We hastily programmed the given postcode into our navigation systems and drove northwards as the snow continued to fall. Winding around waterlogged country roads, we reached the North Yorkshire village of Crayke ahead of our second match of the day. The York League fixture list had been utterly decimated over the past couple of hours, with a heavy snow blizzards proving a step too far for those clubs who had remained available to play. Many member clubs were already unable to play due to virus outbreaks within their squad.
That morning, in the midst of a snow storm, we had watched Marton Abbey hold Elvington Harriers to a draw at York Sport Village. Just two matches in the five divisions of the York League remained from the 14:00 kick offs, with Wombleton Wanderers hosting Wheldrake and Crayke United taking on York St John University. With the latter fixture being closest, it was there that we headed, with confirmation via text from the Crayke secretary that the match was on.
Lying two miles west of Easingwold, Crayke is a small, quiet village which peacefully sits in the middle of rolling countryside. The population of just over 400 were all tucked up in their houses on this bitterly cold January afternoon, with no sign of life evident on the steep, rolling streets through the village.
Crayke is home to a plethora of traditional buildings, all with their own stories and history. My favourite, which was unfortunately closed was of course the village’s pub, the Durham Ox. Sitting on the main road, on this occasion it was lined with a group of Christmas trees outside a firmly locked front door. It really was a shame not being able to enjoy a pint and some food in there, as it looked beautiful but helpfully, the road sign outside informed me it was only 15 miles away from York, meaning I will definitely head back there one day to see what lies inside.
Turning left, up the steep Crayke Lane we walked past some more beautiful houses before arriving at the village church, with the current structure dating back to 1490. It is dedicated to St Cuthbert, who formed a monastery here, allowing him to rest while making frequent visits to York from Lindisfarne. As well as his monastery, Cuthbert is linked to the village further. Years after his death, Lindisfarne, the coastal island where his remains were kept as holy relics, was invaded by the vikings. The monks fled, taking Cuthbert’s remains with them around the north of England; they rested in the safety of Crayke for months.
Continuing around the bend we made it to the highest point in the village, where the impressive Crayke Castle stands. Visible from most parts of the village and the surrounding area, it afforded a spectacular view, allowing us to make out the players finishing their warm up at the Sports Club in the fields beneath us. During the match, it helped to create a pleasant backdrop to the action.
Originally built in the 12th Century, the castle was once a popular place with the royals, housing King Edward III, King John, Henry III, Edward I and Edward II on visits to the area. I doubt they were greeted with the same disparaging looks we received from the neighbours, who really weren’t keen on us lingering around the village at all. I was fairly sure that the bloke who lived opposite was soon going to get in touch with his local neighbourhood watch scheme, so we didn’t stick around for long.
While the present building dates back to 1450, it would be hard to imagine it has ever looked in as sorry a state as it currently does. Kizzy, who was too lazy to walk up the road decided to drive up to the peak. While he waited for Paul and I to catch him up, he had found a photo of the castle from just a few years ago on the internet. It was barely recognisable. Vegetation had been allowed to take over the front gates and entrance, with it now appearing more like a stereotypical haunted house rather than the grand castle it once was. It’s last occupier was Kevin Hollindrake, who before launching his career as an MP, put the castle up for sale for £3.5 million.
Hollindrake was a successful estate agent before moving into politics. He joined the Conservative party and strategically turned down four seat battles before settling for the ultra safe constituency of Thirsk and Malton where he was elected as MP in 2015. A controversial individual, with some odd views, he put his years of working in the property market to use when he became one of those who voted against ensuring landlords kept housing in a ‘fit state for human habitation’, which seemed fitting, looking at the mess before our eyes.
Kick-off was now just under ten minutes away, so we headed down to the lower road of the village where the game was being held, opting to take a shortcut through a bridleway which proved to be quite slippery underfoot. Sitting at the very edge of the village, The Crayke Sports Club is home to the local football team and cricket club. A grand pavilion is built into the gradual slope of the pitch, which verges off into the fields which disappear over the horizon.
There are records of Crayke United playing in the York League since at least 1954; football may well have been played here longer but information is difficult to find. These days, they compete in Division Three, which is the fourth of five leagues which the competition comprises of. On this bitterly cold afternoon, York St John University would have travelled out of the city centre confident of taking all three points, as they headed to play the side who were propping up the table and without a win so far this campaign. They were in for a shock. A torrid afternoon followed, with Crayke claiming an unlikely victory, thrashing the students 5-0.
