Would I ever make it to Richmond Town? It looked increasingly unlikely. Every time I had arranged a visit to Earls Orchard, the weather had decided to ruin my carefully researched plans. It was quite disheartening too. Have you ever tried to plan a trip from the outskirts of Greater Manchester, up to Richmond and back? It’s easier, quicker and often cheaper to get to Spain or Italy. This isn’t me being melodramatic either. Public transport wise, Richmond is a pain to reach.
So it was rather ironic, that in a strange turn of events, I would finally end up visiting one of British football’s most scenic grounds when I was least expecting to. As with much of 2020, this was yet another week where plans were left in the balance and often changed at the last minute. Traditionally, Atherton Collieries play a pre-season friendly – the Jolly Boys Outing – at somewhere they wouldn’t normally get chance to travel to and this time around it was to be a day out at Liversedge.
Unfortunately, a number of our players and volunteers had been diagnosed with Covid-19 and the match was subsequently cancelled, with the hope of rearranging it for next summer. I was disappointed for a matter of minutes before I loaded up various fixture lists and I saw Richmond of the Wearside League jumping out at me. It was now or never.
Having committed to this latest plan, it made me realise that this was a trip that had been four years in the making. Back in 2016, Matt and I had already booked our train tickets when Richmond’s match at home to Spennymoor Town Reserves was postponed. Pressing on through to Newcastle, we ended up traipsing through the fields of Wylam searching of the home ground of Ryton & Crawcrook Albion who were hosting an ambitious South Shields outfit. Julio Arca would steal the show, scoring in front of a number of bus stop shelters that had been refashioned into stands.
With a return to work, the Friday night saw me back in my usual routine of heading up to York to spend time with Chloe. Desperate for a drink, we ended up in the Crooked Tap in Acomb, where bar man Jim, as always, managed to supply me with various beers that he knew I’d like. He even managed to flog me a bright yellow can of ale, celebrating Harrogate Town’s recent promotion into the Football League.
After also being left disappointed at the cancellation of Liversedge, Rob was joining me for this one and I picked him up from York train station on the Saturday morning. A light drizzle – which would hover over us as we headed northwards – did make me wonder whether this ground would evade me once again. Full throttle up the A1 through Catterick Garrison and we found ourselves rolling into Richmond.
The town’s tourism board had been working in overdrive, using superlative laden sentences to drive home the fact that Richmond is a ‘nice’ place. ‘Discover the jewel in the heart of North Yorkshire, the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales,’ states the opening page of their website before it delves into further claims which begin to feel a bit delusional. My favourite claim being that the town is in ‘close proximity to the most stunning scenery anywhere to be seen’. Anywhere? Really?
The town of Richmond is Conservative heartland, in the north of England. It felt like it too as you walked around. William Hague had this as his stomping ground from 1989 until he was replaced by Rishi Sunak, born in Southampton but flighted in through this ultra-safe seat in the 2015 election. Since then, he’s certainly been making a name for himself, working his way up to become Chancellor of the Exchequer. He was a hot topic of conversation around the time of our visit, with his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme coming to a close the week before our visit.
Personally, I think he should spend less time attempting to rescue our economy and look at the real issues we face in this country, such as the lack of adequate parking in his constituency town centre. We must have driven around for a good ten minutes, hoping that a space would appear in one of the centre’s number of car parks before we finally parked up. There was a stunned silence when we approached the ‘Pay and Display’ machine to realise it was coin payment only. “Even in the Lake District you can pay by contactless,” I said to the traffic warden who was already hovering around my car.
Between us we had a sole £5 note. It wasn’t looking good… and this wouldn’t be the end of our money issues, as we would later (for some unknown reason) turn up at the ground not realising that there would be an admission fee. Then again, there isn’t an admission fee at this level of football in the North West.
Through the cobbled market place we went, weaving in and out of various stalls and local traders. A car – which seemed in a rush – pulled up outside Greggs. Fears that it was going to be an armed robbery were soon dampened when out stepped a burly lad in a Darlington Town FC tracksuit – the visiting team for this afternoon’s match. He would later put in a solid performance in central midfield. Perhaps his good performance was down to the pre-match essentials that he scoffed? I’ve always argued that a Steak Bake would help fuel any elite athlete for the most gruelling and competitive of matches.
Further up the road, a Richmond Town fan wandered past us in his own club jacket, seemingly delighted when we asked him for directions to the ground. We ploughed on and ended up heading through to the north side of the town where we would have a pint in the Ralph Fitz Randal, the town’s offering of Wetherspoons. All the other pubs that we tried were full to capacity or serving a poor selection of mass produced beer. As we sanitised our hands, two police officers strolled past us and beat us to the bar.
“We’ve not been too bad recently to be honest. We’ve been open 62 days and we’ve only had 34 fights. They were only fights though, they weren’t full on brawls. Works out less than one every two days.”
This was the speech from the bar manager, a king of spin, to the police men. Somehow happy with what they had heard, the officers left, safe in the knowledge that there hadn’t been any brawling so far on this Saturday morning and continued their patrol around the rest of the area.
