various mannequins – which could well have been salvaged from Woolworth’s when they went into liquidation – dotted the walls. Expressionless, they had been fashioned into miners and stood guarding a glass case which contained lumps of graphite. It was a far cry from three weeks earlier when I was at Lincoln Castle gazing at the magna carta.

Upon entering, I had kindly presented with a clipboard and a quiz sheet which I thought would pass some time. It’s safe to say I don’t have the greatest of attention spans and tend to become bored pretty quickly, so the vast amount of writing on the four walls of the museum lost me when they were explaining how the pencil used to be made.

One section of the quiz which really threw me was ‘Q4. Name two individuals who tried to sell graphite on the black market.’ I couldn’t find the answer anywhere and had no mobile reception, so made the educated guess of ‘Noel Edmonds and H from Steps‘ but the worker on hand later informed me this was incorrect. Apparently the answer to ‘Q20. What were the half sized pencils attached to string used for?‘ wasn’t ‘Dwarves‘ and I decided to give up.

Feeling rather ashamed at my lack of pencil knowledge, I had a selfie with the ‘world’s largest pencil’ to cheer myself up. The pencil in question didn’t appear to actually be capable of writing, or leaving any form of mark, so I’m unsure if it actually was a pencil or just a replica. Either way, I was enjoying myself a little bit more than Tom from Wigan, who rated the attraction one star out of five on TripAdvisor, signing his ‘Unbelievably BORING!!!’ titled review off with, ‘Drive up and down the M6 for a few hours instead.’

On my way out through the gift shop, I would read on another display that ‘Pencils last on average a full 17 sharpens’ which I took a photo of, ready to stick above the bin in my next classroom. Over the years, I’ve taught some lads who could easily attempt to sharpen their pencil 17 times in one day, just to avoid cracking on with their work. As I left, I clutched hold of my souvenir HB writing utensil knowing it could prove useful at the football in a couple of hours time. For what, I was unsure.

Keswick sits on the northern bank of Derwentwater, which is three miles long and was attracting a large number of families all keen to jump on a boat ride across the lake. While the town is normally busy, it wouldn’t normally be as packed as it was on this occasion with many of these families having to ‘make-do’ with a trip to the Lake District, instead of the likes of Spain and Portugal with restrictions still making it difficult to take a well earned break abroad.

Back in the town centre, pubs were beginning to open with The Wainwright being one of the closest to the lake. Named after the famous fellwalker and author, a range of local ales were on sale. Closer to the ground, I made my way over to The Fox Tap which acts as the tap room for Keswick Brewing. Basking in the midday sunshine, I sampled a Keswick Gold, Thirst Quencher and a strong IPA named K4 before washing it all down with a pint of tap water, which was the finest tasting water I had ever tasted. It was almost like it had been sourced straight from the top of the nearby mountains and placed straight into my glass. I suppose, on reflection, if you visit a brewery you don’t really want the highlight being a glass of water do you?

Passing back over the metal bridge across the River Greta, a group of locals were swimming in the clear water, with one of them commenting on how much nicer it was than the local baths. Further around the corner, Windscale’s players could be seen hiding underneath the shade of a large tree while they received the final instructions from their manager. By the footpath was Hearts fan Callum, who I had previously bumped into in Cesena and Cologne.

He and his brother had driven down from Scotland, with this being their first match in months. Football in Scotland was taking place for the most senior of clubs but at the lower end of the spectrum, there was absolutely nothing. Then again, if Aberdeen’s players keep heading out to local bars and catching the virus, the likes of Callum could be waiting another year before they can get to a match north of the border.

Keswick FC play in the Westmorland League (Division 11 of English football) which puts them up against clubs from areas such as Penrith and Kendal, while Windscale compete in the Wearside League. Both leagues are at the same level of the English League System, but it meant Windscale who are based south west of Keswick were travelling all the way over to the North East of the country for their matches, taking on sides from Hartlepool, Darlington and Gateshead. There must be some logical explanation but it all seemed rather odd to me.

Anyway, it meant that this was a great chance for both clubs to test themselves against a side at a similar level without having to travel miles. Keswick’s pitch was like a carpet, helping to make the football on show a high standard. At times, Windscale, who are nicknamed The Atoms played like Brazil, with their forward line producing well executed turns, flicks and dummies.

The visitors took the lead after just two minutes through Kieran Fraser. It resulted in the Windscale goalkeeper – nicknamed Panda – belting out at the top of his voice, “Come on Windscale! It’s still 0-0!” which reverberated around the valley, with hikers on top of neighbouring Skiddaw no doubt able to hear one of the most boring and tiresome shouts in football. It wasn’t 0-0, it was 1-0, now be quiet.

Straddling the halfway line at Fitz Park is an impressive pavilion which cost £1 million to construct. The club moved here in 2009 after over eight decades playing in the south of the town at Walker Park. Their old ground had a proud history, with a highlight coming in 1923 when more than 3,000 spectators were there to see the very first game, as town players were part of a Cumberland select side which took on Manchester United.

Their Walker Park ground was shared with the Caravanning and Camping Club, who wished to expand and needed the football club to move. They provided £400,000 towards the costs of a move while the Football Foundation threw in a further £548,000 with the remainder of the funds coming from the Rotary Club and local council. Not bad funding if you can access it.

The impressive pavilion was closed on this occasion but as I sat on the grass by the pitch – drinking a beer that I’d purchased from the brewery – I couldn’t help but imagine what this place would be like in the depths of winter. Would the small number of spectators crowd together by condensed windows, passing around cups of tea to keep them warm? Or would the regulars be used to such harsh Cumbrian winters and stand in the driving rain in shorts and a jumper?

Regular drinks breaks were needed, with temperatures once again touching 30 degrees. If this is what global warming is, then I’m all for it. Windscale’s manager gathered his squad back underneath the tree and was keen to stress how well they had been doing so far before encouraging them to snatch another goal. They did so through Reece Fretwell who skilfully chipped the ball over a defenders head before turning and volleying past the goalkeeper. A great finish.

With no goals in the second half, the action ended and I strolled back across the pitch to the car. Next stop was Carlisle, where my girlfriend Chloe was back home for a few days. See, there’s always a method to which match I head to. In truth, if she’d have been in York then I’d have headed up to Richmond Town v Boro Rangers but I’ll save their ground for (yet) another time.

The following morning, we headed back to the Lakes, an area I’m beginning to appreciate more as I get older. Buttermere was the destination this time, where a pub lunch and a paddle in the lake made me wonder whether they also had a football club there? They didn’t… they didn’t have much but I didn’t mind. Everybody was swimming… perhaps I’ll soon join them?

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