What to make of the English dominance of this year’s
European club competitions?
Two English clubs will contest the final of the Champions
League, and two more meet in the Europa League final. It’s an unprecedented
clean sweep – and not a Manchester team in sight!
But any talk of dominance would be premature. Although the tide may be turning, it’s clear where the dominant European football culture can be found, at least until the evidence of one or two more seasons is available.
In the past 10 years, only six countries have had teams in
the last four of the Champions League:
There has been more variety in the Europa League, but when you strip out the one-offs the picture is similar:
Spain provided the winner of the Champions League for the past five seasons before this one, and both finalists twice since 2014. Spanish clubs also won the Europa League six times in the nine seasons from 2010.
Before them, German clubs were notably successful in the Champions League, 2009-2013, and at least one of the last four has been German in all but two of the past 10 years. Portugal has a similar record in the Europa League.
“The table doesn’t lie in the end,” Ole Gunnar Solksjaer
said after Manchester United failed to beat Huddersfield and thereby missed out
on European Champions League qualification.
But some tables tell half-truths. The United manager has
inadvertently highlighted another case in which it’s one law for the Premier
League and a quite different law for the rest.
The table may not lie about the elite but everywhere else it is not completely reliable. In the Championship and League 1, the table can identify the best two teams and in League 2 the best three. But to find the next best, four teams have to prove themselves all over again.
The play-offs, the argument goes, keep the season alive
longer for more clubs. That’s undoubtedly true but so what? Surely the whole
point of the way football is structured is to allow teams to find their level. If
a fairer way exists to rank 20 or 24 teams other than by having each one play
all the others, home and away, why in 131 years has it not been implemented?
After a full programme of fixtures, Leeds United (third in
the Championship) will have to beat teams they have already surpassed by up to
nine points to gain promotion. The possibility of injustice is even greater in
League 1 where Charlton Athletic, third behind Luton and Barnsley, are a full
15 points in front of Doncaster Rovers but have to overcome them again to
remain in with a chance of promotion.
Since the play-offs were introduced in 1986-87, the most
deserving club – according to the league table – has been promoted less than
40% of the time (36.5%). The least deserving, scraping into the last of the
play-off places, has been the next most successful with 24% of the promotions.
By division, League 2 has produced the fairest reflection of
the final table. The team in the first play-off position has survived the
play-offs in almost 44% of cases. In League 1 it has been the next team down,
34.5% of the time. The Championship has come closest to mirroring the league
table in its play-off success rate – 37.5%, 18.8%, 25% and 18.8% respectively
for the teams gaining promotion from various finishes in the table.
Among the many exciting breakthroughs made
possible by the Internet, citizen journalism is one of the most inspiring.
It creates a world in which everyone can be a
broadcaster or publisher, regardless of talent, aptitude, possession of facts
or any self-awareness at all.
This is all made possible by one single
advance: the removal of expensive and pernickety sub-editors from the process.
Sub-editors are the latest victims of a gradual diminution in the variety of
skills once thought necessary to journalism. A trainee reporter 40yrs ago would
have had to produce material good enough in different ways to satisfy at least
five pairs of eyes: those of the line manager (news or features editor), of the
sub, of the production editor, of the editor and, not least, of the typesetter
who would have regarded his (it was invariably ‘his’) interference as
Now, in the era of citizen journalism, none of those is necessary. Material can be published immediately, with no regard to its factual accuracy, legality, sense, honesty, spelling or grammar. As a result almost nothing you read on the Internet can be trusted. A generation of sceptics will grow to maturity in the online era. By a quirk of irony, scepticism is one of the first requirements of a journalist.
* * *
Be honest: when you first saw the name Solihull Moors on a screen, didn’t you assume it was another typically carefree piece of online editing? Surely ‘Motors’ was intended. In the West Midlands, Solihull Motors made a lot more sense than Solihull Moors, there being neither wuthering uplands nor wandering Berbers in the vicinity. Yes, Solihull Motors must be a former company team, like PSV Eindhoven or Bayer Leverkusen.
