Monday, 23 May 2011

The Meadows

Full many a glorious morning have I seen
Flatter the mountain tops with sovereign eye,
Kissing with golden face the meadows green.................................

Carlton 4 at the Meadows - May 2010
So William Shakespeare in his 33rd Sonnet, makes reference to one of cricket's most celebrated venues.  Lords, MCG, Eden Gardens, all have their admirers, but none compares to Edinburgh's Meadows.  On a sunny Saturday, or on many weekday evenings, it is possible to find 3 tightly competed matches in progress on adjoining tree-lined squares - watched, or not watched, by all manner of loafers, picnicers, canoodlers, drinkers and spliff smokers; accompanied by an intoxicating medley of drummers, musicians, jugglers, fire-eaters, stilt-walkers, and Zumba dancers; perfumed by the smell of burning meat from various barbecue sets; animated with frenetic frisbee, football - soccer, Australian and gridiron - lacrosse, touch-rugby and shinty practice in progress around the boundaries.  And the miracle of this cosmopolitan mix is that there is only one toilet, one single cubicle, to meet the needs of this huge variety.  And to get to it you have to tramp through a small cafe.


During the year many competing attractions also come to the Meadows - the Lady Boys of Bangkok pitch their tents for the duration of the Festival, the annual Food Festival is returning to this venue this year, fairground rides set up once or twice a year.  And still only one toilet.  Bladder power in Edinburgh is truly prodigious.


Crciket in the Meadows is characterful and Edinburgh's cricketers have a love hate relationship with the venue.   Most cricketers know they have to turn up early at conventional grounds to do basic preparation chores - put the boundary markers out, open the scoreboard, mark the wicket.  At the Meadows there is an extra chore, the outfield has to be cleared of human detritus - and on a Saturday some of this may well have been there since the night before.  Players will encounter varying degrees of enthusiasm and vigour in response to their polite requests to move beyond the boundary. 

Even once these modern clearances have been successfully accomplished and play has begun, there can be the occasional interruption.  A recent evening over by FB was interrupted in such a way by a young man choosing to lie down at square leg.  The suggestion that he might move (or at least get in front of square since there were already 2 fielders behind square) was met first with complete unconsciousness and then with an outburst of oratory of freedom that indicated the young man was a true descendent of William Wallace.  Having asserted his human rights to be anywhere he rhetorically-well chose to be in this land of the free, eventually he moved, not exactly in a straight line, incanting oaths against the pastimes of invading forces.  Is this similar to the American experience in Iraq when they get the baseball bats out?

A few years ago, FB's quiet ruminations at fine leg were rudely interrupted by some hood-wearing-Buckfast-fueled youths, perhaps students of the nearby Edinburgh University Philosophy Department, who thought it would be an interesting metaphysical enquiry in the spirit of the Scottish Enlightnement to dare one of their number to bicycle across the field of play.  Duly fortified, the heroic figure donned his hoodie and prepared to deliver as the shouts of abuse and encouragement from his companions reaching a four lettered crescendo.  He started pedalling with a fury that defied biomechanics and had made it uncertainly about half way to the square when something overcame his basic powers of coordination, one foot got stuck in the front wheel, the other in the chain, his chin hit the handlebars and a crash of a spectacular Peckinpah quality ensued.  Of course this was even more amusing to his colleagues in the philosophical seminar than the proposed disturbance of the white flannelled fools.  The cricketers of course had to refstrain themselves from even a smile such was their focus on the game. 

The Meadows was originally a loch and, until Edinburgh's first piped water supply from Comiston arrived in 1621,  provided much of the town's drinking water.  Even now it is never completely dry.  It was partially drained in the mid-17th century and  from 1722, Sir Thomas Hope (c. 1681–1771), an agricultural improver and politician, ordered more drainage work, making the marshy land into a park with a path round the edge, hedges, avenues of lime trees, drainage canals and a summer house. The central tree-lined path known as Middle Meadow Walk followed.  It was probably at about this period that the wickets were rolled for the last time.


Jawbone Walk
In 1827 a far sighted Act of Parliament protected the Meadows from being built on.  How did the Victorians get so much right?  Though animals were grazed and notable Edinburgh citizens are known to have walked there, there was no full right of public access until the middle of the 19th century when new paths were gradually added criss-crossing the park. The celebrated whale jawbones which form an arch over Jawbone Walk had originally decorated one of the displays at the 1886 International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art.   In the 1870s the Meadows became an important venue in the early development of football in Edinburgh. The first match between  Heart of Midlothian and Hibernian was staged there on 25 December 1875.  There are no reports of sectarian chanting, pitch invasions or numerous arrests.  Happy days.

The Second World War saw more than 500 allotments dug at the east end of the Meadows as part of the effort to make the nation more self-sufficient in food and it was 1966 before the last signs of vegetable cultivation were removed.  In the late 1960s, plans to build a flyover over the Meadows for a trunk road were defeated - we can be thankful for small mercies.

The Royal Company of Archers
The Meadows is the traditional practice ground of the Royal Company of Archers, the ceremonial body guard of the Monarch in Scotland.   The Archers are selected from the venerable and worthy and are largely septuagenarian lawyers and bankers.  Nevertheless, they are obviously an effective body guard since there has been no attempt on the Monarch's life in Scotland.  FB does not know whether there is substance in the rumour that the Archers are offering their protective expertise to the manager of Celtic FC.


So there you, are a potted tribute to the Meadows, a place that FB regards with great affection and some frustration.  A little care and maintenance including rolling the wickets and the Meadows would be so much better.  It puts cricket on full view to the community, and that cannot be a bad thing.

The Meadows, like any green space, is under continuing pressure from the lazy, the venal, the shortsighted and the incompetent.  The Friends of the Meadows do valiant work to maintain its quality and remind us all of its importance and value.  A description of their good work is on this link.

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