Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Salisbury F.C. - The Old Sarum Stroll

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive…“ 
- Robert Louis Stevenson

“Not all those who wander are lost”
- J.R.R. Tolkien

Salisbury F.C. vs. Bristol Rovers F.C.

Raymond McEnhill Stadium, Partridge Way, Old Sarum, Wiltshire, SP4 6PU

What better way to celebrate the new Salisbury F.C.’s first ever pre-season friendly at the ‘Ray Mac’ Stadium, than to (a) play Bristol Rovers, and (b) go for a wander?

It may not seem obvious to the casual observer but Bristol Rovers ‘owe’ a huge debt of gratitude to Salisbury F.C., or technically its direct predecessor, the liquidated Salisbury City F.C..  Their most successful manager, Darrell Clarke, jumped ship to Rovers in June 2013, possibly spotting that the problems that had seen them demoted two divisions in the summer of 2010 where still not entirely over, even though DC had been the man, with Mikey Harris, to get them back to the Football Conference’s highest level with two gritty play-off promotions in three heady seasons.  If Salisbury were back to the 5th Tier of football, and playing in front of 1,000 fans in a decent new stadium, why leave for a basket case club trading on its former glory?

To Gasheads it was always a curious move.  Hot young manager at the most successful local-ish non-league club, taking a demotion to be an assistant only one division higher?  Immediately from his appointment, which apparently started from a chance phone call and was not part of any plan as such (the words ‘plan‘ and ‘Bristol Rovers‘ rarely do go together), most Rovers fans assumed he was being groomed as a Head Coach in the near future, whilst old dinosaur John Ward would move upstairs to be a comfy, well paid, Director of Football.  

That concept just about sums Rovers up.  Although John Ward had done well in 2013 to rescue Rovers from yet another terrible first half to a season, there seemed to be no real logic for him staying to be a hands-on ‘Manager’ when various evidence seemed to suggest a younger man was needed.  Anyway, the assumption is that DC came to Rovers either on the tacit understanding he could well end up as Head Coach or Manager very soon, or on the general feeling that Rovers will be the better long term prospect for an ambitious and successful young manager, who was popular and loyal where ever he had been employed in his career thus far. 

It was of course a marriage made in Hades and Rovers were relegated to non-league football for the first time since they joined the Football League in 1920.  I’ll spare you the details as this is supposed to be about walking to football grounds, not walking into an abyss with your eyes wide closed; the point being that part of the deal to let DC join Rovers included a minor money spinning pre-season friendly for Salisbury. 

This friendly, which brought 1,
068 fans through the doors, including at least 386 Pirates, was therefore the perfect ‘thank you’ to the Whites, and a fitting homecoming for a man who graced the club as a player/manager for six years.  Rovers had also plundered his ex-team when they sadly went out of business in July 2014 and although Jamie White proved to be a flop at the Gas and had already moved on to lower things, and Will Puddy was injured and unable play, cult hero Stuart ‘The Beard’ Sinclair did start the game, making his comeback from injury at his old club.  How perfect.  

As The Beard is omnipotent it was no surprise that he survived 60 mins untouched by human hands and was only subbed to give his luxuriant whiskers a well deserved rub down and ice bath.  I almost wished I had smuggled my recently liberated 'Beard' sign into the stadium to greet his return to action.

DC is clearly the best thing to happen to Bristol Rovers for many, many years, not just because of the results, but more importantly because of the ethos he brings, and the modern thinking that permeates his approach to all aspects of running a football operation; a Renaissance man born on a dodgy Council estate in Mansfield.  I would therefore walk over broken glass and have my hair almost shaved off by a small plane for this man of men, and I quite literally did. 

As the Ray Mac is miles outside the centre of Salisbury, and was pretty much on its tod until new houses began to surround it, I assumed that this would be perfect territory for a ‘football by footpath’ saunter.  I had been to Old Sarum before, the ancient pre-Salisbury settlement just a flints throw away, so to be able to link all three together in an afternoon was like a dream come true.  If Tony Robinson wasn’t a dirty shithead I might have even roped him along for the ride into bygone times.

A quick look on a map offered me a starting point at the hamlet of Ford, set off of a Roman road that leads from the Iron Age hillfort they used to occupy.  Any fellow football footpather can follow my footsteps by parking on any of the roads in Ford, such as Merrifield Road or Manor Farm Road, circa SP4 6DX.  

Then walk due North up the official footpath (Green Lane), past Manor Farm, or even better use the now closed road that takes you parallel to the lane, but right on the edge of Old Sarum airfield itself, which slightly surprisingly shows evidence that Salisbury has at least one spotty scroat who has ambitions to be a graffiti writer when he gets better at his craft.

Old Sarum airfield is one of only three in England that has been in continuous use as a grass flying field since its construction during World War I, and is the only one of the three currently in civilian use and open to the public.  It also has three of the four original World War I hangars still standing, all of which are Grade II* listed buildings.