It was the occasional presence in the Oldham
attack of the great Matt Smith, hero of an FA Cup win over Liverpool in 2013, that
brought Solihull’s football team to my wavering attention. Athletic had plucked
Smith from the Moors or Motors, as I continued to think of them, then in the sixth-tier
In fact Solihull Moors is too young a club to have any links with prominent centres of motor manufacture. A young fan would be as confused by Motors as I was by Moors. The club was formed in 2007 by the merger of Solihull Borough and Moor Green. Moor Green was the older club, originating in Hall Green, south-west of Birmingham. Solihull Borough had originally played under the name Lincoln FC. Moors, then, is not the most confusing name that might have been attached to the club.
The Moors play at Damson Parkway, about midway between Solihull and Junction 6 of the M42. ‘Motors’ would still be appropriate: the ground is surrounded by Jaguar Land Rover premises. And at Junction 6 you’ll find the National Motorcycle Museum.
My first reaction to the National Motorcycle
Museum was to feel physically ill. The evocative smell of burned oil and the
gleam of polished chromium sent me hurtling down Housman’s “happy highways
where I went and cannot come again”. To have owned a Triumph T20 Tiger Cub and,
like a fickle lover, to have casually dropped it on the acquisition of a full
driving licence… the sight of all the wonderful machines I might have
graduated on to was deeply upsetting. An AJS took me back almost 50 years to the
temptations of a dealer at Rayners Lane; a Norton reminded me of a test-ride in
St Albans, where I was only just strong enough to keep the bike upright at a
red traffic light. All around me, middle-aged men in leathers were welling up.
Eventually, by looking not at the bikes I had
loved and lost but at the museum as a series of collections, I calmed down.
Second impressions, then. As I approached the
museum a number of bikes were sweeping around a modest circuit coned out in the
car-park. The sound suited the setting but the speed must have been frustrating
for the riders. Within, the museum’s antechambers have the atmosphere of a
high-class golf course club-house, but with highly-polished and scrupulously
dusted motor vehicles where you might expect trophy cabinets.
There are five big galleries in which
motorcycles (and related vehicles) are lined up by age, by manufacturer and in
some cases by purpose. It’s an overwhelming prospect at first – 850 or more
bikes, beautifully restored and/or maintained, in rank upon rank. Every one of
them looks as though you could ride it out of there, pick up Marianne Faithful
and head off to New Orleans.
Mostly, the National Motorcycle Museum is about ogling beautiful engineering and lamenting lost youth. But it’s also educational: who knew that Triumph was founded by German immigrants called Siegfried Bettmann and Mauritz Schulte; that Steve McQueen was among the pursuing Wehrmacht riders as a stuntman failed to jump the wire in The Great Escape? And there are curiosities: a machine and banjo used in the 1935 George Formby film No Limit; the 1929 Chater-Lea ‘Copperknob’, on which the copper-plating looks as though a plumber built it.
Upstairs, the restaurant is worth a visit. If the museum premises suggest a club-house, the restaurant plunges to the opposite extreme by summoning up the spirit of the transport caff. Outside the window, the dual-carriageway A45 stands in for the motorways beside which such services once fed a nation.
How much Solihull itself has to offer is
something of a mystery. If you set out to follow signs to Library Square ‘i’,
good luck. From at least two key directions – the town centre and the railway
station – the signs point you in the general direction but drop you well before
anything resembling a library or even a square interrupts your progress. Perhaps
other signs indicating Town Centre Touchwood provide a clue: these pointers
show where something was the last time anybody checked, and with luck that’s
where it will still be. (Touchwood is, of course, a shopping and entertainment
complex – Solihull’s Bonheur des Dames.)
The most obviously old building is the 15th century Manor House). A plaque confirms that it dates from 1495. Now occupied on a Saturday morning by a number of small craft businesses, it is open to anyone to wander in. Further along the intermittently decorative High Street is a 16th century building, but here you’d have to feign an interest in fashion to look inside. Off the High Street, Mell Square with its carousel and coffee house has something almost Parisian in its atmosphere.
But this is clutching at straws. Not having found the information centre I asked the clairvoyant I met in the Manor House what I should look at. She suggested the Church of St Alphage. At the eastern end of the High Street, this is apparently the historic core of the town. Opposite the church is the 16th century George Hotel, now a Ramada Inn, with more half-timbering than a Morris Traveller and enough leading in the windows to cage a flock of budgies. Inexplicably, the Ramada Inn’s website has no photograph of the building’s noble southern face. Instead, it focuses on characterless modern luxury.
