The speed with which pubs are disappearing from our cities, towns and villages is an emotive subject for many. I suppose it reflects the way we live in the 21st century – a ‘sign of the times’. Back in the early 1980s, when I was living in Leicester, I set myself the task of trawling the streets of the city centre while looking up at the facades of old buildings for any clues that they might once have been pubs. I’d then set my stall out in the main library, poring over Victorian copies of the local Wright’s Directories in order to establish what these pubs were called and when they closed. It was all in the name of research for a book that was never published, as another anorak beat me to the punch (doh!).
Yet I felt that I knew every one of those pubs, and maybe fancied I’d even had a drink in some of them, even though many had closed before I was even born. Yes, pubs can be an emotive subject. 30 years on I am more worldly-wise, view the disappearance of failed pubs as part of society’s natural evolution, and welcome the new wave of micropubs filling some of the gaps left in pub-less communities.
Yet it’s still a strange feeling to walk the mile or so from Fleet railway station in Hampshire, down busy shopping streets towards the town centre, and only encounter two hostelries amongst all the hoards of take-aways, pound and charity shops, banks, building societies, and Greggs. I’d wager that 30 years ago a good crawl was to be had on these very streets. Todays it’s just Greene King’s Old Emporium and Wetherspoons’ Prince Arthur, neither what you might describe as a typical example of a traditional street corner inn.
As I’ve little spare time on my hands after that afore-mentioned walk, plus the train journey from London and the coach journey from Loughborough that preceded it, I decide just to head for the Wetherspoons which I hazard a guess will be the best bet for something local, and I am proved correct. My first pint is called ‘Winning Co-Ale-ition’ and is dedicated to the Monster Raving Loony party. I ask the barman who brews it and he says ‘the old boy who was standing here a few minutes ago…’. Sadly he has departed and is not to return, so I use internet research to deduce it to be the Long Dog Brewery in Basingstoke. And it’s a cracking copper beer of 4.2%, worthy of any political allegiance.
Before departing the Prince Arthur I simply must have a pint of Ascot Brewery’s Anastasia’s Exile Stout, a 5.0% masterclass in dark chocolate coffee flavours. Suddenly, I’ve acquired a beer buzz!
Five to ten minutes from the town centre is Calthorpe Park, home of Fleet Town who this season are playing in the Southern South & West Division 1, having yo-yo’d between there and the Isthmian League in latter years. Typical of most of my recent hosts, they’re having a tough time of it at present, and a crowd of barely 90 would appear to reflect a local apathy towards their plight at the wrong end of the division.
The clubhouse is outside the ground and although quite spacious, is sparsely populated today even though there’s a live game on the Sports TV. No cask beer is sold, but there are bottles of Charles Wells Bombardier in the fridge – a good beer although it’s a shame nothing local is available. Once in the ground there’s a snack hatch selling hot food, although only the chips would be of interest to the visiting veggie.
The ground itself is surrounded by trees, and features a modest but sturdy main stand – which graces the front of the club programme – and scaffolding cover behind each goal. The pitch looks battle-scarred and Autumnal, with a pronounced end-to-end slope. The nearest lino to me eyes his running track suspiciously, fearful he may fall down the pronounced furrow worn away by several seasons worth of linos. He elects to spend part of his ninety minutes padding along the crest of the small hillock that has evolved behind.
Fleet are at home today to fellow strugglers Bishops Cleeve, and although the game cries out for any vestige of quality, the home goalie keeps busy and copes manfully despite being injured during the first half. He’s only beaten twice during the game – once from a rebound after saving a penalty – but with a forward line that can’t score goals, despite the best efforts of live-wire team captain Simba Mlambo, Fleet are seemingly in a tale-spin.
As I leave the ground I get a mobile phone call from my old friend Eagle Bobster. He’s just been to watch Inverurie Locos in the Highland League and after discussing our day’s experiences, I quietly reflect on the wonders of modern technology. That’s a conversation our Victorian forebears could never have had. Mind you, they’d probably been far too busy on a Fleet High Street pub crawl to worry about such things as that…
Programme: £1 on the turnstile. An unusual Landscape format cover design featuring afore-mentioned main stand. 16 pages of which 6 are adverts. Appealing to the eye but with minimum reading content. 5/10
Floodlight Pylons: 6, including one smack bang in front of the main stand.
Birdlife: Very little, despite the abundance of trees
Toilets: In the bar.
Club Shop: No
Music the players run out to: Nothing noted
Kop choir: No
Away fans: Inconspicuous if any
What’s In A Name? I wonder if Fleet’s Joe Gator every gets called ‘Ally’ … or Cleeve’s Lewis Binns ever gets called ‘Dusty’?