The perimeter road you’ll be walking on passes right next to the Eastern end of the airstrip, with only a hedge of young trees separating you from the runway, so if you are fortunate enough to time your trip perfectly you’ll get the thrill of small planes flashing 15 metres above your noggin as they are seconds away from landing.  They are so close you can see what religion the pilot is.  Maybe.  My walk to the footy fortunately coincided with a pilot doing take-off and landing practice so I witnessed him go up and round and down several times.  On the way back later a throng of parachutists looked incandescent as they slowly circled down to earth out of the moody, sun drenched clouds.  

Once you’ve left the airfield behind you’ll be into the edge of Old Sarum Business Park, coming out onto the main road (the Portway) sandwiched between the Land Rover / Range Rover dealership and a Skoda / Kia counterpart.  There is a short cut to the football ground by crossing straight over the road, into Sherbourne Drive, where the new Charles Church housing estate is.  You know it must be Charles Church because each house has their name written into the front of the house near the door, as if a ’Charles Church’ plaque was a modern day equivalent of ‘Dunroamin’, ’Wynding Down’ or ‘Llamedos’ (think about it… or just use reverse gear).  As an avowed hater of advertisers shoving their pathetic ads right in our faces in public places, I’d be quite happy if a local juice monkey went joy riding on a nearby digger and smashed those plaques into oblivion.

The flaw in my Utopian dream though is that there isn’t anywhere to get drunk within a mile of here, so for supporters who are thirstier than I am the only thing missing from this ‘football by footpath’ entry is a pub, and I somehow doubt the beautiful new Mormon chapel on nearby Westside Close is going to offer you much, despite the courteous ‘Visitors Welcome’ sign outside.  The Mormons actually prefer to be entitled ‘The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’.  So there you have it.  I have.  I imagine they also prefer people don’t accidentally leave the second ‘m’ out of their nickname, as I almost did.

Anyway, I have digressed, the short cut is via the third cul-de-sac to your left, Bunting Lane, and through a gap in the hedgey fencey thing.  The away end then slaps you in the face like a wet turbot.

If you take the short cut you will however miss the traditional entrance into the stadium.  So for the more conventional of you, walk West along the Portway and then turn right into Partridge Way.

As you approach the entrance to the Ray Mac it not only reinforces my feeling that many football fans are strangely obsessed with paying money to park inside crowded club car parks, but also that all over the country we have three little words that help to explain why we are so deficient at football at a national level.  When I’ve lived and travelled in Africa kids are playing football everywhere; literally anywhere, including rubbish tips, airport car parks and flat rooftops [hmmm, be careful when sprinting down ‘the wing‘ young ‘un].  Football is a unique and truly world-wide sport precisely because at its most basic level it needs no real equipment (a jumble of rags inside an old sock is the African predilection), no real pitch, no real organisation, and can be practised with virtually any number of players, including alone, dribbling around old tin cans, nutmegging local mutts, and being sharp enough to make sure your sock ball doesn’t roll into a rotting sewer.  No wonder the skill and balance levels there are often astonishing. 

So what does our society do to encourage our kids to have an off the cuff knockabout?  We stick up those three petty words that split apart communities nation-wide; ‘No Ball Games’.  The new-ish housing estate outside the Ray Mac had not only the largest such sign I’ve ever seen, but was bolted incongruously onto the side of a house and had the additional warning of ‘Strictly’ added beforehand, with underlining.  I’m surprised it wasn’t done in bold and CAPITALS as well, and have locals enforce the rule with a Tazer. 

The ubiquitous satellite dish next to it was allowed though, suggesting we are a nation happy to watch football on TV, but we daren’t let our kids play it near our house.  And all this was within 20 metres of a football stadium, where they also wouldn’t be allowed to play without a rather middle-class appointment.  Can I use the word irony for this state of affairs, or will the QI team tell me off?

Rovers won a really good game with four excellent goals and we were treated to the truly bizarre sight of an ancient bi-plane* flying over the ground as if Baron van Richthofen or René Fonck were still alive.

This ‘football by footpath’ route is only a stunted walk (maybe 12-15 minutes the short route, and 15-20 the longer method), but the stroll could be extended if you started your journey in the Hampton Park area of North Salisbury and utilised the full length of Green Lane.

Notices by the airfield announce that a massive new planning application is going into Wiltshire Council with an aim to redevelop the whole area, including the building of 480 new houses, so god knows what the area may look like in years to come.  So, get your ‘football by footpath’ mini-adventure in quick before Mr Wimpey does. 

* - a kind reader has since suggested that it was a 1933 Tiger Moth.  Excellent story here


Martin Bull became a Gashead [Bristol Rovers fan] in 1989 and immediately fell in love with Twerton Park, standing near G pillar.  In 2006 he wrote, photographed and published the first independent book about the work of the artist Banksy.  Having been exiled for much of his past, away games have always been special for him, with 67 of the 92 League clubs so far conquered, and he recently edited and published an acclaimed new book, 'Away The Gas', which focuses on them - www.awaythegas.org.uk

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