Across the triangle of pavement and roadway known as The Square is a war memorial on which the name AA Guest caught my eye. And then you’re into the Church of St Alphege, largely built between the 12th century and 1535. Alphege was an Archbishop of Canterbury who died at the hands of drunken Danish raiders in 1012. A side chapel is dedicated to St Thomas à Becket, another Archbishop of Canterbury. What either had to do with Solihull was not clear. To the left of the high altar is an unusual two-storey arrangement of chapels. The chill dimness of the Crypt Chapel of St Francis contrasts with the colour-flecked clarity of the Chantry Chapel above.
Solihull’s other attractions seem to be out of doors, but without ever finding Library Square it’s difficult to be sure. Two parks to the south-west and south-east of the town are, fortunately, hard to miss.
Perhaps that should be three parks. Brueton
and Malvern Parks have their own names and characters but they arc towards each
other and merge in the flood plain of the River Blythe. There’s water too in
Tudor Grange Park, where the Alder Brook feeds a small lake. Tudor Grange also
has pitch-and-putt, a cycle track, a skate-park and playground. It hosts the
Solihull Summer Festival and the town’s bonfire night party.
A park-run had just finished as I arrived at
Brueton Park. Is it harsh to wonder whether park runners are missing the point
by driving to the park for their exercise? Perhaps a man who has just driven
100 miles for no better reason than to go to a football match is in no position
to make disparaging remarks about leisure runners.
The car-park offers a generous 3hrs free
deal. Once the runners had dispersed, most of the takers were dog-walkers and
most of the dogs were spaniels. Brueton is the more expansive of the twinned
parks. Across the Blythe, which information boards point out flows towards the
Trent from here, there’s a substantial nature reserve with different habitats
and plank pathways to take you through them. Back in the park itself, around
the bend towards Malvern, the variety of trees suggests an arboretum but hardly
any are identified; the exception is a hawthorn dedicated to people who were
killed or injured in accidents at work.
The Parkridge Centre, operated by Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, has a café that opens on to a separate nature area with trails, activities and an arboretum. The Centre is surprising even down to the tiling in its toilets – a line of sculptural tiles carries the wildlife message around the smallest room.
Malvern Park is more formal, with poignant
memorial gates, an avenue, so far unplanted ornamental gardens and a fine
statue called the Horse Tamer. But this park too has a children’s playground,
tennis courts and, for no obvious reason, a small reconstruction of a medieval
The football match prompted ungenerous reflections. The Mighty Moors might just be lucky or resilient enough to be promoted. Not notably superior to Havant & Waterlooville, who were relegated by the defeat, Solihull won very late on after conceding what must have been a deflatingly late equaliser.
The Towns of Two Halves Countdown to Christmas featured 24 doors behind which lurked noteworthy tourist attractions in the vicinity of the 92 league clubs:
1 Dec The street art known as Out of Order, by David Mach, is on Old London Road about half a mile from where AFC Wimbledon play in Kingston. The artist proposed that the vertical box on the end be wired up so that people could use it to make phone calls. It’s on p345 of the book.
2 Dec The Newcastle ‘coat’ was a punishment for drunkards in the Stuart period – they were made to wear a barrel around the town. The temptation to push them over and see how far they’d roll must have been irresistible. It’s at the Discovery Centre, Newcastle, and on p214 of Towns of Two Halves. 3 Dec Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum of anthropology and ethnology contains many charms, not least of which is the display of Tail & Buttock Ornaments. It’s an informal treasure house laid out ‘as though someone has recently returned from a distant and exotic car-boot sale and turned out the proceeds for an impromptu police inspection’. It’s on p244.
4 Dec Salvador Dali’s Mae West Lips sofa is a masterpiece of Pop Art created a quarter of a century before pop. You can see it (them?) at the Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, and much more besides. See townsof2halves.co.uk/home/services/brighton/. 5 Dec Very few are the football fans who wouldn’t have reached for the Baldwin’s Nervous Pills at one time or another. ‘Cures nervousness, irritability of temper, fear, dread, neuralgia, hysteria, disturbed sleep, melancholy, insomnia and all nerve pains and diseases,’ the advertising proclaimed. The poster in the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising, on Ladbroke Grove, near QPR, dates from about 1900. You can still buy a reproduction of the poster for £7.49p – the pills themselves, 120 years ago, would have set you back less than 14p a box. P264 of the book. 6 Dec Marco the European Brown Bear came to Rotherham’s Clifton Park on a free transfer from Warwickshire County Council. “As part of the school loans service for almost 20 years, Marco must appear in the nightmares of a generation of Rotherham schoolchildren.” P276 of Towns of Two Halves. 7 Dec The Swindon ‘crocodile’, probably a gharial, is one of the main attractions at Swindon Museum & Art Gallery (p317).