My pint of Golden Plover, brewed further north in Hexham, went down a treat and we continued our tour of the town, heading down towards the castle. Richmond Castle is almost 1,000 years old and was built shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD by Alan Rufus, a cousin of William the Conqueror. An old woman sat on a bench in the shade of it’s towering walls, reading a book, while Rob and I looked down upon the football pitch where pre-match preparations were in full swing. The journey down there looked easy; the walk back up didn’t.
By the time that we’d completed a lap of the castle walk we still had an hour to waste until the action started. Back towards the Market Place we trudged in search of another pint. Some of the places looked quite faffy from the outside. Their ordering systems weren’t really built for the swift-drink-and-quick-getaway approach that a pre-match build-up requires but The Castle Tavern was spot on. A locals pub with service at the bar and more importantly, some local ales. Richmond Brewing Company had a few drinks on offer here and I decided to go for their Gun Dog Bitter, knowing full well that if I wasn’t driving I could have quite happily sat in there drinking my way through the menu.
It would have been physically possible to roll down the ridiculously steep route that led us towards Earls Orchard; it made the hills of Mossley seem tame. As we walked over the River Swale, which borders the football pitch, I spotted Sean who I’d bumped into at a couple of Darlington matches in the past, he was with his mates Adam and Danny. Now, even though we hadn’t known Danny for long – a matter of two minutes to be precise – he was soon breaking into a crisp £20 note to pay for Rob and I to get into the match.
It was only when we arrived at the ground that we realised there would be an admission cost. A true head in hands moment. With the nearest cash machine being all the way back up the hill in the town centre, Rob and I both looked at one another in a concerned manner, knowing that a game of rock, paper, scissors could well follow. A flip of a coin would have been quicker but of course… we had no money.
We were advised, by other members of the queue that had formed at the entrance, to just take the path down to the left and watch from there. On further inspection, the path in question formed part of the infamous Coast to Coast Walk which stretches 182 miles from St Bees in Cumbria on the west coast, all the way across to Robin Hood’s Bay on the east. Devised by Alfred Wainwright, the route goes through three national parks and traditionally, you’re meant to dip your foot in the sea at the start and finish.
Despite the fact we could have easily watched from the pathway and then just climbed over into the ground itself, we know just how much the majority of non-league clubs need income and even more so at the moment. It was only £3 but if everybody watched from the path, there’d be no income at all. So, Danny kindly paid for us to get in on the proviso that we bought him a pint each in the pub after the match. In the end, a pint of Carling actually cost £3.50, so he gained £1 through being helpful.
Rumours pitchside were that Richmond may struggle in this match against Darlington Town, with their player Jimmy Muir getting married on the day of the match. It meant that other key personnel would also be missing… but not that many, as the current guidelines stated you’re only allowed 30 guests at a wedding. As such, four academy players were brought into the starting line-up, battling well in testing conditions.
Hiding under a tree which tried it’s best to overhang the touchline, we sheltered from the wind and the rain which drove in across Earls Orchard, a name which evoked images of warm summer evening strolls through vast swathes of apple trees. With the sun beating down, wandering around, searching for fruit which could be gathered to create an ‘artisan’ style pie or even a ‘craft’ cider. At least this is what I assume people do in orchards. I’m from the cobbled streets of Atherton and growing up, I was lucky to see a dandelion, let alone an apple tree.
Shaun, a Stranraer supporter, who had also driven here to visit before the imminent move of ground, joined us below the relatively safe refuge of the trees. Amongst the incessant thudding of the football being leathered around and the squelch of boots on the turf, you could also hear the faint sounds of a couple of sheep, rustling around in the grass just behind us. There was a lot going on and it became quite difficult to concentrate on the match, with events on the pitch becoming secondary to the scenery and conversation.
Richmond took the lead in the second half through Luke McCormack, who broke free and finished smartly as the rain continued to pour. There was a large roar when the goal went in, with a sizeable crowd turning out for this one.
The home side’s lead wouldn’t last though, with Darlington equalising through Sam England. After seven yellow cards and a number of bruising challenges, the referee brought the match to an end and Rob and I headed back up the hill to the pub with the Darlo fans, with Tim having joined us at the match too.
The hike up the steep Bargate took a few minutes but the reward at the end was worth it, with The Buck Inn open and getting ready to show the Iceland v England match. Like normal, I was oblivious to the fact the national side were even playing and in all honesty wasn’t too interested. Upon our arrival, the barmaid locked the doors behind us as our body count had taken the venue to its limit. Tough luck on all those who couldn’t march uphill as quickly as we could.
Rob became distracted by the vast collection of tourist leaflets that were available in the corner. Cat Pottery looked like a great day out but if we had have done that instead of the football, we would have missed out on the beauty of Earls Orchard. The venue has just a handful of matches left, before it is handed over to the junior section of the club. So, while this doesn’t appear to be a case of a ground disappearing forever, one of Britain’s most scenic settings will soon be extremely difficult to catch a game at, if at all.