Even Longer Times Between Visits – Part 1

17th August 2022

“On my first (and only) visit to what was then called Wheldon Road, I was both mystified and disconcerted by what seemed to be a huge expanse of soap bubbles stretching out by the side of one of the neighbouring roads, the locals either ignoring it or walking through and around it. Looking back, I assume that it was something to do with the discharges from one of the local chemical or other industrial sites: at the time, it was something from another – and harsher – world than the boy from suburban north Leeds was used to”.

[An Ordinary Spectator, page

In “A Long Time Between Visits” (15th July 2018), I reported on going to watch a Keighley Cougars home rugby league match with the Oldham Roughyeds. I noted that it was my first visit to that particular ground – named the Cougar Stadium since 1991, but known before that as Lawkholme Lane – since September 1965, a gap of 52 years and 10 months. 52 years and 298 days to be precise.

Last Friday evening, I beat that record, when I attended the Castleford Tigers versus Catalan Dragons Super League encounter at what is now called The Mend-a-Hose Jungle in Castleford. On the occasion of my only previous visit – in April 1965 for a Top 16 Championship play-off match between Castleford and Hunslet – the ground had again been known simply by its location: Wheldon Road. That was 57 years and 110 days ago. (For clarity, this is not just the period that has elapsed since my first visit to the ground; it is also the length of time since my last visit).

My excursions in the mid-1960s to watch Hunslet’s away fixtures took place within a relatively narrow window of a couple of years. In addition to the matches in Keighley and Castleford, there were trips to Belle Vue, Fartown and Craven Park – the home grounds of Wakefield Trinity, Huddersfield and Hull Kingston Rovers, respectively. In addition, there were the local fixtures at Bramley and Leeds and, not least, a Challenge Cup tie in February 1964 at the Mount Pleasant ground of Batley (of which more tomorrow).

This was a period in which my Uncle Bob – a keen motorist and a fearless navigator in foreign parts – shared my father’s support for the Hunslet team with some enthusiasm and adopted the role of more-than-willing chauffeur. (My father and I also saw a fixture at the Blackpool Borough ground in August 1967, when we happened – by coincidence, I’m sure – to be on the west coast for a family holiday). It was a relatively short-lived phase, however, though not from any diminution of interest on my uncle’s part. By the autumn of 1966, I had entered grammar school and selection for the Under 13s XV – rugby union, of course – limited my availability for sports spectating on Saturday afternoons.

As noted above, my principal recollection of the first trip to Castleford was the disconcerting sight of the “huge expanse of soap bubbles” that was evident in some of the streets in the town itself, about which the local inhabitants appeared to be totally indifferent. I was subsequently to learn that this was not an uncommon sight in the Castleford of that time and resulted from the volume of detergents that the local industrial processes had deposited into the town’s River Aire.

I do not recollect much about the 1965 match itself other than that the visitors gave a below-par performance and that Castleford won quite easily – by 18-7, as the records show. (It would have been understandable, perhaps, if the Hunslet team had had half an eye on their forthcoming Wembley appearance – two weeks later – in the Challenge Cup final against Wigan). However, I do recall that we were seated in the upper tier of the Main Stand and that my views of the pitch were hindered by the series of horizontal metal bars that were placed on the tier’s balcony at the foot of each of the rows of steps that led further back into the stand.

On Friday, my walk from the railway station to the ground took me through Henry Moore Square – named after the town’s most famous son. The square is dominated by the solid red-brick building of the former Castleford and Allerton Mutual Industrial Society – “Established 1871” – from which a series of large colourful flags proudly denoted both the modern town and its origins as a Roman army settlement, Lagentium. On the other side of the road are a couple of desperate box buildings from the 1960s or 1970s: sad intrusions in a public space named in honour of a creative genius.