8 Dec This was to have been from Fountain 17, Hull’s homage to Marcel Duchamp as part of the City of Culture year (the picture here is Paul Collinson’s Caspar David Friedrich bowl). But after a short visit to Stoke, Fountain 17 closed and the exhibits were auctioned off. So the ‘window’ reveals a truly extraordinary urinal in Barnsley, fully appreciated on p21.
9 Dec Alan Wilson’s life-size bronze statues decorate the approach to Blackburn’s bus/train interchange. The child has dropped a teddy; grandma appears in a hurry to catch a bus. Just over 20 years old, they were re-sited as part of the 2015 Cathedral Quarter redevelopment.
10 Dec The Fan Museum, in Greenwich, has a spectacular variety of fans for the fan visiting Charlton or Millwall to admire. The feathered ones aren’t all associated with burlesque in the modern sense; many are Victorian, which by coincidence is how far back football fandom goes. There’s more at http://townsof2halves.co.uk/home/services/charlton/.
11 Dec The Derby Arboretum supposedly provides the model for New York City’s Central Park and was England’s first landscaped public park when it opened in 1840. There’s more on p117. 12 Dec The Lincoln engineering firm William Foster& Co built the first military tanks, of which one is on display at the Museum of Lincolnshire Life. They’re called ‘tanks’, by the way, because the prototypes were referred to as ‘water carriers’ for reasons of security: hence ‘water tanks’ and eventually ‘tanks’. Read more on pp170-171. 13 Dec All over Morecambe there are sculptures of birds – mainly but not exclusively seabirds – on plinths, pedestals and pillars. Many are stylised to a greater or lesser degree, some are more naturalistic, and all are great fun and an adornment to the town. 14 Dec Robert Cadman’s death in February 1740 ended the Golden Age of Flying, during which ‘flying men’ ascended high places and rapidly descended along a rope, on a grooved wooden breastplate. Cadman, from Shropshire, is honoured in the Shrewsbury chapter on p289.
15 Dec Accrington is the home of the Ewbank carpet-sweeper, Terylene and NORI, the hardest brick in the building world. If you go, don’t miss the Tiffany display at the Haworth Gallery.
16 Dec The National Football Museum in Manchester has a fine cafeteria but how can Pukka Pies not be on the menu? More on p185. 17 Dec Newport has plenty to offer on its own account, but on the outskirts is the town of Caerleon, one of the most interesting, varied and complete Roman sites in the country. Both Newport and Caerleon are in the book, from p217. 18 Dec The magnificent Musical Museum in Brentford (p44) is best enjoyed in a guided tour, culminating in a performance of the Mighty Wurlitzer. 19 Dec ‘The stones have a louche, malingering air, as though waiting for a sculptor to turn them into something recognisable.’ This is the village of Avebury, where you can wander freely among standing stones. It’s only a small diversion from a game at either of the Bristol clubs. It’s on p53 in the book.
20 Dec It used to be the National Media Museum in Bradford; now it’s the National Science & Media Museum… You might still find Tony Ray-Jones’ photographic record of an English way of life he feared would be Americanised and disappear. P39 of the book.
21 Dec There’s a gallery in Middlesbrough’s Dorman Museum devoted to H2O, and set into the floor is an interactive pond-screen. When you step on it, fish flee and water ripples. Magic. I thought I was witnessing an assisted suicide when two people pushed their friend in his wheelchair on to it. See p199. 22 Dec The Winter Gardens, Museum and Art Gallery in Sunderland is a building of many wonders, not least the recreation of a tropical rain forest amid the foliage of which dinosaurs lurk. Close by, in a smaller tank, don’t miss the real axolotl. This is all on p307 of Towns of Two Halves. 23 Dec Close to Northampton town centre is Delapré Abbey, which has its fair share of ghost stories – plus plenty to enjoy in the present day. On p225: ‘The Grey Lady is said to be a nun restlessly searching the house for the wounded soldier she nursed and fell in love with.’ 24 Dec In Huddersfield’s Art Gallery there’s a Henry Moore piece called Falling Warrior which a writer to the local paper proposed should be renamed Huddersfield Rate-Payer, according to the accompanying note. It is on p148 of the book. Happy New Year!
