The Stanks is the named given to a small grass area at the foot of the Elizabethan rampart walls of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Northumbria. The name of The Stanks derives from an ancient Scottish word meaning a ditch or a swampy place. The patch of rough grass is just about large enough for a football pitch to be marked out and it’s been the site of ad hoc football matches, mainly charity fundraisers, for over 100 years.
Prior to being infilled and grassed over the area of the pitch at The Stanks was originally the defensive moat between Brass Bastion and Windmill Mount Bastion, but in the 18th and 19th century had been turned over for another use entirely. The area tended to be in permanent shade so it was ideal to freeze it over and the local fishermen would dig out the ice they required to keep their hauls of salmon as fresh as possible on their journey south to London.
The current Berwick Charities Cup is played annually between May and July and has been contested continuously since 1948. It was nearly abandoned in 2017 when initially only nine clubs entered. But after publicity drive there was enough interest for the competition to take place. Even a crowd funding page was set up to help local charities cater for the anticipated shortfall in funding provided by this tournament. The competition raises annual sums of between £5,000 and £8,000. The competition also ran into problems in 2004, when there was a shortage of referees following two regular whistlers pulling out due the abuse they had endured having given their services free of charge. One match was even abandoned that year when two players from Greenlaw Geriatrics were sent off, and then furious spectators surrounded the referee.
The Stanks was no stranger to fundraising football matches beneath its historic walls. From 1922 there was and annual tournament for the Berwick Infirmary Cup. Cinematic footage exists of the final between Eyemouth Rangers and Belford which took place on June 29th 1929. This article features stills from that incredible footage where several thousand people gather to watch the match. The man with the trophy is quite possibly Councillor W.J. Dixon, who provided the sizeable cup for the competition.
The Infirmary Cup competition caused controversy in the late 1930’s when the North Sunderland club was suspended for several years by the Football Association. The suspension was issued for persistent misconduct by continuing to field players who had played “illegal football” on The Stanks at Berwick!
Earlier still the Berwick Advertiser reported on a match staged at The Stanks on Thursday June 17th 1915 to raise funds for the nurses at the Queen’s Hospital. The game saw Berwick Rovers take on a side from the 2/10th Royal Scots Guard. The Guards team included players from the likes of Queensferry St. Andrews, Bathgate Primrose, Wemyss Athletic, Armadale Rangers, Vale of Grange and Linlithgow Rose. A huge attendance was described as being “without doubt a larger crowd has never gathered at the Stanks” and a princely sum of donations totalled eight pounds and ten shillings. The Guards won the game by a single goal to nil.
The walls of The Stanks have a huge historical significance being a rare intact survivor of the Elizabethan period. The fortifications were built in an Italianate style, designed to withstand sea and land launched artillery and also accommodate its own artillery fire power. Largely attributed to renowned military engineer, Sir Richard Lee, the fortifications were described as “the most expensive undertaking of the Elizabethan period” costing a quite extraordinary £128,648. Unsurprisingly this rare example of Tudor military building is a scheduled monument and also enjoys Grade I listed status. The wall that runs behind the goal is the wall of the Brass Bastion and has been known to cause many a head injury for onrushing players misjudging the short run off from the goal line.
The players change in a small communal building the other side of an arch within the rampart walls. Above the door to the changing room is the date 1755. It has always been thought that the changing room pavilion at Lesser Hampden, which dates from the early 1800’s, was the oldest building in use for football in the world. Although it’s debatable that “football changing room” is its primary use, this little stone room in Berwick is significantly older.There is also a far more recent historical link to The Stanks and that is to Britain’s favourite artist, L.S.Lowry. He first visited Berwick in 1936 on the advice of his doctor to take “the sea air” to recuperate from the stress of caring for his bedridden mother, who was totally dependent on him, and the death of his father. He became a huge admirer of the town and visited it often by train, frequently staying at the Castle Hotel. It is a well known fact that Lowry was a big football fan, his most well known football work, “Going To The Match” was based on Burnden Park, and was purchased by the Professional Footballers Association, at auction in 1999, for £1.9 million. Among his many scenes of Berwick, is a small undated pencil drawing known as “Football Match” showing a crowd watching a game of football at The Stanks. There is the one of the goals some players and a crowd gathered on either side of the pitch. The ramparts have more spectators and there is a church spire. Maybe Lowry did the sketch from memory as the Church of the Holy Trinity was built it in the 1650’s and never had a spire or tower. While L.S.Lowry still does not have a published catalogue raisonné, a definitive list of genuine works issued by the likes of the Wildenstein Institute, the unsigned work has been indisputably attributed to him.You can travel the globe in search of stunning football locations or photogenic grounds, but perhaps the most photogenic of them all was right under our noses all this time.
The original version of this article appeared in issue 98 of Groundtastic Magazine