London is not one, but many cities. The enchanting fabric that is London is formed by the coming together of several, diverse threads. There is a historic London with its palaces, castles, churches, towers and monuments – the seat of the English monarchy for close to a thousand years. There is an artistic London with its offerings ranging from theatres to street musicians, priceless paintings to world famous graffiti art. For a sports buff like me however, the most interesting one was the London which is a sort of a Mecca for sports. This is the thread I chose to follow and thus began my sports pilgrimage.
I began at the Home of Cricket – Lord’s. It was early July, the peak of the English summer and perfect weather for cricket. Middlesex were playing Hampshire on the day. I walked around St John’s wood in the upmarket borough of Marylebone soaking in the atmosphere before entering the ground. Sadly I couldn’t enter through the storied Grace Gates as those were reserved for the red and yellow clad MCC members coming to the ground to watch the day’s game.
Much to my disappointment, after barely an hour or so, with Hampshire reeling at 55-4, the rain came pouring down. On the positive side, this is perhaps a more accurate English county experience, and this also gave me a chance to explore the stadium.
As I wandered the corridors, I was taken in by the greatness that surrounded me at every corner – a statue of Grace, audience stands named after Compton and Edrich, and posters of those who scored centuries on this hallowed turf.
Going further, the Bicentenary gate reminded me that this same rectangular patch of land has been used for cricket continuously since 1814. I also had a chance to visit the spectacular museum which houses artefacts covering the history of cricket right from the official documents from the city of Guildford in the late 1500s (which is the oldest mention of the name ‘cricket’ for this game) to more recent events like IPL memorabilia.
For me the biggest highlight was seeing a broken perfume bottle belonging to Lady Clarke of Melbourne which she presented to English Captain Ivo Bligh on the occasion of his team’s victory over a team comprising the Clarkes’ household help in a light hearted match – today known as The Ashes, the most keenly contested and coveted trophy in Test cricket. I left London just before the Ashes came to Lord’s.But as long as I can watch cricket at Lord’s, I’ll take a county game quite happily.
The biggest motivation for me to plan this trip in July was to watch Wimbledon. And this was the next stop in my pilgrimage. The Wimbledon craze started from the Southfields tube station itself – where the organizers had recreated a tennis court on the platform. Enthusiasts, fans, journalists were together on the 15 minute walk to the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club.
I then took part in a legendary Wimbledon tradition – The Queue. The English have made queuing into an art form, and a detailed booklet – “A Guide to queueing”, was handed to me by the stewardess as soon as I got my token number. Sixteen hours of braving the cold, wind and dew later, we got moving and slowly but surely made our way to the grounds. I got reasonably good seats and saw several matches on Court no. 2 with strawberries and cream and a glass of Pimm’s to boot.
As I learnt more about Wimbledon, one thing that struck me is that the AELTC is a masterclass in achieving the balance between modernity and preserving tradition. It is perhaps the steadfast refusal to renege on any of the traditions as the game moves forward that builds a significant part of the aura of Wimbledon – and makes it unlike any other tennis tournament in the world.
My next stop was Wembley Stadium. The iconic arch of the new Wembley stadium guided me on my longish walk from the Wembley Tube station to the stadium. The White horse bridge leading to the stadium took me back to the very beginning of the Wembley story. The bridge is named for the police horse ‘Billie’ who was brought in to control crowds at the first ever match at Wembley, the 1923 FA cup final. A statue of England legend Sir Bobby Moore stands proudly at the visitor entrance. The stadium entrance led me to the quirky little Crossbar café, the name a nod to the controversial goal scored by Geoff Hurst in the 1966 World Cup final.
As I walked under the iconic crossbar hoisted above the gateway of the café, I entered a room filled with memorabilia such as FA cup trophies and other major sporting trophies contested at Wembley. Unlike Lords, which is only ever used to play cricket, Wembley has, over its history, hosted several sporting events – from American Football to Greyhound Races (at one point the annual Greyhound races at Wembley were such a big deal that the France vs. Uruguay match in the 1966 World Cup had to be shifted to the erstwhile White City Stadium to accommodate them). Nevertheless the stadium is certainly one of the most iconic in English football given that it is the “home ground” of the English football team, as well as the host of the FA Cup final for about 90 years.
I ended my pilgrimage with certainly the most historically important sports venue in England – The Oval. This may not seem like the most obvious choice, but the ground certainly has a more legitimate claim on that title than any other.
The Oval was originally the personal ground of the Duke of Cornwall in the mid-1800s and would often host matches here when other privately owned club stadiums were not available. The Oval thus became the obvious choice for hosting games where England was playing and not a club or local side. Having said this it is hardly surprising that the Oval has hosted some of the most important matches in sports history – the first ever International Football Match, the first ever International Rugby match, the first FA cup final and the first cricket Test match in England. I couldn’t watch any matches at the Oval, but I did take a stadium tour.
As we walked around the stadium, our enthusiastic tour guide Peter let us onto the ground; we sat in the stands, and saw the views of the city from the terrace floor. We went through the little museum mostly holding Surrey related artefacts and a cosy little library. For me the highlight of the ground was the Bradman doors – the doors through which Sir Donald Bradman walked out to bat for the last time in a Test match. We all know that didn’t end well , but knowing that I was walking the same path as one of the Gods of cricket certainly was the best end to my Sports Pilgrimage I could imagine.