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If AFC Fylde make it into the Football League, Nailsworth (home of Forest Green Rovers) will no longer be the smallest town with such a distinction. The club’s ground, Mill Farm, is just outside the small towns of Kirkham and Wesham. They are paired on the railway station sign-boards and blend into one another on Station Road. Kirkham, with a population of about 7,200, is about twice as big as Wesham.
That does not mean, though, that there’s not much to do or to look at in the vicinity of AFC Fylde. On the contrary: there’s a clue in the name. The Fylde peninsula is a considerable, perhaps notorious tourist hotspot.
It’s barely eight miles from Mill Farm to the fleshpots of Blackpool. Within about five miles are the more genteel charms of Lytham, and between those two is the middlingly breezy St Annes-on-Sea. Only a mile or two down the road is Wrea Green, where cricket is played during the summer on an authentically English village green, with a fine pub on the corner, and a pond.
Lytham has a windmill and associated seasonal Windmill Museum. Lytham Heritage Centre holds exhibitions (Lancashire at War, 1914-18, until 9 December), and there’s a small museum at the Old Lytham Lifeboat House.
Even closer to Kirkham & Wesham is Wild Discovery, a kind of zoo populated by mainly small but exotic mammals, birds and reptiles, amphibians and insects. It puts on a regular programme of talks and activities, and is more about education and experience than the gawping of a conventional zoo.
Kirkham itself seems to be the sort of place that was once quite something. At one time it had 11 mills, not to mention a race-course. According to one account it was the first settled place in the Fylde in prehistory, but the evidence – an elk with two harpoons embedded in it – sounds more like Japanese whalers blown seriously off course and having a pop at anything that moved.
The town now is notable for small places to stop and watch the world, such as it is, go by. One has a display case containing Kirkham’s last loom. Another records the town’s perennial success in floral competitions, so regular that you’d wonder whether everywhere else has given up. And by the roundabout where the road to Wesham turns off, a leafy arbour suggests the retreat Coronation Street’s scriptwriters have recently discovered to give the characters somewhere to go where they don’t have to be seen boozing or gorging themselves. Wesham has what may be the nation’s last off-licence.
New England in the Fall isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. If you go a week early – and honestly, how can you know two months ahead of time what the right week will be? – it’s not that much different from Olde England in many respects, of which the colour of the foliage is one. No, the best you can do is to organise an itinerary with variations in latitude and altitude, to give those leaves every chance, book your flights and hotels and hope for the best.
If, then, Vermont’s Green Mountains remain doggedly green (as, for that matter, do the White Mountains of New Hampshire) there’s not much you can do about it. Enjoy the scenery, treat yourself to a long detour to Quebec City, take photographs of covered bridges, waterfalls and lighthouses… and come home with added resolve. Because here too is a way in which travelling to a football match can be a rewarding form of tourism.
The obvious ways to enjoy autumn colour in this context are:
Woodland Some clubs are surrounded by or adjacent to wooded hills – Forest Green Rovers and the Cotswolds, Wycombe Wanderers in the Chilterns, and several of the northern clubs especially on the eastern side of the Pennines. Nottingham Forest is a significant disappointment in this sense.
Arboretums A posh word for ‘park’ really, but the Latin for ‘tree’ should promise some colour at this time of year. Derby, Lincoln, Nottingham and Walsall have arboretums (arboreta?). Luton is close to the Chilterns where you’ll find Whipsnade Tree Cathedral just a few miles away. Forest Green, again, is not far from the extraordinary Westonbirt Arboretum.
Botanical GardensKew is next door to Brentford. In other places, the botanical gardens are a little further away from the football grounds – Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Leicester, Oxford and Shefffield. Norwich’s Plantation Garden is a special place, worth a mention and worth a visit.
Parks Many football teams play at Parks. The most promising name here must be Blackburn Rovers’ Ewood Park, but it might as well be called EByGum Park for all the wood involved. Some clubs, however, play in or adjacent to functioning parks: Aston Villa, Bournemouth, Fulham, and Plymouth for example.