It was a warm evening, following several days on which the temperature had hovered around the 30 degree mark, but this didn’t seem to dissuade the customers ordering their burgers and chips from one of the temporary retail outlets lined up in the busy area behind the Main Stand. At the end of the row, in the beer tent, an informal panel discussion featured three Castleford players from the 1980s and 1990s – Lee Crooks, Bob Beardmore and Graham Steadman – who, between them, represented the club on over 750 occasions. I listened for a while before returning to the burger van and ordering a tea.

You want a what?” responded the girl behind the counter with an undisguised – and apparently genuine – incredulity. “In this weather?”

I replied that drinking tea could help you to cool down. (I could have mentioned the afternoon rituals of the British in India, but didn’t). The girl was not persuaded.

The Castleford-Catalan match had promised to be a close affair, as the previous occasion on which the sides had met at the Jungle, earlier in the season, had only been decided in Castleford’s favour by a single-point drop-goal in sudden-death extra time. At the start of the evening, I judged that, at fourth place in the league table, Catalan were fairly safe in securing a top 6 play-off place in the quest for the Super League title. However, Castleford, although only one place behind the visitors, were six points adrift of them and in a scrap with four other sides for the two remaining play-off berths.

It was predictably hard-fought game. Both sides scored two tries, but the Castleford goal-kicker, Gareth O’Brien, added three penalties to his two conversions, whereas the Catalan touchdowns went unconverted. I thought that the home side’s victory owed much to the controlled aggression of their defensive effort: there were three occasions in the first half when the impact of the tackle legitimately dislodged the ball from the Catalan attacker’s grasp close to the Castleford try-line and, again, after the interval, their defensive systems remained resilient in the face of sustained pressure from the visitors. 18-8 was the final outcome.

I could be confident that my seat for the match on Friday was on the same side of the ground as it had been in 1965 as the Main Stand is the only one with seating. I had an old-fashioned solid wooden tip-up seat in the lower tier – about six rows from the front near the half-way line behind the visitors’ dug-out – and it gave an excellent view of proceedings, particularly after the setting sun had fallen below the junction of the roofs of the stands in the far corner. (I was aware that this lower tier had not been a seating area in 1965: Trevor Delaney’s The Grounds of Rugby League, published in 1991, notes that it had been a standing room paddock with the seats not being installed until 1970).

After the game, I went up into the upper tier, where the seating is now of the modern plastic tip-up variety. The horizontal metal bars – their supports embedded in a wooden base – are still there. For confirmation, I asked an elderly steward – who had earlier kindly escorted me all the way to my seat – how long he thought the bars might have been in place: “decades” was his reply. I cast my eye along the rows of seats three or four places back and, with a frisson of recognition, pictured my 10 year-old self looking out on to the pitch and watching Alan Hardisty and Geoff Gunney in action.

Trevor Delaney refers to the “comprehensive improvements” that were made at Wheldon Road in the period after my first visit. But his authoritative work was published over 30 years ago, of course, and time has moved on. An article in the August 2022 edition of the excellent Roar – the Castleford Tigers’ official monthly magazine – quotes Mark Grattan, the club’s Managing Director: “It has long been recognised that Wheldon Road needs a serious upgrade”.

Plans are in place. Currently, there is a formal consultation process on the proposals for a comprehensive overhaul of the stadium, the club’s planning application for which (to Wakefield Council) is – crucially – in partnership with a firm of real estate developers which also seeks permission for a separate “new employment development” at the Castleford junction of the M62.

I doubt that the wooden tip-ups seats or the metal bars will survive the overhaul. But, having enjoyed my visit to Wheldon Road on Friday, I hope that, in seeking to meet Mr Grattan’s wish “to significantly improve the experience for supporters”, the re-designed ground also maintains the intimate atmosphere of the current version.

I walked back through Henry Moore Square to the railway station in the knowledge that the Wheldon Road ground/The Mend-a-Hose Jungle of Castleford Tigers RLFC had attained a new (strictly personal) record: 57 years and 110 days.

And then, on Sunday, I went to Batley.

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