Eight spectators, including Paul, Kizzy and I were left bemused by the York St John students who played as a team of individuals and enjoyed shouting at each other, lamenting any effort that their team mate tried to put in. As a former St John student myself, this was a bit disappointing to see but not too surprising. I never ‘hung out’ with the football lads when I was there as I found them to be a bit odd and couldn’t bear to hear them lying about which football league club they once had trials with.
Crayke, playing in their all purple strip, making them look like a Yorkshire version of Belgian giants Anderlecht, opened the scoring on 15 minutes with a glancing header at the near post. The home side took a comfortable 2-0 lead into the interval when the Crayke number 9 got on the end of a flick on to slot past the St John goalkeeper who would go on to have a torrid time in the second half.
During the short break in play, as the snow began to fall again, I got chatting to Steve who had made the short drive from the outskirts of the city centre to watch the game. Admittedly more of a cricket man, he did like to watch his local fotball side Wigginton Grasshoppers play. He was great company and towards the end of the match, something happened which ensured when I next bump into him at a game he can buy me a pint.
As the action restarted, York St John played a bit better in their brightly coloured away shirts, which shared the same tone of pink as Barney the Dinosaur. Having said that, the children’s favourite, famed for his frenetic yet educationally sound mindset, would probably have displayed greater teamwork skills if he had taken to the field.
Talking of the field, the sloping pitch at Crayke, which rolls from one touchline to the other, makes the task of taking corners at the pavilion end a bit of a challenge. If you’re tasked with taking the set piece from the bottom end, you have to kick uphill to get the ball anywhere near the area and if you’re kicking downhill, you have to hit the ball almost downwards to make sure it doesn’t go flying over everybody.
Crayke extended their lead just after 60 minutes, through strange circumstances which saw a striker pass the ball around the goalkeeper to a teammate who was stood on the goal line, allowing him a simple tap in. While the students remonstrated with the referee over the legitimacy of the goal, and the Crayke players jogged back to their half in fits of laughter, Wigginton fan Steve had seen enough. He was too cold and wanted to head home for a warming cup of tea and to lounge by his fire.
There was still half an hour left. He wasn’t too bothered though, confident that York St John could play all afternoon and still wouldn’t score. We waved him goodbye, only to see him stroll back over to us a few minutes later, looking rather sheepish. He had somehow got his van stuck in the grass by the pavilion. As Crayke scored their fourth, Paul, Kizzy and I were standing behind Steve’s van, rocking it to free it from the ever growing puddle of mud which he had managed to reverse into. We didn’t ask him how he had done it, assuming he would be too embarrassed to talk us through events that led up to it.
My jeans were now covered in mud but at least my face mask protected me from the mass of fumes being emitted from the exhaust which was directly beneath my position. Ten minutes passed and we were on the verge of giving up when our stricken mate emerged back from pitchside with a plank of wood which he planned on wedging underneath his front tyre to gain some traction. Good idea. Unfortunately, said piece of wood was a chalkboard which displayed the days match ball sponsors.
“He can’t use that! It could be a club antique!” muttered Paul as more mud and smoke rose up around us. Crayke were now 5-0 up as we heard some cheers from behind us. We were now only making matters worse, so decided that we had offered as much help as we could to Steve who had now missed two goals, was still stuck, had ruined the grass, had dented the back of his van on a shed, had broken prized club property and more importantly still hadn’t managed to get that cup of tea.
The match finished. From afar, one of the Crayke players saw what was happening and came over to offer some help. “I’ll just go and get my tractor from home if you want and we can pull it out?” were the words that followed. We chuckled, but the deadpan delivery of the offer and his straight face illustrated to us that tractor ownership must be commonplace in this rural part of Yorkshire. Just like residents of Amsterdam all have bicycles, the people of Crayke all have a tractor.
The league campaign was paused after this weekend’s games as the nation went into strict lockdown once again. The season was subsequently null and voided for the second season running in the weeks that followed. Steve eventually made it back to Wigginton and presumably had a well deserved cup of tea. It would be 85 days until we got to attend a football match again.