Parkland This is subtly different. Parkland belongs to country houses. So Barnsley has Cannon Hall, Mansfield has Newstead Abbey and Northampton has Delapré (as well as the excellent Abington Park, which belongs in the previous category).
This is compiled from information recorded and indexed in Towns of Two Halves. Order your copy for from email@example.com £8 to enhance your enjoyment of away games in ways you might never have thought about.
Bolton is the place to be for Egyptologists this autumn. On 22 September the Egyptology gallery of Bolton Museum will re-open with a full-size reproduction of the burial chamber of Thutmose III.
The first away fans to be able to treat themselves to this reconstruction of a site in the Valley of the Kings will be Derby County’s on 29 September. Blackburn Rovers are there on 6 October, followed by Nottingham Forest on 24 October and Hull City on 27 October.
But Bolton isn’t the only destination on the football league itinerary for Egyptian collections:
• Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has two Egyptian galleries through the city’s association with noted Egyptologist Francis Llewellyn Griffith.
• Derby Museum has two mummies (one partially unwrapped) and a number of grave objects.
• Leicester New Walk Museum has a two refurbished Egyptian galleries re-opening on 20 October, when there will be family activities and three times as many artefacts as previously displayed.
• Liverpool had an Egyptian Museum as long ago as 1852. Now its World Museum claims to have the “largest Ancient Egypt gallery outside the British Museum”.
• Macclesfield’s West Park Museum houses the collection of Victorian thrill-seeker Marianne Brocklehurst, a voracious shopper as well as a skilled artist and engaging diary-keeper.
• Manchester Museum’s collection includes objects that found their way up to Lancashire through the funding of Sir Flinders Petrie’s expeditions by industrialist Jesse Haworth
• Norwich Castle has an Egyptian gallery stocked with artefacts donated by local mustard magnate Jeremiah Colman and author Henry Rider Haggard.
• The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford has about 50,000 objects from Egypt and Sudan.
• Rochdale’s Touchstones has a Heritage Gallery with plenty of Egyptian interest, much of it supplied indirectly by Sir Flinders Petrie, a pioneer of archaeology and Egyptology.
• Swansea’s Egypt Centre celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
• The Museum of Wigan Life has an Egyptian section in which pride of place goes to a mask 3,500 years old.
All this information and more is in Towns of Two Halves. Order your copy from firstname.lastname@example.org
A lovely review in the author’s local magazine:
David Guest has just released his second book, Towns of Two Halves. Described as ‘a tourist’s guide to football towns’ it is just that, plus much more.
The premise of the book is that David, over a period of many years, has visited all 92 football stadiums in England [including three in Wales] and, while doing so, has learned more about each town. So while he does tell us much about each town – who knew that Brentford had a water museum, for example? – he also intersperses it with his own personal story at the time, as well as the fate of his beloved Oldham Athletic, the team he’s spent most of his life (blindly) following.
The result is a charming, funny and heartwarming story about football (a bit), but mostly about England, its people and all its quirks and foibles. It’s perfect for football fans, non-football fans, readers and non-readers – and you can devour it in one sitting or dip in and out as you please.
I urge you to give it a go – you won’t be disappointed!
Towards the end of the 2017/18 season, I planned to have Towns of Two Halves ready for the start of the following season. That timetable presented one significant difficulty: the precise composition of League 2. Although Macclesfield Town looked a good bet to be promoted as champions from the National League, any one of half a dozen other clubs might emerge from the play-offs to join them in League 2. By the time the identity of that successful club was known, the season would be over and there would be no home game for me to attend.
I looked at the National League table and considered journeys to Sutton, Aldershot, Dover and several others. It began to look like a lot of trouble just to preserve the integrity of the project. On the other hand, integrity is not a negligible quality. I made a start. Macclesfield had a home game against Barrow, and on the following day Wrexham played at home to Chester.
In the event luck was with me. Macclesfield duly won the league and Tranmere Rovers drew the winning ticket in the awful post-season lottery – Tranmere was the only ground I’d been to of the six teams involved in the play-offs. The book was duly printed with 92 authentic entries.
Where Wrexham was concerned my luck was out – as was theirs. Wrexham didn’t even reach the play-offs. I’d also overlooked the possibility that the Wrexham v Chester local derby might require special security measures, among them a ban on ticket sales on the day. At other grounds I’d found ways round that sort of obstacle. For Wrexham against Chester I couldn’t be bothered. I had a look round the town and then went to pay a surprise second visit to the old friend whose hospitality I had enjoyed the previous night.
