Not even a 4 a.m. departure from the plateaus and gentle undulations of Essex could dampen the ardour for the Cumbrian Groundhop. Taking in three Northern League outposts scattered thoughtfully around the northern Lake District area amid wistfully verdant valleys and brooding mountains. It was not only to be a celebration of the area’s outstanding natural beauty but also the first instalment of a season long celebration marking the 125th Anniversary of that most fiercely traditional of competitions, the venerable Northern League. No Premier Division, no play-offs, championship pools and relegation pools to be had here. Division One and Division Two, up and down and that’s it. Nowt fancy. I like it. They also invented the concept of organised groundhops, the crazy fools.
No trip to Cumbria’s welcoming arms would be complete without an early morning repast at the ever inviting Tebay Services, a charming and greatly successful anathema to all that is wrong with consumer culture and motorway travel.
– Not a bad view for a spot of breakfast
Suitably refuelled and many miles behind us it wasn’t long before the day’s first venue was reached, Gillford Park Stadium, erstwhile home of the Railway Club and latterly headquarters of the burgeoning force that is the Celtic Nation Football Club. Rebranding is an emotive subject among football cognoscenti and while the re-colouration of Gillford Park has yet to be completed it is a really impressive arena. To the right a large green stand, half filled with seats and half banked up as a covered enclosure, it’s a smart edifice. Behind the goal is a large and eye catching cantilevered stand with red, white and blue seating looking distinctly at odds with the pervading colour of the Celts. To the left is an ancient covered terrace which backs on to a more modest home of Northern Alliance outfit Harraby United. With a former Football League manager, Mick Wadsworth, at the helm and a squad full of experience, all seems set for the Celtic juggernaut to head full steam into the new season. Well if that was the script then visitors Bishop Auckland had clearly chosen not to read it. By far the more impressive and attack minded of the two combatants there was no real surprise when Robert Moncur deftly opened the scoring for the Two Blues on 24 minutes. What was a surprise was that the visitors failed to extend their lead at any point and it was left to home substitute Jonathan Allan to score a scarcely deserved equaliser three minutes from full time. The one time undisputed “Kings of Amateur Football” could feel somewhat hard done by in the final reckoning of this game. A good start to the day and even a spot or two of rain in this county feels like an invigoration rather than an annoyance.
Celtic Nation (0) 1 (Allan 87) Bishop Auckland (1) 1 (Moncur 24) Attendance: 409
The hop wound its way to the coast of this fine county and the sweeping bays of Whitehaven and fine if somewhat fleeting views on a cloudy day of the Isle of Man. Rumbling into the Coach Road Sports complex, a match is already underway on the pitch of Cumberland County Leaguers Whitehaven Miners Social. Sandwiched in between the two football grounds is the majestic home of Whitehaven Rugby League Club, all cavernous shelters, crumbling terracing and retro crush barriers. It really is a fantastic sports venue whatever the code. The injection of fresh enthusiasm bought about by the rugby ground quickly dissipated with the heart sinking sight of two modular Arena Seating stands in place at the home of Whitehaven Amateurs. Aside from the metallic equivalent of the plague for ground enthusiasts the hosts have gone to some welcome effort on their big day and cope well with a near record crowd for the venue. Volunteers man their stations and provide the descending hoards with welcome sustenance. The clubhouse then becomes a frenzy as the packs of pre-purchased match programmes belatedly surface. The clubhouse walls display impressive plans for a more luxurious future for the club. Time is spent in the convivial company of master lensman Stuart Clarke, approachable and effortlessly cool, it’s an honour watch a craftsman at work. On the field the home side dominate from the off and establish a two goal advantage through two excellent finishing from the impressive Darren Donald. The visitors, Chester-le-Street Town, however, refuse to lie down and Andrew Grant-Soulsby rams home a loose ball after 77 minutes to reduce the arrears. That proved to be the lone reward for their toils as the Amateurs ran out deserving winners. Whitehaven proved to be welcoming and capable hosts and many departed with no little admiration for their fortitude in persisting in the shadow of a much larger sporting neighbour.
Whitehaven (1) 2 (Donald 24, 64) Chester-le-Street Town (0)1 (Grant-Soulsby 77) Attendance: 208
The route to the final game at Penrith takes in a favoured route of this writer. The A66 hugs the banks of Bassenthwaite Lake (the only Lake District body of water that actually has “Lake” in its name) and its silvery waters shimmer so invitingly in the early evening sun a stop at the accessible Blackstock Point becomes essential. Meanwhile the mighty Skiddaw, always an impressive sight, looms menacingly in the background, its peak shrouded in low lying cloud. It’s a beautiful drive through landscape so lovingly recounted in the iconic books by Wainwright.
– Bassenthwaite from Blackstock Point
Having been particularly fond of their old town centre ground at Southend Road, Penrith’s relatively new home of Frenchfield Park had its work cut to impress me. A long approach road sweeps into a sizeable car park and the grandstand and clubhouse cut a clean and impressive figure. Egress is obtained and there is already growing consternation about a lack of match programmes at such an early hour. This minor grumble aside it’s a plush modern venue that suits the club’s aspirations but it’s out of town location gives a nice pastoral feel to proceedings. A bank behind one goal provides grazing cattle with a great view of the ensuing encounter. What an encounter it turns out to be, visitors Newton Aycliffe secure an early and commanding lead when Daniel Earl netted twice in a minute in the opening quarter of the match. The home side get a goal back before half-time and Penrith go into the break with wind in their sails. Unable to capitalise it’s the visitors that restore their two goal advantage much to the delight of their boisterous travelling contingent on the clubhouse balcony. Steven Rigg manfully hauls the homesters back into the game with his and their second goal and it looks like we are in for a grandstand finish to the game of the day. Alas, it was not to be and Jamie Owens’ second goal of the game four minutes from time secures the points for the impressive guests.
Penrith (1)2 (Rigg 35, 71) Newton Aycliffe (2)4 (Earl 20, 21, Owens 59, 86) Attendance: 380
So there it ended a good day all round, friends old and new dispersing into the enveloping night for all corners of the nation. To parody a line from one of Cumbria’s favourite sons, Alfred Wainwright, sometimes solitary wanderers who find contentment in the companionship of the open road and likeminded creatures. The one time Borough Engineer from Blackburn was a real stickler for detail in his faithful documentation of every nook and cranny of the Cumbrian Fells. It stands as a timely reminder that organising of a Groundhop is not a formality and perhaps a gentle tweaking of the minutiae of requirements will mean we have a grand season once again in the company of our friends in the North.