Oystercatchers and Blue Plaques

9th July

Not surprisingly, the World Cup is dominating the current sports news agenda, prompted by England’s unexpected progress to Wednesday’s semi-final against Croatia.

In the meantime, other sports continue on their season’s journeys – and not just the headline events such as Wimbledon and international cricket. Yesterday – by way of the return train between Glasgow and Carlisle and the Stagecoach No 301 bus between Carlisle and Workington – I attended the Betfred League 1 rugby league match between Workington Town and Hunslet at Derwent Park.

Some background. Workington Town RLFC holds the distinction of being the club which has succeeded in winning both the Rugby League Championship (in 1951) and the Challenge Cup (1952) in the shortest time following its formation (1944). Their player-coach and captain was Gus Risman – one of the “greats” of the sport – who led them out at Wembley at the age of 41, 14 years after captaining Salford to victory at the same venue. In Workington’s Challenge Cup victory, the Lance Todd Trophy winner was their loose forward, Billy Ivison, who played 385 matches for his sole club over 15 seasons.

The 1950s were boom years for rugby league in Cumberland. Workington also reached the Challenge Cup finals in 1955 and 1958 and the Championship final in 1958, whilst local rivals Whitehaven (formed three years later) defeated the Australian tourists in 1956 and were within five minutes of reaching Wembley the following year before succumbing to Leeds in a one-point Challenge Cup semi-final defeat.

The recent years have not been so kind. At the time of the formation of the Super League in 1995, considerable pressure was exerted by the league authorities to form a single Cumbrian “super club” (involving Workington, Whitehaven, Barrow and Carlisle), but this was resisted by the local interests (as were proposals for similar mergers elsewhere in the rugby league heartlands) and it was the unmerged Workington that took part in Super League’s first season. Only two league matches were won, however, and, with demotion following, this was the last time that a Cumbrian side was placed at the sport’s top table.

In Still An Ordinary Spectator, I noted that, following a visit to Barrow’s Craven Park in March 2016, Derwent Park remained one of only two that I had yet to visit – of those that were still in use – from the venues of the professional clubs (30 in total) that were in the Northern Rugby League when my father me took me to my first game in the early 1960s. (My attainment of the items on this particular bucket list is not quite as impressive as it sounds; as the caveat implies, many of those grounds were sold off or otherwise vacated before I had taken the opportunity to see a match at them). The Derwent Park box has now been ticked, however.

I am always interested in the history of the localities in which sports grounds are located and, as usual, Trevor Delaney’s excellent (though obviously somewhat dated) The Grounds of Rugby League (1991) did not let me down. The Workington Town ground is at:

The Cloffocks- the historic site of the Easter folk game of ‘Uppies and Downies’ and near to where a Viking sword has since been unearthed… Situated on the banks of the River Derwent, [it] is one rugby league ground where you are likely to find herons and cormorants within yards of the main gates… The present grandstand… stands on what was once a tidal estuary (The Saltings). Fishing boats are known to have tied up there before the First World War. The ground is built on eleven feet of ash and sundry rubble, the site being the former Council rubbish tip”.

Since 1970, Derwent Park has also been used for speedway; the Workington Comets compete in the Speedway Great Britain Championship. My expectation, therefore, was of a venue not dissimilar to that of Shielfield Park in Berwick, which I visited earlier this year (“700-plus years after Edward I – a two-all draw”, 26th February 2018) and where there is a corresponding marriage between speedway and soccer.

And this was what I found. Derwent Park has two long stands stretching down the touchlines, the main one of which has seating. The ends of the ground are open and, on this bright and sunny day, there were clear views from the stands into the middle distance and beyond: on one side, the wheeling towers of a wind farm that stretched away down the estuary; on the other, the solid presence of Workington’s parish church, St Michael’s, standing out against the blue sky.

In League 1, the side finishing at the top of the tree at the end of the regular season – the Bradford Bulls are currently most people’s favourites – will gain automatic promotion to the Championship. The second promotion spot will be determined by play-offs involving the sides finishing between second and fifth. However, the competitive nature of the upper half of the division is such that Newcastle Thunder (currently ninth) no doubt still harbour hopes of a top five finish. Every match counts. The Workington-Hunslet game was, therefore, a good one to choose. At the start of the weekend, with 11 matches to play, the sides were respectively placed fifth and third in the league table, the visitors having won seven games in succession.

The announcement of the Workington team revealed two players whom I expected to be key participants in the afternoon’s events. I recalled that the prop forward Oliver Wilkes had played a powerful game for the Barrow Raiders in the Craven Park match a couple of years ago; more recently, I had also noted at first hand the cult-hero status that the experienced (and formidable) Tongan Fuifui Moi Moi had acquired during his period with the newly formed Toronto club (“The Wolfpack and the Cheesy Dog”, 27th August 2017).

Hunslet had the better of the first half, prompted by the darting runs of Cain Southernwood and Jack Lee, and they led 14-4 at half-time. However, with both Wilkes and Moi Moi prominent, the greater strength of the Workington pack seemed to wear down their opponents and their dominant second half performance produced a 28-18 win. It was Wilkes’s skilful offload in the tackle near the Hunslet line that led to an important try for the home side when the match was in the balance. By the end of the day’s play, when all the scores had been settled across the league, Workington had moved up to fourth place in the table, whilst Hunslet had slipped to fifth.

After the match, I had a little time to spare before catching the bus back to Carlisle. I took the footbridge over the railway line and walked a short way along the path to a peaceful spot by the river. I couldn’t see Trevor Delaney’s herons or cormorants, but there was a flotilla of about a dozen swans on patrol, whilst overhead were four oystercatchers (I think, not being an expert) with their bright orange-red beaks and black and white plumage and incessant urgent chatter.

I also called in at St Michael’s Church. The outer door was open and I was greeted in the porch by a member of the vestry, who was there for a meeting which was due to start a few minutes later. Without any prompting, he ushered me inside and gave me a short guided tour, proudly explaining how the church had been rebuilt following a serious fire in 1994. My host pointed out the figures of the “Northern Saints” high up on the walls and talked me through the narratives of the impressive stained glass windows. I mentioned that I had been at the rugby and had seen the church from my seat in the stand; when I told him the score, he said his son would have been pleased as he had gone along too. We shook hands at the end of a really pleasant exchange.

There was just time for me to stroll through the centre of Workington. The town was nearly deserted in the early Sunday evening sunshine and so I had no distractions when I took the photographs of the blue plaques commemorating Billy Ivison and Gus Risman. It is good to see that they are given due prominence not only for their contributions to Workington Town, but also as significant figures in the history of Workington the town.

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