It being Sunday, Wrexham south of the railway station was fairly quiet (north of the station a steady stream headed for the football ground, closely watched by the constabulary). The Wrexham County Borough Museum was closed. If recent testimonials on TripAdvisor are any guide, that was a pity: it seems the museum is small but nicely-formed, and with very acceptable catering. Its collections centre has recently added Welsh football to its specialities.
It being Sunday, St Giles Church was very much open and welcoming. A service was finishing as I arrived and the congregation gathered for coffee and chat at the back of the church. I was mistaken for a parishioner. I was aware from another age that “the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous”, but the congregation was too generous and warm-hearted to let that stand in their way and I was shown round a church of which everyone was clearly proud.
St Giles dominates the landscape and is the largest medieval parish church in Wales. Size tends to draw the eye upward, and the angels in the roof of the nave may be the first remarkable feature you’ll notice. There are 16 of them, deployed like a mobile or some sort of dream-catcher, playing instruments or, so it is said, singing.
Above the chancel arch at the eastern end of the nave is another St Giles Special – an early 16th century wall-painting of the Day of Judgement, with souls rising from their coffins to present themselves to Christ, attended by the Virgin Mary and St John. This is called the Doom Painting.
Its position makes it difficult to see clearly. Closer to ground level, its subject is reproduced in another startling piece of art – the Myddleton Memorial, by Louis-François Roubiliac. Roubiliac worked in England and is variously known as a late Baroque or rococo sculptor. His memorial to Mary Myddleton, daughter of the lord of Chirk Castle, dates from the 18th century – Mary died in 1742. Elements of the piece are strictly classical: Mary, struggling to free herself from a shroud, is summoned from her coffin by a cherub with a trumpet. But the coffin is austerely geometric – it looks like a black skip. The device to the right might be an explosion of flames or a member of the lily family; similarly, the angelic brass-player may rest on clouds or smoke. Behind, fractured masonry resolves itself into a squat form of obelisk, providing an unsettling backdrop. You would have to imagine that the grieving father thought it was wonderful; it is, after all, still there.
St Giles has many other points of distinction: stained glass, a pre-Reformation lectern, a chapel for the Royal Welsh Fusiliers. It is acknowledged to be among Wales’ finest where ecclesiastical architecture is concerned.
And it sounds one more unexpected historical echo. Outside the church, below the tower, is the grave of Elihu Yale. This Yale, though born in Boston in the North American colonies in 1649, was brought up in London and made his fortune (apparently through profiteering) with the East India Company. He returned to Britain in 1699 and retired to a mansion near Wrexham, in the land of his maternal forebears.
One of the things he spent his money on was a college in Connecticut, where money was needed for a new building. The building – and, later, the whole college – became known as Yale.
The verse Elihu Yale prepared for his memorial in Wrexham refers to “much good, some ill, he did”. The “ill” probably refers to an eastern branch of the slave trade in which, according to Wikipedia, Yale was active; then there was his association with Cotton Mather, bane of ‘witches’ in Salem but also a fundraiser for the aforementioned college. The verse goes on to hope that “all’s even, and that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven”. Indeed.
In the church you’ll find a Wrexham Town Heritage Trail, which gives a brief history of the town and takes you around its points of interest. It is particularly well done, drawing attention to architectural and historical features. The Wynnstay Arms Hotel, for example, was by turns the home of a Jacobite secret society, a venue for bear-baiting and the birthplace of the Football Association of Wales.
The Heritage Trail includes the outlying Acton Park, former home of the infamous Judge Jeffreys and now a public park with a modern stone circle.
A minute’s walk from the south-western margin of the Heritage Trail’s map is Bellevue Park. This Edwardian park, refurbished for the millennium, is also well worth a look. The statue of Queen Victoria replaced an earlier memorial – a WWI tank – that was sold for scrap.
I did watch one sporting event while I was in Wrexham. The Wrexham Running Festival took place that day, and Martin Green won the marathon in just under 2hrs 39mins. The first woman home was Lindy-Lee Folscher in 3hrs 12mins.
Wrexham 2 Chester 0 Racecourse Ground, 11 March 2018